Chasing Grandeur? What You Need to Know About the 2017 French Strategic Review
France’s new Strategic Review has just been published. Yes, it is a Strategic Review and not a White Paper, and the change of name is more than just an exercise in rebranding. It is shorter, more concentrated, and more concise than a White Paper – the 2013 version had 136 pages developed over seven different chapters. The new Review (only available in French for the moment, but an English version is due in November) sets out France’s priorities for the next ten years, and as stated by President Emmanuel Macron in the foreword, aims at “coming up with solutions to today’s great crises, promoting [France’s] values, and protecting its interests.”
But, let us move on to see what lies behind the rhetoric. The Review is not trumpeting that France is back. More precisely, it performs two key functions: As a policy document, it sets out the future of French defense and security policy that will shape the Law on Military Programming for the years 2019-2024 (the current Military Planning Act originated from the previous White Paper and was updated in 2015). Second, it lays out Macron’s vision for France: taking the lead in shaping a European defense policy in response to a world of “threats and opportunities” – as stated in the seminal speech he delivered as a candidate.
Born out of the president’s determination to move swiftly, this Review was produced in just three and a half months, thus avoiding a more time-consuming and formalized process. It spells out the presidential pledge to gradually raise defense spending to reach a two percent GDP target by 2025, despite an initial cut in 2017 (which stirred up some political turmoil and led to the resignation of the then-Chief of Defense Gen. Pierre de Villiers).
Originality is not the forte of this Review, but it is rigorous in style, taking stock first of a new, rapidly deteriorating strategic environment with a rise in challenging threats and risks, and second of new forms of conflict and warfare, for which France seeks both strategic autonomy and European ambition. Realistic and well-structured, the Review upholds the basic conditions for grandeur to endure and for France to meet its international obligations – it is an element of continuity rather than a profound transformation.
Unsurprisingly, the Review starts with a description of the world we live in, depicting a volatile strategic environment and identifying current and future threats and risks. Is that anything really new? Well, yes and no: The threats are more or less the same as those featured in the 2008 and 2013 White Papers – terrorism, cyber-warfare, nuclear proliferation, pandemics, etc. – yet they have become more pressing than ever. The context has also evolved: In the interim, Russia has invaded Ukraine, France has led two demanding interventions in Mali and the Central African Republic, and the country has been badly shaken by an unprecedented wave of terrorist attacks.
Against this backdrop, the Review cites terrorism, especially jihadist terrorism, as the most pressing threat – which Macron clearly emphasized in his first speech to French ambassadors last August. This threat will not fade away in the coming years – even after the defeat of ISIL – and will likely reconfigure itself, extending into new regions whilst thriving “on chaos, civil war and the fragility of states.” Terrorism will continue to strike against French and European populations, but this is sadly a fact of life that resilient societies will have to learn to live with.
Moreover, the Review notes that Europe and France are at this moment facing the “greatest concentration of challenges.” The document adopts a 360-degree view, highlighting a series of issues. It starts with a destabilized Middle East and the conflict in Syria, continues with the resumption of war on Europe’s doorstep, and through a resurgent and aggressive Russia which endangers the European security architecture. In addition, it clearly states that other state actors such as China and Iran openly challenge the current world order, further contributing to chaos. And the Review goes on by pointing out other imminent issues: the migration crisis, persistent vulnerabilities in the Sahel region, the effects of climate change, pandemic risks, trafficking, and organized crime.
In a nutshell, all the threats and risks that were described as “unpredictable” back in 2013 have become real. Instability, unpredictability, and surprise are the buzzwords in a world where the champions of the international order are challenged and where the use of force is no longer taboo.
Might is Right?
The stockpiling of military arsenals, along with the proliferation of modern conventional equipment and of the latest technologies, further jeopardizes Western military supremacy. The lethal combination of some technologies that were once limited to the West, combined with rapid innovation, have accompanied the rise of non-state actors – Hizballah in the past, and ISIL more recently. And these actors are now able to do things that only states could do before, like seize and hold vast stretches of territory and export their military know-how to other areas. The result is a “hardening” of military interventions: Western militaries are still able to win quick tactical victories, but struggle with the risk of “mission creep.” One former director of the French War College, Maj. Gen. (ret.) Vincent Desportes says that France is still able to win battles, yet fails to turn them into enduring strategic successes.
All of this explains how these new actors can level the force ratio, and highlights how Western militaries have lost their competitive advantage. Moreover, these militaries are now challenged in every domain — land, air, sea, cyberspace, and the new battlefield of outer space. To quote a NATO Parliamentarian Assembly report,
gone are the days when advanced technologies almost exclusively emerged from efforts sponsored by governments – and often by militaries. As a result, armed forces often struggle to keep up with the pace of private-sector innovation or to leverage such innovation effectively and quickly.
Moreover, for France and its neighbors, the tidal wave of disruptive technologies (artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnologies, etc.) will come at a cost that economies in Europe can barely support, thereby increasing the risk of lagging further behind the United States, other countries, and even some non-state actors (again, this is an ongoing issue).
Among the worst-case scenarios, cyber has become the new asymmetric battlefield. Cyberattacks with catastrophic effects – including attacks on critical infrastructure, like he attack against the French TV network TV5 Monde in 2015 – are a reality, even while governments and militaries are depending on cyber for their daily business. This has led NATO (and France seems to endorse this point) to consider a cyberattack as an armed attack requiring an armed retaliatory response. This could have dire consequences, especially because of the ambiguity with which these wars are waged. More than an assessment of what is happening in the cyber domain, it underlines two key issues: first, that the basic principles of deterrence have been forgotten. Second, that there’s a missing ability to carefully assess the threshold at which a country or adversary can respond. This makes escalation, up to a nuclear strike, more likely, something that recent research has underscored.
Between Ambition and Strategic Autonomy
The final nail in the coffin of a world free and at peace might be the Ministry of the Armies’ foreword to the Review – the Ministry of Defense’s new appellation means, in practice, that it is the presidency and the Elysée that decide the military strategy. The foreword explicitly underlines that alliances evolve and that “we cannot be assured that we will whenever and wherever be able to count on our traditional partners,” which echoes German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s statement at the latest G7 Summit. Hence, the conclusion emphasizes two keywords: renewed ambition and mandatory autonomy – the latter being used 48 different times in the document.
Can France live up to this level of ambition? The Head of the Strategic Review Committee, Arnaud Danjean, recognizes that the time has come for being realistic: Autonomy does not mean being alone, but being able to chart France’s own course of action. Macron once quoted De Gaulle: “If France goes to war, it has to be its own war.” This spirit of independence still inspires the country and its governing parties – conservatives and social democrats alike.
This means France can decide with whom to work, as it does not want to be a “lone ranger.” Not only is it challenging to act alone – both in diplomatic and military terms – but France also recognizes that future operations will mainly be fought alongside international partners and under a coalition umbrella (which does not preclude first entry capabilities). Again, Macron’s influence is clear: Europe is the first (obvious) choice and the recent European initiative proposed by the president comprises a set of measures towards a “strengthened” European defense. Is this more than the usual mantra? Only time will tell, but some lines of effort could enhance both the European Union’s existing tools and the Common Security and Defence Policy. The most promising, yet maybe the most difficult to implement, will be the development of a shared strategic culture through various measures (common doctrinal reflections, an increase in the number of liaison officers, and/or embedded officers in senior positions). Vis-à-vis NATO, France will “shoulder its full responsibilities.” Since the report drafted in 2012 by the former head of French Diplomacy, Hubert Védrine, on “the consequences of France’s return to the integrated military command of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO),” France’s commitment to the Alliance is no longer an issue.
Finally, France’s global outreach calls for global partnerships. A global and comprehensive ambition will require, in some domains, more cooperation — revealing something resembling a paradox. The low-hanging fruit will be strengthening the major bilateral defense relationships with Germany under “unprecedented levels of cooperation,” and the United Kingdom, “despite the Brexit.” The Anglo-French defense relationship is set to remain privileged as it ties France to “the only European country that still has global ambitions, a nuclear deterrent and the ability to conduct high-intensity operations.”
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
This relationship with the United Kingdom frames a common ideal: What is at stake is being credible and recognized. In France’s case, the Review concludes with the necessity of being ready to act decisively, henceforth determining the capacities and capabilities required to maintain, rebuild, or acquire. As such, the Review insists on maintaining France’s full spectrum forces model. Balancing between strategic autonomy and European ambition, the document draws a line between the areas where the French have to maintain complete autonomy (i.e. without partners as a precondition for operational engagement) and those where partnerships and cooperation will enhance the armed forces’ capacity.
Not surprisingly, the core principle of French strategy remains nuclear deterrence, along with other strategic capabilities: strong intelligence, the permanent ability to protect territory and economic interests (including overseas territories), a robust command and control chain, special forces, and cyber defense. All of these are considered the core capabilities that will enable autonomous freedom of analysis and decision-making. By maintaining these capabilities, which only a few military powers have, France’s ultimate goal is to influence military coalitions and have some leverage.
Of course, the wish list goes a bit further, as the Review committee seems to have discussed the possibility of regenerating some capabilities. A key issue is how to regain some flexibility at a time when current operations have stretched the military thin (for instance, Sentinelle, the biggest military operation on home soil since the Algerian War in the 1960s, with 10,000 troops, Barkhane in the Sahel with over 4,000 troops, Chammal in the Levant, and participation in the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic states). The chief of defense, Gen. François Lecointre, made this point clear at the French Summer Defense University in Toulon last September. It is only at the cost of a quasi-operational pause – which nobody dares to officially mention – that the French military will be able to rest, recoup, and get ready for future commitments.
Yet aligning ends, ways, and means will be expensive. Tough choices will have to be made in a constrained budgetary environment in which some decisions (such as modernization of the nuclear deterrent) will consume a large proportion of resources. These hard choices might impact the French defense industrial base, as future major programs will be discussed with industrial and operational partners, especially regarding fifth-generation combat aircraft, the replacement of the aircraft carrier, and the new generation of main land combat systems. Despite the presidential pledge to increase defense spending, this will be no easy task: Even if the budget increases from 32.7 billion euros in 2017 (1.8 percent of GDP) to 50 billion by 2025 (2 percent of GDP), new elements will be borne by the Ministry of the Armies, including the costs of French overseas operations – which for 2017 amounts to approximately 1.3 billion euros.
Impossible is Not French?
Interestingly, the published commentaries on the Strategic Review are so far, if not positive, at least not as critical as assessments of the previous White Paper. This is because it is perhaps more honest and lucid, and does not hesitate to describe some threats that were until recently very unlikely scenarios. Nevertheless, its main weakness lies in being a framework document. It will have to be translated into concrete and tangible capacities, and that will be the role of the 2019-2025 Military Programming Law, which will probably be the target of criticism, particularly inside the defense sector. Some officers have code-named this transition phase “kneecap,” – just as the kneecap connects the thigh and calf, the goal is to link ambitious objectives to the gruesome financial realities. To maintain its singular position in the world, “without arrogance or sufficiency, but with no complex,” France will have to prove that Napoleon was right when he pretended that impossible was not in his vocabulary. And perhaps it is not in Macron’s, either.
Guillaume Lasconjarias is a senior researcher at the NATO Defense College (Rome, Italy), where he is the head of the Transformation Chair. Prior to his current position, he was a researcher at the French Ministry of Defense (IRSEM – Institute for Strategic Research) from 2010 to 2012. In this capacity he lectured on various topics at the French War College (École de Guerre). From 2007 to 2010, he served as Deputy to the Head of the Research Bureau at the French Army Centre for Force Employment Doctrine. A historian by background, he holds a PhD from La Sorbonne University in Paris. A reserve officer, Guillaume Lasconjarias graduated from Saint-Cyr Coëtquidan and has been deployed on various exercises and operations. He currently serves as a staff officer within a multinational headquarters.
Florent de Saint-Victor is a private senior consultant for aerospace and defense companies. Prior to this, he was an analyst at the French Cabinet of the Ministry of Defense, including at the time of the 2013 White Paper on Defense and National Security, and was previously at the French Army Centre for Force Employment Doctrine from 2008 to 2010. He is the founder of the influential French blog Mars Attaque (http://mars-attaque.blogspot.com) on strategic and defense issues.