The political history of Europe since World War II has driven France’s military strategy, but inspired by the spirit of. . . From the Sea,” France now looks to the ocean and searches the horizon for a new strategic opportunity in the post- Cold War era.
Faced with a Europe that was bled dry after World War II—an exhausted United Kingdom, an impoverished France, a disarmed and ruined Germany—the United States developed a strategy of containment, which stated that all aggression on certain points of the globe judged to be sensitive would bring an armed reaction. Another condition of the policy was that massive economic aid would be sent via the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of the Allies, as well as for Germany and Japan. The Atlantic Alliance was built around U.S. power. The schism that divided the developed world into two blocs consolidated the Alliance strategy and transfixed an armed peace into a Cold War.
Atlantic solidarity forced each Western country, including France, to shoulder its part of the burden, both on the eastern frontier and at sea. The mutual defense doctrine—which involved a double aerial-ground strategy in Central Europe and a naval one on the Atlantic—limited France’s freedom of international action, because its military forces were not autonomous. Instead, part of a whole, they were prepositioned and spread on two fronts. At the beginning of the 1960s, seven years after the death of Stalin, the Soviet threat to Europe became more the stuff of speeches than a true will to conquer. Both 1961 and 1962 were remarkable in that light—with the Soviet failure in Berlin that led to the building of the wall and with the backdown in Cuba. In 1964, General Charles de Gaulle concluded that France would participate in the effort of Western solidarity with an autonomous deterrent strike force, maintain a powerful force on the Rhine within an allied framework, and pull back from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The bipolar alliance system thus had its limits. When London and Paris jointly intervened in Port Said in 1956, Moscow and Washington found themselves working side by side to end the adventure. When Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 attempted to break free, the Soviet Union made them see reason by force of arms. The Warsaw and Atlantic Pacts were alliances that froze the status quo and maintained peace.
With the implosion of the Soviet Bloc between 1989 and 1991, the Eastern menace crumbled, and the Treaty of Warsaw dissolved itself. The North Atlantic Treaty persisted, however, without its functions being truly reevaluated. With the exception of a reduced expeditionary force, the majority of U.S. and Canadian forces stationed in Europe were repatriated. A North Atlantic Cooperation Council, created in November 1991, joined the Atlantic Alliance partners with the countries of Eastern Europe. The notion of a common European defense was thus relaunched, although each nation was cautious not to define any new threat.
The operational incapacity (other than nuclear) of the Russian Army, the lack of discipline in young republics abandoned by the Muscovite Empire, the conversion of China to economic liberalism, the newly found freedom of maneuver of such Third World heroes as Saddam Hussein, the development of “gray zones” in the heart of continents well on the way to underdevelopment, the collapse of ephemeral totalitarian ideologies that left a clear field for the renaissance of nationalisms and religious fundamentalisms, and the absence of precisely identified threats all served to bring forth ethnocentric passions draped in nationalist ideologies and their corollary: world powers intervention. From that point on, police actions were motivated by the utilitarian humanism of the evening news.
Led by France, developed mid-level powers forced themselves to participate as minor allies in distant expeditions. Such interventions required military and naval means, which thereby justified the existence of these services. Does the dispatch of a French carrier to the Adriatic find its raison d’etre in separating warring factions of another age in the Balkans? Do the means not create the function? The means of intervention became qualified as resources through which to exist on the international scene. Never has France participated so often and with such intensity in peacetime military operations as it has in the last 15 years. France’s naval resources have allowed such participation.
French strategy since 1990 needs to be reviewed. France’s side-by-side intervention with the international community—in Lebanon, Kuwait, Somalia, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Haiti—springs from its own need to reassure itself. France remains a power that weighs on the international scene; national security is never in question. Today, the absence of French strategy is on occasion justified by the rapid reconfiguration of the international scene since the crumbling of the Eastern Bloc. Current international instability would seem to prove that the reconfiguration will not end for years to come, but several pertinent observations prove otherwise. These lead to impertinent conclusions in relation to the classical orthodoxy of national security.
The collapse of the Eastern menace in 1990 and 1991 eliminated the continental threat, providing, of course, that a long-range nuclear deterrent force is retained. The Franco-German alliance is more than 30 years old, and the European Union, nearly 40, has woven solid ties of economic and human solidarity between the old nations of Europe. Are these not the best guarantees for peace eastward? In the absence of danger beyond the Vosges Mountains, the Army of the Rhine has lost its reason for being. The operational value of the Franco-German Brigade, the center of the Eurocorps, no longer is convincing.
The fact is that the security of France no longer is assured by an armed watch on two fronts. For the first time in the modern era, France is able to make a strategic choice that takes into account the lessons of Fernand Braudel: In a strong Europe, to which France is a member, the ocean becomes a single frontier.
The 21st century can only be a maritime one for France. The stake is partially based on a powerful merchant marine and a deterrent defense of the national sanctuary. Control of a significant portion of the world’s expanding foreign maritime commerce is vital to the economic and social future of the country. To ensure that its own products are placed on store shelves around the world, France must control the chain of production, transport, and commercialization. In peacetime, the naval protection of communal lines of communication demands the same concerns. For instance, oil tankers escorted by French naval units in the Arabian-Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War were not all French-flagged but rather belonged for the greatest part to European interests.
From now on, national threats to France will come from overseas—in the form ballistic-missile and nuclear proliferation. An efficient national defense is to be entrusted to embarked high-technology means. To strike far from France in order to neutralize a direct threat requires a rapid-deployment naval force armed with aerial logistic and combat means as well as a ground-capable force. France’s navy must retain an over-valuable credibility, the deterrent effect of which—like the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea—would be its principal peacetime asset. The budgetary investment in France’s defense must focus on building such a tool. Its use must not be squandered in marginal operations that have no link to national security.
Naval strategy is distinguished by technical progress and the geostrategic context. The U.S. doctrine . . From the Sea,” for instance, appears to be the end of traditional naval strategy, because any strategy that is limited either by sea control or maritime interdiction no longer retains its raison d’etre at the very time when naval forces can project power onto the land from the sea. Ballistic- or cruise-missile submarines primarily have land- based targets, as do all surface fleets surrounding aircraft carriers and troop landing ships, of which the planes, helicopters, and amphibious units can take possession of an enemy shore.
Admiral Francois Caron considers that naval strategy is only adapting itself to new conditions. He has stated that:
Naval forces retain as a task, the defense of territory from all assaults coming from the sea or striking the enemy at home thanks to power projection. [But] from now on it is close to shore and not on the high seas that the primary navy role will be carried out, although the necessity to deploy far from its home bases will force retention of blue-water capability.
For the first time in its history as a nation, France no longer has a land border to protect, or “Tartar deserts” to watch through costly efforts. The hypotheses that Russia retains appetites for power that may become one day channeled by a strong regime, “cocooning” democracy —and that these events might bring back the sound of boots—are not to be discarded. But for the foreseeable future, a credible threat of this type cannot be reconstituted. Strategically, France is an island today. A coherent French naval policy thus becomes all the more important, in spite of the conservative pressures expressed by the military-industrial complex—which is accustomed to playing with main battle tanks, to building combat planes, to deploying tactical battlefield missiles, or to retaining a masculine military service destined to provide the human resources necessary to hold indeterminable ground.
The French maritime strategy cannot interest itself in either control or interdiction of the sea. Rather, it must exert itself in creating high-performance power- projection capabilities to focus on the aerial and logistic employment and support of a rapid action force with conventional and nuclear capabilities, with interoperability between the forces of the three services. France must be able to address “the real threat... the threat of the unknown and of uncertainty,” in General Colin Powell’s words, to be able to extinguish a brush fire far from the homeland before it can become a fire storm that endangers the security of the French people.
Captain Dujardin, after being in the Ministry of the Economy and Finances in Paris, presently is in charge of French shipping policy.