Franco-Canada Navy Relations
Mar 15, 2011

Could Canada become the latest customer for French ‘Mistral’ Class amphibious support ships? These ­vessels, which displace 22,500 tonnes when fully loaded, are currently in service with the Marine Nationale (French Navy), and Russia is serious about acquiring two. In January, the Reuters press agency reported that the Canadian Forces Navy seemed “very interested” in options from French shipbuilder DCNS. According to the report, the vessels could be constructed in Canada as early as 2012.

Canada is no stranger to the Mistral design. Canadian naval officers have ­completed exchange tours on board the Tonnerre; one of the three ships comprising the Marine Nationale’s Mistral class, while the same ship has also performed port visits to Canada.

Canada’s potential interest in Mistral support ships underlines the strong naval cooperation that Canada’s Navy and the Marine Nationale enjoy. This cooperation is helped, in no small measure, by the two countries sharing French as an official language. Lieutenant Brian P. Owns, responsible for Navy public affairs at the Department of National Defence agrees, saying “it does serve to facilitate better understanding between our two countries.” In addition, language proficiency in English and French is considered when French officers are posted into a Canadian exchange, thus increasing the secondary duty options available for his or her commanding officer. Lt Owens adds that English is used as the ‘lingua franca’ of NATO naval operations. This poses little problem for France as the Marine Nationale maintains a good standard of English throughout the force.

Lt Jérôme Kupczak, a French Navy spokesperson, stresses that the two forces “maintain excellent relations,” and interoperability “insofar as our two countries are members of the Atlantic Alliance, and work according to common standards established by NATO.”

One example of the close cooperation can be found in the Indian Ocean. The Marine Nationale contributes ships to Operation Atalanta – an EU-wide effort to combat piracy in the Horn of Africa and Indian Ocean regions, and to safeguard ships chartered by the United Nations World Food Programme delivering humanitarian aid to war-torn Somalia. Canada, meanwhile, contributes naval forces to NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield, which is tasked with a similar anti-piracy mission in the same regions. To this end, on June 3rd 2008, Rear Admiral Jean-Louis Kerignard of the Marine Nationale handed over the command of the Combined Task Force-150 (CTF-150) to Commodore Bob Davidson of the Canadian Navy, during a ceremony onboard the Marine Nationale’s Marne fleet replenishment oiler. CTF-150, a combined naval task force headquartered in Djibouti, is tasked with supporting anti-­terrorist activities in the Indian Ocean and Horn of Africa regions. CTF-150 also assists the anti-piracy aspects of Operation Atalanta and Operation Ocean Shield.
On June 3, 2008, Rear Admiral Jean-Louis Kerignard (left) of France handed over the command of CTF-150 Commodore Bob Davidson (right) of the Canadian Navy.

While the two nations are geographically dispersed on the Eastern and Western side of the Atlantic Ocean, there are regular opportunities for the both forces to conduct bilateral port visits. In 2010, the Marine Nationale’s now-retired helicopter carrier Jeanne d’Arc visited Canada, along with the Chevalier Paul and Prairial frigates. All three of these vessels participated in the Canadian Navy’s Centennial celebrations in June of last year. During that same month, the Marine Nationale’s Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier battle group also paid a visit to Canada. The battle group included the Tourville anti-submarine frigate and Jean Bart air defence frigate, the Meuse fleet replenishment oiler and the Rubis nuclear-powered attack submarine. Also participating in the battle group was the Royal Navy air defence frigate HMS Nottingham. During its visit to Canada, the French and British ships ­participated in naval exercises with the HMCS Athabaskan destroyer, and frigates HMCS Ville de Québec, St. John’s and Halifax.

France does maintain a permanent maritime presence near Canada. The country’s Gendarmerie Maritime, which performs coastguard functions in France and in its overseas territories, stations a patrol vessel named Fulmar on the Saint Pierre and Miquelon islands. These islands lie just over six miles from Green Island in Fortune Bay off Newfoundland. The Saint Pierre and Miquelon archipelago is classified as French territory and the Gendarmerie Maritime shares a close working relationship with the Royal ­Canadian Mounted Police to patrol this maritime border between Canada and France.

Lt Owens notes that Canadian ships also visit French ports. “In the past, many French ships have conducted visits to Canada, and the Canadian Navy has been alongside Marine Nationale ships in many French ports.”

Nevertheless, the two forces do have key differences, not least of which is their respective size. The Marine Nationale comprises over 80 ships; 44,000 sailors and officers; plus 10,000 civilian staff. Canada’s navy, meanwhile, has approximately 13,000 regular and reserve personnel spread across the Canadian Forces and DND, along with 15 Destroyers and Frigates, 12 Minor War Vessels, 4 Submarines and 2 Replenishment ships. Despite the discrepancy in size, Lt Kupczak mentions that, because the two forces are both members of NATO, this “allows them to cooperate effectively.” The cooperation is reinforced by bilateral officer exchanges. For example, last year, two Canadian officers were deployed on board the Tonnerre in the Indian Ocean.

This NATO cooperation reflects strategic interests shared by the two countries. According to Lt Kupczak, these include “the safety of the oceans, the freedom of circulation of goods, the stabilization of zones of crisis, the fight against piracy and the fight against terrorism.” He adds that “we also regularly take part in humanitarian action in the same theatres of crisis. This was the case during the Haitian Earthquake in 2010, for example.”

In order to facilitate this level of cooperation, the two forces maintain regular dialogue, conducting navy-to-navy staff talks on a regular basis, about every 18 months. “This arrangement has been in place for many years,” says Lt Owens. “The talks cover a wide range of topics of mutual interest, such as identifying opportunities for exercises and training at all levels, personnel exchanges and discussions on equipment programs.”

The strategic interests of the two navies are a distillation of the strategic interests of the two nations: “As trading nations that depend on maritime commerce for their security and prosperity, both Canada and France have a deep and abiding interest in a regulated oceans commons,” notes Lt Owens, “one in which the world’s oceans are open to all to use freely and lawfully; one that safeguards the bounty of the seas; that is protected both at home and abroad against the increasingly troubling range of illegal and criminal activities that are being drawn seawards; and one that is defended against those who would threaten the pillars upon which good order at sea depends.”

The acquisition of Mistral ships would represent a significant change for Canada’s Navy, at a stroke providing a vessel design capable of embarking 16 medium-lift helicopters, 15 main battle tanks, four landing craft and up to 70 vehicles. A large open area inside the vessel, pre-wired for up to 150 workstations, can be used as office space for a military command centre. In addition, these ships come equipped with a 72-bed hospital, making them ideal platforms to assist humanitarian operations.

Any acquisition of Mistral Class vessels, customized to specific Canadian requirements, could further deepen cooperation between these two naval forces. It would allow them both to develop common operating procedures for their respective ships, and to exchange ideas on how to use the Mistral vessels to the best effect, both for humanitarian and war-fighting operations.

The addition of two helicopter-carrying amphibious support ships to the Canadian fleet would also provide a major increase in capability for Canada to project power, and to perform out-of-area operations, around the world. However, as yet, there is no formal programme to purchase the Mistral Class ships, and it may be some time before such vessels enter service for Canada. That said, even if the Mistral ships are not procured, the history of the Franco-Canadian naval relationship provides a robust foundation for it to develop further. “Franco-Canada naval cooperation is built on a solid relationship extending back many years,” says Lt Owens. “This relationship will continue into the future as we look for further opportunities for mutual cooperation between two like-minded navies.”
Thomas Withington, a British naval journalist with Jane’s magazine, is currently living in France.
© Frontline Defence 2011