20,000 tons of deterrence
One of the largest warships in the French Navy docks at Haifa Port, anchoring an increasing strategic partnership
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.
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.