The French White Paper 2013: Shaping a Way Ahead for the French Forces


2013-05-15 By Robbin Laird

A French White paper is a combination campaign document, Presidential statement, prologue to shaping budgets, and a stab at a tour de horizon view of the strategic environment a la française.  It is decidedly not a detailed look at the future and the way ahead.

It is not hard to criticize any White Paper, this one included for being vague, opaque and lacking in any real strategic bite or clarity.

This one is no exception.

But what is striking are three clear statements or commitments within the White Paper, which indicate to some extent the way ahead for the French forces.

This most important one is the clear commitment to national command and control of French forces even while highlighting the importance of coalitions for French operations.

What is striking about the French effort over the past decade, as the forces have struggled with less than adequate funding, is the clear professional effort to integrate the force, and give it a more capable and tightly integrated C2 capability.  They have resembled more the strategic direction of the USMC than any other force.

This photo was shot in early morning of January 13, 2013 and show four Rafales which took off from the air base at Saint Dizier with the aim of striking the training camps, infrastructure and logistics support of the rear bases of terrorist groups. Credit: French Ministry of Defense 

Whether in Libya, Afghanistan or Mali, the French forces have focused on changes such as shaping expeditionary logistics and more effective integration of the various elements of military capability.

Money is an issue – a major one.  There is little doubt that the professional French military is on the right route to shaping a 21st century force structure, but the question remains whether the political class will give them the means.

An illustration of the problem is that the French Air Force will be modernized by the purchase of some new UAVs, and tankers, but the force will be reduced to 190 fighters and 50 transport aircraft.  And airpower is the crucial tool set which allows for the kind of deployability, mobility and lethality necessary for France to operate regionally or globally.

The second statement of interest is the introduction of a new topic for white papers, which is the cyber war dimension.  The White Paper not only recognizes this problem but also highlights de facto the need for cyber offensive operations (e.g. see pages 44-45 of the White Paper).

The third statement of interest is publically recognizing the French base in the UAE, which puts France directly facing the Iranian threat (e.g., see page 56). Interestingly, the White Paper really does not indicate how France will play this role, in terms of missile defense, counter strikes against Iranian forces with Arab allies, etc.

And this raises the biggest gap in the White Paper.

It really does not focus on 21st century threats or the evolving threats of the decade ahead. 

It does read considerably like the last White Paper.

Military forces will be reshaped by developments in the Pacific and the Middle East.  And these reshaping efforts will involve new offensive capabilities and new defensive capabilities.

And a key driver of change will be China and its global outreach, including missiles, space and its relationships with North Korea, Pakistan and Iran on various aspects of military capability.

But in the prologue to the White Paper, the President of the Republic takes this problem off the table by assuring us that China is in the throes of economic change with the rise of the middle class and that apparently leads to an outbreak of civility and collaboration with the Chinese.

The challenges of what Paul Bracken has called the Second Nuclear Age are not a topic for discussion either, but keeping the nuclear deterrent is certainly legitimized by the re-emergence of nuclear weapons into the global competition.

But what does the UAE do facing a nuclear Iran?  What do the French forces do on their base to support the UAE facing such a threat?

The White Paper is an effort in cost avoidance as well.

Those programs or problems, which would perhaps lead to discussions of priority, which would need to be funded, are absent.

For example, the evolutions in missile defense which French firms have made significant investments and capabilities is not a subject worth discussing in any great detail. 

Even more interesting is that the Euro crisis, which clearly is opening up strategic gaps in Europe, which in turn create defense and security problems, is not really discussed as a driver of defense and security problems.  The assumption throughout is that the continent is a peaceful place.

The reality of the Arctic opening moving pieces on the global chessboard closer to Europe is nowhere to be found.  And the Russian and Chinese engagement in the Middle East with the Euro fractioning in Southern Europe, which is the making of a perfect storm, is another problem too difficult to contemplate.

Again, this is a White Paper not a strategic prescription of the gamut of challenges to be met.

The problem is that challenges will have to be met with adequate or inadequate forces.  

The decade ahead of us is a demanding one. More demanding than the forces legitimized by the White Paper will be able to meet.

In this video provided by SIRPA-Air, a number of aircraft and air systems used by the French air force are highlighted. These include their fighters, lift aircraft, unmanned aircraft and others.

The French Air Force is a key element of French ability to operate in an integrated and flexible manner.  

For a look at the role of the French Air Force in the Libyan operations see the following: