Francois Hollande’s election as the next President of France has gained worldwide attention. Much has been made of his desire to introduce a different approach to French domestic politics, and also to try to change the nature of French relations with the Eurozone in order to build a better deal for France. What is less clear thus far, is his views on where France sits as a military power.
Humphrey has long puzzled over what France actually is, and what its aspirations are, when it comes to deciding on its place in the military world. In many ways France and the UK are two good examples of the different approaches a post-colonial power can adopt as it seeks to come to terms with the loss of influence, and physical possession, and instead move to a more multi-polar world.
Both nations are sovereign nuclear powers, both have military bases, and physical real estate on all continents on earth, and both have aspirations to act as powers with global interests and reach.
Yet despite this both nations pursued radically different policies in the late 1960s and beyond as France separated from NATO and pursued a policy of what can best be described as ‘studious indifference’ to NATO, and building a force structure optimised for low key colonial intervention forces, backed up by a large conscript army at home, with some higher quality prestige equipment maintained as the tool of an interventionary strategy.
The French military today still arguably is structured in a manner which reflects this, albeit now with a fully professional military force. It is based globally, but the equipment staged around the world is often of lower quality, e.g. OPVs rather than first rate frigates, and while there are some significant prestige projects in service, such as the Rafale fighter jet, the Charles De Gaulle aircraft carrier and the ‘Force De Frappe’ (the French SSBN force), one cannot help but be left with the perception of a military which behind some very high profile equipment is often struggling to catch up on the more basic stuff such as the equipment of its troops. When on OP HERRICK the author shared a room with French personnel, and heard them regularly bemoan how poor their equipment & their terms and conditions of service were, and also how much of a looming manpower gap was emerging at the SNCO level.
In recent years, marked efforts occurred to improve UK/French relations, and to try to engage more closely with NATO, as France sought to re-enter the military command structure for the first time in over 40 years. The result has been the slow trickle posting of French officers back in to NATO HQs, and also the start of efforts to see France more closely engaged in the routine of NATO business – this has included a strong French presence on operations in Afghanistan, and a wider commitment to the missions surrounding anti-piracy efforts.
The question is then, what is likely to change in both the short and medium term? In the short term Hollande has set out views indicating he is likely to push for the withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan, and also threatened to review French participation in the NATO command structure unless more posts are allocated to French personnel. While the latter is in many ways a variation on the threats made by many countries who seek to get a better deal for their engagement in NATO, it will be difficult for France to simultaneously be seen to be withdrawing from the primary NATO mission, while at the same time demanding extra places within the NATO structure. It is hard to envisage a scenario where there would be much support for this to occur, particularly from countries who remain engaged in Afghanistan for the medium term.
The wider questions though are more fundamentally what of France’s military posture around the world. As noted, the French military is deployed on the basis of being a global low level interventionary force, designed to intervene primarily in situations where French interests are at stake (e.g. citizens who require evacuation, or friendly rulers who require stabilisation). These forces are based in either French real estate, or in friendly former French colonies. As time progresses though, two factors come increasingly into play – firstly the declining French influence in these regions and the looming block obsolescence of many of Frances prestige military capabilities.
While the Francophonie of the 1970s and 1980s may have been run as a virtual colony of France, with the rise of China as a major player in Africa, and the growth of a generation of leaders who do not feel the same residual loyalty (or easily malleable interests) to Paris, it is likely to prove ever harder for France to retain long term interests in Africa.
At the same time, the French military is built around low level equipment in these areas – a company group supported by a few transport helicopters could easily dominate a low level insurgency, as weapons become more advanced, and more readily available, and as African countries grow in strength and capability over time, it will prove more difficult for France to retain a qualitative edge in these areas without reinforcing their military capability. One has to wonder whether it will remain in France’s best interests to continue to retain these bases in the medium term, and whether instead a more realistic appraisal of French policy may conclude that much is expended in their maintenance, for increasingly little material reward.
The other issue facing the French military is the growing block obsolescence of much of its equipment, and the need to make some extremely difficult budgetary choices, particularly when the French Government may have to cut expenditure to meet other political priorities. At present the French deterrent force forms a large amount of national expenditure to sustain a four hull SSBN fleet plus a limited airborne nuclear capability. Realistically, work will need to begin within this decade in order to commence work on the next generation of warhead, missile and SSBN to replace the Le Triomphant class, most likely starting within the next 15 years. Unlike the UK, which is benefting from economy of scale with co-operating with the USN on certain aspects of the next generation of SSBN (such as the missile compartment), the French will have to fund this alone. At the same time, the Charles De Gaulle is increasing in age, and thoughts will inevitably be turning to her replacement soon. The much delayed PA2 carrier seems dead in the water, and given the lead times to build a new carrier, it is hard to see this vessel entering service to complement De Gaulle, but instead to act as a long term replacement. Finally, Rafale will need to be replaced at some stage, and again, the timelines appear to be merging so as to require a new capability at the same time as a nuclear deterrent replacement, a new carrier and a new fighter jet. There is a pressing need to replace the French air to air refuelling fleet too, and their army’s equipment is starting to age as well.
It is clear that the next five – ten years will potentially require significant strategic decisions from Paris – it is hard to see funding being found to replace all the high priority national prestige projects simultaneously, while at the same time funding the various replacements needed for escort ships, tanks, transport aircraft and so on. The clear issue France has to face is to consider where its strategic interests lie – without some form of wider co-operation, or without some form of deferment of a replacement, it is simply not possible to see France maintaining the same level of military capability and engagement in the next few years.
It would seem that something is going to have to give, and it will be extremely interesting to watch over the next few months and years to see whether the French engage in a genuinely soul searching strategic appraisal of their place in the world, or whether at best there is a desire to maintain the glory of France, without a deeper examination of how this can be achieved. One does not envy the ‘in tray’ of the new French Defence Minister, as it is likely to be extremely challenging to say the least!