France Doubles Down on Battle-Hardened but Overstretched Military.
|A French soldier stands watch behind Malian soldiers during a visit by the head of France's Operation Serval and Mali’s army chief of staff to a Malian army base, Kidal, Mali, July 27, 2013.|
By Benoît Gomis, April 2, 2015, Briefing
On March 11, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian unveiled an updated version of the Military Programming Law for 2014-2019, a five-year blueprint for the country’s force structure and defense budget that will be debated in Parliament in June. As part of the revised law, previous plans to reduce the armed forces have been walked back, with the government announcing new investment to meet persistent threats at home and abroad. However, in a climate of stagnant economic growth and austerity-driven fiscal constraints, doubts persist about how sustainable this approach is.
Le Drian’s announcements are a direct consequence of the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher terrorist attacks in early January that killed 17 people in addition to the three perpetrators, and triggered a massive emotional response throughout the country and around the world. However, they also reflect the French military’s increased engagement in recent years, including in Mali, the broader Sahel region and the Central African Republic (CAR), and most recently as part of the air campaign in Iraq targeting the so-called Islamic State. The regional threat posed by Boko Haram as well as Libya’s drawn-out collapse may lead to further operations in Sub-Saharan and Northern Africa.
The threat posed by jihadi terrorists, both abroad and at home, continues to be France’s main security concern. To date, an estimated 1,400 French citizens have traveled to Syria and Iraq. According to the government, 90 have died there and 200 have traveled back to France. This has had important implications both domestically and internationally.
At home, the 10,000 troops deployed to support the Interior Ministry after the attacks in early January will be maintained. In all, 682 sites in France are currently under the protection of the French military, including 604 religious sites. This unprecedented effort was initially slated to last only a few weeks but will be maintained until at least the beginning of the summer.
France’s 2013 Defense White Paper had proposed a major reduction of 24,000 personnel out of what was then 280,000 total troops between 2016-2019, on top of 10,000 already planned to be cut by the end of 2015. In the aftermath of the January attacks, President Francois Hollande decided to safeguard 7,500 of these 34,000 jobs. In his March 11 statement, however, Le Drian proposed that up to 23,000 should in fact be saved. A restructuring of the army will be presented in April, but the government already aims to boost the military reserve force from 28,000 to 40,000.
Intelligence and cyber capabilities, two key priorities of the White Paper, will be strengthened as well: The number of cyberdefense specialists to be hired will double, from 500 to 1,000, while Le Drian confirmed the launch of new projects, including a third Franco-German intelligence satellite; joint research and development with Italy and Germany for a future European drone for 2025; and the purchase of three U.S.-made Reaper drones in the summer. An independent administrative authority will also be created to oversee these efforts.
Beyond the means deployed at home, France will maintain its military presence in Africa and the Middle East, where a combined 10,000 French soldiers are currently engaged in operations. While Le Drian confirmed the progressive withdrawal from the Central African Republic, where political transition has begun, he added that the French commitment to Operation Barkhane, the open-ended counterterrorism deployment in the Sahel, will increase slightly. French forces have already fanned out in a regional network of bases, including a headquarters in Chad that provided air support in the fight against Boko Haram. A base in northern Niger is due to be fully operational July 1.
At a time of financial austerity, some uncertainty remains as to how this ambitious plan will be funded. The measures announced by Le Drian will amount to an additional 2.3 billion euros in 2015 alone. The recent sale of Rafale fighters to Egypt, and another contract being negotiated with India, should help the Defense Ministry’s finances by alleviating some of the burden of keeping the production line going at its minimum required pace. Some of the announced expenditures will also be covered through a new scheme created in July 2014 by which the state will sell defense equipment to private companies before renting the equipment back from them. However, it is unclear how well the scheme will work and whether more sustainable longer-term measures will be put in place to fund the estimated 4.7 billion euros of new spending for 2016-2019. Given France’s economic situation, there is very little room for maneuver, despite a traditional political and public consensus on defense issues.
With its recent operations in Libya, Mali, CAR, the Sahel and Iraq, the French military has often been praised for its effectiveness and professionalism—a welcome endorsement after a more challenging 13 years in Afghanistan, during which 89 French soldiers were killed. But France’s military engagements have come at a financial cost for a strained army: 3 billion euros in Afghanistan and 300 million euros in Libya, while external operations surpassed 1 billion euros in both 2013 and 2014. Moreover, these operations lasted longer than initially expected, in part because of the limited and often delayed support from local partners.
In addition, France has received little operational support from other European countries, as recent French interventions in the Sahel and Central Africa have demonstrated Europe’s overall incapacity or reluctance to deploy military force abroad. Le Drian’s recent calls to focus on more realistic ways forward for joint European projects, such as drones and air-to-air refueling, reflect a trend within French policymaking circles to avoid ideological and institutional debates about European defense, and instead act with willing partners in an incremental, pragmatic and capability-focused manner. In this context, France has turned to the U.K., with the 2010 Lancaster House treaties, and the U.S. for operational and political support on defense and security issues.
This strategic rebalancing has had its fair share of challenges, but has arguably produced tangible outcomes. Nonetheless, with a grim economic future, a challenging political context at home and a British partner more and more cautious on the use of force, France’s military finds itself battle-hardened, but increasingly isolated and perhaps overstretched.
Benoît Gomis is an international security analyst focusing on terrorism and organized crime. He is an associate fellow at Chatham House and a researcher at Simon Fraser University. He previously worked at Chatham House, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and the French Ministry of Defense. He is the author of “Counterterrorism: Reassessing the Policy Response” (CRC Press, Taylor & Francis).