A squadron of 12 French Navy Rafale M fighter jets, accompanied by three KC-135 refueling tankers, took off from the Landivisiau Naval Aviation Base in northwest France on April 4 to head to the United States for a two-month deployment.
The aircraft usually fly from the French Navy aircraft carrier FS Charles de Gaulle, but after 15 years of operations, the carrier had to dry dock for a mid-life upgrade which will be completed in early 2019.
Deployment of the jets to the US is a way of preparing the pilots for a return to carrier-borne operations next year.
In addition to fighter jets, France is sending an E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft to the US. Since it has no aerial refueling capability, the Hawkeye will have to reach the US East Coast via the United Kingdom, Iceland, Greenland and Canada.
The French aviators’ training with the US Navy will be divided in two periods. The first, onshore phase, at Naval Air Station Oceana will last until May 8 and will see French and US pilots and personnel fly and maintain the aircraft.
On May 8, the Rafale M jets will embark the US aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush for ten days of flight evolutions. French Rafales are the only non-US aircraft fully compatible with the catapult assisted take-off and barrier arrested recovery system employed on US aircraft carriers.
This deployment, named “Chesapeake” in reference to the battle which took place off Virginia in 1781, was first announced by US Navy chief Adm. John Richardson during his visit to France in December 2017.
Deployment of French Rafales to the US will not be the first time French aircraft are landing and taking off from US carriers. This was done multiple times in recent years as the two countries closely cooperate in their fight against the Daesh with joint operations from the Persian Gulf. Cross decking events, including one from July 2016, saw US F/A-18E Super Hornets launch from FS Charles de Gaulle and French Rafale jets operate from USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Worth noting is the fact that in addition to embarking French jets, the USS George H.W. Bush is currently underway training with Norwegian and German frigates. The German air defense frigate FGS Hessen will also join the carrier as it deploys later in the year as part of its carrier strike group.