The fourth French White Paper on Defence has just been unveiled on April 29th (five months delayed). In the end, it is an unremarkable, short document, whose political and military value may be questioned.
Defence White Papers are designed to be strategic tools that guide policy-making and communicate defence policy to French citizens. This White Paper was not conceived in the context of an arrival or disappearance of a new military power, as in the case of the white book of 1994 after the fall of USSR, or the 2008 version with a new growing strength of terrorism. It emerged out of the tension between the return to power of the left under Francois Holland after 18 years in the wilderness, and the growing demands of austerity caused by the global economic crisis.
This document is simply façade for a strategy of business as usual, under tighter constraints. After much private hand-wringing, there were few surprises on publication, and difficult decisions had been dodged. As we already knew, the size of the army would be reduced: 24,000 fewer soldiers over 2016-9, in addition to 10,000 cuts that had already been planned. No major weapons program was cancelled, but the costs of several spread over a longer period (such as the program of nuclear attack submarines, which ultimately will increase their cost) and the numbers reduced (the Navy will receive eight frigates FREMM (multi-mission) instead of eleven). The Air Force will also have fewer combat aircraft (down to 225 fighters, essentially Rafale and Mirage 2000-D), and fewer than 50 Airbus A400M. As for the Army, it will lose fifty heavy tanks (Leclerc).
Among the genuinely new elements, the "Arctic" appears for the first time in the White Paper (1), and appears as an emerging strategic priority: "A reduction of the Arctic ices of sea is not without strategic consequences" and the archipelago of Saint-Pierre-and-Miquelon "is with the mouth of the Arctic sea routes and of North Atlantic and in a zone rich in hydrocarbons. Its development and the protection of its population require a co-operation of proximity with Canada and a respect of the interests of each one."(2)
The nuclear deterrent, as the “sanctuary force”, had not been questioned. Both components (airborne and submarine) were affirmed as essential to French security: “performance, flexibility and additional features allow the maintenance of a credible long-term tool”. This is not surprising, since:
• The mandate of the White Paper Committee explicitly steered proceedings away from any new reflection on the subject of nuclear dissuasion.
• The majority of individuals who drafted the White Paper of 2008 and who are strongly supportive of a French nuclear deterrent were still involved in the drafting of this document.
So what next? In front of 700 military leaders and senior civil servants at the defence ministry, Minister of Defence J. Y. Le Drian declared: "This White Paper is only a first step. In three months, I shall present to you the law of military programming". Herein lies the real strategic surprise of this White Paper: it is simply a precursor to bigger changes yet to be announced, because plans will depend on the economic situation of France in the near term, and things could change as early as the Autumn when the military programming law, that establishes the credits for period 2014-2019, will be decided. Rather than proactively determining military priorities in the White Paper, the government’s decision to put off difficult decisions will simply mean future decisions being driven by financial constraint; hardly the sign of strong leadership.
Many surprises may well appear in this very difficult economic environment. For example, the lack of reflection on the nuclear arsenal in the White Paper does not reflect the ongoing evolution of thought in political circles and in the French civil society. The debate is no longer taboo, with the intervention of Former Prime Minister Michel Rocard, former Defense Minister Paul Quilès, and retired General of the Air-Force Bernard Norlain. In a time of austerity, maintaining the budget for deterrence is increasingly driving political and former military leaders to speak out against this traditional sanctuary. They are not yet demanding full unilateral nuclear disarmament, but it is more common to hear suggestions that the nuclear air force is cancelled. In Parliament voices are emerging against nuclear deterrence, and not only from the 59 communist and ecologist parliamentarians.
So, even if the desired budget by the White paper for 2014-19 (set at 179.2 billion Euro, excluding pensions) apparently seems saved as deterrence policy, everything must be checked and approved by the parliament in October. Since they write and vote the law on military programming, they will be able to influence the future of format of the armed forces, and without doubt, debates and new ideas will surface. In this lies the real strategic surprise of this White Paper.
(1) The Arctic was previously mentioned in the report (“Horizons Stratégiques”, published in 2012 ) of the Delegation for Strategic Affairs (http://www.defense.gouv.fr/das/reflexion-strategique/prospective-de-defense/articles-prospective/horizons-strategiques)
(2) Chapter 4