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White Paper 2013: France on the way to Italianization

Published : 2 May 2013
2 066 words in that article

There is no negative meaning in the title above but a mere observation after having read the new French White Paper on Defense and Securitythat has been delivered to the French President of the Republic François Hollande on 29th April 2013. After nine months, including a 4-month delay, the 46 members of the Commission who drafted this document are decisively orienting France towards a strategic downgrading.

Effectively, if we slip the numerous incantatory declarations throughout the document, the announced measures will downgrade France from a status of Military Power with a world dimension to the one of a Regional Power with nuclear capability because of reduction of national ambitions and a substantial drop in military capabilities.

A verbose document that does not bring new ideas in terms of strategic analysis

This 2013 White Paper is the fourth one after those from 1972, 1994 and 2008. Besides the reduction of intervals between each document, what is most striking about the fourth one is the poor justification of its drafting except for financial reasons.

Effectively, in 1972, twelve years after the explosion of the first French nuclear bomb and ten years after the end of the war in Algeria, France needed to reorganize its armed forces around the two complementary concepts of nuclear deterrence and operational defense of the national territory in front of the Soviet threat.

In 1994, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the bursting of the Communist block and the successive wars in the Gulf and in ex-Yugoslavia changed dramatically the geopolitical situation and justified a reorganization of the national armed forces, paving the way to their professionalization.

In 2008, it was necessary to analyze the lessons learned from the professionalization, to take into account the new threats and the new international context reshaped by globalization. More comprehensive than its predecessors, the 2008 White Paper took into account not only Defense but more globally also Security. The main orientations from this document were an important reorganization of the armed forces focusing on pooling resources between services and the return of France within the NATO integrated Command structure left in 1966.

What about 2013? What is the rationale for drafting a brand new document? The 2008 White Paper planned a regular update in order to stay tuned with the world evolution. The Secretariat General for National Defense and Security issued in late 2011 a document named “The international and strategic evolutions faced by France” which represented a review made thanks to the work of different ministries ahead of the “update” planned in second semester 2012. The conclusions were that most of the analyses from 2008 were still valid, that new threats and risks appeared but that France was outfitted with “strong assets to face those challenges”.

So what was the rationale for drafting a brand new document if not to justify the only important criteria behind the whole thing: the need to reduce the defense budget? In order to cope with the economic crisis, the new left-hand side government already decided to cut the expenses in the defense sector and they needed a concept document to implement this old socialist recipe.

So even if the new White Paper is mentioning several times that “assumptions made in 2008 are still valid” or that “already identified by the last White Paper, the threats and risks… have been confirmed”, the conclusions of the new document are radically different: acknowledging that we are living in a world more dangerous and more unpredictable, taking note that the focus of the United States is drifting from Europe to Asia, understanding that the BRICS are rearming with high speed, considering that the European countries are less and less keen to invest in their defense sector… France will downgrade its strategic ambition and reduce its defense capabilities!!!

Budget and capabilities reductions that are driving France to a strategic downgrading

The document is full of martial assertions and of declarations that France will continue to defend its territory and interests according to a list of priorities:

  • “to protect the national territory and the French citizens and to guaranty the continuity of the Nation essential functions;
  • to guaranty with our partners and allies the security in Europe and within the North Atlantic region;
  • to stabilize with our partners and allies the vicinity of Europe;
  • to contribute to stability of the Middle East and of the Persian Gulf;
  • to contribute to peace in the world.”

But when we translate those verbose declarations in terms of missions and capabilities, unfortunately the reality is not exactly the same: until now the French forces had to be capable to defend the French interests anywhere in the world, the new White Paper is defining a new area of deployment: “Consequently, France wants to have the military capabilities allowing a deployment in key areas that are of first interest for its security and defense: the European periphery, the Mediterranean area, a part of Africa –from Sahel to Equatorial Africa – the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean”.

This area, as described, is precisely corresponding to the geographical zone that has been defined by Italy from the beginning of years 2000 as its area of interest and named “Mediterraneo allargato” (the enlarged Mediterranean area). It is currently the focus of the Italian soldiers and their financial means are calculated through this particular driver. That’s why I’ve decided to suggest in the title of this article that France is getting more Italian. Besides all the respect I have for Italian troops that I know quite well, having studied in their War College in Rome, until know their operational capabilities were substantially inferior to the French ones because of smaller investment in Defense. Every country has the armed forces it deserves according to the level of finances invested in the sector. And now France will pay less and less!!!

And wordy saber-rattling will not help, the figures announced in the White Paper are quite clear. In spite of the French President’s promises to stabilize the Defense budget at the level of 2013 (31.4 billion €), the allocated finances foreseen in the future military spending Bill – that still has to be voted – amount to 179.2 billion € for 6 years (2014-2019), that is to say 29.86 billion € per year that have to be completed with exceptional resources. Those latter are estimated around 4.5 billion € but are far from being guaranteed. For example, the exceptional resources for period 2009-2014 were estimated around 3.47 billion € when the real revenue are today 980 million €.

Moreover, in a world that is understood as being more dangerous, the strength of the French Armed Forces and their “operational contract” will be reduced. After having been decreased of 54 000 people between 2009 and 2015, the French Ministry of defense will have to suppress other 24 000 positions before 2019 in order to meet an overall strength of 240 000 people (180 000 military and 60 000 civilians).
And a similar trend is seen in the evolution of the “operational contract” of the armed forces:

  • The Army will have to be prepared to deploy 60 000 people instead of 88 000 in 2008, will have 200 tanks instead of 250 and one brigade less (7 instead of 8). Combat support and combat service support should also be modified because instead of the current brigades, the new White Paper mentions “combat support and combat service support elements”.
  • The Navy will keep its main assets (aircraft carrier and nuclear submarines) but will lose 3 destroyers (15 instead of 18 mentioned in 2008) and 1 amphibious assault ship (3 LHD instead of 4). However, it should gain some patrol boats.
  • The air forces (air force and naval air component) will lose 75 fighters (225 Rafale and Mirage 2000 instead of 300), 20 transport aircraft (50 instead of 70), 2 tankers (12 MRTT instead of 14) but will gain some UAVs from American origin.

Besides nuclear deterrence that has been preserved, the main focus should be put on Special Forces and Intelligence.

Dealing with operations “France will keep in permanence a 5 000-strong national emergency element that will be able to build an Immediate Reaction Task Force consisting of 2 300 men, deployable at a distance of 3 000 kilometers within 7 days. […] About non-permanent missions, the armed forces will be able to be engaged simultaneously in long-lasting crisis management operations in two or three different theaters, including one as major contributor. […] France will be able to engage [in a major operation] up to two brigade task forces representing about 15 000 persons from the ground forces, plus Special Forces, naval and air components and associated command and support elements.”

But as if the reduction of forces was not enough, the new White Paper is envisaging a “differentiation of forces depending of missions of deterrence, protection, coercion, or crisis management”. Let’s hope that the idea is not to recreate two-speed armed forces as it was the case in the 80’s and 90’s with the armored-mechanized Corps (based on old material with conscripts) and a Rapid Reaction Force (Foreign legion, Parachutists, Marines) which was professionalized and more prestigious. However, reading page 138 of the new White Paper, we can have some doubts: “This new principle of relative specialization, which is aiming at a better efficiency of forces in each type of mission, is obeying also to saving rationalities and should consist in outfitting with the most expensive capabilities only the forces designed to fight state opponents”. With such way of thinking, our soldiers in Afghanistan or in Mali, who are fighting against terrorists and not state soldiers, should have been equipped with lighter or older equipment!!

Facing those important reductions, France is though envisaging giving a new dynamic to the defense debate within the European Union and, talking about NATO, “is committed to strengthen the solidity of the military Alliance which is consisting of twenty-eight nations determined to defend themselves severally against any armed aggression”. But the question is: how to motivate partners to invest more in defense when we are reducing our own defense effort? Current trends are clear; the EU States are tetanized by the economic crisis and are cringing over their internal problems. Defiance towards the EU is currently maximal, including in countries usually europhile, and within NATO, the members are trying to ignore the always bigger cuts in Defense budgets and always hope that the US will fill the gap in a period of time where the United States themselves are trying to save money. So, when official goals are to convince other to do more in Defense, is it naivety or dishonesty? The EU is stuck in its economic problems and NATO is trying to reorganize itself and to find a new goal after Afghanistan.

So what?

All the observers of the French Defense are happy because the axe blow has been lighter than the initial scenarios (thanks to the operation in Mali that has saved many heads). But it is sad to see that the Ministry of Defense once again is paying the bill of politicians who lack political courage. Instead of reforming the country to truly save money (reorganize the territorial administration, revise the social policy or the education sector), the socialists prefer to rely on the easiest solution and to pressure the only Ministry who was recognized in the Report about Revision of Public Policies issued in September 2012 as the one who undertook the biggest reorganization from 2008.

Because the Ministry of Finance, which was recently rebuked by President Hollande because of its will to save too much money at the expense of the Defense Ministry, still has another occasion to make the point. The White Paper is only a document of orientation that has to be implemented afterwards thanks to the military spending Bill which will fix the amount of money that should be invested in the defense sector for the next six years. And even if voted, this Bill has then to be fully implemented and it has never been the case since then.

Let’s hope then that there will not be any strategic surprise that might need a major French military reaction in the future because the armed forces might be once again outclassed. The period of time necessary to rebuild a credible capability after it has been suppressed is about ten years – twenty years when you start from scratch.