In the last week or so there have been two major Defence Reviews announced in France and Australia. Both nations are close partners of the UK and significant powers on the global stage, which means that these results are of direct interest to the UK.
The announcement of the French Defence Review, reported back on the future structure of the French military for the next 10 years. Essentially akin to the UK SDSR, the work was designed to address French budget challenges, and try to create a sustainable force which is affordable in the near future. The Think Defence website has helpfully collected a summary of all the reporting on the event (HERE) which are well worth reading.
In many ways the review highlights the challenging position France finds itself in at the start of the 21st Century. Unlike the UK, the French have never had an ‘East of Suez’ moment, and arguably French policy for many years has been to continue projecting a low level amount of power across the globe, while retaining a smaller cadre of higher capability equipment at home. To this day, France still retains bases in South America, Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific Islands, all of which play home to small amounts of troops and equipment, as much for legacy ‘imperial policing’ in their overseas territories as it is for projection of power more widely.
It is clear that Mali has already highlighted many lessons for the French Military, including a paucity of strategic airlift, and a perhaps worrying reliance on foreign militaries for a wide range of assets when taking part in intervention operations. This perhaps explains the emphasis on a future force built and optimised for a French ‘rapid reaction’ capability, and seems intended to deliver a military with around 7 intervention brigades and some 200 main battle tanks (e.g. a very similar size to the British Army under Force 2020).
The French Navy will see itself reduced down to no more than 15 first line escorts, plus some 20 patrol ships and light frigates for policing and constabulary duties overseas. The long delayed plan to build a second carrier is now officially cancelled, leaving France as a part time carrier navy, particularly given that Charles De Gaulle requires relatively regular refuelling, which can often take several years to do. The SSBN and SSN force levels remain unchanged.
The French Air Force will focus efforts on the acquisition of new tanker aircraft to replace its positively ancient KC135 fleet, and will in future consolidate around no more than 225 Rafale aircraft as its sole fast jet fleet. There will be continued investment in transport, ISTAR and other assets, although fleet sizes will be reduced.
The overall effect of the review will be some 34,000 job losses across all three services, and a near flat level of growth in the budget for at least the next five years.
What does this mean?
In many ways this review mirrors the SDSR in that it takes a capable military power with financial problems and tries to make structural adjustments to solve said problems. It is telling that there is still no real change in French strategic posture around the globe, and that as a nation, France will try to continue being a global power, albeit one on an ever tighter budget. Recent lessons in Mali would suggest that France can exert real influence in Africa, and that this area may well be the French ‘area of investment’ over the next decade. While the days of the Francophonie are declining, it is clear that French bases continue to be a useful strategic asset in a region where economies are booming, while stability remains volatile. One suspects that any further reviews will see closure in other overseas departments, such as in French Polynesia ahead of Africa.
The fundamental problem that faces France though is that it still seems unclear as to whether it wants to remain a nation capable of operating as lead nation in areas of interest, or if it wants to contribute to wider coalition operations. On the one hand it retains a ‘golf bag’ of useful assets and capabilities, but these are often limited in number and increasing in age. At the same time there seems a deep reluctance on the part of the French to restructure their forces to fit in with wider coalition operations. Decades of operating outside the NATO military structure have perhaps created a mentality of ‘we can do this alone’, which was fine when budgets could match aspiration, but is perhaps more difficult now.
The question is what does France bring to a multi-national operation that can’t be done by the UK or Germany or other NATO powers? Its troops have limited experience of working in coalition environments, and its military clearly has many capability gaps (as seen by experiences in Mali). At its harshest, the issue is whether France has the right force mix of assets and troops to be a valuable member of international missions, or whether its focus on ‘shop window’ capabilities like a CVN or Rafale means that it is perhaps less valuable than nations which produce smaller, but more interoperable forces, like the Netherlands or Denmark.
The wider problem facing the French is that this review has perhaps steered clear of the most challenging problem which is to deal with how a nation which traditionally takes pride in a ‘French solution’ will continue to be able to afford capabilities in future. One only has to look at the emerging list of requirements for the French military for the next 20 years to realise that new carriers, new fast jets, new tanks, new SSBNs and associated deterrence capability are all required and that there probably isn’t enough money to go it alone.
The decision to not proceed with a second carrier (having worked with the UK) may well be a cause for concern in 10-15 years time when it is clear that any future carrier replacement will have to be funded alone, without benefits of joint co-operation. The PA2 would have offered some economies of scale, but now any French replacement will need to be designed as a likely single hull at a point when no other European nation is likely to need a carrier built. This will make it extremely expensive to replace the Charles De Gaulle. Similarly, while Rafale is a reasonably competent aircraft now, the costs of not only sustaining it for the long term, and then bringing a successor into service in both Ari Force and Naval service will be phenomenally expensive – one only has to look at the costs associated with the F35 to realise just how expensive modern aircraft are. Given any replacement programme will be due at a point when the deterrent is also likely to need replacing, one feels that the French may have to make some extremely tough decisions in about 20 years time. While it is hard to see Gallic pride permitting the abandonment of either a carrier or nuclear capability, the issue is what is hollowed out or deleted elsewhere in the force structure to pay for this capability. The worry for French planners may be that in order to preserve a few high profile capabilities, the French military as a whole will struggle to afford them and remain a credible force.
So, France finds itself in a really interesting position – on the one hand their defence review seems to assume that little has changed, and that a smaller military will continue to do much the same as before, but there seems to be an avoidance of publicly discussing the very real challenges to the long term ability of France to stay on this course. At some point something will have to give, and there seems no clear lead from this paper as to what that may be. In the interim the French will remain a power capable of some power projection of headline capabilities, while remaining reliant on other nations to support them.
Meanwhile Down Under…
At the same time Australia has announced a defence review which seems to have been linked more to electoral ambition than due to timing. The review publicised this week was brought forward ahead of what is likely to be tightly fought election. It suggests that Australia will continue to commit to the procurement of up to 100 F35s, while purchasing interim F18s to keep their fast jet capability alive. At the same time it reconfirmed that Australia would design and build a force of some 12 SSKs using an indigenous design and not an ‘off the shelf’ variant.
The first challenge for the review is to identify where the money is coming from to pay for this – by all accounts the review is long on aspiration but relatively short on details about where the funding is to pay for this. Earlier this year it became clear that under current plans the Australian military would probably need to look at its budgets again with a view to cutting expenditure, so whether this review is anything more than a list of aspirations remains to be seen. There is no guarantee that post-election it will be funded by either party, depending on the economic situation.
To this author the chances of Australia being able to fund the design and purchase of 12 SSKs seems slim. Warship design capability is an incredibly complex business (as discussed elsewhere on this site) and at present Australia doesn’t possess a submarine design capability. The RAN has struggled to recruit and retain sufficient people to keep a force built around six hulls operational, so it is hard to see that changing soon. Baring an influx of ex RN and RCN submariners, the question is whether the RAN can actually get sufficient manpower through its training schools and out into the fleet to keep such a force operational. Otherwise, the worry must surely be that it will spend a great deal of money building a capability that its never designed before, and doubling its force in size at the same time. This could pose a real challenge to their long term stability, and again may come at significant cost to the rest of the fleets capabilities.
Similarly, the commitment to 100 F35s is welcome, as it helps stabilise the prices somewhat, but any future reduction in orders could have wider implications for the US and UK as unit prices rise. What is interesting though is the way that Australia appears to be linking itself into the US as its key gurantor of security (e.g. purchases of US equipment, allowing bases in Australia) as the US seeks to rebalance itself into a pacific power. At the same time though, the question may be does Australia feel comfortable aligning its equipment programme so firmly with one nation. There is no certainty that the US will always provide the parts required, which means for a nation like Australia, broadly dependent on others to produce equipment, the question is where else to buy? One senses an opportunity for the UK to sell the Global Combat Ship (GCS) design (known as Type 26 in the RN) to Australia as a means of producing a good design quickly and at low cost. As the ANZACs come to the end of their lifespan, the GCS could be a good solution to ensure that while the RAN is aligned firmly to the USN, it is not entirely dependent on it for all aspects of its equipment.
So, the challenge for Australia is two-fold – firstly it needs to be able to afford the equipment it has set out to buy. Then it needs to find the manpower to be able to operate this equipment, which in a small country is not always easy. As a large country, with a small population in a region where economic growth is increasing and there are many militaries with large manpower and growing resources, Australia needs to play a careful game. Not to become too aligned to the courses of action of one power, but as it is too small to be able to effectively stand alone, it needs to exercise a careful mix of diplomacy and tact, while ensuring its military can resist any external threat. This is not going to be an easy task, and one that can only get more difficult as budgets shrink.
What does this mean for the UK?
So, the question now is what do both of these reviews mean for the UK? Both France and Australia remain some of the closest allies to the UK, and it is likely that future military operations will involve one or both powers in some way. In practical terms the reviews continue to confirm that the French will be useful partners, but that they will be more useful at providing headline capabilities, and that planning for joint operations will probably see a heavier reliance on UK logistical and support capability. At the same time, the Australian review is useful to confirm that Australia will remain a first tier power, and that its continued presence in the Indian Ocean and Middle East means that the UK will have reason to work with them, even in the post HERRICK/TELIC environment. Similarly, the French will also have reason to work with the Australians in both the Gulf and also the Pacific Rim – all three nations share some common areas of interest and a ll three nations find themselves in challenging strategic positions – powers with a sense of global responsibility, but constrained budgets and a realisation that individually they are unable to do as much as they would wish. The next two decades will prove to be increasingly challenging, as we collectively seek to do more together, while struggling to afford the replacements of capabilities previously taken for granted, while dealing with emerging powers with the money, manpower and resources which enable them to pose a real challenge. Whatever happens, it will certainly prove to be an interesting time…