DeGaulle, France and the War Economy: A March 2024 Update


By Pierre Tran

Paris – The two French frigates on patrol in the Red Sea have fired 22 Aster missiles against drones and ballistic missiles launched by the Houthi militia against western shipping, the armed forces minister, Sébastien Lecornu, told March 26 a high profile news conference.

The minister disclosed the number of French naval missiles, which included the Aster 30 anti-ballistic missile weapon, to point up the significance of a recent French order for 200 surface-to-air missiles from MBDA, a European missile maker.

“In the Red Sea, since the French navy has deployed to secure the maritime space from the launch of drones, and even ballistic missiles, by the Houthis, the French navy has fired 22 Aster 30 – and Aster 15,” he said, pointing up that the Aster weapon has not previously been fired in combat.

Information on the number of Aster missiles held in stock is withheld. A reported unit price of some €1 million is a credible estimate, an industry executive said.

Faster delivery and higher production of weapons were key themes of Lecornu’s remarks, with slides showing the large amounts to go to the prime contractors, now on a tighter schedule.

“Everyone has been asking for the last two years why can we not build more quickly, why can we not deliver weapons to Ukraine more quickly,” he said.

“Quite simply, industry loses muscle fibre very quickly and takes time to recover.”

France is paying for lack of past investment, he said.

The administration of president Emmanuel Macron actively seeks to restock French forces, deliver arms and ammunition to Ukraine, while supporting a critical export drive to sell French weapons in the world market.

The news conference can be seen as a ministerial effort to “counterbalance” quiet criticism of the government.

Macron evoked a “war economy” two years ago at the opening of the Eurosatory trade show for land weapons in response to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, seeking to seize Kyiv.

The Macron administration has urged industry to work faster and ship in greater volume, while French arms companies waited for contracts, asking for the money to be shown.

Companies have speeded up the delivery schedule, following a number of contracts signed late last year.

The minister held the press conference, titled Industrial Reinforcement: Armaments and Munitions, in the large Valin auditorium at the defense ministry at Balard, at the edge of the capital.


Paris has been criticized for lack of disclosure and low military support for Ukraine, far below the U.S., Germany, the U.K., and other western allies, based on figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

That 22 figure was among the numbers the minister presented to the national and foreign press, as France seeks to re-stock its forces and back Ukraine, in a highly public way.

A key figure was the €413 billion in the 2024-2030 military budget law underpinning the orders for new and replacement kit for the French and Ukrainian forces.

Lecornu spoke of the legal option of the “requisition” of equipment, factory tools, and staff in industry to speed up building weapons. There are decisions due to be taken in the next few weeks on calling on some companies to hold a minimum stock level or to put priority on military orders over civil.

Government requisition appears in the military budget law adopted last July, and the minister’s news conference placed that measure, seen as controversial, in wider public debate.

“Priorization,” is a more acceptable term, the industry executive said, pointing up the problems small and medium companies have in meeting the faster timelines sought by the defense ministry. Those subcontractors find it difficult to track down raw materials and building up stocks, while using their own funds.

Those subcontractors have had difficulty in raising bank loans, with commercial banks under social pressure to cut off lending to arms manufacturers. The prime contractors gain from the big ticket orders, while the supply chain is struggling.

Lecornu also pointed to another key figure, namely €20 billion.

The €20 billion of 2023 arms orders compared to an annual average of €15 billion between 2017-2022, and €9.5 billion between 2012-2016, the minister said.

That €20 billion figure was not news. The defense ministry said in a Jan. 23 statement orders worth €20.3 billion had been made in 2023, of which almost €9 billion had been signed in December.

“Re-industrialization, modernization of our capabilities and rearmament of France: the first results are there,” the minister said in the Jan. 23 statement.

The ministry issued the press statement again on Feb. 1.

The 2023 orders included the latest batch of 52 Rafale fighter jets, 109 Caesar Mk 2 truck-mounted 155 mm 52 caliber artillery, 420 Serval light armored vehicles, and seven offshore patrol vessels.

On the industrial front, an example to avoid was the ending of French supply of gunpowder in 2007, he said. That led to France relying on shipments of gunpowder from Germany and northern Europe.

That sourcing policy has changed, with the state-owned Eurenco relocating its production of propellant for large-caliber shells to Bergerac, southwest France. The minister visited the new factory later in the day after the press conference, having rescheduled a previous visit planned for the end of February.

Build Faster

The need for speed could be seen with France losing competitions for weapons in Eastern Europe due to late deliveries rather than price, Lecornu told the news conference.

A new delivery schedule has been agreed with MBDA, with the minister showing a slide showing the missile maker shipping the MMP anti-tank missile and Mistral short-range, surface-to-air weapon this summer instead of the end of the year.

The MMP contract is for around 1,500 missiles, worth some €400 million, while the Mistral deal is for some 300 weapons, worth around €150 million.

A contract for around 200 Aster missiles, worth some €900, is due for delivery in the second half of this year instead of 2026.

A deal for 500 Mica new generation air-to-air missiles, worth some €700 million is for delivery in the second half of 2025 instead of the end of 2026.

An order for some 55,000 155 mm shells, worth around €600 million, for the Caesar cannon will be delivered this summer, instead of 2024-2030.

Some 600 AASM powered smart bombs are to be delivered this year, with some sent to Ukraine, and the target is to double total delivery to 1,200 in 2025, the minister said. There is also a request to MBDA to deliver 40 Scalp cruise missiles.

In addition to the present order for 200 Aster missiles, there is a further order of 200 Aster worth a total of almost €2 billion, he said.

The slides also showed the value of 2023 orders for the major companies, with the figures rounded up:

MBDA won $3 billion of deals, shipbuilder Naval Group €4 billion, and electronics company Thales €6 billion.

Light armored vehicle builder Arquus won €1 billion, medium and heavy armored vehicles maker Nexter €1.5 billion, Safran – builder of the powered smart bomb – €2 billion, shipyard Chantiers Atlantique €1.5 billion.

The annual production of 155 mm shells for the Caesar cannon solely for the French army will rise to 15,000 from annual output of 3,000 shells 2017-2022, and annual production of 500 shells 2012-2017, the slides showed.

Dassault Aviation will boost its production of the Rafale fighter to three per month this year compared to one per month previously.

Ammo Belts to Israel

Lecornu told journalists France had given approval for Israel to re-export ammunition links for 5.56 mm light machine guns to a third party, and the French export license did not give the Israel Defense Forces the right to use the equipment in Gaza or elsewhere.

The minister was speaking in response to a question on investigative website Disclose and partner Marsactu, based in Marseilles, south of France, reporting France had authorized last October shipment of links for cartridge belts to Israel.

There might have been shipments of minor equipment such as ball bearings, cooling systems, and sensor pads until recently, the minister said, and he has asked the French authorities to exercise greater scrutiny in the use of equipment.

“Some licenses could have been issued” for the Israeli Iron Dome missile, he said. As that intercepted incoming missiles, it protected civilians, he said, adding exports of components to Israel in 2022 were worth €15 million, or 0.2 percent of exports.

De Gaulle and Sovereignty

The minister opened his remarks with a broad overview of French arms policy, ranging from 1958 – the start of the Fifth Republic – to the peace dividend, and concluding on a close link between the late president Charles de Gaulle and strategic autonomy and sovereignty.

Senior officers including the joint chief of staff, chiefs of staff of the air force, army, and navy, and the head of the DGA arms procurement office, flanked Lecornu as he spoke at the high-visibility media event.

This was only the second time Lecornu gave a full press conference since his appointment as defense minister in May 2022, the successor to Florence Parly. The first time Lecornu held a press conference was February 2023, at the defense minister’s elegant office at Brienne House, speaking on the war economy and a plan for munitions.

There was a plethora of television crews at the news conference, and there were two announcements of headphones available for English for foreign correspondents. Senior parliamentarians took the seats, front and center.

The minister thanked the national and international press for attending in his opening remarks. Wrinkles in the white table cloth were carefully ironed out before the opening of the press conference, which went out live on an internet platform.