French Face Realite
On 23 February 1996, the French government Finally announced the inevitable defense cuts in a document describing plans for 1997 through 2015. France had been the only major Western country not to cut defense spending after the Cold War, but such spending was one of the few areas open to cuts after the civil disorders last fall foreclosed changes in social security and related areas.
The government remains committed to the single European currency, which it declares is the central tenet of the European Union; accordingly, it must limit drastically its budget deficit. Unfortunately, the country also is suffering from very high unemployment, reportedly up to 45% of the 20-25 year group. Some may recall that it was precisely this age cohort in the past that provided revolutionary armies.
Planned procurement spending from 1997 to 2002 is to be cut 18% (otherwise it would have risen considerably). The overall defense budget will decrease at a rate of about 1% per year. Many believe the final cut could approach 25%. To deflect fears about the fate of a variety of expensive programs, Defense Minister Charles Millon said that no further cuts are envisioned, and that procurement would be conducted on a stable multiyear basis. Cynics may observe that the announced cuts do not approach what is needed.
President Jacques Chirac plans to end conscription, converting the French Army from a mass force of short-time draftees into a smaller, professional (and more easily deployable) volunteer army. He used the British Army as an example.
Reductions may account for as many as 150,000 men. The army presently totals 239,100 (plus 34,200 civilians); by 2015, military personnel will number only 136,000—civilian numbers remain the same. The air force is to be reduced from 89,200 to 63,000 military personnel, although civilian strength will increase from 4,900 to 7,000. The navy is to be reduced from 63,800 to 45,500 military personnel; again, civilian strength will increase—from 6,600 to 11,000.
The force structure will be cut dramatically:
- The navy will be cut from 101 ships to 81 (strategic submarine numbers remain constant).
- The army, presently nine divisions (129 regiments) with 927 heavy tanks, 350 light tanks, and 340 helicopters, by 2015 will have about 85 regiments with 425 heavy tanks, 350 light tanks, and 180 helicopters.
- The air force’s 405 combat aircraft will be reduced to 300 Rafales (presumably standardization will simplify maintenance).
As in the United States, the economic argument favoring the end of the draft is that a draftee army requires more facilities and much more training because of the constant turnover. On the other hand, as the U.S. government has learned, individual personnel costs can rise dramatically. Not least is the cost of pensions, in a force in which a much higher percentage stay in long enough to collect them. For now, however, the savings must be quite attractive. It is possible that the volunteer army can more easily be fully equipped; the French force in Operation Desert Storm had nothing like the heavy armor of its British and U.S. partners.
Ending the French draft may not be easy. The country clearly cannot afford to add another 150,000 unemployable men to the already explosive mixture in the streets. President Chirac has maintained that the money saved by ending the draft will be spent on local development. If the motive, however, is to cut the French deficit, then this money will not be available in any case.
On a more emotional level, the French since the Revolution of 1789 have supported the draft as an expression of the nation in arms, and the army is seen as the expression of the national will. Some argue that a draftee army is less likely to follow orders to fight unpopular wars, e.g., that the draft hastened the exit from Algeria. That may be a very relevant argument, given French official concern that the present Algerian civil war may demand intervention. As of late March, it was not clear whether President Chirac could overcome the weight of very strong tradition in favor of a new kind of French Army explicitly shaped for power projection abroad.
His interest in fielding a deployable army should be good news for the French Navy, the main means of ensuring overseas deployment. Logically, the French should buy a second nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, as well as more amphibious ships. Indeed, Defense Minister Millon said that the second carrier—the Richelieu—will be laid down, but only when economic conditions permit; after 2002 in any event. Only three U.S.-manufactured E-2Cs are apparently to be ordered, and the number of naval Rafales may be cut from 86 to 60. The air force order is to be cut from 320 to 300.
For many years, the French Navy has emphasized its ability to project French power, and the French government has emphasized its obligation to protect the former French colonies in Africa. Now the African commitment seems to be waning, and it is possible that what President Chirac has in mind is a strong French component within a European rapid-deployment force—the Eurocorps, whose naval element has never been very clearly specified.
France for many years has depended on a triad for nuclear deterrence. For some time, however, critics have questioned whether the land-based missiles were worth modernizing. Now, they are to be discarded in favor of a combination of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs)—four Le Terrible class that ultimately will carry a new M51 missile—and bombers, albeit shorter-range Mirage 2000Ns and, later. Rafales rather than the big Mirage IVs. The Hades short-range tactical missile program is to be stopped, on the theory that it could only have been used against Germany, hence was unlikely to be needed in a new Europe without a serious Russian ground threat.
The French will stop their nuclear testing in the Pacific, and dismantling the test range at Mururoa may have considerable economic advantages because substantial French naval forces were required to support it. That is entirely aside from the foreign policy (particularly export) problems associated with outrage at the tests.
There also are to be drastic industrial changes. Thomson, the electronics giant, is to be privatized; presumably the sale of shares will help cut the deficit. It is not clear that the company can be broken up for sale. Thomson currently includesparts for airliners. The marriage may be easier this time because the fighter market is down and because the French government can apply pressure by further stretching out the procurement of the new Rafale fighter. On the other hand, Aerospatiale cannot applaud the French decision to withdraw from Europe’s future large aircraft (FLA), of which it had been the main prop. Defense Minister Millon has connected the future of the new NATO helicopter (NH-90) to significant cost cuts.
Announced naval cuts are the elimination of three of the 15 large frigates and of all the remaining diesel-electric submarines. The Agostas will get one more refit, but no more conventional submarines will be built for the French Navy. France thus becomes the third country, after the United States and Britain, to abandon a dual-propulsion submarine force in favor of nuclear power. Although the Russians have retained diesel submarines in commission, they no longer build any for their own use.
This trend deserves further discussion. Diesel submarines are certainly less expensive than their nuclear counterparts, and they are generally much smaller. It. is often argued, then, that they are much more effective in niche roles such as forward observation—the role planned by the British for their Upholders—or in littoral warfare. It may seem that a mixed force of nuclear and non-nuclear craft is best for any navy. Yet three very experienced navies have clearly decided otherwise, and a fourth is probably going to follow suit.
The fundamental reason probably is Murphy’s Law: if something can go wrong, it will. Any high-low mix invites the likely outcome that the low-mix units will be the ones available when the high- mix units are needed. Murphy’s Law also governs foreign affairs: the submarines will be most needed whenever there is no nearby foreign base and whenever a crisis is unexpected.
Certainly a 20-knot submarine can get anywhere in the world, given sufficient notice (though probably with an exhausted crew), but the key point is precisely that sufficient notice is just what probably will not be given: unexpected deployment ought not to be considered a minor possibility in the life of a future submarine. It is the single most likely possibility. The entire history of Third World crises says as much. Any warship design predicated on advance notice of a distant crisis or on nearby basing is an offense against historical reality.
Once, of course, none of this was true. Like the 19th-century Royal Navy, the U.S. Navy once enjoyed secure basing facilities around the world, so that its ships were relatively near the scene of any crisis. The Soviets provided the fear that made sovereign countries hand over some of their sovereignty for bases. It also had so many ships—courtesy of World War II and the Cold War—that many of them could be forward-deployed. Those who thought a 600-ship Navy extravagant should recall that in the early 1960s the fleet numbered more than 1,200 ships.
Now few can enjoy global forward basing, and rarely will anyone be able to predict the future so well that ships can be concentrated in advance of a crisis. Indeed, even when a crisis seems imminent, the U.S. government may prefer not to deploy forces, and only later may want to do so—which requires forces capable of moving very long distances at high speeds. In the submarine world, it seems inevitably to mean nuclear power.
There is no question but that nuclear power is expensive. It also is quite expensive however, to maintain two or more parallel logistic and training systems, for nuclear and non-nuclear power. In the case of the new air-independent propulsion systems, further logistical effort may be needed to support an additional type of powerplant on board the non-nuclear submarine. The British decision to discard the new Upholder class was based in large part on the economy to be gained by eliminating non-nuclear infrastructure. Also, the British argued that a Royal Navy needed for global warfare could not afford to retain a submarine force limited, for practical purposes, to operations in the approaches to Russian waters.
U.S. submarine evolution since the end of World War I reveals that the Navy, despite intense interest in special-purpose types, always has maintained relatively large general-purpose submarines. Many submariners did not particularly like this choice, arguing that smaller units would be much handier and hence much more useful. Their arguments collapsed because geography demanded a U.S. fleet capable of deploying from the continental United States to Europe and to the Far East.
In 1942 for example, several prominent submariners—including Admiral Thomas Hart, called for smaller units like the new Mackerel and Marlin. The counterargument was that they could operate against Japan only if the United States retained bases in the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), which had just been lost. By the time the bases were back in U.S. hands, it was far too late to build the special boats that might have exploited them. Better to bet on general-purpose units like the fleet boats, which proved so successful.
Speed is not the only issue in long-range deployment. Nuclear power makes an enormous difference in crew comfort, important not from the point of view of retention, but for increased effectiveness on lengthy patrols, as those who have operated nuclear-and diesel-powered submarines can attest. This efficiency issue, incidentally, also affects the choice between large and small surface combatants.
None of this is to say that foreign diesel submarines operating in littoral waters would necessarily be pushovers. They would be close to their bases, so endurance would not be so important for them. They would lack speed, but weapons could make up for that. Moreover, such submarines lying on the bottom in ambush might be extremely difficult targets.
That is life. We cannot always create bases so close to operating areas that we can operate the way the locals can—neither can the British, or the French, or, for that matter, the Russians. Asymmetric situations call for asymmetric solutions.
Life may be even crueler for the French. As they strive to slash their deficit, at a huge social cost, to join Germany in the European monetary union, the German Deutsche Bank is becoming nervous. Sales of German government bonds have soured because investors fear that they will be repaid, not in solid Deutsche Marks, but rather in soft European Union currency.
The Deutsche Bank argues that German currency is strong because it is independent, not beholden to government policy designed to prop up a weak economy. It wants the future European currency to enjoy a similar strength, through the institution of a strong central bank, preferably by making the Deutsche Bank the European central bank.
Few believe that will happen. Haunted by memories of the 1920s, Germans fear inflation. Other Europeans, however, see unemployment as the larger problem, and think that inflation may be a perfectly acceptable way of reducing it. The French troubles last year can be read as a reaction to governmental failure to attack unemployment and other social ills. Of course, the German hyperinflation of the 1920s can be seen as a deliberate attemp1 to write off the very large reparations debts associated with defeat in World War I as well as large German governmental debts incurred during the run-up to that war, which was financed almost entirely by borrowing, rather than by taxes. If that is true, then the disaster was man-made, and tight money may not be the most reasonable alternative.