Why the French Army Will Continue to Prioritize Quality Over Mass
Is the current French model of warfare viable? In 2021, I co-authored a study with Stephanie Pezard suggesting that the answer was no. We argued that the French military — now indisputably the most capable in Western Europe — could do a lot of things very well. But it also lacked the depth and the mass to do anything on a large scale for any length of time before it simply ran out of stuff. The study made a large splash in France, where it was picked up by journalists and cited by the National Assembly and senior French officers. The report said out loud many of the things that the French military itself was struggling to articulate, while also, unfortunately, providing ammunition to the military’s critics.
The war in Ukraine has only placed this problem in greater relief. Conventional combat, even in this era of precision warfare and advanced information networks, still requires enormous reserves of manpower, equipment, and ammunition. Perhaps Ukraine and Russia were not expending these things on a rate comparable to World War I, but they have seriously challenged the idea that highly professional but small “bonsai tree” militaries could get away with substituting quality for quantity, an idea that encouraged the reduction of vehicle fleets and military stores by militaries in search of post-Cold War peace dividends.
The old dream that precision weapons would mean fewer munitions is a fantasy. Given current inventories, donating even a few tanks or howitzers can cause serious problems for a force’s capabilities. Thus, handing Ukraine even 20 Leclerc tanks, for example, undermines French army capabilities, given that France only has about 200 of them. France already has handed over a significant portion of its precious CAESAR howitzers, which numbered just 70, and replacing them is now a serious challenge. French and European defense industries in general struggle even just to replace older items, let alone supply large force structures — hence a growing list of customers for South Korean industry. For prominent military analyst Michel Goya, the conclusion is clear: France cannot take on even a near-peer adversary.
France cannot simply eschew expensive new technology and return to the mass armies of the past. French President Emmanuel Macron has evoked the idea of a “war economy,” yet the consensus in France is that this is impossible for financial and political reasons. Part of the problem is that, while it is true that, for example, French production of its howitzers and various guided missile systems is currently woefully inadequate, producing these things on a much larger scale is no easy task. The company that makes the CAESAR currently produces four a month and is expected to reach a rate of six a month by December, and then eight a month by the middle of 2024. Progress, for sure, but slow progress. France also is not about to restart tank production. Yes, a new tank is in the works — a joint Franco-German product intended to replace both the Leclerc and the Leopard 2 — but it is not scheduled to be produced until 2035, and presumably there is a limit to how much that process can be hurried. One may also safely assume that the new tank will be significantly more expensive than either the Leclerc or the Leopard 2. Finally, no one seriously discusses a return to mass military conscription, which is what made the mass armies of the past century possible.
So what can France do to thread the needle between mass and quality? The French government hopes to find some economies by taking a particular approach to their investments in technology. Ultimately, though, a look at the current state of debate in French political and military circles demonstrates that the country remains committed to quality, and to the form of warfare that it has been honing since 1940.
The French Way of High-Intensity Warfare
The French approach to high-intensity warfare since the calamity of 1940 has been to privilege maneuver, speed, and “audacity” at the expense of mass and firepower. This was a reaction to the stolid doctrines that emerged in World War I — often associated with Gen. Philippe Pétain — that contributed to the construction of a force that in 1940 was vast in size and firepower but unwieldy and inflexible when attacked by the rapid-moving and far nimbler Wehrmacht. The newer maneuver-centric approach found reinforcement in the French army’s colonial experience and its expeditionary doctrines, which likewise promoted audacity and improvisation in the absence of numbers and resources. That colonial culture has had a profound influence on the French military up to the present day because of a variety of institutional factors and the reality that, as one Foreign Legion officer has frequently told me, an “army is what it does.” The French army most of the time in recent decades has been busy with small wars in Africa.
Of course, what is useful in Mali is much less useful in, say, Donetsk. Historically, though, French military thinking regarding a conflict with the Warsaw Pact reflected this same approach to warfare, augmented by French military thinking about the strategic significance of nuclear weapons. France’s heavy, conscription-based units stationed in Germany were designed to defend France on German soil by fighting aggressive Blitzkrieg-style maneuvers against much larger and more powerful but stolid adversaries. The French reckoned they would never have enough firepower and mass to do otherwise. So, for example, France’s Cold War-era tanks, including the AMX-30, offered less protection than American tanks of the same era: Their designers bet on speed and maneuverability.
Critically, however, the French assumed a war would be brief. Either the war would go nuclear, or it would end before reaching that threshold. Indeed, according to French strategic thinking at the time — see, for example, the 1972 Livre Blanc sur la Défense — the point of French conventional forces in Europe was to be strong enough to test the determination of the adversary, but not strong enough to defeat it. If one needed to amass a huge force to defeat the French army, the French would be able to see that. They’d get the measure of the Warsaw Pact’s intentions and know whether the danger was serious enough to reach for nuclear weapons. It followed that French Cold War planners did not think it necessary to build up large stockpiles of equipment and ammunition.
Instead, France invested significant resources into acquiring the ultimate insurance against invasion — nuclear weapons, along with the means to deliver them. The structure of the French air force and navy since has reflected that priority rather than the ability to defeat the Soviet air force and navy. They are designed to deliver nuclear warheads and protect the means to do so. All other missions are secondary. The result has been nuclear-propelled ballistic missile submarines and top-shelf combat aircraft designed with nuclear missions at the top of the requirements list. But all of this comes at the expense of mass. Besides the fact that the money required to maintain nuclear capabilities is money that is not available for other purposes, France sets aside a portion of its aircraft and ships just in case they are needed for nuclear missions, reducing the number available for other missions.
Hubin and High-Tech
The disappearance of the Warsaw Pact’s vast armored divisions and the advent of precision weapons and networked warfare encouraged France to reform its military by placing even greater emphasis on “audacity” and maneuverability. France ended conscription in the 1990s, which among other things made the entire force “expeditionary.” Among other things, this meant a greater embrace in French military culture of improvisation. The force also shrank, meaning it would have to do more with a lot less. Finally, the promise of high technology encouraged a number of theorists — foremost among them Gen. Guy Hubin — to imagine highly decentralized and highly maneuverable small units moving about in multiple directions, backed by just-in-time logistics that dosed essential provisions. Units got precisely what they needed, where and when they needed it, which presumably would be a lot less than before.
These views are now baked into French mechanized units, which sport new vehicles connected to new networks designed to strike the right targets at precisely the right time. No more massed fires. No more giant supply convoys that make massed fires possible, in the image of the endless river of trucks on the Voie Sacrée that supplied French forces at Verdun. French units would move fast, and, per Hubin, they would move in an “isotropic” fashion, meaning not along fixed axes.
Hubin was right about some things, but, like everyone else, he was overly optimistic about the sustainability of this kind of fight and the economies that networked and precision warfare would yield. The Ukraine war has demonstrated that high-intensity conventional warfare still inflicts a high toll on soldiers and equipment. Armies even with the most advanced technology still burn through shells in staggering numbers, not to mention items such as cannon barrels. Indeed, tube artillery — as studies have emphasized — remains the king of the battlefield, Javelins and High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems notwithstanding. One reason for this is that conventional warfare often calls for artillery to be used to block or suppress movement: It’s less about precision than about volume of fire to force an adversary to hunker down. The war in Ukraine has also challenged assumptions about maneuverability in the face of old-fashioned massed fires. Offensive maneuver is not impossible, but, as Steven Biddle has argued, simply more difficult. Given its historical commitment to maneuver, France might fare better than Ukraine. But then again, it might not.
Towards a Happy Medium?
That the French need more of everything is no longer disputed. The question is how much more is even possible, and whether relatively modest increases made possible by politically plausible budget increases will make a difference. Some have been speculating about building large but low-tech forces, aiming for only adequate levels of technology that would be affordable enough to allow for greater mass. Goya, for example, has written of the desirability of being selective about which technologies to invest in, the idea being that in many cases it would be ideal to aim for “sufficiency” rather than the highest quality, for the sake of making mass affordable. One does not need the best anti-tank missiles, for example, but rather larger numbers of cheaper yet adequate ones. Another example that comes up in debates about French military modernization is France’s new NH90 helicopter, meant to replace its venerable Puma helicopter, which was developed in the 1960s. What the French army reportedly wanted was something relatively simple and “robust” for what after all was meant to be a flying pickup truck. Instead, what they got was a sophisticated and complex machine with a steep purchase price that is difficult and expensive to maintain. The Tiger attack helicopter likewise is superb but expensive and challenging to keep operational, a complaint shared by Germany, which struggles to keep its Tiger fleet running.
Goya bemoans the fact that since the end of the Cold War, the French military has seen significant reductions in nearly every major weapons system. France’s newest weapons, including its frigates and howitzers, are superb — and, as he notes regarding the Rafale fighter, their quality does to some extent make up for the reduced numbers compared to the older systems they replaced. (The French air force has about 100 Rafales along with roughly another 100 Mirage 2000s. Its navy has 42.) However, whereas, to cite Goya again, the “Rafale can do a lot of things and even at a long distance, they cannot be everywhere.” Many officers might be content if they could forgo the newer armored vehicles that have been entering into service (the Véhicule Blindé de Combat d’Infanterie, Jaguar, and Griffon) in favor of newly manufactured versions of older, cheaper gear. The old items must go because they are threadbare and increasingly difficult to keep going — but should they be replaced by super-performing vehicles decked out with the latest and best high-tech gadgets that French industry can supply?
I spoke with recently retired Maj. Gen. Charles Beaudouin, who in 2018 oversaw the French army’s technology programs and can be thought of as a one-man Army Futures Command. Beaudouin managed the development of several high-tech programs that are now coming online, admittedly at great expense. His arguments are similar to Goya’s, although he more clearly rejects that idea of building a low-tech force and argues for a high-low mix that requires strict prioritization. The way forward, he argues, is to think about technology that aims to be good enough and accepting the idea of having less efficient but “mass” equipment alongside battlefield superiority equipment. Invest in what one really needs.
A successful example of France doing this is the CAESAR. According to Beaudouin, the French army invested in the gun itself and sacrificed nothing in terms of range, rate of fire, and accuracy. To compensate, however, the French army elected to be satisfied with putting the gun on a truck chassis with an armored cab, rather than an armored and tracked platform like the German PzH 2000. The result is a gun that is much cheaper to buy and sustain, at the cost of compromising on other capabilities deemed less vital.
Looking at the Ukraine war for insights, Beaudouin notes with approval that the Russians have chosen to invest in certain technologies, especially those associated with anti-access and area denial and hypersonic missiles, wholly neglecting aging air, land, and maritime systems. While one can question the Russians’ choices, he insists that the very idea of selective investment might in fact be a good path forward for European forces as they attempt to regain mass while investing in technology. It is a question of identifying and targeting certain key areas that promise to be game changers.
But Can Mass Be Restored?
Selectively investing in certain technologies might bring some savings, but the fact remains that France and other European countries will have to spend a lot more money if they intend to regain something like the mass that they now increasingly think they need. This year France has committed itself to spending a lot more money, but not enough to restore mass.
In late January, Macron announced his government’s intention to significantly increase France’s defense budget. In his speech, he underlined the need to boost France’s stocks and re-invest in the military’s supporting forces, what often is referred to as the “tail,” which historically has been greatly reduced to retain as much of the “tooth” as possible. After Macron’s speech, Goya complained that simply rebuilding the military would soak up all the new money, leaving none left to grow the force. The new proposed Military Programming Law, released this April, confirms his view. Though it calls for spending €413 billion ($465.15 billion) over the next five years, the new law in fact does not call for growing the force, although it does mandate significant boosts to France’s drone fleet and air defense capabilities, along with more spending on intelligence, counter-landmine capabilities, and cyber. France also seeks to grow its reserve forces. Otherwise, the number of brigades will remain the same, and the size of France’s naval and air fleets will increase only marginally.
Gen. Pierre Schill’s Vision: Rethinking the Lego Army
On Feb. 13, the chief of staff of the French army, Gen. Pierre Schill, presented to a group of journalists his new vision for the French army’s path forward. Interestingly, Schill’s response to the quality versus mass dilemma is to stay the course, largely by investing in the army’s ability to do better what it was already designed to do, in other words work to enhance its quality.
Schill made clear that the army would maintain its current size, which consists of 77,000 deployable troops (out of a total size of roughly 120,000). He explained that there was little value in simply buying more tanks, howitzers, etc. Rather, his vision was to focus on resilience and cohesion, to enable the army to do a better job of high-intensity warfare at its current size, and ideally to have greater stocks so that it could endure longer. It also meant backing away from the expeditionary mindset and some of the qualities that had been among its virtues.
Schill compared the French army to Lego bricks. He noted that it has operated by pulling together bricks and assembling them, often on the fly, into deployable force packages. Its virtues were modularity, but this also meant assembling forces by cobbling together bits and pieces of multiple units to provide them with specific capabilities, as required. Those capabilities it tended to “dose” in small quantities, something it could get away with most of the time because of the relatively low intensity of the combat that France experienced. Thus, for example, the French deployment to Mali in 2013 featured only four CAESARs, for it was thought that no more were necessary. In addition, the various battalion-sized task forces that the French deployed to Mali consisted of bits and pieces taken from numerous regiments that were part of numerous brigades.
Schill reckoned that for the army to prevail in a high-intensity fight against a peer, several things had to happen: Those units that comprised deployed battalions needed to be better prepared to make full use of the many capabilities they possessed. This implied fewer “ad hoc” formations pulled together from numerous bricks, and more pre-assembled forces with, in effect, more organic capabilities. It also meant more robust command-and-control elements to achieve greater coherence. The French army, he indicated, would have precisely the same number of regiments and brigades, but those would be more “complete.” Lastly — and perhaps most controversially — the army had to invest much more in certain capabilities that it lacked, or in which it had previously under-invested. These include air defense capabilities (including anti-drone), cyber, and long-range fires. Given the cap on the force’s size, invariably adding new capabilities required trimming other ones. Combat units therefore might end up with fewer combat vehicles. He gave two specific examples: Some of the new Serval and Griffon armored vehicles currently being built and delivered would be converted into air defense platforms. The total number would stay the same, however, therefore there would be fewer designated for their original intended purpose.
As for mass, Schill spoke of doubling the size of France’s reserve component and creating designated reserve units — currently most reservists simply plug into extant units. This was a compromise that gave the French army some of the mass it sought, but nothing like its Cold War, conscription-era dimensions.
Some critics like Goya have suggested that Schill’s vision — confirmed by the Military Programming Law — meant that France in the end was not serious about high-intensity warfare. Philippe Chapleau similarly remarked that even with the big budget increases, the French military was doing little more than rebuilding but fundamentally would remain what it was. A fairer assessment might be that France assumes that a true mass military is beyond its reach political and fiscally, so the best it can to is to attempt to optimize the force it has, which is designed for maneuver rather than raw power.
Would this be good enough? Part of the answer, at least for the French leadership, is to fall back on the older view that nuclear weapons obviate the need for a mass army intended to take on a peer like Russia. Indeed, the new Military Programming Law emphasizes the critical place of nuclear deterrence in French strategic thinking. France also presumes, still, that in such a fight it would not be alone, hence Macron’s insistence on a broader European defense effort in parallel with earnest commitment to NATO integration. The hope is that European militaries combined could offer the kind of mass necessary for conventional warfare.
France, it seems, is staying the course. This means it will have a top-tier high-end military that would be able to dance around Russian forces and presumably cut them to pieces, but not for long. What happens then will most likely depend on the United States and the rest of NATO, and the question of whether nuclear deterrence will prove its worth.
Michael Shurkin is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the director of global programs at 14 North Strategies. He was a senior political Scientist at the RAND Corporation and also served as a political analyst at the CIA. He has a Ph.D. in modern European history from Yale University.
Image: French Army