A European aircraft carrier : a realistic idea?

France and Germany should band together and build a European aircraft carrier to boost the continent’s defence capabilities, according to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a possible successor to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

She pitched the idea in a commentary in the Germany newspaper Die Welt in March 10th. The article was meant as a response to French President Emmanuel Macron’s plea days earlier toward something of a European renaissance ahead of the European Parliament’s elections in May.

But the subject seems too sensitive and might be too complex to open the door to advanced cooperation anytime soon.

A symbolic project

Germany and France already are working on a future European combat aircraft, where other nations are invited to join,” Kramp-Karrenbauer wrote, referring to the Future Combat Air System, or FCAS. “As a next step, we could start the symbolic project of building an aircraft carrier to give shape to the role of the European Union as a global force for security and peace” she said according to DefenceNews.

But the Bundeswehr is so caught up in its disrepair that there is no space for formulating the kind of national strategy against which new capabilities could be evaluated, DefenceNews analyses. The lack of such a reference point gives all new military technology — from drones to artificial intelligence to naval power projection — the whiff of being far-fetched from the start, rightfully or not.

Merkel, who has previously spoken in favor of greater European defence cooperation, said that a joint aircraft carrier would be a good idea in the future, but added that the bloc does « have to do other things as a priority » DW explains.

As we notice, defence experts do not sound so confident about the feasibility of such project.

« Germany can’t afford to skirt urgent strategic debates that would animate such acquisitions, no matter the wisdom of Kramp-Karrenbauer’s specific carrier idea » Sebastian Bruns head of the Center for Maritime Strategy and Security at the University of Kiel in northern Germany.

4 challenges for a European aircraft carrier

According to Bruxelles2.eu reports, there are several complex obstacles to building a multi-country aircraft carrier.

  • The political challenge: Although an aircraft carrier is a political symbol, it is first and foremost a tool of military power. Deployment priorities would not be the same in different countries. The French would like station it in the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean or even Asia, while the Germans would probably have prioritise the Atlantic.
  • The functional challenge: A whole escort would be needed to ensure its protection: anti-aircraft defence frigates, anti-submarine defences, support boats and, sometimes, a submarine itself. The system is important and requires high-level training for each crew.
  • The industrial challenge: Division of tasks between industries is not easy when it comes to projects currently underway. The naval defence industry remains one of the most fragmented in Europe, with no less than five national champions: France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and Spain (The Netherlands could also join their ranks). But only the UK and France have the instant capacity to build this kind of ship without collaborating with others. So another challenge will be integrating other countries and guaranteeing them economic benefits commensurate with the investment made.
  • The technological challenge: The French aircraft carrier has nuclear propulsion while the British one uses diesel. Does the aircraft carrier need a flat deck or catapults, like the French one? Should it have nuclear weapon capacity? All these choices have consequences for the boat’s capacities, its maintenance, its cost, its autonomy and the industrial partnerships to be signed with the American partner.

© CHRISTOPHE SIMON / POOL / AFP

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