20,000 tons of de­ter­rence

One of the largest war­ships in the French Navy docks at Haifa Port, an­chor­ing an in­creas­ing strate­gic part­ner­ship

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By SETH J. FRANTZ­MAN

The sailors had changed into civil­ian at­tire, shirts that clung to their chests and slacks, to walk into Haifa. Some of the men were tat­tooed. They paused for a cig­a­rette be­fore am­bling off. The first group to leave their ship, the Dix­mude, in­cluded a sprin­kling of women, some of the 14% of the French Navy that is fe­male.

The Dix­mude docked at Haifa Port on July 9 and held a re­cep­tion the next day. It was an aus­pi­cious day for France, as the na­tional team was play­ing in Rus­sia in the World Cup semi­fi­nals against Bel­gium. The 400 French sol­diers aboard the ship were ea­gerly await­ing the game. Be­fore the game, French Am­bas­sador Hélène Le Gal came up from Tel Aviv to meet the cap­tain of the ship, Jean Porcher, and Chris­tine Ribbe, com­man­der of the frigate

Sur­couf, which was docked nearby.

“It is al­ways an ex­cep­tional event to greet a ship the size of Dix­mude, jewel of the French Navy,” said the am­bas­sador.

Tour­ing the bridge of the ship, she said that re­cent ex­er­cises with the Is­rael Navy showed how closely the two coun­tries were work­ing to­gether. “We are very present in this part of the Mediter­ranean Sea, and it is linked to op­er­a­tions in Syria. Al­though the Dix­mude was in Asia, this is the 11th stop of the French Navy [in Is­rael] this year. I’m re­ally proud to have this ves­sel here.”

France and Is­rael held a joint drill off the coast of France that was the first of its kind in 55 years. The INS Ei­lat and

INS Ki­don trav­eled to Toulon on June 21. Af­ter five days at sea, the corvette and mis­sile boat con­ducted a joint ex­er­cise with the French Navy. Along­side the French Navy’s frigate La Fayette, they prac­ticed with he­li­copters, guns and with an­ti­air­craft sce­nar­ios.

“France sees Is­rael as a strong mar­itime part­ner in the re­gion,” Capt. Ro­nen Ha­jaj, head of the Navy’s Train­ing and Doc­trine Depart­ment, said. Adm. Eli Sharvit, com­man­der of the Navy, met with his French coun­ter­part, Adm. Christophe Parzuk.

“In the cur­rent era, in which many changes are tak­ing place, the point of view of Is­rael’s naval arm must be global,” Sharvit said.

He pointed to the im­por­tance of co­op­er­at­ing with West­ern naval pow­ers, in­clud­ing the French. This would be a mile­stone and turn­ing point, he said, in strength­en­ing the in­ter­na­tional ac­tiv­i­ties that Is­rael’s navy par­tic­i­pates in. The naval drill comes al­most two years af­ter Is­rael and France con­ducted a joint air force ex­er­cise at Solen­zara Air Base on Cor­sica in Oc­to­ber 2016.

The Is­rael Navy, his­tor­i­cally starved of re­sources com­pared to the army and air force, has be­come one of Jerusalem’s strate­gic as­sets in re­cent years, as Is­rael has in­vested in ex­pand­ing its sub­ma­rine ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Founded in 1948, the fleet has three corvettes, eight mis­sile boats and five sub­marines. It also has a va­ri­ety of pa­trol boats and around 10,000 sailors.

The French Navy, by con­trast, is a sto­ried ser­vice that dates from the 17th cen­tury. It has al­most 200 ships and 200 air­craft as well as more than 30,000 per­son­nel.

How­ever, like most big sur­face fleet navies in the West, the French Navy has un­der­gone many changes since the Sec­ond World War, down­siz­ing and chang­ing its mis­sion to con­front dif­fer­ent threats. Gone are the old bat­tle­ships, and in their place a more flex­i­ble and ver­sa­tile set of ves­sels. Its largest ship is the air­craft car­rier Charles de Gaulle, while its next largest group of ships is the Mis­tral-class tri­umvi­rate of ves­sels which are built around what is tech­ni­cally called a land­ing he­li­copter dock (LHD). This sounds like a float­ing he­li­pad, which is sort of what the Dix­mude and its sis­ter ships, the Mis­tral and Ton­nerre, do best.

The Dix­mude’s ori­gins are in the Amer­i­can Tarawa-class am­phibi­ous as­sault ships that were built in the 1970s. These were big ships at 39,000 met­ric tons and were de­signed to em­bark a re­in­forced bat­tal­ion of US Marines. The con­cept was that there are times at war when you want the ca­pa­bil­ity to have a float­ing base at sea so sol­diers can be brought ashore by he­li­copter or land­ing craft. Built to send marines ashore, the US also dis­cov­ered that ships like these worked well to sup­port hu­man­i­tar­ian and se­cu­rity op­er­a­tions, res­cu­ing South Viet­namese and op­er­at­ing off Beirut in the 1980s and off Bangladesh in 1991 af­ter a cy­clone.

The French ver­sion of the LHD is called a bâ­ti­ment de pro­jec­tion et de com­man­de­ment. The French Navy’s brochure for the ves­sel, handed out af­ter we as­cended the gang­plank on July 10, shows it ply­ing the world’s oceans, he­li­copters fly­ing into the clouds from its deck.

“France is in­volved in a wide va­ri­ety of op­er­a­tions as the coun­try is adapt­ing to the new strate­gic chal­lenges,” the brochure says.

The Dix­mude al­lows France to project forces around the globe. This in­cludes space for op­er­at­ing four land­ing craft or two larger land­ing craft that can em­bark ve­hi­cles from two in­ter­nal hangars on the ship. On the 5,200-square-me­ter deck, the ship can launch six he­li­copters at a time, while stor­ing up to 16 he­li­copters be­low decks. It also has an on­board hospi­tal, which has the fa­cil­i­ties to serve 100 pa­tients at a time.

ON BOARD the Dix­mude the ship feels like a large float­ing build­ing, with el­e­va­tors, metal stairs lead­ing up 11 decks, and long hall­ways the span part of the length of the 200-me­ter ship. The maze of hall­ways, uni­sex bath­rooms and stair­ways are bro­ken up by crea­ture com­forts, such as a large gym. There are no win­dows, and one wouldn’t know one is at sea, once en­cased in the white in­ter­nal walls.

On July 10 a wo­man in white uni­form checked the sailors head­ing for shore, sign­ing them out one by one. The ship exit gang­plank was a hive of ac­tiv­ity with a plethora of uni­forms, some in green camos and oth­ers in hand­some dress whites.

In case the crew mem­bers were won­der­ing what their own ship con­sists of, a handy gloss poster showed the ship has the air-con­di­tion­ing ca­pac­ity of 1,500 fridges, the en­gine power of two rail­way lo­co­mo­tives, and an­chors that weigh as much as two ele­phants. It dis­places 21,600 met­ric tons when fully loaded, drives at 19 knots and has a crew of 180 and space for up to 110 ar­mored ve­hi­cles or 13 tanks on board.

A schematic blue­print map of the ship showed where we were, but in the win­dow­less hall­ways it was a bit dif­fi­cult to get ori­en­tated any­way. Luck­ily, a wo­man in a white uni­form showed up as a guide.

An el­e­va­tor on the port side had flags from all the coun­tries the Dix­mude had re­cently vis­ited. As part of its Jeanne D’Arc 2018 mis­sion, the float­ing he­li­copter dock and its es­cort frigate had taken aboard 133 French and for­eign of­fi­cers to do hands-on train­ing at sea. It left Toulon on Fe­bru­ary 26 and headed out, pass­ing Le­banon and Egypt through the Suez Canal to In­dia, In­done­sia and Aus­tralia. Af­ter a drill with Aus­tralia’s HMAS New­cas­tle off Dar­win in May, the French put back to sea to head home. The home jour­ney took them to­ward Viet­nam, Malaysia, off the coast of Sri Lanka and then to Dji­bouti. At the mis­sion’s height the Dix­mude had al­most 1,000 per­son­nel abroad in Dji­bouti, but by the time it got to Haifa, around 450 re­mained, the rest hav­ing dis­em­barked along the way. In to­tal the mis­sion saw the Dix­mude meet with 14 for­eign navies and take part in strate­gic mis­sions in Asia.

The mis­sion in­volved nu­mer­ous for­eign sailors, in­clud­ing cadets from Cameroon, Mada­gas­car, Benin, Le­banon,

Ivory Coast, Congo-Braz­zav­ille, Gabon and Sene­gal, who were study­ing at the French Naval Academy. There were also West­ern al­lies. Thirty sailors from the Royal Navy and their two Wild­cat he­li­copters were aboard as well as a de­tach­ment of Royal Marines, who dis­em­barked in Dji­bouti.

For Paris this is im­por­tant in terms of build­ing re­la­tion­ships with al­lies and train­ing in ports of call that are part of the French global sphere of in­flu­ence. “Three hun­dred sixty-five days a year, 24 hours a day, on ev­ery sea and ocean of the planet, the French Navy has at its dis­posal 74 war­ships,” a brochure dis­trib­uted on deck says, with “4,500 sea­men on and un­der the sea and on land, in or­der to pre­serve France’s in­ter­ests and guar­an­tee the se­cu­rity of any French cit­i­zen, in­clud­ing abroad.”

Af­ter a short walk aboard ship, we came to the am­phibi­ous deck where one of the land­ing craft aboard was in a hangar that can be opened to the sea. Ac­cord­ing to the sailor guid­ing us, named Mathilde, the room can be par­tially flooded in 30 min­utes so the craft can exit.

From the am­phibi­ous deck we made our way via steel stairs and hall­ways to the sauna-like tem­per­a­tures of the ve­hi­cle deck. While a French sailor jogged in cir­cles, the guide showed off sev­eral mil­i­tary trucks. Most of the Dix­mude’s com­pli­ment of ve­hi­cles had been dropped off in ports along the way.

Af­ter be­ing drenched with sweat in the ve­hi­cle hangar, we made our way to the equally swel­ter­ing he­li­copter hangar. A vend­ing ma­chine sold Per­rier wa­ter be­cause ev­ery French ves­sel is a lit­tle slice of France float­ing on the sea.

In the he­li­copter hangar the two Bri­tish Navy Wild­cat he­li­copters were lashed down. A gi­ant el­e­va­tor at the rear of the hangar could trans­port the he­li­copters up to the deck for flight. Mathilde said the ship had been prac­tic­ing with the he­li­copters and also an ex­per­i­men­tal Aus­trian drone to learn how to work bet­ter with UAVs.

From the hangars we toured the empty and ster­ile hospi­tal. A half-dozen beds and an X-ray ma­chine and op­er­at­ing room ad­joined each other.

“It’s a pretty com­fort­able life aboard ship,” Mathilde said, beck­on­ing the land­lub­bers to the gym.

From the gym it was up six flights of stairs to the bridge. The empty bridge looked out on Haifa Port. On one side were the iconic Baha’i Gar­dens and down­town Haifa business dis­trict. On the other, the port, with Is­rael Navy ships and a freighter docked nearby.

HERE THE am­bas­sador and two ship cap­tains joined for an im­promptu dis­cus­sion of the ship’s role.

“It [the ship’s ar­rival in Haifa] shows that the co­op­er­a­tion be­tween France and Is­rael in this field of the navy is very good. It shows the trust of our navy to­ward the Is­raelis,” the am­bas­sador said.

Capt. Porcher de­tailed the an­nual Jeanne D’Arc de­ploy­ment. “The world is a complicate­d place and there are many strate­gic ar­eas at sea. When you live on land, you don’t al­ways re­al­ize that,” he said, de­tail­ing the im­por­tance of com­mer­cial ship­ping lanes and other as­pects of the sea.

“To­mor­row morn­ing there will be an ex­er­cise with the Sur­couf, in which she drills against small boats in an asym­met­ri­cal train­ing in which they [the po­ten­tial threat] might come on all sides with an ex­plo­sive. So that is a threat that the French and Is­raeli navies face, and we try to ex­change our best prac­tices. We know the en­emy will al­ways try to find some­thing new,” ex­plained Porcher.

Cmdr. Ribbe agreed with his as­sess­ment, not­ing that it is im­por­tant to pro­tect strate­gic points. “On our mis­sion we are try­ing to train [cadets on board]; we need to con­duct our mis­sion while in­struct­ing them.”

The is­sue of con­fronting asym­met­ric war­fare is one of the ma­jor learn­ing curves West­ern armed forces have gone through since the end of the Cold War. The tran­si­tion from us­ing power and tech­nol­ogy to con­front sim­i­lar con­ven­tional armies, to us­ing it to hunt down ter­ror­ists hid­ing in tun­nels and caves is the ma­jor chal­lenge of the 21st cen­tury.

It is a chal­lenge that re­quires not only in­te­grat­ing land, sea and air power but also work­ing with other coun­tries that are fight­ing ter­ror­ism. For in­stance, in the re­gion, the large un­governed spa­ces such as parts of Iraq, Syria, Ye­men, So­ma­lia and Si­nai, ar­eas stretch­ing from Afghanista­n to the Sa­hel in Africa, have al­lowed ter­ror­ist groups to es­tab­lish them­selves. The phe­nom­e­non has also al­lowed the Houthis in Ye­men, who are al­lied with Iran, to take over parts of Ye­men. The Houthis have fired mis­siles at ves­sels in the Red Sea. In the early 2000s piracy off So­ma­lia was a ma­jor threat to ship­ping. In each case, a com­bined ef­fort, us­ing tech­nol­ogy against en­e­mies who use the most low-tech equip­ment, was cen­tral to this asym­met­ric ap­proach.

When navies fail to watch for threats, they can find them­selves vul­ner­a­ble. For in­stance, the USS Cole was bombed off the port of Ye­men in 2000 by al-Qaeda. Fif­teen sailors were killed by two ter­ror­ists driv­ing a small boat with C-4 ex­plo­sives. Is­rael’s navy faces sim­i­lar threats off Gaza. In 2015 ISIS in Si­nai fired a mis­sile at an Egyp­tian war­ship off the coast. So these kinds of threats are not just the­o­ret­i­cal.

Learn­ing to work with new tech­nolo­gies is also im­por­tant. The UAV the Dix­mude brought aboard could be help­ful in pro­tect­ing or mon­i­tor­ing com­mer­cial ship­ping. Prac­tic­ing for a ship to work with crewed he­li­copters and drones at the same time is im­por­tant.

“Learn­ing to op­er­ate a UAV and he­li­copter in the

same area, the idea would be to use a drone in am­phibi­ous op­er­a­tions, such as dur­ing send­ing troops ashore,” said Porcher. “We have com­mon en­e­mies such as ter­ror­ist groups and ISIS. This was use­ful to test ways to re­act and share best prac­tices, and each has dif­fer­ent ways of re­act­ing to ter­ror­ist attacks against the boat, and the idea is to learn from each other,” Le Gal said, ref­er­enc­ing how Is­rael and France could co­op­er­ate at sea.

Af­ter the tour of the ship and get­ting dis­ori­ented walk­ing through in­nu­mer­able hall­ways and stair­ways, we ex­ited to the deck, where the sea breeze and slowly set­ting sun pro­vided a wel­come es­cape. Groups of sailors in dress whites and fa­tigues milled about.

The am­bas­sador gave a short speech to as­sem­bled guests, in­clud­ing diplo­mats and mil­i­tary at­tachés from em­bassies in Is­rael.

“Twenty thou­sand tons of de­ter­rence,” she called the ship. “The last visit of this kind oc­curred three years ago. It is a strong sym­bol of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween France and Is­rael, demon­strat­ing trust be­tween the two gov­ern­ments in this key re­gion of in­ter­ests in the east Mediter­ranean,” she said.

“The cadets here will re­mem­ber this their whole life, and they know the rel­e­vance of co­op­er­a­tion. Is­rael has his­tor­i­cally been a part­ner of ours in the world; it is no sur­prise the Jeanne D’Arc mis­sion is call­ing at Haifa for a third time,” said Porcher.

Ribbe agreed. She said the visit to Jerusalem has been espe­cially strik­ing, to see the an­cient city and tourist sites.

As the sun set, food and drinks were brought up on deck. Sailors re­tired to­ward the stern for a smoke break. French hos­pi­tal­ity, com­plete with moun­tains of cheese, bread and meat, sus­tained the guests. The France-Bel­gium World Cup game was pro­jected on one side of the deck, a game the French even­tu­ally won. Vive la France.

(Photos by Seth J. Frantz­man)

FRENCH AM­BAS­SADOR Hélène Le Gal ad­dresses the crowd on the ‘Dix­mude’ war­ship.

CAP­TAIN OF the French war­ship ‘Dix­mude’ Jean Porcher, and Chris­tine Ribbe, com­man­der of the frigate ‘Sur­couf,’ which is docked nearby, stand on the bridge of the ‘Dix­mude.’

A WILD­CAT he­li­copter sits in the hanger of the ‘Dix­mude.’

THE ‘DIX­MUDE’ houses a gym in its hull.

THE BRIDGE of the ‘Dix­mude’ war­ship.

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