PARIS --- Several recent French doctrinal documents shed light on the vision of the French armed forces for the future. While expert commentaries have rightly focused on the operational aspects, such official publications are not without consequence on the industrial landscape either.
New documents have been published by French armed services in recent months. In chronological order, the Joint "Use of Force Concept" (in French) at the beginning of the year, the French Army's "Use of Ground Forces Concept" (in French) a few weeks ago, and the French Chief of defense staff’s “Strategic Vision” (in English) a few days ago.
Similar documents are expected in the near future from the air force and navy.
Without synthetizing them one by one, they note a new state of the strategic environment, with a renewal of ‘the power play’ as ‘a new normal’, requiring a new ambition for the French armed forces after years of ‘small wars’ and stability operations (Afghanistan, Sahel…), in terms of training, operational capabilities, know-how, reactivity…
As the French Chief of Defense staff, General Thierry Burkhard, recently said: “I want [the French armed forces] to be permanently ready to face a major conflict, acting in all environments and fields of confrontation to "win the war before the war" from the stage of competition. […] They are ready to act resolutely in a situation of international dispute and, if necessary, in a confrontation by imposing favorable strength ratios”.
Such a level of ambition requires a number of adjustments and adaptations, before and during such potential ‘high-intensity’ phase of inter-state confrontation. Particularly on enabling military capabilities (vehicles, aircraft, vessels, ammunition, software…).
Before the war and ‘just before’ the war (during the phases described as “competition” and “dispute”), efforts should be made to accelerate the cycle of development for front-line equipment, from the definition of requirements to their integration into the forces, through the procurement cycles, the integration of incremental innovation on platforms, upgrades of digital systems, etc.
This intellectual and pragmatic agility should percolate through the chain of command for capability development to industrial processes, from design offices to assembly lines and repair facilities.
The pursuit of digital transformation is seen as a catalyst for this acceleration, with issues to be resolved in terms of data-sharing and digital continuity between the various stakeholders, both public and industrial. A quest for innovation must enable forces to at least maintain technological superiority, as well as a parallel conceptual and organizational quest, “to identify and resolve the emerging capability dilemmas by finding the best balance given to the allocated resources, […] to reduce the length and cost of [weapon] programmes”, according to the Defense Chief of Staff’s “Strategic Vision”.
War will be different. It will begin with an initial phase (“confrontation”), likely to consist in a succession of high and low intensity phases in all or some domains, punctually but repeatedly in space and time, on different theaters of operations, rather than the return of the historical ‘patriotic war’). Hence, it will be necessary to be able to sustain the effort over time, after a fast build-up phase, particularly in terms of the number of equipment available, ammunition stocks, spare parts, etc.
More concretely, scenarios of rising tensions can be imagined in different areas: on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea, in Eastern Europe, or on the Northern borders, not forgetting of course the Asian maritime zone, each with multiple repercussions. The challenge is to have available the right production and refurbishment capacity to ensure the imposition of favorable force ratios, despite inevitable equipment losses.
With losses at a much higher level than those experienced in recent operations, with a high number of items and platforms to repair or replace at the same time, two notions will become central: ‘mass’ (with a satisfactory level of performance, at controlled costs and with the simplicity to use and to maintain) and resilience (to ensure continuity of service and performance). In the aftermath, during the regeneration phase, it will be a matter of maintaining ‘the engine's overspeed’ for a while to allow a return to ‘the new normal’.
Behind these abstract concepts, which some might think are only literature for high-level staff schools, there are real issues that need to be addressed by the French Defense Technological and Industrial Base, and its partners. This is particularly true regarding raw materials (and alternative supply sources), choices made on stocks vs. flows in logistics, available logistical means, supply chain agility to cope with brutal changes in rates, definition of availability criteria for global maintenance contracts, and shared inventory management systems, which today are a maintenance challenge for several French aircraft, especially military transport aircraft).
Maintenance contracts are beginning to evolve. According to our sources, new contractual clauses added to new contracts, and updating existing ones, a notable example being the new maintenance contracts for French Leclerc main battle tanks.
A high-intensity scenario also implies a smooth transition between old-fashioned equipment (which must continue to be maintained) and new ones (now delivered in reduced numbers), mastery of inputs from Industry 4.0 (robots, additive manufacturing with certification management, digital twins…) to repair or to reduce the ‘time-to-battlefield’, the development of systems that have growth potential (and some sort of open-architecture, able to be updated frequently as needed, without waiting for the long cycles of traditional mid-life upgrades, for example on the combat management systems of ships), the ability of systems from different manufacturers to talk to each other, and more.
And, last but not least, this preparation requires a new definition of the appropriate level of industrial sovereignty and “security of supply” (as developed by some countries, such as Finland), as well as the appropriate (inter-state) partnership arrangements that go with it, sharing of tasks between private and public actors (between defense and non-defense players), the range of services to provide support in the rear and front areas (with remote diagnostics, virtual reality… solutions proposed by several players in the land sector), scenarios available to avoid chain saturation in the face of an influx of needs, the ability to mobilize a large number of available well-trained human resources (former employees, former military, reservists or newcomers)…
And this is valid for major defense manufacturers as well as for the entire subcontracting chain down to the Tier 3 and 4 suppliers.
As one industrial player said, "Delays in deliveries or defaults in the performance for some programmes are currently slowing down the appropriation of new equipment and the pace of training. Spare parts deliveries, and more generally the securing of supply flows, are therefore a key issue”.
All things being equal, the first Covid-19 lock-down episode, with the disruption of international supply chains, the brutal (and uncoordinated) closure of certain industrial sites in the first instance, new procedures put in place in a second step to ensure at all costs the stability for certain operational activities (nuclear deterrence, operations abroad, protection of the French territory…), assistance between Tiers from the Defense Technological and Industrial Base, etc., has provided interesting elements of feedback and many ‘lessons learned.’
Some points are already and must be discussed in certain forums: inter-ministerial structures (SGDSN…), military staffs (EMA…) and procurement agencies (DGA…), of course, but also professional organizations (GIFAS, GICAN, GICAT, CIDEF…), corporate strategy departments…
The Chief of Staff of the French Armed Forces indicated in an interview (Le Point, November 3rd, 2021) that it would take 5 to 7 years to meet this ambition and fill certain gaps, and to be able to respond to what the French Army chief of staff refers to in private as “the most demanding, even if not the most likely" scenarios.
If the deadline is set for around 2030, the French armed forces are obviously preparing for the possibility of having to do it in advance, by composing with the means and skills at their disposal.
It is clear that the same will be true for defense contractors, who will play a key role to reach, if necessary, this challenging next level of performance.