CDG aircraft
On board the Charles de Gaulle
01:49 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

France moved aircraft carrier close to Syrian coast

Carrier helping to support Iraqi forces on the ground

CNN  — 

Standing on the deck of the French aircraft carrier, Charles de Gaulle, the pace of air operations is surprisingly swift.

Several times per hour the crew launches between four and 10 fighter jets, many of them armed and headed for Iraq and Syria.

France recently moved the Charles de Gaulle – or “CDG” as the crew calls it – to the Mediterranean Sea, close to the Syrian coast.

The move comes as Iraqi-led forces have begun what is expected to be a messy and prolonged offensive to seize the country’s second-largest city, Mosul.

A Rafale M jet takes off from France's Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean.

Boasting a squadron of 24 Rafale M jets, the ship will triple France’s firepower against ISIS from 12 aircraft to 36.

“The aim is to help the Iraqi forces on the ground to fight against ISIS,” explained senior pilot Marc, who for security reasons can only be identified by his first name.

How will the jets operate?

"The Rafales have got lots of different sensors that allow us to be precise when we drop weapons on enemies," said Commander Marc.

The Rafale M will fly three different types of missions. First up is “Close Air Support,” where jets essentially loiter around the airspace waiting for allied ground forces to call on them to hit ISIS targets.

All strikes must go through the central coalition targeting center, led by the US, and be approved by the French military.

Secondly, the Rafales will conduct pre-planned air strikes against ISIS facilities and leaders.

And thirdly, the aircraft will take pictures of ISIS installations and personnel, to be used in later strikes.

Eyes on Mosul

"President Francois Hollande has been very clear -- he wants to intensify French efforts in favor of the coalition at this key moment," said the ship's admiral, Olivier Lebas.

While the CDG strike group will be targeting ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, their focus right now is very much on the terror group’s stronghold of Mosul.

“The fall of ISIS is our ultimate goal,” explained the ship’s admiral, Olivier Lebas.

“And this goes with the liberation of Mosul and Raqqa.”

Indeed, the US-led anti ISIS coalition is currently gearing up for a final showdown against ISIS in Mosul, the largest urban stronghold the terror group holds.

Inside ISIS-held Mosul – the resistance fighters defying occupation

A mix of Iraqi security forces, Kurdish and Arab fighters, as well as supporting US and French personnel, have already taken significant ground around Mosul and the final offensive is believed to be imminent.

Where does France fit into ISIS offensive?

France has been the victim of ISIS terror like no other European nation.

More than 200 people have been killed since gunmen stormed Paris’ Charlie Hebdo magazine headquarters in January 2015.

The attacks have not only prompted the country’s military action in the Middle East, but a profound sense of purpose in the CDG crew.

“For me, it’s about helping to prevent any more terrorist attacks in France – where our families and relatives live,” explained Commander Marc.

“That is very important for all the people on the Charles and in my squadron.”

Opinion: Why can’t France stop this wave of terror?

The US-French relationship

The 261-meter-long ship is the only non-US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the world.

France is America’s strongest European ally in the fight against ISIS, with the Charles de Gaulle also uniquely capable of working in sync with US forces in the region.

The layout of the flight deck, with a steam-powered launching catapult system and arrested landing ropes, is identical to US naval ships.

As such, the Charles de Gaulle’s crew frequently work with their American counterparts.

A constant state of readiness

Around 95% of the ship’s aircraft are ready for combat at any given time, said the officer in charge of bombs and maintenance, Frigate Captain Lois, who for security reasons can only be identified by his first name.

“We need to have exactly the same capability as when we are on land,” he added.

"We must have a very fluid launch and recovery process," said ship captain Eric Malbrunot. "That includes ammunition and maintenance."

As the coalition ramps up its pressure on ISIS, the Charles de Gaulle crew must also constantly refine its operations to keep up with the fast tempo of activity.

France’s only aircraft carrier has now become the country’s prime weapon as it looks to unseat ISIS from Iraq’s second largest city – and ultimately destroy the group altogether.