The navy of France is a powerful force in its defense system. With over 3,500 miles of coastline, the country has a huge frontier to protect by sea. Further, the coastline of France is not continuous and exists in two pieces, being separated by Spain. The beginning of the navy in France, which is fondly known by the French as La Royale, can be traced back to the middle ages. However, it was during the rule of Louis XIII that the navy got a defined profile. The paragraphs below sketch the outline of the evolution and growth of the French navy under various rulers and states of war. The most notable and admirable aspect is the manner in which the vanquished navy has managed to stand up with full force and to its full height every time.
History of French Navy
The first monarch in the history of French defense forces who provided a definition to navy was Louis XIII. Prior to being established into an organized force, the fleets of French ships were used as merchant navy ships. When wars broke out, these ships were brought into the defense forces to prepare for attack. One of the first reporting of the activity of the French navy was way back in 1338 when the navy took part in the Battle of Arnemuiden and conquered the British navy.
In the middle ages, France went through a lot of turmoil since it was targeted by the Papal forces on one side and Spanish attacks on the other. Army played a major role in all these wars since most of them were fought on land. The plan of building a strong naval force to protect the country was the brainchild of Richelieu, who was the minister of Navy during the reign of Louis XIII. The plan was to build two separate forces that would protect the two parts of the French coastline. On the Mediterranean side, where the seas are more tranquil and placid, 24 galleys were created. Each galley consisted of 400 to 500 slaves. The other side of the coastline was planned for more action, with the Oceanic Force consisting of large fleets of ships that were equipped heavily with weapons such as powerful guns and cannons weighing 5024 pounds that could fire 150mm round shots. In the beginning, Portugal filled orders of French ships until the French started building their own ships, the first of which was Couronne.
Despite the upgrading and empowering of the navy, the power was insufficient to face the English fleet. Fleets ran short of slaves and although heavy with equipment, they were not installed efficiently. Men also lacked precise knowledge about handling the weapons. In order to secure their frontiers, the French built the seawall in 1627. It was then that the French pulled up their socks and began serious empowerment of the navy. New ships of war were built and were well stocked with crew who were trained in the proper handling of equipment and weapons.
The first test of the strength of French navy came about in the 1640s during the Thirty Years War and the France-Spanish war before that. The navy showed supremacy and the result of training by winning the Battle of Cadiz. Armand de Maille-Breze was the man of the hour. After the initial victory, there was no stopping the French navy as they won numerous wars and territories, the most important of them being Nouvelle-Guyenne and Nouvelle France. They also won several Caribbean and Madagascar islands.
The initiative by Louis XIII was carried forward by Louis XIV. Funds flowed into the navy and the forces were further developed. This empowered force won the Nine Years War, which was fought against the Dutch and Royal Navy. Towards the end of the war, however, the French navy ran short of funds and was forced to retreat, giving an edge for the British and Dutch navies to gain grounds. Jean-Baptiste Colbert took on the responsibility of bringing the navy back on its feet and built ships that were to be the epitome of magnificence and strength. It was during this time that strategic planning and development began to form a stronghold.
Following all these rejuvenation efforts, the French navy emerged stronger than ever and went on a victory rampage by winning the Battle of Palermo in 1676 against the combined forces of Spain and Portuguese, Battle of Beachy Head that took place in 1690 as part of the War of General Alliance and gave the control of the English Channel to the French and the Battle of Barfleur in which the French navy conquered the combined forces of the Dutch and English naval forces. The best part about the Battle of Barfleur is that the French managed to win the war without a loss of even a single ship.
Towards the end of the war, however, the winds turned against the French ships and left them stranded in Cherbourg, where many of them were destroyed. Winning the English Channel was a jewel in the crown of French navy. In 1759, when Louis VX was the ruler of France, the navy lost a lot of its powers in wars with the British. It was during this time that the British navy established their dominance over the waters around the European region. The Seven Years War was a huge disaster that incapacitated the French navy drastically.
In the following years, French administration focused their naval strength towards conducting oceanic explorations. This era also saw the development of state of art fighting ships, under the encouragement of Louis XIV. The navy was revived again during these years. The new French navy played a very important role during the American War of Independence and supported the American side by securing the American seacoasts.
Towards the end of the 18th century, the French navy consisted of 75,000 sailors, 14,000 Fusiliers de Marine, 2000 officers, 5000 gunners, a fleet of 71 ships, 45 corvettes, 64 frigates and 32 minor units.
Then came the French revolution, which dealt a severe blow to the French naval forces. The dissolution of major naval focal points such as Fleet Gunners Corps made for the downfall of the navy. The crew and sailors were not well trained in gunning and bombing operations. As a result, the large fighter ships that were the pride and characteristic feature of the French navy could not be put to good use. When Napoleon came to power, he tried to revive the navy but although he succeeded enormously in strengthening the army, his efforts with the navy did not bear the desired results. In 1805, Battle of Trafalgar took place and this war was the biggest downfall of the French navy. After such a disastrous defeat, the French had a change of mind and shifted their tradition of building huge ships of war to building smaller units that were more powerful and quick.
The French navy, all though its history has been a true personification of a phoenix that rises from the ashes and grows into magnificent splendor. The French naval revival after the 1805 disaster is the strongest proof of this fact. From being almost all but annihilated, the French navy emerged as the second strongest naval force in the world, only second to the British Royal navy.
The 19th century was probably the best part of French naval history. It was back on its winning streak and won the Pasty War of 1838 in Mexico and Battle of Foochow in 1884, when it completely destroyed the Chinese navy. It was during this time that the French navy developed their technological power and developed propulsion engines, protective armors for the vessels and weapons. France has the distinction of developing shell guns for naval use, the first ever battleships that ran on steam, the first ever iron-clad vessels, the first ever mechanically propelled submarine and the first ever steel hulled warship in the world. French navy was also the first to design proto-aircraft carriers and flat deck carriers.
The role of French navy, which fought on the Allied side, in World War I is very significant. The navy, by then, had 202 ships and 56 ships were added for war purpose. The navy was equipped with 111 torpedo boats, 35 submarines, 153 submarine chasers, 734 armed trawlers and 63 sloops and gunboats, which were divided into 9 escort and patrol units. However, French ships suffered major losses in the war mainly because they did not introduce hi-tech ships into the war during the earlier stages.
Between the two World wars, the French strengthened their navy. The focus was on building smaller ships such as the super-destroyers, which to this day is considered as the fastest destroyer in their class. The French built Dunkerque, which was a fast battleship and Richelieu, which was a large battleship. Despite all these development, World War II was an anti-climax for the French navy because the country surrendered to Hitler and hence did not participate in the was to its full extent. Nevertheless, the insecure British destroyed much of the French naval fleets during the war.
After World War II, the French navy took on a massive resurrection drive and emerged again as one of the strongest in the world.
French Navy of Present
The present naval fleet of France is very impressive. Nuclear powered vessels are also an integral part of the present naval fleet. The nuclear fleet of vessels include four SSBN, which are ballistic missile submarines and one aircraft carrier that works on nuclear power, to name a few. In addition, the fleet has 9 Avios, which are Offshore patrol vessels, 5 light frigates and 6 light frigates that are for surveillance.
The fleet has a huge amphibious fleet comprising of three major mistral class amphibious assault ships, Fourde class landing platform docks and a number of light landing crafts such as Bâtiment de transport léger (BATRAL), Engin de débarquement d’infanterie et de chars (EDIC), Chaland de débarquement d’infanterie et de chars (CDIC) and Engin de débarquement amphibie rapide (EDAR). The guided missile frigates consist of Horizon class frigates, which are air defense frigates and F70 AA class frigates, which are anti aircraft frigates.
The French navy houses an enormous range of anti-submarine frigates which are of F67 and F70 ASM classes and submarines such as Triomphant Class that are ballistic missile nuclear submarines and Rubis Class nuclear attack submarines. Light frigates of La Fayette class such as F710 La Fayette and F711 Surcouf and of Floreal class surveillance frigates such as F730 Floreal and F731 Prairial are some of the frigates of the navy. The Avios range consists of D’Estienne d’Orves Offshore patrol vessels such as F789 Liutennant de vaisseau Le Henaff and F791 Commandant L’Herminier.
The fleet has 11 ships in Eridan Minesweeper Class such as M641 Eridan and M642 Cassiopee, 4 ships in the Vulcain class, which are mine clearance divers support tender such as M611 Vulcain and A613 Acheron and 3 ships in Antares class, which are mine route survey crafts such as M770 Antares and M771 Altair. The fleet of patrol ships is extremely impressive.
In addition to all these ships of war, the French navy houses a number of auxiliary ships such as those to replenish oil and supplies, tugboats, vessels for hydrographic surveys, diving support vessels, fireboats, swift boats and school ships.
The total manpower employed in navy is 42,100. The Strategic Nuclear Force (FOST) has been stationed near Brest at Ile Longue. Stationed at Brest, Cherbourg, Lorient, Toulon and Bayonne are the mainland naval units. Outside of France, French navy units have been stationed in Abu Dhabi, Degrad des Cannes, Djibouti, Noumea and Papeete to name a few oversees locations. Naval air bases are located at Tontouta, Lanveoc-Poulmic, Nimes, Landivsiau, Hyeres and Lann-Bihoue. The navy has a substantial naval air force with around 1000 pilots and several carrier vessels.
With a massive fleet of vessels, the French navy is one of the strongest in the world. It is dedicated to maintaining global peace in addition to guarding its own frontiers. The future plans for development of the French army are being taken up on a large scale.
Future of the French Navy
The French navy is on its way to major empowerment. The plan for the future of the French navy has been named Project de loi programmation militaire, which translates to Military Program Law Project and was formulated between 2003 and 2008. As per the plan, major emphasis has been laid on acquiring state of the art vessels with focus on small carriers, frigates and destroyers.
According to the project, the navy is set to acquire a couple of destroyers belonging to the Horizon class. Originally, three destroyers were planned, but one of them was commissioned out in 2007. The remaining two destroyers are on their way of completion and trials are being conducted. One of the destroyers is currently being decked with state of the art weapons.
In addition to destroyers, the project also focuses on building 11 FREMM multipurpose frigates. Of the eleven, three have not yet been ordered while the other eight were ordered under the Military Program Law Project. Besides these, two ships meant especially for anti-aircraft warfare are in line of planning. Construction of the first ship in this category was undertaken in 2007 and the ship is expected to be ready by 2012. Research and development have been going on in full swing in order to make these ships some of the best in the world.
France also plans on improving and empowering its nuclear force. In this regard, half a dozen Barracuda class submarines have been commissioned under the above mentioned project. In 2006, deals for three of these six vessels were signed. While the construction of the first submarine in under progress, it has been planned to be completed and launched in 2017. Construction of a new submarine is scheduled to take place every two years. Going by this schedule, it will not be before 2027 that the final vessel will be ready for use. However, these vessels are planned to be the jewels and pride of the French naval fleet.
The project plans to increase the equipment and weapon base of the French navy. Major focus will be placed on development of nuclear missiles. The Exocet missile, which is one of the most successful missiles of the French navy, will be upgraded and new models are planned to be acquired. Anti-missile or anti-air defense systems such as Aster and SYLVER are also in the acquisition list. Apart from these, cruise missiles are the other special focus that will be used in submarine SCALP EG.
The French navy has undergone massive resurrection over the past many centuries and has proved its mettle every time. Whenever the navy was vanquished, it has emerged from the ashes and reinstated itself on the world front. The spirit of France lives through all the modernization efforts. With the massive present strength and well planned future developments, French navy is definitely on its way to great heights and power.