A French Expeditionary Force Without Conscripts

By Captain George A. Bloch, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve

New National Strategy

The transformation is a response to changes in the international environment. For the first time in its history France finds itself free from the threat of foreign invasion; in its place, however, new dangers loom. These include the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, religious extremism, and organized crime. These new dangers have been exacerbated by the widening divide between the world's rich and poor and the dismantling of barriers to the free movement of people, capital, and information. Alarmed by these growing threats to the worlds' democratic societies, France has conceived a "Global Concept of Defense," in which combinations of civil, social, cultural, as well as military means are employed to address problems before they can become threats. Consequently, the country's political leaders decided to refashion its Army, to make it more capable of expeditionary operations, and better able to respond in cases of potential threats to France or the international order.

The nation's 1994 White Paper on Defense identified six contingencies that could require the use of military force by France:

  • Major regional conflict
  • Major regional conflict involving at least one nuclear power
  • Attacks against French overseas possessions
  • Implementation of bilateral defense treaties
  • Operations for peace and international law
  • Resurgence of a major threat against Western Europe

The new national strategy behind the current military reforms is the product of evaluations of the plausibility, intensity, and duration of these six scenarios, as well as likely decisions that French leaders would make in response. Most notably, the white paper predicted that no major threat to Western Europe will emerge for 30 years and, even if one did, that France would have at least ten years in which to prepare its defenses.

The product of this analysis is a new national strategy, centered around the four principles of dissuasion, protection, prevention, and projection. The first two are not new. Dissuasion refers to France's aging, but still potent, air- and sea-delivered nuclear weapons, which will remain its ultimate dissuasion against foreign aggression, and protection refers to the Army's long-standing priority function of defending the national territory. Since the end of the Cold War, however, the nature of this function has changed. Today it applies mainly to the government's capabilities to respond to man-made or natural disasters, organized crime, and acts of terrorism. The third and fourth pillars, prevention and projection, represent new priorities for French military planning. Prevention refers to the array of diplomatic, political, and military measures that can be employed to extinguish potential crises, or contain them at the lowest possible levels. These include strengthening arms-control measures, increasing the interoperability of allied militaries, investing in modern intelligence-collection capabilities, and the prepositioning of forces and equipment. Finally, projection is the capability to deploy military forces rapidly to places where the national interest is threatened. Given that the strategy of prevention depends on the credibility of France's projection capabilities, this last pillar has become the priority mission of the French military.

The New Army

The creation of a high-quality, modern army, with an expeditionary ethos, has compelled the French to end their dependence on conscription. This is an enormous change for a military, and a country, for which conscription has been a pillar of defense policy since the first Levee en Masse in 1793 when the government called every able bodied man to the colors to defend the Republic against invasion by the English, Prussians, and Austrians.

Conscription over the years represented much more than a way to create a mass army. The dependence on the citizen-soldier was meant simultaneously to mobilize the people's patriotism and to proclaim their fervor to the nation's enemies. Service in the Army became a rite of passage, a place where the nation's young learned the responsibilities of citizenship, as well as a means for national defense. The Army that conscription created, however, was of limited utility. Politically, it was difficult—in fact illegal without parliamentary approval—to commit what were essentially minimally trained conscripts to dangerous overseas entanglements. A system eventually evolved that mixed these conscripts with longer-serving and better paid volunteers of the Force d'Action Rapide (FAR), comprised of Foreign Legionnaires, parachutists, and French Marines, who were legally permitted to conduct France's frequent overseas operations. While this system worked well during the Cold War, the subsequent war in the Gulf revealed its inadequacies: France, with an Army of 240,000, could deploy only 12,000. Determined to fashion a modern expeditionary army, France abandoned conscription for a system based on professionalism.

The structure of the new French Army has been designed to give it capabilities in two kinds of conflict:

  • A regional high-intensity conflict, involving land operations across large maneuver areas, and lasting less than one year, where success requires decisive advantages in firepower, mobility, and technology, as well as a theater-wide intelligence capacity to target enemy centers of gravity at the operational level
  • Low-intensity conflicts, where France could be called on to conduct peacekeeping or peacemaking operations involving extended military presence

Forces operating in this second environment would have to assert and maintain control of the environment and terrain—probably largely urban—while limiting themselves to highly selective and contained uses of force. Operations would be primarily small-unit in character, and require extensive coordination between French and allied military commanders, local civilian authorities, and nongovernmental organizations. Despite the political sensitivities inherent in such situations, the capability to resort to a more decisive employment of force must always be available to regain the initiative if the situation were to deteriorate.

In addition, France intends that the military be capable of confronting multiple threats simultaneously. Specifically, the intent is to be able to deploy up to 30,000 troops for a major combined operation lasting a year, and at the same time maintain a presence of 5,000 troops in a separate theater indefinitely. This latter commitment would depend on a rotation system of three 5,000-man units: one in theater, one in preparation, and one in recuperation. Alternatively, if a major threat to Europe were to appear, France wants the capability to deploy 50,000 troops for operations in support of NATO. Accounting for attrition, the French have determined that they require no fewer than 74,000 troops available for immediate overseas deployment. Adding the 20,000 support personnel needed for the basic upkeep of Army facilities yields a strength of 94,000 as the absolute minimum force size. Considering the forces permanently based in Africa (in accordance with responsibilities incurred under a variety of bilateral agreements) or needed for the defense of French overseas territories, the decision was made to play it safe and downsize to 136,000, an army force that is 35% smaller than that of 1996.

Like the U.S. Marine Corps, the future French Army will be comprised of elements easily task-organized for deployment according to the needs of a specific mission. The task forces will combine what the French term the three necessary types of forces: decision, control, and capability enlargement. Not meant to be a rigid categorization, this terminology simply describes the variety of capabilities that must be combined to create a balanced force. Decision forces are combat ready formations, inherently able to operate throughout the range of conflict. In large part armored or mechanized, they possess a significant degree of tactical and operational mobility, and a great deal of organic firepower. Control forces are lighter, comprised mainly of infantry and reconnaissance assets, and are best suited for security missions. Capability enlargement forces include such things as intelligence, communications, fire support, and logistics units that are essential to the creation of a multidimensional military force.

The Army, which by its very nature relied more on conscription than did the other French armed forces, will experience the largest organizational changes. Today, it is transforming itself, cutting unnecessary staffs and support elements. Specialized operational command elements, free from the responsibilities of everyday administrative and logistical support, are being created. These new headquarters units, which are at the heart of the transformation, are to develop a high degree of internal cohesion and efficiency. They are scheduled to adopt the most modern organizational structures and communication technologies, for use in peace and war. And they are to become experts in the conduct of combined operations, crisis management, and high intensity combat.

The Ground Forces Command (CFAT), based in Lille, was established in June 1998. Its commander will relieve the Etats Major des Armees de Terre (the General Staff of the Army) of some responsibilities for training and operational support, and allow them and the regionally based administrative chain of command to concentrate on the more routine tasks of facilities maintenance and administrative support. While the CFAT will be responsible primarily for the operational preparedness of French forces, it also must be prepared to furnish at short notice the basic structure of a joint operational theater headquarters, a combined NATO Army corps headquarters, or a French Army corps headquarters. Alongside, and in close partnership with CFAT, will be the Ground Logistic Forces Command (CFLT), responsible for the logistical support of all major exercises and contingency operations. Free from the essential but mundane responsibilities of garrison support, these two commands will breath a new sense of operational urgency into the entire Army.

At what was formerly the division level, four Etats Majors de Force (EMF) will be created in 1999 and 2000. Commanded by a major general, these standing operational headquarters will provide the command capabilities for rapid task organization and deployment. These organizations most resemble a U.S. Marine Corps Expeditionary Force headquarters in their operational function, but they are stand-alone units to which units will be assigned in the event of a mission. The first two EMFs, created in 1997, were dedicated to the Eurocorps and a Frenchonly operation, respectively. Their capabilities are to evolve to permit substitution and operational relief of one for another. Otherwise, their specific task is to provide the nucleus of a joint headquarters for a task-organized force of 5,000 French soldiers or the nucleus of a combined division headquarters for a NATO force of 12,000 to 18,000.

The EMF will replace the division as the primary operational command, but the brigade will remain as the largest maneuver element. Nine brigades (two armored, two mechanized, two light armored, one airborne, one mountain infantry, and one helicopter) and two specialized logistics brigades are scheduled to be created by 2000. In addition, four specialized support commands will be created for communication, artillery, engineering, and intelligence.

The brigades themselves are composed of four to six regiments—whose 1,200-man strength is typical of a U.S. Marine Corps battalion. The 85 regiments will provide a basic modular building block for attachment to an EMF. Their internal organization is to undergo profound changes to prepare them for immediate and extended deployments. Most notably, each will be split permanently into a forward and rear party. The forward party (consisting of the line companies, headquarters, and key logistics elements—about 80% of the regiment) is responsible for maintaining its combat readiness for an immediate deployment. The rear party, some of which will be civilian, will be responsible for continuing the administrative, training, and other required support functions for the regiments in France.

The current French military transformation requires an impressive degree of institutional courage and political resolve. In six years, the Army will have downsized by one-third, military bases throughout the country will have been closed, and the already painful post-Cold War contraction of defense industries severely aggravated. As significant as this may be, however, the impact of the transformation will go much deeper. Operational tempos may increase, with painful effects on individual soldiers and their families. The Army will become more dependent on civilians, whose numbers will increase sharply relative to the total force size. In fact, the presence of these civilians will be felt even in the regiments themselves, where many will be employed in the regimental rear party. Moreover, the internal workings of the Army will change as a consequence of the end of conscription. Providing promising career paths to stimulate recruiting, for example, might cause a decision to increase promotion rates. Growth in numbers of officers and noncommissioned officers—perhaps to 50% of the total Army—however, would decrease the value of rank in comparison to function, with profound implications on the internal workings of the institution.

Despite the boldness of the effort, success remains in question. While the expeditionary character of the French Army will provide greater flexibility in the availability of units for overseas deployment, for example, it might cause a dilution of French operational expertise. Already the government has grasped onto the future expeditionary force structure to justify the Army's withdrawal from the Central African Republic, and its reduction in numbers in Djibouti, Gabon, and Chad—a drawdown that inevitably will lessen cultural familiarity with these theaters of operation. In the past, the units repeatedly tasked with routine overseas deployments accumulated an impressive degree of institutional and individual know-how. Paradoxically, since these deployments will be conducted by every unit in the Army in the future, the operational expertise of such elite units as the Foreign Legionnaires, parachutists, and Marines inevitably will be diluted.

Other important difficulties bear more on the joint combat capability and strategic mobility of the French armed forces. The logic of projection, or the ability to transport forces to check the escalation of a crisis and prevent the outbreak of armed conflict, depends on adequate means of strategic mobility. As a consequence of the decreasing defense budget, however, the extent of future investment in such capabilities remains in question. Already, old equipment and the explosion of new information technologies are causing the Army to look for replacements for all its major pieces of equipment (tanks, armored personnel carriers, helicopters) and to purchase new command and intelligence capabilities while in the midst of transforming its force structure. The Army has accepted a decrease in size as the price for a qualitatively superior force. Whether this will be enough remains to be seen.

For instance, France currently is experimenting with amphibious operations, to acquire what it specifies as the capability of deploying a force of 1,400 against a lightly held hostile shore. To accomplish this, it developed the new Foudre class of amphibious transports (dock) [LPDs], capable of carrying 1,880 tons of freight, ten landing craft, six tanks (such as the French AMX-30), or 23 light tanks or armored vehicles, plus four Super Puma helicopters; the ships can accommodate 450 troops and have a four bed sick bay. Most recently, as a culmination to a series of amphibious tests, a mobile command center was installed in the lead ship's well deck to validate its utility as a joint task force headquarters afloat. The French Navy's two ships of the class are home ported in Toulon on the Mediterranean coast, along with two small 1960s' vintage Ouragan -class landing ships (dock) [LSDs] that make up the sum total of the nation's readily available brown-water fleet. Consequently, despite the current intention to replace the two LSDs with two updated Foudres between 2002 and 2004, France's amphibious capabilities will remain limited for the near future.

The prospects for strategic airlift, whose capabilities to move forces rapidly is central to the French strategic vision, remain similarly troubled. France will be compelled to replace the majority of its strategic airlift C-160 Transalls—the workhorse of the Commandement de la Force Aerienne de Projection (CFAP)when their airframe lives run out between 2005 and 2010. The French have been seeking a European alternative with their participation in the seven-nation Future Large Aircraft (FLA) project. Their recent financial withdrawal from the project's development stages, despite their avowed willingness to purchase the final product off the shelf, leaves the FLA's future in doubt. Other options include the Ukrainian AN-70, about which the French have reliability concerns, and the expensive U.S. Air Force C-17 wide-body cargo aircraft or the smaller C-130J, whose purchase would be politically difficult in light of the current downsizing in the French defense industries. Nonetheless, the decision to develop and purchase a European or French aircraft also will be expensive, and inevitably will entail sacrifices in other parts of the defense budget. The contradiction between an Army designed for projection and a strategic air-mobility fleet of limited capabilities remains a dilemma for French military planners.

Although there are weak points in the envisioned future structure of the French military, and pitfalls in the ongoing process to make it a reality, it will be an impressive force. France is not a superpower, and should not be compared quantitatively to the United States. Qualitatively speaking, however, French equipment and troops are comparable in every way to those of the United States. Moreover, if their assessment that future conflicts will be combined in nature turns out to be the case, their particular weak points could very well prove to be irrelevant.

In fact, the greatest danger confronting the French Army may lie elsewhere. The end of conscription is certain to cut the ties that bound the society and its Army together. As the numbers of civilians with military experience declines, and their concern in national defense diminishes, the Army may be tempted to retreat to the insular world of its barracks. If a grave threat to national security were to appear at such a moment, with Army influence at its nadir, France could find itself incapable of rebuilding its military in time. This is the essence of the risk they are taking.

Captain Bloch , an infantry officer, wrote this after spending a tour of active duty at the Defense Attaché’s office in Paris, France.



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