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ABOARD THE FRENCH HELICOPTER CARRIER TONNERRE — John Denver’s “Country Roads,” a folk song from 1971, resounds through the Tonnerre.
It’s 7:30 a.m., and some of the crew aboard the Mistral-class amphibious helicopter carrier are already eating breakfast — loading up on coffee, bread and jam ahead of a planned exercise to storm a Spanish beach. It’s been a short night, and plans for the landing have changed several times.
The French assault vessel — 199 meters long, 32 meters wide and able to carry 21,500 tons — is a key element in the European Union’s first live military exercise in October off the southern coast of Spain.
In the training scenario chosen by top EU military officials, European troops had to assault a beach to rescue the government of a fictitious ally called Seglia.
That’s exactly what the Tonnerre (Thunder in English), was designed to do. Called a Landing Helicopter Dock in NATO-speak, the ship can carry helicopters, armored vehicles, tanks and troops; move them overseas at 19 knots and transform into a landing base. Landing craft parked in the 885-square-meter bay can carry men and military vehicles to the shore.
“Amphibious helicopter carriers are the core of France’s power projection, that is to say the ability to project military capabilities onto enemy territory, or onto allied land confronted with an enemy,” Vessel Captain Adrien Schaar, the commanding officer, told POLITICO speaking from the flight deck. “The Tonnerre can be deployed across the entire spectrum, from low to high intensity.”
The vessel’s motto —“si vis pacem, para Tonnerre” — is a pun on the famous Latin adage “si vis pacem, para bellum,” meaning, if you want peace, prepare for war.
The Tonnerre has been in service since 2007 and is stationed in Toulon on France’s Mediterranean coast.
It’s part of the Mistral class, built by France in the 2000s. They have been deployed for a wide range of operations, including evacuating French and European citizens from the Middle East during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war and backing France’s military intervention in Mali in 2013. They also participate in NATO missions and U.N. peacekeeping efforts.
Five ships were built, with France operating three: the Tonnerre, the Mistral and the Dixmude.
The remaining two have a much more complicated past.
Former President Nicolas Sarkozy initially sold them to Russia — the first time a NATO country planned to send military equipment to Moscow. However, after Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, it became politically impossible to deliver the Sevastopol and the Vladivostok. Sarkozy’s successor François Hollande canceled the order and France had to refund Russia €950 million, in what remains one of the worst diplomatic fallouts between Paris and Moscow before Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
France later sold the warships to Egypt, and the whole tangle ended up costing French taxpayers €409 million.
While the Tonnerre’s mission is the projection of military force, it takes a lot of mundane activity for that to happen.
The warship is a self-sufficient mini-town with a 69-bed hospital that includes two surgery units, a dentist, gyms and even a boulangerie, where bakers make hundreds of baguettes every day.
The Tonnerre can go up to three weeks without restocking, explained Pierre, who works in the kitchens and has been a sailor for a decade (his full name cannot be disclosed for security reasons). Military cooks go through special training to learn how to provide crews of hundreds with a balanced diet. Aboard the warship, a typical dinner is chicken, rice and spinach. “You can’t have pasta or French fries every night,” Pierre said.
For the EU’s October military exercise, the kitchen was running at full tilt, as the Tonnerre hosted about 600 military personnel, including from the army and the air force — in addition to the permanent crew of about 200. The overwhelming majority are men.
“At first, some had a hard time adjusting,” said Daniel, who’s been in the army for four-and-a-half years and aboard a warship for the first time, “but if you’re not claustrophobic, you get used to it.”
“We’re discovering the navy,” he added, with a grin.
Amphibious helicopter carriers are, by their nature, inter-service vessels, linking ground, air and naval forces.
The Tonnerre can act as mobile command and control center, and can carry 16 helicopters as well as 60 armored vehicles, or 13 Leclerc tanks. The 5,200-square-meter flight deck also functions as a track for joggers looking to stretch their legs.
It’s not always used for war. One of the Tonnerre’s missions was in Lebanon after the 2020 explosions that tore apart the Port of Beirut, when France provided food supplies and construction material. The ship’s narrow, white corridors are decorated with photos of that mission and a framed drawing by cartoonist Plantu on Franco-Lebanese friendship.
Not an easy life
The crew joined for a variety of reasons — the desire to belong to a group, the chance to sail to different countries, an interesting career — but missions aren’t easy.
Being aboard the Tonnerre for weeks or months at a time means limited contacts with friends and family. Cell phones are allowed — unless the mission requires a blackout — however there’s often no reception and only high-ranking personnel have access to computers.
“We adapt, that’s the life of a sailor, but the family has to keep up,” said Charles, who’s been in the navy for nearly three decades and whose father was also a sailor. “Back in the day, there was no contact at all, no contact with the family for months on end.”
Now, there are landline telephones and TVs — which isn’t always positive.
In mid-October, the crew gathered in the helicopter hangar to watch France’s nail-biting 29-28 defeat to South Africa in the quarterfinals of the Rugby World Cup.
In the evening on deck, in a makeshift smoking area, young men in uniform check their phones for an internet connection — but the Spanish shore is too far away. “So we play silly games,” said one of them, scrolling on his smartphone screen with a shrug.
The lack of decent Wi-Fi is a problem that needs to be addressed to attract and retain younger people, navy chief Admiral Nicolas Vaujour told the French Association of defense journalists, including POLITICO, in Paris last month.
The French government is also trying to make life easier for sailors and their families, well aware that the navy — like most European militaries — has a talent retention problem. Civilian work may be less exciting, but it is more comfortable and defense contractors are more than willing to poach trained and specialized people from the military.
The government has come up with a so-called Family Plan to help, among other challenges, with childcare.
“We’re fully aware that we have to work for the sailors at sea,” Vaujour told the National Assembly earlier this month. “The question I ask my staff is: ‘What have you done today for those at sea? Have you used up at least five minutes of your time for those in operations?'”