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France plans to return to ‘defence of the country’

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France plans to return to ‘defence of the country’

The French strategic doctrine adopted in November 2022, the National strategic review (RNS), brings the scenario of a high-intensity conflict between states with advanced military capabilities and comparable to each other.

Contrary to the documents adopted previously, in the RNS this notion is not evoked in reference to interventions in operational theaters abroad, i.e. a circumscribed tactical situation far from French territory, but in relation to a potential interstate military confrontation on the Old Continent: a largely secondary threat to Western European strategic doctrines in the post-bipolar setting until February 24, 2022.

Asymmetric conflicts

With the dissolution of the Soviet bloc, France – as Italy did – began a process of reviewing its strategic posture. With the disappearance of the need to protect one’s national borders from a conventional threat, within the framework of NATO’s collective defense of the whole of Western Europe, the possibility has spread asymmetric challengessuch as the fight against terrorismthe instability of regions considered important for their national interests and the proliferation of unconventional weapons.

Consequently, especially following the publication of the White Paper on defense and security in 1994, the French military instrument has been progressively projected into theaters far from the national soil, considered the basins from which such threats originate. A phase of de-territorialisation of defense has begun: with the professionalisation of the armed forces following the end of compulsory conscription – announced by the then President Jacques Chirac in 1996 and materialized in 2001 – the French military device becomes more agile, light and aimed at international crisis resolution missions of variable intensity, the so-called external operations (OPEX). Ultimately, in response to the end of the Cold War, French defense leans towards asymmetrical scenarios rather than inter-state warfare.

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The return to the ‘defence of the country’

However, with the war of aggression launched by Russia on Ukraine, the defense of the national territory from an equal opponent (territorial defence) has returned to being a priority operational need. Acknowledging this caesura, the RNS has brought to the fore the prospect of a high-intensity interstate military confrontation. That lifts two questions: on the one hand, we must ask ourselves whether it represents for France a change in the perception of threats to its national security such as to involve a revision of its strategic priorities and, on the other, whether this implies a reorientation of the French military apparatus.

As regards the first question, the RNS redefines the hierarchy of strategic priorities of France due to the renewed emphasis placed on high intensity. In a «picture increasingly marked by the high intensity of the potential confrontation between conventional forces», can be read in the RNS, Islamist terrorism ceases to be a totalizing challenge.

Although the persistence of the terrorist threat is noted in the RNS, it is clear that the strategic focus is no longer exclusively focused on it and on the stabilization of crisis areas. If the fight against terrorism – in recent years the pivot of the French military commitment, inside and outside the national territory – is conceived as “an intense war on the political level, but not very intense on the military level”, on 24 February 2022 dramatically demonstrates the change in scale, pace and intensity of combat operations.

The RNS takes note of this and emphasizes the crucial importance of aspects that in recent decades have been partially set aside by the French armed forces, like other Western European countries, such as logistics, mass (central to Russia’s strategy) and having large quantities of supplies and spare parts.

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The reference to the need to involve the industry and civil society to ensure the resilience of the nation probably represents the most disruptive point of the RNS with respect to the balance established with the end of bipolarity, thanks to which Europe has essentially become a civilian power. The reference to concepts such as the moral strength, national cohesion and the war economytogether with the use of a more militarized and conflictual language, symbolizes the adoption of a more securitarian posture and signals – at least on a vocal level – a paradigm shift for a liberal democracy like France.

Armed forces and the scenario of a war of attrition

As regards the second question, the emphasis placed on a high-intensity conflict would require, on a theoretical level, one reconfiguration of the French military instrument since faced with this possibility the model built in the nineties based on agility and projection in external theaters (deployability) would find itself in great difficulty, also in terms of logistics and industrial supplies. The strategic acquis deriving from past experiences, from the Sahel to Afghanistan, has in fact been matured and weighted on a scenario of asymmetrical and not equal (peer-to-peer) conflict.

On the contrary, the war in Ukraine – combining modern and multi-domain techniques with conventional combat methods – not only confirms the importance of maintaining technological superiority in order to have a strategic advantage in the field, but above all it marks the return of the logic of confrontation typical of a large-scale attrition warfare lasting over time against an evenly matched opponent. A hypothesis that had not been experienced in Europe since the first half of the twentieth century and that the model expeditionary French is not suitable to face, both in terms of mass and type of preparation, as emerges in the reports of the Court of Auditors and the Parliamentary Defense Commission and the Armed Forces drawn up prior to February 24, 2022.

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A crucial role in the definition and implementation of the French strategy is also played by the Military Planning Law (Loi de programmation militaire), which sets the framework for the multiannual budget of the armed forces within a time horizon of between four and seven years.

In addition to being accused of being the result of work conducted purely by the French executive, without the involvement of Parliament or the academic world and think tanks, the RNS has been criticized because it does not identify precise priority axes around which to substantiate the ambitious strategic vision of France. This task is therefore delegated to the future LPM for the seven-year term 2024-2030 currently under discussion in Parliament. If the actual allocation of defense resources to be voted on by the Assemblée nationale is consistent with the renewed doctrinal emphasis on high intensity, it is likely to expect a concrete change in the French military set-up towards territorial defense to the detriment of asymmetric conflicts.

In conclusion, it is necessary to carefully monitor the evolution of the French posture, France being a key partner of Italy in various international security and defense dossiers, both at an operational and industrial level.

Cover photo EPA/Bob Edme / POOL

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