French Navy POLARIS 21 exercise: visit to Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier

French Navy POLARIS exercise
French Navy Rafale M is launched from Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier during POLARIS 21 exercise.

The Marine Nationale (French Navy) successfully completed its largest exercise ever, the POLARIS 21, which took place in the Western Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean from November 18 to December 3. The POLARIS 21 was designed to achieve operational readiness for high-intensity combat as per the French Navy CNO's "Mercator Acceleration 2021" plan and in line with the strategic vision of the French Joint Chief of Staff and military planning law.

"French joint forces need to be capable of providing several options across multiple domains of warfare when opposing forces are employing indirect strategies and modern equipment. POLARIS 21 gives an opportunity to act simultaneously at sea, on land, in the air, space, cyberspace, as well as within informational and electromagnetic fields," the French Navy said.

This joint, combined and inter-theater exercise involved 6,000 French troops from the French Army, Navy and Air Force, including 4,000 French Navy sailors, virtually half of the vessels in the fleet as well as some allied navies.

POLARIS 21 mobilized all components of the French Navy, including its latest-generation assets, land and air assets from the French Army and Air Force, as well as combat ships and aircraft from the United States, Spain, Greece, Italy and the United Kingdom.

The exercise scenario aimed to test the multiple capabilities of an air-sea force composed of the French aircraft carrier's battle group, organized around the FS Charles de Gaulle (R91) aircraft carrier, against a credible Opposition Force (OPFOR), gathered around LHD Tonnerre (L9014), which represented the fictional country "Mercure". The latter was sreinforced by an air-land system to provide an anti-access/area denial zone. The density of the activities carried out by the French and foreign forces has made it possible to test modern know-how in high-intensity air-maritime combat, covering all areas and fields of conflict in a coordinated and synchronized way. It has also helped strengthen the ability of the French armed forces to assume framework-nation responsibilities within a coalition.

POLARIS 21 has represented a "laboratory" for tomorrow's warfare thanks to the integration and synchronization of effects in several fields and environments of conflict. It was conducted around high-spectrum actions, corresponding to future missions of the French Navy in a hardened strategic context. It thus completed the preparation of the naval air group before its next operational deployment, which will begin in February 2022.

"The goal is to be permanently ready to face a major conflict on short notice, acting in all environments of confrontation to win the war before the war," the French Navy said.

Charles de Gaulle Tour and Flight Deck Action

During the Warm-Up phase, we had the opportunity to spend a day aboard the Charles de Gaulle (CdG). We reached her in a Daulphin SAR helicopter which took off from the naval base of Hyères, in the south of France. Upon our arrival early in the morning, the activity on the CdG's flight deck was already very intense, it housed a dozen Rafale M multirole combat aircraft, a E-2C Hawkeye Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft, Cormoran and Daulphin helicopters.

The Rafale M embarked belonged to the latest F3-R variant, some of them fitted with the advanced TALIOS (Targeting Long-range Identification Optronic System) pod, as shown in the image below. The TALIOS was recently introduced with the new variant of the aircraft, it is a high resolution laser designation pod that enables new and more efficient target tracking capabilities. It surely benefited Rafale's pilots during the demanding POLARIS 21 missions which included reconnaissance, ground and sea attack, air combat and Close Air Support. Acting as the Blue Force, they also fought against French Air Force Rafale, Mirage 2000 and Alpha Jet aircraft (Red Force).

French Navy POLARIS exercise

What is very surprising during a visit to an aircraft carrier is how the personnel manage very complex operations in an extremely confined space. In a few tens of square meters they have to park dozens of aircraft, even large ones, as in the case of the Hawkeye.

The same goes for the hangar, where dozens of aircraft can be stored thanks to careful space planning. "We must fit them perfectly together, being very careful not to make them collide, they are very expensive!" said an operator. Inside it, the technicians are able to carry out all the maintenance, from the simplest to the most complex works, such as replacing an engine.

French Navy POLARIS exercise

The Chief Technical Officer of the Hawkeye took us for a walk around the aircraft showing us all its features. Most striking are the large roof-mounted revolving radar dish and four-fin tail. "The disc has a diameter of about 8 meters and rotates at 3-6 rpm providing 360º coverage, it can be retracted two feet to facilitate stowage aboard a carrier. The four-fin tail ensures better radar performance," he said.

The afternoon started with an intense sequence of take-offs as one Hawkeye and thirteen Rafales left the flight deck within minutes. The CdG is capable of launching one Rafale per minute for each of the two catapults. Preparations for a launch resemble a well-choreographed ballet. The activity involves several sailors, each of whom has a specific, clearly defined role, which is easily recognizable by the different color of the jerseys and helmet.

The CdG is currently the only aircraft carrier in the world to use catapults to launch aircraft beyond the US Navy, as well as being the only nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to serve outside the United States.

French Navy POLARIS exercise

Speaking with the Mini Boss, who assists the Air Boss in directing operations on the flight deck, he highlighted all the challenges and rewards his role brings.

"Our task is to position the plane on the flight deck so that it can reach the catapult as fast as possible. We arrange the planes according to which ones we want to send first, placing them in specific areas. We are also ready in case one plane is not available, we have a spare plane and we must make sure that it is able to replace the other and that the latter does not block the way."

"Our main challenge is to be able to reconfigure our plan in a short time. Usually everything goes according to our plans, but sometimes there can be sudden changes and we have to adapt quickly. The secret is not to plan too early, but not even at the last minute, we must find the right balance. Everyone must be able to move quickly and communicate with each other to coordinate and go in the right direction."

"During the recovery phase we need to remove the planes from the landing area as quickly as possible as they land within a minute of each other," the Mini Boss said.

He also told us that when on high alert, some aircraft are always armed and ready to launch with pilots always ready inside the cockpit.

After about an hour of familiarization flights all the Rafales landed in rapid succession. The aircraft is stopped on the flight deck by means of a steel rope which it grips with the rear hook. The CoG has three arresting cables, each named after a Greek deity. They are scrupulously checked after each series of landings and maintained daily as their malfunction could lead to the aircraft falling into the water.

French Navy POLARIS exercise

During our visit we had great evidence of how the French Navy personnel were preparing to best face a large-scale exercise, we met very motivated, highly professional and mission-focused sailors.

POLARIS 21 took place in two phases:

- Phase 1: A warm-up phase on specific high intensity know-how from November 18 to November 25

- Phase 2: A LIVEX phase, from November 25 to December 3, will oppose, under realistic conditions, an interallied aero-naval force gathered around the French CSG (Task force 473) against an OPFOR gathered around the Mistral-class LHD Tonnerre (Task Force 472), representing a the military of a fictitious country dubbed "Mercury". An air and land assets will play the role of anti-access/area denial (A2AD) in support of the OPFOR.

POLARIS 21 Participating Units

Blue Force: Task Force 473

Commander: Rear Admiral Christophe Cluzel aboard CVN Charles de Gaulle

Carrier Strike Group:
- Nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle carrying 20 Rafale Ms from 12F and 17F squadron,
2 E2-C Hawkeyes from 4F squadron, 1 NH90 NFH Caiman from 31F squadron and 2 Dolphins from 35F squadron
- Air Defense FREMM Alsace
- FREMM Provence + NH90 NFH
- Spanish Navy’s Álvaro de Bazán-class frigate Méndez Nuñez
- US Navy Arleigh Burke-class Destroyer USS Porter
- Italian Navy FREMM Carlo Bergamini
- Hellenic Navy Elli-class Frigate Adrias
- In support to the CSG: US Navy’s P-8A Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft

Surface Action Group:
- La Fayette-class Frigate Aconit
- FREMM Aquitaine + NH90 NFH (in Atlantic)
- In support to the SAG: Several Atlantique 2 Maritime Patrol Aircraft
- Supply vessel Marne + Alouette III
- Spanish Navy supply vessel Cantabria

Naval Special Forces:
- Commandos Marine aboard Support & Assistance Vessel BSAM Loire

Mine Warfare Group:
- MCM vessel Orion
- MCM vessel Lyre
- EOD teams

Red Force: Task Force 472

Commander: Commander Nicolas Molitor aboard air defense destroyer Forbin

Amphibious Ready Group:
- LHD Tonnerre + amphibious units (13e DBLE)
- Air Defense Destroyer Forbin + Panther
- FREMM Auvergne + NH90 NFH
- Royal Navy Type 45 Destroyer HMS Dragon

Surface Action Group:
- Patrol vessel Commandant Birot
- Patrol vessel Commandant Ducuing
- ASW Frigate Latouche-Tréville (Atlantic)
- In support to the SAG: Several upgraded (Standard 6) Atlantique 2 Maritime Patrol Aircraft flying from NATO air base Sigonella in Italy.

Red force supply vessel:
- US Navy Henry J. Kaiser-class replenishment oiler USNS Lenthall

Red force mine warfare unit:
- Diving support vessel Achéron

Land based air defense systems:
- French Air Force’s ASTER 30 SAMP/T Mamba air defense system battery + Girafe radar
- French Army VSHORAD system (Mistral missiles)

Red force air assets:
- Rafale M F3R (11F squadron)
- French Air Force’s Rafale, Mirage 2000 fighters and Alpha Jet aircraft

Note: Several FAF/NATO E-3 AWACS aircraft operated in favor of both forces


French Navy POLARIS exercise

French Navy POLARIS exercise

French Navy POLARIS exercise

French Navy POLARIS exercise

French Navy POLARIS exercise

French Navy POLARIS exercise

French Navy POLARIS exercise

French Navy POLARIS exercise

French Navy POLARIS exercise

French Navy POLARIS exercise

French Navy POLARIS exercise

French Navy POLARIS exercise

The author would like to thank the Press Offices of the French Ministry of Defense and Navy, LV Dumesnil, LV Duplan, EV1 Le Corre, EV1 Benoist and all the personnel met during the visit to Charles de Gaulle for their kind collaboration and support.

Report by Matteo Sanzani

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