PARIS --- French military plans are at a crossroads today. The invasion of Ukraine drew the attention of a broader audience towards defense matters, which are usually seldom discussed in this country. However, current debates on the future of French defense planning, fueled by the recent (and upcoming) publication of several key official documents, sometimes lack perspective. So, where is French military planning really headed?
The 2023 Finance Bill: no ground-breaking changes
The first official indications about the orientations of French defense plans for the near future can be found in the Finance Bill for 2023, currently debated at the National Assembly. As a preliminary observation, it is worth noting that the fiscal commitments taken for defense in this bill are the continuation of the efforts initiated in 2019 with the Military Programming Law (“LPM”).
One should not expect to find groundbreaking changes in this document, which largely confirms the direction taken in recent years. The €3bn budget increase put forward by the French government for 2023 has been in the works since 2019, and so should not therefore be seen as the result of the war in Ukraine or heightened global tensions.
As such, this text enacts the continuation of ongoing major programs, such as the modernization of deterrence forces, the Scorpion modernization program in the Army, or the delivery of the second Barracuda nuclear attack submarine.
There are only few new items, although the bill also contains critical announcements, such as the new order of 42 additional Rafale fighter jets at a cost of over €6bn spread over several years. The French Air Force obviously appreciates the effort, but this figure is still below the additional 60 fighters promised by President Macron during his 2022 campaign.
Another interesting new element contained in this bill is the effort to replenish ammunitions stocks. Out of the €3bn total increase, €500mn are dedicated to this restocking, bringing the total envelope for munitions to €2bn, up from €1.5bn in 2022. These funds are notably allocated to new major orders of Aster ground-to-air missiles (€930m over several years), mid-range anti-tank missiles (€350m), and a new batch of Exocet missiles (about €120m).
A record increase, for what benefits?
However, besides the continuation of major programs and the acquisition of several types of ammunitions, a large part of this increase is driven by human resources, which represent fully 22.3% of the total increase, notably through the planned recruitment of nearly 30,000 individuals) and the maintenance of existing weapon systems (18.3% of the increase).
Although these efforts are essential to the readiness of French forces, the purported increase in the military budget may well be somewhat of an overstatement. These human and material imperatives prevent the French government from investing heavily in the new capabilities it hopes to master in the near future, despite having the highest defense budget in the country’s recent history.
Undeniably, President Macron and his government kept their initial promise, made in the 2019 LPM. The Ministry of Armed Forces even managed to offset the effect of inflation, delaying some of its payments into next year, thus upholding the initial schedule and plans. Additional costs incurred by the war in Ukraine or the withdrawal from Mali, among others, have been addressed with a special additional envelope of €1.4bn.
Still, apart from the specific effort on replenishing stocks of ammunitions, it seems that the French forces will have to wait until the 2024 Military Programming Law to see the fruits of the lessons learnt from the war in Ukraine. French authorities are consistent in their approach, but should they not, like Germany and many NATO countries, have taken advantage of the burning context to engage in a more in-depth review, as rapidly as possible?
Obviously, the current increase is already something of a prowess given the tight fiscal and economic context. However, the government for instance could have endorsed the recommendation of the French state auditor, the Cour des Comptes, to terminate “Operation Sentinelle.” Intended to reinforce public order and domestic security, it absorbs significant human and financial resources, much needed by the forces at large. But apparently media reports indicate that the government preferred to maintain a ready military presence on the national territory at least until the 2024 Olympics.
Expect no breakthrough after the National Strategic Review
The first answers to what orientations of French defense policy will look like after 2023 can be found in the new National Strategic Review (“NSR”), presented by Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday 9 November at the Toulon Naval base. As usual with this type of documents, designed in part for public relations purposes, statements are very broad, but lack specifics about the course of action itself.
Still, some elements contained in the review tend to indicate that here again, no major breakthrough should be expected in future French defense plans. The NSR, first, is not purely about defense, as it strongly emphasizes “hybrid threats” and the need to address them in an integrated manner, both within military forces and among all concerned public and private actors. Think cyber, intelligence or space, for example.
Just as in the 2017 Strategic Review, “knowledge and anticipation” are said to “irrigate all of the other strategic functions”. In other words, already over-solicited intelligence agencies are likely to have to deal with an even larger spectrum of issues and targets. This will be quite a challenge, as expensive projects are already underway (new headquarters for the DGSE, DRSD, DRM, and ANSSI intelligence services, the development of multiple dedicated big data analysis tools…), limiting the availability of funds necessary to support this effort.
As a matter of fact, the only significant innovation is the creation of an “Influence” strategic function, which purposes to “defend the interests of France over the long run, as well as universal values, international law, and multilateralism”, while also “responding or retaliating to actions or attacks against French interests, particularly in the informational sphere.” Quite an agenda… Which is yet to be developed, in a forthcoming National Strategy of Influence, according to people close to the matter.
The NSR states that “This level of expenditure [2% of GDP on defence] should be seen as a floor to match the strategic disruption caused by the war in Ukraine and the capabilities need by the European allies to ensure their security,” but offer no details.
This is not to minimize the steady efforts deployed so far by France in terms of military ramp-up. There seems to be enough political determination to achieve the objectives set in 2019. However, it seems that the ongoing fuss surrounding the release of the Finance Bill, the NSR, and the forthcoming LPM for 2024-2030, fails to assess the possible shortcomings that France could face in the near future.
Nor do these documents seem to reflect a significant shift, despite the fact that, for the first time in decades, near-peer, high-intensity warfare is back in Europe.