For about 18 months starting in 2027, the French Navy will have to do without its aircraft carrier. At the end of December, the French Defense Procurement Agency (DGA) awarded Naval Group the contract to modernize the Charles de Gaulle ahead of its third major technical shutdown (ATM3), scheduled for 2027 and managed by the Fleet Support Service (SSF). Every ten years, the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is stopped in Toulon for an inevitable ATM to recharge the fuel needed for its nuclear propulsion. It then takes another six months for the ship to regain full power. These operations are necessary but have a negative impact on the Charles de Gaulle’s availability, estimated at 63 percent.
Each time, the French Navy takes advantage of these ATMs to carry out in-depth modernization of the aircraft carrier’s equipment. In 2027, modernization work will focus in particular on renewing the combat and anti-missile systems, with the new Sea Fire radar with four fixed panels from Thales, the latest Setis 3.0 combat system from Naval Group, and the new MBDA reconfigurable firing system with Aster missiles. These operations will maintain the carrier’s defense capabilities against future anti-ship missiles and drones. All of this work will ensure the aircraft carrier’s renewed capabilities until its retirement from active service and the entry into service of the next-generation aircraft carrier (PA-Ng), scheduled in principle for 2038.
According to the French Ministry of the Armed Forces, this order will consolidate the workload of the subcontractors of several French manufacturers (mainly Thales, MBDA, Safran Electronics and Defense, Dassault Aviation, CS Group, TechnicAtome, and Eviden) at several industrial sites: Toulon and Ollioules in the Var, Brest in Finistère and Lorient in the Morbihan, Limours and Massy in the Essonne, and Le Plessis-Robinson in the Hauts-de-Seine. Coordinating all these companies will be an extremely complex operation.
Will the ship go out of service in 2038?
Given nuclear safety constraints, the Charles de Gaulle has a lifespan of about 40 years. Entering service in 2001, the aircraft carrier is expected to be retired from service around 2038. “Operating the Charles de Gaulle beyond 2038 would require a fourth operation to regenerate nuclear fuel and adapt to technological developments,” explains a Senate report released in June 2020. Any extension would depend on the strength of Charles de Gaulle’s fuel tanks. The third ATM was critical to meeting this eventuality.
The bill for the last ATM (2017–2018) was 1.3 billion euros. In 2024, the ATM3 operation will burn 88.7 million euros in payment appropriations (compared to 50.7 million euros in 2023 and 14.6 million euros in 2022) for the ministry. This shows the increasing pace of preparations for ATM3.
Meanwhile, however, for a long period of time, France will be without its main ship, which normally commands a naval frigate. What will happen if there is a conflict at that time? France would have to ask others to intervene.