The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is the first non-U.S. ship to take command of the task force, known as CTF-50, that is carrying out airstrikes against the Islamic State on behalf of the international coalition led by the United States.

Share story

ABOARD THE CHARLES DE GAULLE — This nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, bristling with modern warplanes, also offers a hint of old-world ambience.

The narrow passageways below deck are named after Parisian streets. And an officers’ bar has a small but respectable selection of red and white wines, and even Champagne.

“We are French,” Cmdr. Lionel Delort, a public affairs officer, said Saturday as the carrier cruised in the Persian Gulf. “So wine is very appreciated onboard.”

This small concession to civilian life is forbidden on U.S. warships. But when it comes to naval warfare, the crew is all business.

So much so that the Charles de Gaulle is the first non-U.S. ship to take command of the task force, known as CTF-50, that is carrying out airstrikes against the Islamic State on behalf of the international coalition led by the United States.

The Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris cast a spotlight on the carrier, which left its home port of Toulon just five days after the assaults. Its deployment, however, had long been planned.

Starting in early October — and for the first time since 2007 — the United States did not have an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, as the Navy needed time to carry out repairs to its fleet. So the French agreed to deploy their only carrier to fill part of that gap.

After conducting 10 days of airstrikes from the eastern Mediterranean against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq — 10 to 15 flights a day — the Charles de Gaulle went through the Suez Canal. It is now poised to resume its airstrikes from the Persian Gulf, attacks that Delort said coyly would commence in the coming hours or days.

Years of quiet cooperation between the U.S. Navy and France’s Marine nationale made it possible for the Charles de Gaulle to take a turn at spearheading the task force.

Aspiring French naval pilots spend a year flying training on T-45 planes at a U.S. Navy air station in Meridian, Mississippi, where they learn the daunting art of taking off and landing on a carrier deck.

The Charles de Gaulle and U.S. carriers use the same type of catapult system to send their aircraft streaking into the sky. They also have the same color-coded system to identify the duties of the personnel who work the flight deck.

In a demonstration of the two navies’ “interoperability,” French Rafale fighters have flown off the deck of a U.S. carrier and F-18s off the deck of the Charles de Gaulle.

About 10 U.S. officers serve on the ship under French command as exchange officers or in other capacities. France’s growing role in the coalition against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, was emphasized Saturday when Defense Secretary Ash Carter flew here on a Marine Corps Osprey.

The Persian Gulf is not new to the French navy, which has maintained a “quasi-permanent” presence in these waters and the Indian Ocean, Delort said. Escorted by several European ships, the Charles de Gaulle is not scheduled to return to Toulon until March.

The carrier’s mission here is also intended to deter Iran, which signed an agreement with the United States, France and four other world powers to constrain its nuclear program but is seen by the Pentagon and Washington’s Arab allies in the gulf as a disruptive force in the region. But the Paris attacks have made fighting the Islamic State the carrier’s main business.

Among Carter’s reasons for visiting the ship were to assess if the French officers were getting enough intelligence from the United States on the Islamic State threat and to ask what more they might need. While on the carrier, Carter spoke by phone with Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French defense minister, who had to remain in Paris for a Cabinet meeting.

The 26 Rafale and Super-Étendard planes on the carrier have tripled France’s air power in the region to use against the Islamic State. (Twelve other French aircraft are based in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.)

Even so, the French carrier is smaller than its U.S. peer. On the bridge, a junior lieutenant moved small models of the planes around a mock-up of the flight deck, trying to make the best use of limited space.

In the maintenance bay, Xavier, a lieutenant commander who could be identified only by his first name under security rules set by the French military, said that enough spare parts and equipment were kept onboard so that he could keep the planes flying. The “availability rate” he is striving to maintain, he said, is 95 percent.

The U.S. Navy has a strict policy against the consumption of alcohol, though after 45 consecutive days at sea sailors are allowed to have up to two 12-ounce beers.

French officers said that pilots who are preparing for a mission avoid alcohol. Others may enjoy a glass of wine or a beer, but the atmosphere, French officers insisted, is not laissez-faire.

“It is a bit different than the U.S. Navy where there is a zero tolerance,” Delort said, “but we control the quantity that is allowed.”

On Friday, he noted, he and some fellow officers enjoyed a bottle of wine at lunch so much that they asked for a second one. Putting his foot down, the ship’s quartermaster bluntly informed them they had already had their glass of wine.

“This is not a spring break, you know,” Delort said.