An army falling apart

Internal documents report the French Army to be on the verge of “falling apart”, according to the Telegraph. Less than half of the army’s Leclerc main battle tanks, and less than 40% of its helicopter fleet, are operational. This gives a new spin on French reluctance to do more of the heavy lifting (i.e., combat operations) in Afghanistan. Here was I putting it down to political reluctance. But perhaps it’s as much a case of “can’t do” as “won’t do”.

I did quite a bit of focus group work with French officers in the Ecole Militaire in Paris last year. This is a true war-fighting military. Years of intervention in Africa have given French officer corps combat experience. And crucially, this is a military itching to get back to war. Especially as their last big punch-up, the 1991 Gulf War, proved to be a bit of an embarrassment: the French only able to deploy a light division that was tasked with guarding the far left flank of the coalition advance into Kuwait. This was in contrast to the British 1st Armoured Division, which joined the US VII Corps assault on the Iraqi armoured reserves and Republican Guard.

The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, is about to announced a major defense review. But this is unlikely to result in the investment that is so solely needed in the military. Indeed, it is likely to recommend cutting French operational forces from 50,000 to 30,000 troops. At the same time, the Guardian reports that Sarkozy is pushing for the creation of a permanent European joint operational headquarters to based outside Brussels. As a fig leaf, and to signal that this is not the usual Gaulic NATO bashing, Sarkozy is offering to bring France back into NATO’s military command. Given the lack of real commitment in Paris to the military, the British are right to be wary of this French proposal.

Contrary to the google joke, France has a proud military tradition. More to the point, it has a military with the skill and spirit to fight wars, and win them. At a time when the West so desperately needs more combat capable forces to secure peace in Afghanistan (and Iraq, eventually, perhaps), it is such a damn shame that the French are letting their fine military go to the wall.


14 thoughts on “An army falling apart

  1. Anthony says:

    I saw this in the Torygraph too.

    I don’t know whether you recall, but in the wake of the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, the French were fiercely criticised for refusing to send helicopters to help in the rescue/aid efforts, in spite of the fact that they had the biggest helicopter fleet in Western Europe, most of which were not engaged in operations (in contrast to the US and UK who both sent helicopters in spite of being more heavily committed). One wonders whether this might have something to do with it.

  2. theofarrell says:

    Yeah I do recall. And indeed, attended a briefing last year on this op by the commanding officer, a very capable British Air Vice Marshall. As I recall, he wasn’t too impressed with the French “effort”. But you’re right Anthony: all sorts of things that might have been put down to the French being French may now need to be re-assessed.

  3. Christopher Griffin says:

    When I saw this posted on your blog, I was surprised that I had missed the original article and went to find it. It is in the Parisien, a Paris daily paper:

    Le Parisien is the only paper I saw this week here that posted anything about these so-called “confidential” defense reports. Le Parisien gives almost no details as to its sources for these numbers, and the numbers of equipment that isn’t operational seem really high. It almost seems like someone got hold of a report of what equipment is in routine maintenance and twisted it to make it look like the whole army is falling apart.

    Granted, the French Army has had its share of troubles, including lack of transport aircraft, and having to go ask the Russians to contribute helicopters to the EUFOR Chad/CAR. I really don’t think it’s as bad as the Telegraph/Parisien makes it out to be though. The French Army has always had trouble with power projection since 1962, and I would chalk the current problems up to overstretch in operations overseas (Cote d’Ivoire, Chad, Bosnia, Afghanistan), rather than an overall deterioration of equipment.

    It will be interesting to see what is in the new Livre blanc when it comes out next week. It’s been a source of significant contention in the French government, including the day about six weeks or so ago when the entire socialist contingent walked off the project. Change is not also not a typical characteristic of the French, so it will likely be a long time before we see any of the defense reforms actually implemented. The French military is still operating for the most part from a strategic logic laid down by de Gaulle nearly 50 years ago.

  4. theofarrell says:

    Christopher, thanks very much for tracking down this story. I’ll admit that the Telegraph report was news to me. So I would not be entirely surprised to discover that it is not wholly accurate after all. And I suppose we must be wary of the usual politics that surround defence reviews: with various interested parties spinning things and leaking stories.

    I think there has been significant change by the French military since the 1990s – with professionalisation and a real push for more jointness. But I also agree that the French are not big believers in RMA: hence they talk the talk of military transformation because it is the fashion of the day and they want a seat at the table. But those French officers I spoke with – and I interviewed over 20 – don’t actually believe in transformation.

    French officers emphasise on the unchanging nature of warfare. This line is well articulated in a new book by Gen. Vincent Desportes, the head of French Army doctrine. Desportes accepts the changing character of war – war amongst the people, 3 block war, etc. – but man and morale, not better machines, are still the essential ingredients of victory.

  5. Anthony says:

    “French officers emphasise on the unchanging nature of warfare. This line is well articulated in a new book by Gen. Vincent Desportes, the head of French Army doctrine. Desportes accepts the changing character of war – war amongst the people, 3 block war, etc. – but man and morale, not better machines, are still the essential ingredients of victory.”

    Pretty much right, I’d have said.

  6. Just as with any other fighting force, the French military is outstanding when well led and when the non-coms are experienced and motivated.

    However, l’Ecole Militaire is not in the field nor are the non-combat officers seen there much. The U.S. has schools for officers that probably generate as much professionalism and as much militarism. We, too, though, have to work hard at maintenance, civil affairs, signals, and the other military areas that aren’t combat.

    It may be that any failures in the non-combat arms for France have more to do with a questionable French civilian work ethic and less to do with the quality of their military.

  7. theofarrell says:

    Anthony – I agree that the French military line on technology and war is a sensible one, and indeed one which accords with the British techno-sceptical view.

    Chuck – it is true that the French have a different work ethic (well, not a Protestant one) from the Brits and Americans. But the upside is that lunch is a far more enjoyable affair in France.

    I also agree that the level of professionalism in US officers, in the combat and support arms, is outstanding these days. Fighting long wars make militaries better at their business. In contrast, the French military are long overdue a good sized war.

    BUT I will say that the quality of the French officers I have encountered has also been very impressive. I did a two week intensive joint operations planning course late last year, and had two French Colonels in my syndicate. Both were highly experienced, with numerous operations in Africa, and it showed!

  8. Thanks Théo,
    As a frontline observer of French military’s morale, I would say it’s very low today. Even if I’m only a Reserve officer (attending a PhD in Military History about COIN in Iraq), I’ve seen many signs of concern and even despair. Our military did a great job in Africa since the 60s, even if, as Christopher previously said, it’s based on a strategic view that dates back to Charles De Gaulle. French military today is tired of this. Many regiment (like mine, which is currently deployed in Chad as core of EUFOR) are overstrechted by constant OPEX and operational actions in such countries like Lebanon, Afghanistan or Côte d’Ivoire. The reduction of manpower is a bad news for us….
    1/LT (réserve) Stéphane TAILLAT
    PhD candidate, ESID Research Center

  9. Christopher Griffin says:

    Your comments on morale are quite interesting, Stephane, and potentially far more damaging than any equipment problems, I would think. I’ll ask the hard question, which is, in your opinion, as a reserve officer, what does the French government/military need to do to restore that morale? Should the French Army be totally pulled back from overseas, or does it just need a new set of missions?

  10. Christopher,
    Nice to read you again (did you enjoy Pouget’s “Bataillon RAS” and all the stuff I provided you last december?).
    Answering your question needs to consider the very cause of this lowering of morale. Many soldiers, nco and officers (in the Army) consider they have been marginalized by the political power since De Gaulle (even if they do not express this that way, especially for the starting point). As one of my teacher, professeur Michel-Louis MARTIN once wrote (in English), they have been turned from warriors to managers. And I think this trend is deepening since the end of conscription in late 90s. A second point is the cut in manpower that have been occurring since this moment. These two phenomenon are producing a growing discontent in the military, since most of them consider they are not beloved by their political masters (French military is well subordinated to the political power due to Charles De Gaulle’s actions in the 60s) and see themselves treated like the fifth wheel. Impoverishment is a growing threat among low-ranking soldiers and nco, and constant deployments, although they are welcome by many as a way to gain more money and to exit their standard of living in France, produced more and more conjugal problems, even in the officer corps, which is traditionally more catholic and more averse to divorce.
    To sum up, French military needs more attention from the political power, both in terms of resources and in terms of consideration. Actual missions are quite balanced, even if more and more soldiers, nco and officers are tired with VIGIPIRATE, a set of counterterrorist actions that often involve patrolling in urban areas and in public location… a work that is traditionally done by Police forces and the Gendarmerie (10 000 Army members are mobilized for this, reducing the pool for expeditionary contingencies).
    Stéphane TAILLAT

  11. Tom Wein says:

    Unloved, underfunded, overdeployed and underpaid. This sounds very familiar to us UK observers. I suspect the British Army is more accepting of Vigipirate-style operations, partly because of our history in Northern Ireland, but there are certainly some striking similarities.

  12. Christopher Griffin says:

    Merci pour votre reponse, Stephane.
    The materials you pointed out have been very useful, thank you. I still haven’t quite finished reading Coutau-Begarie’s “Traite de Strategie” as of yet, though.
    I read Martin’s book in English a while back for my thesis, and I see where you say there is a civil-military relations problem in France. It was really evident in the aftermath of Algeria, which I guess was somewhat of a natural reaction by the government after a coup attempt and a major assassination attempt on de Gaulle. It changed a bit over time, though, didn’t it? I get the impression from my research that the military really liked Giscard d’Estaing, as he tried to bring conventional warfare back to the table, and actually seemed to listen to his advisors. Then the military establishment seemed to absolutely detest Mitterrand for the most part, a number of officers going so far as to publish an editorial in Le Figaro in 1988 arguing against his reelection.
    Your analysis seems to hold up in that my impression of Sarkozy is that he has little experience, or even interest in the military, despite his new Livre blanc. He seems to be letting things stagnate from the Chirac years in terms of missions and priorities, while aiming to reduce the military’s share of France’s budget, which I’m sure, as you say, is not making him any friends in the oficer corps. I guess it comes down to a question of resources, and the military does not seem to be very high on the list of the French government’s priorities, and probably will not be unless there is a major conflict. You can correct me if I’m wrong, but it looks to me to be a bit of a similar situation to the late 1980s and early 1990s, which ultimately led to the much-cited problems of deploying the Daguet force in the Gulf in 1991.

  13. Christopher Griffin says:

    A bit of an update on this. In watching Sarkozy’s speech today, he seemed to confirm some of Le Parisien’s report, in that at one point he said that only 1 out of every 2 Leclerc tanks were actually working, so it’s possible the earlier report was more correct about the real state of the French Army than I thought.

    The video of Sarkozy’s speech introducing the Livre blanc can be found on the front page of the Elysee’s website as of Tuesday evening:

  14. James Parker says:

    such a shame for the french, at least us british arn’t going through that. we still have a very powerfull military despite our own problems ………. our problems are mainly cused by our primeminister’s such as now gordan brown, he should not be elected again we need some one whith proper british values like the old days or get the royals to rule again, cant be worse than this.

    id give france the position of 4th most powerfull nation though

    1. Usa
    2. Russia
    3. UK
    4. France
    5. China
    6. Germany
    7. Japan
    8. Israle
    9. India
    10. Australia

    there the top 10 I think. many people say the UK is second but our goverment dose not suport us very well lately, too many cut backs, and poor funding, and a withdrall from Iraq was Pathetic on gordans behalf.

    now russia realy suports there armed forces.

    all our UK army needs is a bit of cosideration from gordan and the goverment and restore our royal navy to its rightfull glory …. our goverment should not forget its people who fought and died for great Britian or our queen.

    Gos save the queen..

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