Academic journal article Parameters

The French Army at a Crossroads

Academic journal article Parameters

The French Army at a Crossroads

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: The French Army strategy to protect the people from terrorism and to remain involved in international stabilization efforts comes at a cost. This article identifies steps to balance the complexities through technology and force structure.

Between 2010 and 2025, French Army equipment will have changed more than it did between 1970 and 2010. But, this shift is not limited to fielding materiel, the French Army is also undergoing a major reorganization--the Scorpion modernization program. Since the Ile-de-France attacks (January 7-9, 2015), the French Army's overarching challenge has been to balance its interventions abroad, reassurance missions, and homeland security operations. Although a relatively stable equilibrium has been found, the model raises new questions regarding its long-term sustainability.

Choosing a priority between defending borders or projecting forces abroad has been a continuous struggle. Beginning with the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-99), France's strategic culture has been predominantly defined by defending its northeastern border, which requires a large land force. This tendency was reinforced at the end of the Algerian War (1954-62), when colonial troops returned to France. The proliferation of nuclear weapons in the early 1970s caused the French Army to join the West's deterrence mission; however, despite the assigned priority to defend the homeland against a Soviet invasion, a small projection force maintained an expeditionary culture.

This Cold War model defined by levee en masse (massive conscription) was applied until 1996, when the suspension of the practice was announced. Since then, strategic priorities have been inverted. The French Army has turned toward its expeditionary force to create a more compact and better equipped army, one in which all units are capable of intervening abroad. (1) This trend extended through 2013 with financial pressure causing a drastic reduction of the number of units and personnel. (2)

In 2015, budgetary and political constraints pushed the army chief of staff to redesign the service's structure. This willingness to reform also occurred in a disrupted and changing security environment, which as of March 2017, compelled engagement in three domains: 7,000-10,000 soldiers deployed in homeland operations responding to a high-level terrorist threat; 10,000 participated in operations abroad driven by a jihadist threat; and 300 supported North Atlantic Treaty Organization Reassurance missions to Eastern European and Baltic states.

This article provides an overview of the French Army's navigation of these overlapping demands, and their influence on the service's structure, doctrine, and capabilities. Impacts of the renewed organization and equipment, the innovative tactical thinking, and the friction resulting from French forces' return from national and international commitments are also covered.

"Au contact"--Transitioning within the Median

On May 28, 2015, the French Army officially unveiled its new organization plan Au contact, meaning up close, which was drafted before the Ile-de-France attacks that emphasized the plan's necessity and relevance. Implementation, including dividing the army into 13 commands, began in September 2015 and will be finalized in 2017. Although Au contact focuses on overseas interventions, it also rebalances the army's participation and visibility in terms of protection, particularly across French territory. The National Territory Command, created over the summer of 2016, intends to prepare for and facilitate military engagement in the area in the case of disaster relief or homeland security missions. Key army capabilities--such as special forces, airmobile combat (including a new airmobile brigade), intelligence, information and communication systems, and logistics--have also been reinforced and consolidated into new dedicated commands. Most combat troops have been regrouped into a Scorpion force composed of 47,000 soldiers and organized into the newly created 1st Division, headquartered in Besancon, and the 3rd Division, headquartered in Marseille. …

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