What Happened to the Charles DeGaulle Aircraft Carrier in COVID-19?


By Pierre Tran

Paris – A lack of ministerial coordination and sharing of information lay behind a two-day delay in recalling the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier while the crew were stricken by Covid 19, the minister of the armed forces told parliamentarians.

Florence Parly appeared respectively May 11 and 12 before the lower and upper houses of parliament in the wake of a public row over recall of the French flagship, at a time when the virus had attacked more than 1,000 crew and personnel.

Faulty communications lay in commanders detecting April 5 signs of the virus on board, while the joint chiefs of staff and the minister were informed April 7, she said.  When Parly received the information, she ordered recall of the carrier task force, she said.

In response to a parliamentary question, Parly said she had read an open letter from the defense journalists association, which pointed up a lack of reliable and timely information from the ministry over the virus crisis. A meeting is to be held in the week of May 11 between press officers and the press club, she said.

The officers sailing the ship made mistakes in assessing the spread of the virus, but there was no “fault,” on their part, Parly told May 11 the defense committee of the lower house National Assembly.

The minister has asked the joint chiefs of staff to make recommendations on improving communications in the light of those errors.

“In the light of information that we have today — I insist on the word today — there were mistakes in the assessment of measures in the fight against coronavirus,” she told parliamentarians. The error was to treat the virus like the H1N1 flu which had hit the carrier in 2009, and to continue the mission while the infection was on board.

“Coronavirus is not H1N1 flu,” she said.

“The second lesson that I would like to submit relate to failings in coordination and sharing of information between the various chains of command, and at different levels within these commands,” she told the parliamentarians.

“These chains were too narrow, with information transmission too slow and partial,” she said. There was insufficient dialog between the actors, which denied the sharing of analysis of the situation.

In her remarks to senators, Parly said the virus had already boarded the capital ship  before the vessel sailed to Brest, northwest France, March13-16. The visit to that naval base speeded up the spread of the illness but was not the source, she said.

France entered a strict lock down midday March 17, with conditions eased May 11.

The carrier task force sailed out of Toulon January 21, conducted operations in Iraq and Syria, and called in February 21-26 at Limassol, Cyprus, she said.

After sailing from Cyprus, the carrier received personnel and equipment, with flights from Sicily, the Spanish Balearic islands, Spain, and Portugal, she said.

The carrier was effectively a “floating airport,” she said.

It was between the visit to Cyprus and Brest that the coronavirus boarded the warship, the medical enquiry noted. Parly pointed up the confined space, with cabins sleeping between 10 to 40 sailors, and narrow corridors and stairwells.

“Space is a luxury,” she said.

The carrier  was designed in the 1980s and built in the 1990s, while the Chevalier Paul air defense frigate was designed in the mid-2000s and entered service in 2011, with four sailors to a cabin, she said. There was a lower incidence of the virus on the frigate compared to the carrier, which had an “old design,” she said.

After Cyprus, the officers and medical team on board ordered masks and antiseptic gel as a precautionary measure, confident the virus could be avoided and sail on  operations in the Atlantic and North Sea.

That confidence was overblown.

The Brest visit, seen as needed for crew morale, logistics, and presenting the carrier for the first time in 10 years, speeded up spread of the infection, the medical enquiry showed. After the port call, the commanders ordered a protective confinement, which slowed down the virus, she said.

But that confinement sapped crew morale, leading the commanders March 30 to ease restrictions, and allowed group briefings, sports, and a concert on board.

“Yes, there certainly were errors, but the inspections have not noted fault,” she said.

The first clear sign of the virus on board was an officer showing April 5 positive on a test for Covid 19. The officer had visited Denmark March 30.

April 5 also marked more sailors than usual turning up at the sick bay. That sparked the return of strict isolation for the crew and personnel, and April 6 three sailors flown back to France for medical care.

Parly said she last week informed European counterparts of the reports and France would share the medical information with allies.

The findings were based on three enquiries conducted separately by the joint chiefs of staff, navy, and military medical service, which submitted their reports at the end of last week.

Parly has asked the joint chiefs of staff to propose changes in the various command chains, which will be applied to all the services and sectors. There was also need for better communications with the crew, which stayed in close touch with families. The families received information during the national lock down, some of which was false, she said.

“We need to communicate better, relying on detailed and instructive information,” she told senators. The official reports would be published after the senate committee hearing, she added.

The need for communications was clear.

It was “unthinkable” the ministry could fail to know there were dozens, maybe 100s of sailors, stricken with the virus on board the flagship carrier, dubbed “42,000 tons of diplomacy” and part of the French nuclear deterrent, Le Point weekly magazine reported.

The featured photo: The French Marine Nationale aircraft carrier FS Charles de Gaulle (F 91) is seen transiting the Red Sea, April 15, 2019.  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Skyler Okerman)