August 30, 2007:
As both the Royal Navy and the
French Navy begin a major modernization program, a natural question arises: Who
will be better? This is not exactly idle speculation. Prior to the 20th
century, Britain and France had a number of wars, in which a number of naval
battles were fought. The French even managed to win a few of them. The
competitive spirit lingers.
If there are two more comparable navies in Europe,
it's hard to find them. France and the UK both have navies that are centered
around a small carrier force and their air wings, with a mix of escorts and
The British have some advantages. One is the
quantity of forces - particularly in aircraft carriers and destroyers. The
British have two carriers active, one in reserve, and has begun the process of
building two new carriers. The carriers in service are the Illustrious class,
which can carry a dozen Harriers and ten helicopters. The new carriers will be
the Queen Elizabeth class, which have as many as thirty F-35s and eight
helicopters. France has the Charles de Gaulle, a nuclear-powered carrier
capable of carrying up to forty aircraft, including Rafale fighters, Super
Etendard attack planes, E-2 radar aircraft, and helicopters. France is
reportedly teaming up with the British to build a second carrier.
In terms of guided-missile destroyers, the British
also have a significant advantage. The Royal Navy has eight Type 42-class
destroyers for air defense, each equipped with the Sea Dart surface-to-air
missile. France only has two guided missile destroyers and a third in reserve,
while building two more (and plans to order two more). The British will be
relying on the Daring-class destroyers to replace the Type 42s. The French will
be turning to the Forbin-class destroyers to replace their older guided-missile
destroyers. The French Navy, though, boasts nine other destroyers focused on
anti-submarine warfare (ASW)- and will be replacing them with eight destroyers
in a refurbishment program, while adding nine more for general-purpose duties.
The British rely on frigates to carry out ASW, having four Type 22s and
thirteen Type 23s, and cancelled the follow-on program, the Future Surface
In terms of submarines, the British have nine
nuclear attack submarines (two Swiftsure-class, and seven Trafalgar-class vessels).
Four Astute-class submarines are under construction. France has six Rubis-class
submarines, which have been upgraded to the Amethyste standard, and is building
six Barracuda-class submarines to replace them.
So, in terms of combat, who has the edge? France
seems to have an edge in the carrier force at present, but the British have a
larger complement of anti-air escorts and more carriers. But when the Queen
Elizabeth class vessels come on line, the British, flying F-35s, will have an
edge over the Rafales flown on the de Gaulle, while the French will gain an
edge in surface combatants with a force of as many as 21 destroyers to the UK's
eight. The British will still have an edge in submarines that currently exists,
both quantitative and in the quality. It is arguably close to a tie, and who
has the edge may depend on just what type of fight breaks out. - Harold C.