A simple exercise in military tactics, at the start of 2022. In a Baltic country, the French army is training against one of its allies. Repetition goes wrong. “When we started to use our tanks, several of them got off track,” reveals Benoît*, who has been in the army since 2017. In this dummy fight, no life is at stake. But the results could have been dramatic after suddenly the soldier: “We were in Europe, not in Mali. I thought it was a theater of secondary operations, which explained the state of the equipment. But if the Russians had attacked us, there, simply, I I tell you: we wouldn’t have been ready.”

The conflict in Ukraine has upset the certainties of French strategists. Faced with belligerents capable of mobilizing enormous resources – Russia, China – it is now necessary to prepare for a possible confrontation, which the officers describe as a “high intensity conflict”. However, many experts point out that the country would be taken aback in the event of a major attack. “We are not at all in a military economy that allows us to conduct large-scale conflicts”, sums up General Vincent Desportes, former director of the Joint Defense College. Since 1980, the army budget has continued to decline, dropping from 3.07% of GDP to 1.4% in 2017. The “peace dividends” Laurent Fabius said in 1990, at the end of the war cold. When he came to power in 2017, Emmanuel Macron put forward the objective of reaching 2% of GDP by 2025, but several senior officials are now demanding to go further, highlighting the international situation.

In theory, nuclear deterrence protects France from an attack on its territory. Four ballistic missile submarines are capable of launching themselves in less than 30 minutes with a firing radius exceeding 5,000 kilometres. “Nuclear deterrence is the first tool of our power”, recalls General Patrick Destremau, former director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in National Defense. Submarines thus make it possible to keep most States at bay. But no one is unaware that these nuclear warheads will in any case only be used as a very last resort, since they would suppose immeasurable human losses. Only, the French forces appear less prepared for a conventional attack against one of its positions in the world or one of its allies, by sea, air or land. “In fact, we are not threatened in our existence, but our place in the world is threatened”, condenses Colonel Michel Goya, who has become a defense consultant for BFMTV.

Last July, the main chiefs of staff, usually rather inclined to deliver a reassuring speech in public, all expressed concern before the National Assembly’s Defense Committee. And the officers did not hesitate to openly quote the Russian threat. “At sea, the Russians are regularly within 2,000 meters of our ships; their weapons systems are active, as they regularly let us know by illuminating our buildings with their fire control radars,” said the Admiral Pierre Vandier, chief of staff of the navy, on July 27, during a hearing during which he pointed out that “since 1945, the navy has never been as small as it is today”. General Pierre Schill, Chief of Staff of the Army, spoke to him directly about the potential weaknesses of his troops: “the war in Ukraine is indicative of the decisive capabilities that the Army must consolidate or acquire (…) Among the capacities to be reinforced, I will cite ground-to-air defense capacities, drones, fires in depth, information and communication systems, intelligence or means of crossing .” Huge construction site.

This is because, for thirty years, political decision-makers have avoided hard choices. The so-called complete army model, i.e. capable of intervening abroad, strengthening nuclear deterrence and carrying out security missions within the territory, has been maintained. , despite budget cuts. “All governments, regardless of political color, have tapped into the fund, while keeping a complete model. So we are reducing military capabilities but we are keeping them all,” notes consultant Pierre Servent, a specialist in defense issues. A logic that leads to the dissemination of resources, even if it means weakening everywhere, even if investments in high technology give the illusion of an army one step ahead. “We spread the jam on the toast because we don’t have enough jam”, schematizes the military engineer Marc Chassillan. In front of the deputies, General Stéphane Mille, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, moreover directly posed the question of the viability of this strategy: “the question of conducting our conventional operations while ensuring the posture of deterrence takes on a new meaning: when will it be necessary to choose between the protection of the nation’s vital interests, the integrity of its airspace and the pursuit of conventional combat?

Faced with these challenges, François Cornut-Gentille has been challenging the principle of the “complete model” for several months. The former special rapporteur for defense credits to the National Assembly calls for questions to be asked about the needs of the French forces, even if it means neglecting certain aspects. “The important thing is not to be complete, but to be powerful, with the right technologies at the right time”, he argues. To support his analysis, the former MP cites the French choice to favor high-tech equipment in limited numbers, for fifteen years. A decision partly dictated by the imperative to produce little, which led to completely missing the turn of the drones, according to him, to favor overpowered planes but less easy to use. “We took twenty years behind the drones because this technology did not appear impressive enough in the eyes of the military and industrialists”, he confides. On this subject, Colonel Michel Goya, who evokes a “French scandal”, notes with annoyance that France today produces “fewer drones than Turkey”. Even though the army has cited the acquisition of these machines as one of the priorities of the moment and the Turkish models have proved their effectiveness in Ukraine.

To refocus our forces, Senator LR Cédric Perrin, author of a parliamentary report on the equipment of the forces, pleads for his part for the end of external operations, of the type that have been carried out in the Central African Republic or in Mali these ten last years. “We have fallen far behind in building a model of an expeditionary army, intended to go on permissive terrain,” said the elected official. However, the complete model continues to ensure France a certain luster in the military world. Interviewed by L’Express, Robert O’Brien, the former national security adviser to the White House under Donald Trump, thus spontaneously places the French army in the peloton of the best on the planet, because of its ability to to project: “the French army is very efficient, in particular because of its expeditionary nature. It is one of the elite forces in the world.”

However, this praise comes with reservations. The senior American official particularly regrets the limits of our capacity for action, which prevent the United States from relying more on French forces. “As part of the new era of competition between great powers, France must increase its investments in the army to maintain current numbers and, also, improve its ability to deploy troops and equipment over long distances. It must improve its ISR [Intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance; that is to say its resources in drones, radar planes and satellites to collect data, Editor’s note] and its over-the-horizon firing capabilities [its long-range missile reserves, Editor’s note ]”, argues Robert O’Brien.

It must be said that the figures can only prove the American official right. In 1991, the army had 1,349 battle tanks, for example, compared to 222 in 2021. And projections count on barely 200 copies in 2030. Ditto for combat aircraft: from 686 in 1991, the fleet has fallen to 254 units in 2021. Inevitably, the troops took the same slippery slope and the military personnel fell to 203,000 soldiers for all army corps combined, whereas they were 453,000 at the time of the fall of the USSR. “We have trimmed all the room for manoeuvre. For too long, our capacity has been driven by efficiency with the lowest common denominator of saying: ‘we must keep the production line to a minimum'”, regretted the vice- Wing Admiral Nicolas Vaujour, in front of an audience of generals and business leaders gathered at the Medef, on June 27.

During the same evening, Patricia Mirallès, LREM deputy for Hérault, who has since become Secretary of State for Veterans Affairs, on the contrary praised the strengths of the French forces: “our equipment is envied by other nations. French excellence is undeniable.” A conception of the balance of power today called into question by Russian intrigues, according to Michel Goya. The reserve colonel believes that “the war in Ukraine is rehabilitating the masses (…). The Russians are using equipment that is 40 to 50 years old, with a lot of stocks and ammunition. And they are holding up”. But stocks are precisely one of the weak points of the French army. “In a high-intensity conflict, with an attrition rate [les planes accidentés après un vol, NDLR] close to that of the Falklands in 1982 (8%), the air force would have no more planes in ten days and probably more missiles after two days”, indicated the former commander of the strategic air forces, General Bruno Maigret, in a parliamentary report published on February 17, a few days before the start of the war in Ukraine. .

Regarding arms deliveries, the figures still speak for themselves. Eighteen Caesar guns have been sent to Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict, out of the seventy-six pieces available to the French army, which forced the ministry to order new ones from Nexter, delivered… From here 2024, at best. Christian Cambon, the LR president of the Defense Committee in the Senate, remained dismayed. “We have to measure the incredible point of disarmament we have reached today: when we sell Rafales to an allied country or when we send Caesar guns to Ukraine, it takes two or three years to be able to replace them”, laments this fine observer of the tricolor troops.

Problematic deadlines, agrees General Dominique Trinquand, which cannot be shortened with a constant budget according to him: “of course, deadlines must be reduced. But for that, companies need financing.” Military and politicians will soon have the opportunity to discuss it. If the military programming law (2019-2025) adopted during the first five-year term sanctuarized 295 billion euros of credit, it did not really allow the military bodies to be reboosted. “This LPM has just stopped aging,” laments a general. This is why all eyes of the officers are on the next part 2024-2030, which should be submitted to Parliament in early 2023.

With this in mind, Sébastien Lecornu, the Minister for the Armed Forces, seemed to wonder about the right strategy to embrace in the years to come. “We can wonder if technologically advanced equipment, but in small quantities, is preferable to numerous materials, more rustic but essential”, he declared before the deputies, on July 7. Moreover, it is still necessary that the materials are in working order. Arthur*, a soldier in a marine infantry regiment for four years, suffered a mishap with his weapon in Mali in 2019. “I was on a mission aboard a VBL – a light armored vehicle – and I wielded a big machine gun,” says the 30-year-old. One day, during a reconnaissance mission, the machine fails him. It crashes for no reason. “Can you imagine staying there, in the middle of a fight, with a vehicle whose weapon no longer wants to work? We had reported it for days!”, chokes the soldier. Assisted by his colleagues, Arthur escaped safe and sound. That day.

*Names have been changed.