Blog AnalysisMarineMissions Operations

An operation in the Mediterranean justified the maintenance of the Foch mission

(B2) The Chief of the French Armed Forces, François Lecointre, gave, on Sunday (April 19), on France Inter, very interesting explanations on the epidemic of the coronavirus which reached the sailors of Charles-de-Gaulle. With a revelation: the carrier battle group was to be engaged in operation in the Mediterranean

The Rafales were to be part of an operation in the Mediterranean. Operation interrupted due to epidemic (credit: DICOD / EMA)

An epidemic that has gone beyond the foreseeable framework

The 'possible' cause: the stopover in Brest

First of all the general puts an end to a suspense: It is believed that this contamination occurred at the stopover in Brest recognizes the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces (CEMA), François Lecointre. But you have to be careful, a petty officer told B2. It is necessary to wait for the results of the various epidemiological investigations to be fixed. Outside of stopovers, there is a lot of movement with the aircraft carrier. And there may be several foci of contamination.

The question of the stopover posed

Courageously, the CEMA endorses all decisions, assuming the full extent of the decision (thus relieving the political level of any responsibility). " We asked ourselves the question from the beginning of March if we were going to maintain [the Foch mission]. The decision taken by the command — of the navy and myself — was to maintain it. Because it corresponds to a logistical necessity of an aircraft carrier on mission for two months. And it was necessary to replenish a number of elements in the aircraft carrier for it to continue this mission. The stopover was maintained with restrictive conditions: abolition of international exchanges, limited exchanges with families.

Precautionary measures not sufficient?

There were many cases on board the Charles-de-Gaulle. But cases deemed mild apparently. And the precautionary measures have been lifted. Too early apparently. " After March 30, at the end of the fortnight, in the state of knowledge at that time, it was decided to lift these barrier measures and binding measures. We were overall at about ten ENT cases, which are the constant stock observed by the doctors on this type of building. It was only from April 5 that the on-board medical service identified eighteen symptomatic cases.. » (1)

An operation in the Mediterranean

The aircraft carrier sailed after the stopover in Brest on March 16 " towards the Mediterranean », Indicates General François Lecointre (2). For him, the aircraft carrier had to continue its mission at all costs, for two reasons. One is known: We had crew qualification exercises, especially pilots”. The other is less so: “we had operations to conduct in the Mediterranean before arriving in Toulon ».

... not included in the original program

Even if it is not not a defense secret “, the general does not want to say more. Nor was he questioned on this point by our colleagues. However, this operation was not planned, at least in the (public) program established at the departure of the carrier battle group. This one had to, once the two exercises in the North Sea (off Scotland and off the Netherlands-Denmark), with a final qualifying session off Portugal, return to its home port: Toulon. This was confirmed to us by a naval officer.

... in Mediterranean

Another point: it is not a question of an exercise, or a demonstration of friendship (type Passex), but indeed of a " surgery ". The word used (twice) by the CEMA, which is very precise in the use of its words, leaves no doubt. Just like the geographical area, precisely named: “ Mediterranean sea ». Libya?

A priori, it is not an operation off Syria, the travel time was not sufficient. And the return to Operation Chammal was not planned, according to our sources. In fact, it could very well lend support to the new operation of the European Union (EUNAVFOR Irini), responsible for monitoring the embargo on arms against Libya, which is currently suffering from not starting, for lack of means , including ships. At the beginning of April, at the time of the generation of forces, we were told a " notable participation from France (Read: EUNAVFOR Med Irini operation without ships, for now. Force generation continues). Participation which has been reduced, according to the response of the French general staff to B2 (9.4) to " a multi-mission frigate on alert ". We also know that France is very involved in this Libyan area, aiming in particular to limit Turkish and Russian influence in the country.

Knowledge of the area

For the carrier group, this presence off Libya is nothing new. In the spring of 2011, in full intervention, the carrier battle group left to assist air strike operations (read: The means of the "Civilian protection" operation in Libya in place). At the beginning of 2016, the Charles-de-Gaulle and its escort had made a passage offshore, to gather intelligence.

Comment: a very discreet denial of the official version

It is therefore understandable that, in view of an operation, the continuity of the mission was necessary. In doing so, the CEMA operates a double denial, very discreet, to the official ministerial version. The coronavirus has had a significant impact on operations. On the one hand, the need to maintain the Foch mission was well justified with regard to this operation. On the other hand, the interruption of the Foch mission and the early return of the carrier battle group deprived it of this " surgery " in Mediterranean. And France is deprived of aircraft carriers at least until the end of June. The coronavirus – or rather the rapid failure to take the epidemic into account (3) – therefore has very concrete, operational consequences for the French force. Finally, let us recall that in matters of operation, it is not simply a ship's pasha or a commander of 473 task force and even a CEMA who makes the decision. This decision is political.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

Read our records:

The assessment of the coronavirus epidemic on board the carrier battle group

Here is the latest report collected directly by B2 from an official source (as of 20.4)

Three-fifths of aircraft carrier sailors infected

2010 tests were carried out on 2390 sailors in all of the naval action group. 1080 tests are positive, mostly on the aircraft carrier:

  • 1046 sailors were detected positive for Covid-19 out of 1798 sailors from Charles de Gaulle (R-91), i.e. nearly 60% of the crew (58,2%);
  • 19 positive sailors out of the 222 sailors of the air defense frigate Chevalier Paul (D-621), based in Toulon;
  • 0 positive sailor out of the 168 sailors in the BCR Sum (A-631), based in Brest. 106 were released and returned to their families. 62 remain in quarantine because they have passed through locals or have frequented 'positives';
  • 0 positive sailor out of the 219 sailors of the anti-submarine frigate La Motte Piquet (D-645), based in Brest;
  • 8 positive on Landivisiau's 11F flotilla equipped with Rafale Marine;
  • 7 positives on Lann Bihoué's 4F flotilla equipped with E2-C Hawkeye observation aircraft.

Two sailors in intensive care

24 sailors are hospitalized (one entered and the other left on Monday April 20). 9 are on oxygen and 2 are in intensive care: a major and a main master, both rather old, at least in the age zone considered critical for the coronavirus (50+). They are in a state stationary as doctors say. This is what particularly worries the authorities.

foreign side

  • 1 tested positive on the Belgian frigate Leopold I
  • 0 tested positive on the German frigate Lübeck
  • we are waiting for the results on the Portuguese and Spanish side

(assessment established in 8.4)

  1. As of March 30, a case of Covid-19 has been confirmed on the Belgian frigate for a week.
  2. Point which is not quite exact, since the ship leaves in the direction of the North Sea where it will remain for a good fortnight. It is during this fortnight that everything is played out, even if according to the CEMA, the crew applies a rigorous, fairly severe action plan, with barrier gestures.
  3. The return of soldiers who repatriated French people from China (from Wuhan) also raises questions. The military base of Creil having undoubtedly been one of the first places and centers of contamination of the coronavirus (with the key point of Mulhouse).

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).