France Reworks Defense Strategy Critics Say Reliance on Nuclear Weapons Left the Country Unprepared for the Gulf War

By Howard LaFranchi, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 14, 1991 | Go to article overview

France Reworks Defense Strategy Critics Say Reliance on Nuclear Weapons Left the Country Unprepared for the Gulf War


Howard LaFranchi, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


THE one-two punch of last year's Warsaw Pact disintegration and this year's Gulf war has thrown France's defense makeup and security strategy against the ropes.

The wisdom and continued relevance of a defense based largely on a drafted Army and a security arrangement based on a doctrine of independent nuclear deterrence have come under deep questioning as the military threat in Europe has receded.

At the same time, calls for defense reform have grown as the Gulf crisis has suggested to some analysts that future conflicts involving France are more likely to be outside Europe and of a conventional nature. In both instances, France's ability to respond remains weak.

The Gulf war has made this glaringly clear. France, with nearly 14,000 military personnel in the Gulf - less than half Britain's total - was criticized for not taking a greater part in the international coalition's military deployment. But its participation is in fact at the very limit of its capabilities.

In terms of men, the French Army is largely made up of young draftees accomplishing their obligatory one-year military service, and the country has an unwritten rule against sending nonprofessionals into combat. In terms of materiel, France decided under President Charles de Gaulle, as one analyst put it, to "place most of its national defense eggs in the nuclear basket," which has left it without the kind of materiel the United States and Britain have displayed for a distant conventional war.

Confronting the country's military shortcomings has been traumatic for many French, who want an international role for their country and who have consistently approved periodic policing actions in Africa.

"The emperor was caught without his clothes," says Peter Ludlow, director of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels.

The Gulf experience also has awakened the French to the uncomfortable realization that their much-vaunted doctrine of national independence - the doctrine that led De Gaulle to pull France from NATO's integrated military command in 1966 - is increasingly a chest-thumping slogan without the military muscle to back it up.

One of the lessons for France in the Gulf war "is that our military means didn't permit us to follow a singular policy in the Gulf," said Francois Heisbourg, director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, in a recent talk here. "The crisis demonstrates the need to reform both our doctrine and our defense apparatus."

Yet the Gulf war may not be the experience on which to base a reform of French defense, some analysts warn. It is far from certain that the Gulf war will turn out to be the "typical conflict" of the future, notes Frederic Bozo, a defense and security specialist with the French Institute of International Relations. …

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