This article was originally published in RUSI Newsbrief (Vol. 33, No. 6, November 2013), at http://www.rusi.org/publications/newsbrief/
Continue reading over at RUSIFrance’s New Military Budget: Rethinking Power The military spending provisions adopted by France in October, along with its new White Paper on defence, will play a key role in determining the type of power the country is able to exert.
France now disposes of two resources to set the broad agenda for its defence and strategic posture in the years to come: a White Paper on Defence (published on April 29, 2013) and a newly-adopted program (Loi de programmation militaire) concerning military spending and budgetary provisions for the period covering 2014-2019, to be voted by Parliament this fall.
This thorough review of both ends and means of the French military apparatus has come at a paradoxical moment for the country. France has been hit hard by budgetary constraints (not unlike those affecting its principal allies) while at the same time is shaping up to be the most interventionist of the Western powers. Examples abound – from Paris’ strong stances in the Ivory Coast and Libya crises (spring 2011); to its January 2013 Operation Serval in Mali; and even in Syria, where France’s willingness to strike the Assad regime was no secret. Perhaps tomorrow, France’s attention will turn to the Central African Republic, where French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has announced an increase in troops to confront the chaos that has seized that country.
Several levels of reflection can be deduced from these developments. The first, a classical interpretation, is purely capacity-based. The second, and more theoretical, involves a debate on the type of power that countries such as France (or its partners of a similar size, such as Great Britain) have the ability to exercise on the international scene today.
On Goals and Means
First, does France still have the means to achieve its ambitions? With the objective to project 15,000 troops (versus the 30,000 called for in the previous Defence White Paper of 2008 and 50,000 prior to that) a net reduction is assumed. Whereas France was once worried about its inability to send more than around 15,000 troops to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, it now prides itself on having mobilized a mere 4,000 soldiers in its effort to wrestle Mali away from Islamic fighters. The downsizing of the overall military and defence staff to 242,000 by 2019 (down from 324,000 in 2008) is a broader concern, as 34,000 jobs still remain to be eliminated in in order to meet directives issued in the 2008 White Paper (with 10,000 left to cut just in order to meet staff reductions announced in 2008, plus an additional 24,000 announced in the 2008 Defence White Paper). The military budget, held at 31.4 billion euros, corresponds henceforth to 1.5% of GDP (excluding pensions and the Gendarmerie or military police force) and relies in part on the contributions of extra-budgetary resources (including 1.2 billion euros from asset sales). When comparing this figure to that of previous years, the shrinking share of defence spending becomes clear: in 1997, the military budget equaled 2% of GDP; in 1982 it was nearly 3% of GDP. The 31.4 billion euro budget called for in 2014 can be broken down as follows: 16.84 bn euros for equipment, 10.98 bn for salaries and wages, 3.48 bn for operating costs, and 0.45 bn for external operations whose eventual cost overruns will be taken care of by interdepartmental efforts.
But numbers do not tell the entire story, and war has changed considerably over the previous two decades. Military operations today require a precise military savoir-faire, well-trained elite troops, reliable intelligence-gathering capacities, and adequate equipment – much more than that of a static army preparing for a Soviet-style enemy. Today’s requirements are accounted for in the coming military provisions – in 2014, for example, the intelligence budget will benefit from an increase of 39 million euros (not including wages), and an additional 500 million euros will go toward troop equipment, weapons maintenance, training, and research and development.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has insisted on several occasions that President François Hollande had saved defence from the most stringent budget cuts, which have been felt more acutely in other sectors of the civil service. President Hollande is believed to have staved off even deeper defence cuts called for by Bercy, the Finance Ministry located on Paris’ Right Bank, by citing a refusal to downgrade French capacity and accept a posture of strategic disengagement. Back on the Left Bank, another argument is often added to the one made by President Hollande: unlike Britain, which had to cut its aircraft carrier force and its maritime patrol aircraft, France has saved most of its major material capacities. “Neither abandonment, nor renunciation” is the credo. Instead, and in spite of heavy budgetary constraints, France has sought to reaffirm its global calling by adapting its military means to hard times, and working to maintain the possibility to resume a greater level of power in better economic conditions. France’s recent interventions (Libya, Mali) and its strong stances on issues like Syria are reassurance enough to those who fear for the future of France’s military arsenal – first among whom are members of the military themselves.
Nonetheless, France cannot ignore its obligation to rethink its military model, the functioning of its defence, and the organisation of its capacities. Even the successful operation in Mali, widely praised among the Allies, revealed gaps in French capabilities in certain areas (airborne transport, mid-air refueling, and aerial surveillance for instance). Material shortcomings are commonly admitted: not including external operations, the French Chief of the Defence Staff (Chef d’Etat majeur des armées) estimates that the army will finish 2013 with an average availability of 40% for Armoured Personnel Carrier. (VAB – véhicules de l’avant blindés), 48% for frigates, and 60% for the French Air Force’s combat planes. If the “neither desertion, nor renunciation” credo is rejected, reductions in the number of staff remains a reality, and managing budgetary constraints will happen by slowing a large number of armament programs considerably. For example, five years instead of two would be needed to make a new squadron of Rafale planes available. And the one-off revenues envisaged to maintain the defence budget would depend on the transfer of materials (including the possible sale of Siroco barges (Transports de chalands de débarquement – TCD) and Tigre helicopters) that have not yet been confirmed. And last, but not least, the system used to pay military salaries is undergoing a major crisis due to hardware errors. And in October 2013, France’s Court of Auditors issued a report citing severe criticisms of the management of the Defence Ministry which, despite an 8.6% cut in the number of employees between 2008 and 2012 (representing at least 45,000 jobs) has nonetheless seen a 5.5% increase in wages paid out.
In the end, the French strategic thought is beset by doubt despite a concerted political effort to maintain its military level despite difficult times. Even more than policies impacting the French defence sector, the changing blueprint of power caused by international transformations is the factor that observers most acutely feel.
On Rank and Power
France - like Great Britain - remains a first-rate military power; yet neither rivals the proportion of the United States nor, for the time being, finds itself locked into the same rising power dynamic as the major emerging countries like China. More than a “middle power,” a more appropriate descriptor for Canada or Australia, France – again like Great Britain – is a power with a global vocation. By the end of August 2013, France counted about 2,300 soldiers in multilateral operations (of which 900 were assigned to the UNIFIL in Lebanon and another 500 in Afghanistan); 5,100 in other operations (3,200 in Mali and 950 in Chad); 43,700 “forces de presence” located at military bases in Senegal, Gabon (920), Djibouti (1,970), the United Arab Emirates (700); as well as 6,650 civil and military personnel acting as so-called “sovereignty forces” in France’s overseas departments and territories (1,300 soldiers in the Indian Ocean; 1,060 in New Caledonia; 1,700 in Guyana).