Will the financial crisis kill the French army ?

, by Florent Banfi

Will the financial crisis kill the French army ?

It was long overdue and finally it comes, the White Paper on the Defense and National Security has been released recently by the Ministry of Defence. Given the fiscal discipline which tightens all expenditures, the publication of France’s strategy set off a storm of speculations and worries in the past weeks. But apart from the safeguard of France’s military independency, can we really consider this paper has fulfilling the very same goals it promotes? At first sight one could reply positively, but once accounted for the broad financial picture, the reality turns up slightly different.

As the former white paper on Defence released in 2008 under Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency, the content starts by recalling the concept of “strategy of national security”: it takes into account the continuity of threats and risks both internal and external that put pressure on France, its territory, its population and its security interests. The aim of the Defence policy is therefore global and not specific to France’s definition.

The paper continues detailing the threats the Defence policy has to face by pooling them into three categories: • “Old style” conflicts. Those conflicts are considered credible in 2025 due to the increase in military expenditure worldwide. • Conflicts breaking out due to the deterioration of a state and which could affect French interests or citizens. • Threats bound by globalisation like cyber-attacks, maritime roads threats…

From a geostrategic standpoint, priorities are set forth in line with the current policies: secure France sovereignty, ensure security within Europe and NATO, promote stability in European neighbourhood and promote peace in the rest of the world.

But the biggest threat on the army has been depicted to be the financial framework the policies have to cope with. The paper sets out that the financial effort will be raising 179,2 billion euros from 2014 to 2019 for a total forecast of 364 billion euros from 2014 to 2025. Thus France expects to remain the second biggest military budget of the European Union.

The white paper reminds how the industrial independence is key to back up French sovereignty. Accordingly, all fields of the military industry will be maintained, though, the research and development programmes and funds will be spread on more years.

The differentiation of the army is proposed as a way to save money by allocating expensive resources where they are the most suitable.

And what about Europe?

On the same path, the European Union is foreseen as a way to improve the synergies and that’s why further developments of the Defence field at the European level are called for. A European white paper on Defence is demanded in order to state a shared political ambition among Member States. Recognizing the limits of external operation capabilities, the paper wishes that the Council stands up for improving the mutualisation of means and favours the industry consolidation.

Very little things of the White Paper can be expected not to be approved by other member states. The consensus on the goals of a Defence policy is more than shared as security of citizens and peace are values rooted in European history and identity.

On the contrary, some means might differ from a country to another as nuclear power is a sensitive issue for other European Member States. But as the paper points out, differentiation is a solution to improve efficiency and ensure a higher level of quality at a lower cost.

By keeping a high budget until 2019, the White Paper is clearly unrealistic. One cannot imagine that the same level of quality will be ensured after the already drastic cuts performed in the Defence budget which proved to undermine its well-functioning. It is therefore utterly failing to address the challenges that every army in a longstanding-not-growing economy faces.

The main proposal (in terms of scale-economies it could provide) is the differentiation at the European level which implicitly admits that the size of the French State is no longer sufficient to generate significant financial improvements. This idea is backed by the will to enhance the industrial cooperation through a European industrial policy. But one could also propose to increase the competition by creating a European market of Defence where scale economies could trigger price decreases.

The question raised while reading the paper is why should we stop at the French border when most of the armed forces are engaged together either with other EU Member States or within NATO?

By not demonstrating how the same level of quality will be ensured through differentiation at the national level, the paper fails to cope with a decreasing budget France will have to face. The paper is clearly tied up by the institutional framework that doesn’t allow expanding its principles into concrete proposals beyond the French boundaries.

It is a shame that the costs of a lack of Europe of Defence or respective possible gains haven’t been analysed in the paper. With the development of 11 different Fregate programmes whereas the USA only have one, the way to save money is clearly indicated.

The Defence policy is too important for being neglected or let be undermined by fiscal concerns. Given the high stakes described in the White Paper, one can only hope in a structural or institutional change at the European level to back France in achieving those goals the paper partially failed to demonstrate it could fulfil alone.

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