Coronavirus hit French aeronaval group more than 50%. MOD trying to minimize

(B2) The situation on the aeronaval group is not as initially announced. More than 50% of sailors and airmen could be contaminated by the coronavirus. The question of responsibility for having maintained the exercise is now being raised, including at the political level.

668 cases have already been detected positive in Covid-19 among the military personnel participating in Task Force 473 – an air and sea group formed around the aircraft carrier Charles-de-Gaulle – according to the French Ministry of Armed Forces, in a press release published Thursday (16 April), which includes figures from two days ago. A very provisional result. “As of the evening of 14 April, 30% of these tests have not yet delivered their results”.

Retour de la mission Foch des aviateurs de Hawheke basés à Lann-Bihoué (crédit : DICOD / EMA)

The sailors on the aircraft carrier mainly concerned

The “vast majority of these tests” involve sailors from the aircraft carrier Charles-de-Gaulle, the official communication states. The others concerned are not mentioned. We only know that the anti-submarine frigate La Motte Piquet – based in Brest – which accompanied the ‘Charles’ did not have many contaminated and was able to return to sea. And that sailors from the air defence frigate Chevalier Paul as well as the supply command ship Somme were also affected.

Analysis and comments

Given the state of the armies’ deliberately incomplete communication, there are still many questions.

A contamination rate of more than 50%?

We are faced with a much more serious case than the official communication (40 suspects) would have us believe. If we rely on the figure given, out of the 1767 soldiers tested, only 70% (approximately!) of the tests are known, i.e. a number of about 1250. We thus arrive at a contamination rate of 54% for the soldiers concerned and not 30% as one might have thought. The final rate remains to be determined. It should oscillate between 38% (ultra-optimistic and unrealistic version) and 70% (pessimistic version). It can reasonably be estimated that it will exceed 50%. (figure since confirmed, see Box 1 and 2).

The air group also hit?

The official communication remains very discreet. But one of the categories also affected would be the air group: Rafale fighter planes (Landivisiau – Britain), helicopters (Hyères – South of France), Hawkeye surveillance planes (Lann-Bihoué – Britain). Given the relative strain on the pilots, mechanics and other support elements at the air level, this is as serious, if not more so, than the immobilisation of the aircraft carrier.

The pasha would have asked for the exercise to be interrupted

The question of political responsibility will soon arise. According to a sailor questioned by France-Bleu, the pasha (commander) of the ship proposed to interrupt the exercise as soon as he became aware of the cases, after the port of call in Brest. This seems quite logical to us, knowing the sense of responsibility that animates sailors, especially at the highest level. The department refused. We will have to find out who refused. The umbrellas are going to start opening up all over the place, to put the blame on the lower level… or higher.

The question of political responsibility

What is certain is that concerning an aircraft carrier that is not only nuclear-powered but is one of the elements of the French nuclear deterrent (carrying aircraft capable of carrying nuclear bombs), this decision is not the responsibility of the Pasha alone or of a simple commander of staff. Such a decision immediately goes back to the office of the Minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, and to that of the President of the Republic.

Did the first round of municipal elections have any influence?

The continuation of the Foch mission after the stopover in Brest is a real question: health, military and political. It is true that interrupting such an exercise is a major political decision, a symbolic signal. It is reasonable to think that the executive, which was in a position of “valour” with regard to the coronavirus and wanted to maintain the first round of municipal elections at all costs, could not afford to cancel the Charles-de-Gaulle move. Question of principle.

A communication in the Chinese style

In the end, one may wonder about the validity of French military communication today. It has rediscovered the good old reflexes of the ‘Great Mute’. At a time when French President Emmanuel Macron is questioning China’s lies about the Coronavirus epidemic (2), the communication of the Ministry of the Armed Forces is no better: deny any problem, then affirm 40 suspicious cases, which become 50 positive, then go on to a figure multiplied by 13, forgetting in passing one sailor out of three…. That’s a lot. Obviously announcing, overnight, a contamination rate on more than half of the crew was tricky. So, by successive touches, one by one, the information was revealed, hoping that another event would occur, putting reality into the background. This tactic, useful in the short term, is harmful in the medium term. It could significantly undermine the credibility of armies. It is a pity…

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

60% tested positive (source SSA) on nearly 1600 sailors

When questioned by honourable senators this Friday (April 17), the Director of the Defense Health Service (SSA) acknowledged that the situation was much more serious than expected. “Of the 2300 sailors of the naval aviation group, “all tested on their return to Toulon, 940 tested positive, 645 negative, the other test results are not yet known,” said General Maryline Gygax Généro. That is to say a rate of around 60% of contaminated sailors out of nearly 1600 sailors (1585 exactly).

On the aircraft carrier itself, “500 sailors have shown symptoms, 20 soldiers are hospitalized, 8 are on oxygen therapy and 1 is in intensive care. The sailors who tested negative are all on military premises in fourteen, and are monitored twice a day by the Army Health Service”.

She commented: “The contamination of the aircraft carrier is an absolutely major event. There will undoubtedly be consequences to be drawn at the end of this crisis, whether it concerns the medical specialties of the SSA, or the equipment” she indicated according to the report drawn up by the Senate. “We are and will be transparent. Forbidden to smile …

54% on 2010 tests

In front of the French National Assembly the same day (at 3pm), the French Minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, completed this figure with another in the same vein: “on 17th April, out of 2010 tests carried out, 1081 sailors were positive for Covid-19”. And, in total, “545 sailors show symptoms of illness”. We are therefore, of course, talking about a contamination rate of over 50% (53.8% to be exact) (2). Bearing in mind that this figure is not definitive: there are still 300 sailors to be tested. Another interesting element of this test is that one sailor out of two does not show any symptoms, but is indeed detected as positive (and therefore a contaminant). This corresponds to the ‘civilian’ statistics of an extremely contaminating disease by healthy carriers. Download the Minister’s speech (in french)

  1. China withheld some information. Read his interview Financial Times.
  2. According Le marin this information was already known since at least the day before. He indicates that 51% of the population of the aeronaval group landed in Toulon (2,000 sailors) was contaminated by the covid-19 virus, according to a report of 16 April, not released by the authorities. This while 7% of the tests were still missing from the total.

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Updated with the two official information from the Army Health Service and Minister Florence Parly (which support our initial analysis), and even go beyond it, as well as information from the Marin.

Nicolas Gros-Verheyde

Rédacteur en chef du site B2. Diplômé en droit européen de l'université Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne et auditeur 65e session IHEDN (Institut des hautes études de la défense nationale. Journaliste depuis 1989, fonde B2 - Bruxelles2 en 2008. Correspondant UE/OTAN à Bruxelles pour Sud-Ouest (auparavant Ouest-France et France-Soir).