France and the Idea of Strategic Defense: Technolgy, Politics and Doctrine

Article excerpt

France has been extremely hostile to the idea of U.S. defense against ballistic missiles, yet France at the height of its power was sheltered behind a complex and effective multilayered defense system. The desire to see the value of its nuclear investment presented is one of the major motivating factors behind current French policy. Yet the world is changing and perhaps French policy may change with it. Key Words: French Strategic Policy, French Military History, Ballistic Missile Defense, Nuclear Strategy, NATO, Military Technology, European Defense Policy. Antimissile weapons, French-U.S. Relations.

Over the next few years France and the United States of America face two apparently separate but actually interrelated problems. First of all how the new European Defense Identity will relate to NATO and to the U.S.'? Is it to be hostile to America, will it drag the E.U. into a cold war type confrontation with the "American Hyperpower"? Secondly, how will Europe in general, and France in particular, react to the New American consensus on missile defense? In spite of distrust and considerable anguish in liberal quarters over the fate of the much violated ABM treaty, America is moving inexorably towards equipping itself with the ability to shoot down at least some incoming missiles.

The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) launched by Ronald Reagan in 1983 produced enough knowledge so that the U.S. Government now has an excellent idea of what works and what does not. The old arguments from the arms controllers have been devalued in the face of mounting and irrefutable evidence that the USSR cheated massively on almost every Arms Control agreement they signed. Defending the American homeland against missile attack is today accepted in the U.S. as a perfectly respectable idea: Academic conventional wisdom opposing ballistic missile defense is now on the losing end of policy debate; it dominated policy in the 1970s, and fought a successful delaying action against Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative in the 1980s, but has lost its influence in the 1990s. Even Bill Clinton - who populated his foreign policy team with liberals and arms controllers who would fall on their swords to save the ABM treaty - has accepted that the United States should deploy missile defenses."1

From the French point of view Strategic Defense has an apparently mixed record. The so-called failure of the Maginot Line in 1940 was a failure of strategic operational doctrine more than anything else. Over the years, France has done rather well using balanced, multilayered systems of offense and defense. Indeed the years of France's greatest geopolitical power in the 18th century where those when it used the flexible defensive system of Fortresses and fortified towns designed by Vauban.

It was Louis XIV (1643-1715) who effectively fortified the frontiers of the kingdom. Responsible for this program, was the greatest military engineer of the age the Lord of Vauban. During years of almost ceaseless travel along the muddy roads of late seventeenth century France, Vauban built what came to be known as the ceinture de fer, a multilayer system of fortified town and fortresses that roughly defined the borders of France, today's "Hexagone." This comprised a line of frontier forts backed up by a support line which in turn was backed by the King's field armies, which were themselves backed up by the leftover medieval militia system of Le Ban etl'arriere-Ban, giving France a level of military security unmatched by any other continental power.

Behind this protective cover France thrived as the greatest of the European nations. In spite of defeats, bankruptcy and revolution, no foreign power or powers were able to successfully invade the heart of France until in 1813, exhausted and bled dry by Napoleon and his wars (1804-1814), particularly by his failed 1812 invasion of Russia, a coalition that included Prussia, Austria, Russia and Britain, occupied Paris and restored the House of Bourbon. …