By Pierre Tran
Paris – The French fleet air arm is flying a daily patrol of two Rafale fighter jets and a Hawkeye spy plane over Romania and Bulgaria, part of a Nato enhanced Vigilance Activities (eVA) mission, a French navy officer said March 8.
Those flights are from the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, in response to Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has led to heightened military activity to support Nato allies close to the besieged East European nation.
It takes 45 minutes for a Rafale pilot to fly from the aircraft carrier, sailing in the Eastern Mediterranean, to reach Romanian airspace, said the officer. The fighter jets are also flying in a second operation, supporting the European Union Althea mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
On the 14th day of the Russian invasion, there was a 12-hour ceasefire for Ukrainian civilians to take humanitarian corridors to escape artillery and rocket attacks. The Red Cross has called “apocalyptic” the conditions at the southern sea port of Mariupol.
Some two million refugees have left Ukraine, the UN has reported.
The French fleet air arm fighter jets and airborne warning and control system (AWACS) plane fly over the Black Sea, which Russia has effectively closed to warships of Nato allies since Christmas.
“That was no surprise,” the officer said.
The officer declined to confirm Le Telegramme, a regional paper, which reported March 1 a second French nuclear ballistic missile submarine has been ordered to take to sea.
“No comment. You have to call the other side of the Seine,” the officer said, referring to the president’s Elysée office.
This was the first sailing of two French nuclear missile boats since 1981, sparked by the Euromissile crisis, afternoon daily Le Monde reported. There is usually one nuclear ballistic missile submarine at sea.
Aircraft carrier on station
France has redeployed the Charles de Gaulle carrier to fly “air police and reconnaissance” flights over Romania, armed forces minister Florence Parly said March 3 on BFM TV.
The fighters and spy plane would “observe and deter,” she said, with the fleet air arm adding to air force patrols flying from France in response to the Russian assault.
The carrier task force had been on the Clemenceau mission against threats in the Middle East.
France has also sent some 350 troops and armored vehicles to Romania, part of the Nato “defense and deterrence posture,” the transatlantic alliance said March 8. The French armor includes Leclerc heavy tanks, photos with the statement show.
The French carrier-borne fighter jets were also flying a “a mission of presence,” the navy officer said, supporting the EU Althea mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The EU, with its 700-strong European Union Force (Eufor), backs the Althea operation, which trains the armed forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina to bring them to Nato standards.
Tension has been rising in Bosnia, with Serbian separatists seeking to form their own armed forces, effectively breaking the terms of the Dayton-Paris agreement, which brought an end to the Serbo-Croat war in 1999.
“At this time when the security equilibrium in Europe is shaken, the EU demonstrates its continuing commitment and resolve to support a safe and secure environment in BiH (Bosnia and Herzegovina) and the Western Balkans, Eufor said in a statement.
The French air patrols over Bosnia and Herzegovina began March 7. Nato also has headquarters in Sarajevo.
Nato set up a battle group in Romania in an enhanced Vigilance Activities (eVA) operation, to bolster security among East European member nations against a perceived Russian threat.
“The establishment of the Nato eVA represents a decisive message of cohesion and solidarity,” the alliance said Feb. 15. “These measures increase the readiness, deter aggression, and clearly demonstrates Nato’s firm commitment to the defense of all allies.”
Meanwhile, French air force Mirage 2000-5Fs were due to leave Feb. 13 Luxeuil air base, eastern France, to fly to Estonia. The fighters will be based in Estonia, in the Nato enhanced Air Policing (eAP) mission, seeking to uphold “sovereignty of the airspace over the Baltic countries,” the air force said. The fighters will be stationed there until Aug. 1.
Russian Arc of Naval Reach
The Russian navy has an extensive arc of operations stretching from Murmansk in the north, through Sevastopol in the Russian occupied Crimea in Ukraine, to Odessa, also in Ukraine, the French officer said.
In the Arctic seas of the High North , the French navy sails the Fremm multimission frigate and maritime patrol aircraft, working with Western allies in the region.
Russia also has a naval base in Syria, which gives the capability to operate quickly and flexibly in the Mediterranean, and plans for a naval base in Sudan.
Meanwhile, China has a navy base in Djibouti and is fast building warships, including submarines and a carrier with catapult and arresting gear, the officer said, sparking Norwegian concern it was just a matter of time before a Chinese submarine sailed in the North Atlantic.
The security concern is that one day, Russia and China might use their bases to block maritime trade to Europe.
That perceived threat pointed up the importance of a European Union concept of Coordinated Maritime Presence, extending the reach of a European naval coalition to the Indian Ocean.
There would be a “coordinated European military presence,” the officer said, pointing up the significance of European allies working together in a new naval region.
“The (European) Council today also decided to launch the implementation of the CMP concept in the North-Western Indian Ocean by establishing a Maritime Area of Interest covering the maritime area from the Strait of Hormuz to the Southern Tropic and from the North of the Red Sea towards the centre of the Indian Ocean,” the Council of the European Union said Feb. 22 in a statement.
Missions with Western allies, which included the French carrier task force sailing with Italian and U.S. warships, pointed up the importance of coalitions, the officer said.
There is a real political decision to make: whether to act alone or in coalition.
European navies could sail some 100 frigates, “good ships,” the officer said, pointing up the importance of interoperability and resilience. The EU project to build a European Patrol Corvette reflected European cooperation.
The other EU measure for naval cooperation was to extend a Coordinated Maritime Presence in the Gulf of Guinea for a further two years.
Meanwhile, it was commonplace for Russian warships in the Mediterranean to light up the Charles de Gaulle carrier task force with targeting radar, the officer said, a “highly disagreeable” measure intended to intimidate, and show their presence. There were also Russian Kilo class submarines sailing in the Mediterranean.
Relations with the Australian navy were now “rather cool,” the officer said.
That chilly relationship was due to Australia in September dropping a plan to build a fleet of diesel-electric submarines with French shipbuilder Naval Group. That followed Canberra’s unexpected switch to a nuclear-powered boat, in cooperation with the U.K. and the U.S.
Cooperation on operations was going well, such as the French FS Astrolabe, which sails from Hobart, Tasmania, off the Australian coast, to resupply the French Antarctic station.
The British first sea lord and naval chief, Adm. Ben Key, was due to visit France March 11 and 12, attending a work meeting with his French counterpart, Adm. Pierre Vandier, and going to Lorient, northwestern France, to watch the two rugby matches of men and women of the Royal Navy playing against the French navy.
American, British and French officers met at the Newport International Seapower Symposium last September. Just after that event, news broke of the AUKUS agreement on defense cooperation between Australia, the U.K. and the U.S., centred on an Australian plan to order nuclear-powered submarines.
A dependence on the U.S. to hit Serbian forces in the war with Croatia led to the then British prime minister, Tony Blair, and then French president Jacques Chirac, adopting a plan for European military cooperation at the bilateral summit at St Malo, northwest France, in 1998.
That agreement led to a European Council approval for a 60,000-strong European military force, a plan which stayed on paper.
Photo: Triomphant-class submarine. French Navy Photo