Letter from Strasbourg (Part Three): A French Defense Update

Soldier in the French Foreign Legion , Oct. 4, 2010Insights from the 13th annual “summer defense college,” in Strasbourg.

To be sure, the Strasbourg event, like its predecessors, was not intended to be a comprehensive review of French defense strategy, policy, and capacity. Each college has had a particular focus—for example, on a particular military service or defense industrial sector—and tried to be in step with the changing security environment. (For example, the 2011 and 2013 events highlighted the interventions in Libya and Mali, respectively.) Still, the mix of high-level French participants, plus some 50 representatives from other European governments and militaries, offers a unique opportunity to take the pulse of French defense thinking in areas of interest to the United States. Here, then, are several take-aways from the Strasbourg debates.

First, French priorities as described by Defense Minister Yves Le Drian are unlikely to change between now and the Warsaw Summit. This is not necessarily a bad thing for the United States or NATO, provided the French remain reasonably engaged, militarily and diplomatically, in other key aspects of the Wales agenda. These include implementation of the Readiness Action Plan, including its assurance and adaptation measures–the strengthened NATO Response Force, the new Very High Readiness Joint Task, stepped-up Baltic Air policing, and the increased pace, size, and complexity of NATO exercises. Notwithstanding the near total silence on Russia from the speakers in Strasbourg, influential French strategists whom this observer met there have not stopped worrying about Moscow’s actions in Ukraine or its “nuclear saber rattling.” So as long as U.S. defense leaders continue to make clear that NATO must respond to evolving threats in the south as well as the east, keeping Paris on-side should not be a problem.

Second, while the defense spending plus-up is welcome, no one is popping champagne corks in Paris. Military personnel reductions have been slowed, not stopped; by 2019, France will field fewer professional soldiers than when it ended conscription in 1996. Meanwhile, equipment maintenance and replacement costs are growing due to the unanticipated duration and intensity of external operations. Testifying before a parliamentary commission in May, Chief of the French Defense Staff General Pierre de Villiers pointedly remarked that on a recent visit to Mali, he was transported in an armored vehicle delivered in 1983, and that one-fifth of equipment returned from Opération Barkhane was beyond repair. As the military chief warned bluntly in Strasbourg: “We can no longer increase missions without increasing our (budget) means.” Cost considerations might not be the critical factor in determining the level of future French military involvement in NATO reassurance measures or air strikes against Daesh in Iraq and Syria, but decision-makers cannot dismiss them lightly.

Third, Opération Sentinelle may be taking a toll on army readiness and morale, even if military leaders are understandably reluctant to air their concerns too loudly. Keeping 7,000 military (mostly army soldiers) on patrol in urban centers means thousands of others need to be prepared to replace them. As a result, soldiers have been pulled from more technical (and rewarding) posts, and leaves have been cancelled or reduced. For those who joined the military service expecting to serve abroad–some 18,000 French military (of a total force of 208,000) are operationally deployed or permanently stationed overseas—the adjustment has not been easy. Meanwhile, their ability to seek legal redress against military regulations has been recognized by a new French law (prompted by a European Court of Human Rights ruling in October 2014) that authorizes the creation of “national military professional associations.” Senior French officers say they are comfortable with the associations “at this stage.” But they likely would oppose any attempt, over time, to transform the associations into the more powerful trade union model present in a few other European militaries.

Fourth, the French remain determined to maintain a large and cutting-edge defense industry as a key component of their “strategic autonomy.” Beyond their importance for the domestic economy, arms exports are viewed as a vital lever for French political influence on the global stage. With several big contracts signed since January—including the sale of 24 Rafale combat aircraft and a top-of-the-line multi-role frigate to Egypt, and another 24 Rafales to Qatar—French arms exports seem well-positioned to match their near record-setting performance in 2014. On balance, this is good news for its defense budget; for example, the French air force will not be obliged to buy more Rafales than it wants in order to keep Dassault’s production lines busy. But there are downsides, as well, from the military’s perspective: for example, the quickly-arranged Egyptian deal will force the French navy to keep three older ships in service for an additional year (incurring higher costs), and military personnel will be tapped to provide pilot, crew, and maintenance training for the foreign clients.

Fifth, French enthusiasm for European defense—insofar as its EU-led aspects are concerned—has waned but not died. At Strasbourg, a few parliamentarians and non-government experts reiterated their familiar complaint that French policy has “aligned” itself with NATO–and, by extension, the United States–at the expense of its “European vocation.” But there were signs, as well, that more pragmatic approaches are gaining traction. Michel Barnier, a former minister in center-right governments now serving as special advisor on defense and security to the President of the EU Commission, lamented EU shortfalls in strategy, capabilities, and operations. But Barnier also stated flatly that he “does not regret French reintegration into NATO” and urged greater cooperation between NATO and the EU. Patricia Adam, chair of the National Assembly defense commission, appeared sympathetic to the idea (raised by NATO’s Supreme Commander Transformation, General Jean-Paul Paloméros) of “integrating” NATO’s two percent (of GDP) target for defense spending into EU guidelines. Since 22 of 28 EU member states also belong to NATO, why not encourage those states to include the two percent target in the forthcoming EU security strategy? The recognition of a shared NATO-EU commitment to a specific defense spending target would be a positive message for the Warsaw Summit declaration.

A final take-away: the summer defense college would offer an important venue to improve French understanding of U.S. perspectives. To date, however, no high-level U.S. government or military official has spoken at this event. Does this reflect a lack of interest on the part of its principal organizers, the chairs of the National Assembly and Senate defense commissions? Perhaps, although solid, bipartisan French delegations (including Adam) have regularly attended the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s annual transatlantic forum at the National Defense University in Washington precisely because they want to engage directly with senior American defense and foreign policy officials. Is the French defense ministry reluctant to arrange an invitation? Indeed, this observer was surprised that Le Drian’s speech in Strasbourg did not make a single mention of the United States, although he readily acknowledges the generally excellent defense and military relations between the two countries–when he visits Washington. (In fairness, the United States was singled out one time in Strasbourg as a particularly close partner…during the not-for-attribution session on intelligence).

Here, then, is a suggestion: Washington should offer up a senior U.S. defense or military official to speak to next year’s summer defense college. True, most of the audience—even those critical of Washington—appreciate that American policies, capabilities, and operations have far-reaching consequences for their national security. But too many—including those favorably inclined toward the United States–harbor misperceptions about the drivers of American actions or underestimate the value of our cooperation with France bilaterally and within NATO. Why not seek an opportunity to set the record straight, respond directly to concerns of this influential audience, and lay a foundation for even closer strategic and operational cooperation in the future? Even in tricky areas involving defense industrial issues and arms exports, beginning a more open dialogue could help both sides.

As the French like to say: “Les absents ont toujours tort.” (The absent person always gets blamed.) Let’s not be absent from the next rendez-vous like Strasbourg.

Leo Michel a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. This is the third piece of a three part series.

Image: Soldier in the French Foreign Legion , Oct. 4, 2010 (photo: UK Ministry of Defense)