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Why a smaller French army angers its generals. . .but not NATO allies

Planned cuts in France's armed forces have touched off a battle about the future shape and strategy of the French military that could have important consequences for its allies.

Under budget pressure, the government has decided to upgrade France's nuclear capabilities at the expense of its conventional forces. Combined with a growing worry about European neutralism, this trimming down of the French Army has spurred a rethinking of military strategy, resulting in a noticeable move toward defense cooperation with West Germany.

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While this strategic shift toward West Germany has not fanned much of a conflict here, the military cutbacks infuriate France's generals, admirals, and conservative opposition. In confidential letters leaked last month to the Paris daily Le Matin, the chiefs of the armed forces warned that proposed manpower cuts would critically endanger France's defense. The opposition quickly added its version of apocalypse soon to come.

But independent defense analysts contacted by The Christian Science Monitor say that cuts in the military can be safely made - provided not too much conventional war capability is scrapped.

France's Army is bloated, they argue, and in any case, the nuclear force de frappe is its most effective security deterrent and the country's biggest contribution to the security of the Atlantic alliance.

''No one likes cutbacks,'' said Dominique David, deputy director of the French Institute for Military Studies. ''But nuclear weapons are the backbone of our defense, and for too long we have been giving the Army money without thinking through how it was being spent.''

Currently, the French have just more than 580,000 men-at-arms. Though final decisions will not be made until late spring, indications are that the Army is to be trimmed by 30,000 men, the Air Force by 7,000, and the Navy by 5,000.

By itself, these cuts should not affect the armed forces' potency. ''Thirty-thousand more or less men doesn't change much,'' Mr. David said.

Along with the other analysts, he views the generals' complaints mostly as sour grapes - ''no general likes to have his command reduced.''

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All the same, substantial reductions in conventional equipment would significantly reduce the military's effectiveness, David and other analysts have argued. First reports that 900 armored troop carriers, 200 fighter jets, and other critical hardware would not be ordered ''scare me terribly,'' said Pierre Lellouche, director of studies at the French Institute for International Relations.

Indications from Defense Ministry officials now, though, are that when announced later this spring, the equipment cuts will not be as deep as first planned. Still, Mr. Lellouche remains worried.

''It is serious,'' he said. ''We could cut 100,000 men, but we can't lose too much equipment and expect to remain a serious force.''

The reduction in its conventional forces is forcing the government to reexamine its entire military strategy. The leaner forces will continue to be asked to play a dual role: handling small-scale conflicts when necessary, and in the case of a full-scale Warsaw Pact attack, neutralizing the invaders for a while, thus giving the French President time to decide whether to use the country's nuclear deterrent.

How to accomplish this second goal has always been fuzzy. Analysts doubt that France could ever have held off a Warsaw Pact attack without joining NATO forces. Yet whether the French Army would immediately join the NATO forces in countering such an attack has been left purposely unclear for the sake of national independence since France withdrew from the alliance in 1966.

"We have never known exactly why we have 50,000 troops in Germany,'' David said. ''We must finally develop a coherent concept of deploying troops.''

Under the government of President Francois Mitterrand, there seems to be a strong feeling that the French forces in Germany will have to fight there alongside NATO troops. The shrinking of the Army is certainly one reason behind this realization that the French armed forces cannot go it alone; so is an acute fear here of a neutralized or quasi-neutralized West Germany that could no longer buffer France.

Mr. Mitterrand has moved to steady West German conviction by increasing Franco-German military cooperation and by making noises about a ''European'' defense effort. Politically, this means forming high-level committees to try to develop a common security policy.

Militarily, it means substituting reduced French military strength with more ''forward battle potential.'' This is being accomplished by creating an air-mobile, antitank force and deploying longer battlefield nuclear missiles that could attack Warsaw Pact forces in the east.

Large questions about this strategy remain, however. ''How can we be serious about helping out Germany when we are cutting conventional forces and NATO is reemphasizing them?'' asked Mr. Lellouche.

Mitterrand is also unwilling to say out loud just at what point French forces would try to repulse an attack on West Germany. Such an announcement would raise a political furor here, opening the way to charges that by cutting his military, Mitterrand has restricted France's independence.

To ensure his country's defense, then, Mitterrand, like General De Gaulle, is counting on France's nuclear force de frappe. He believes, as one Defense Ministry official said, ''that nuclear arms are France's only real weapon of disuasion.''

As a result, financing for strategic and tactical nuclear weapons is growing. In addition to the deployment of the longer range battlefield missiles, France's strategic triad is being upgraded. Two more nuclear submarines are being built, modern mobile multiple-warhead missiles are replacing the old fixed strategic rockets, and a new Mirage jet that will be able to fire nuclear weapons from long distance is being developed.

The current modernization of the force de frappe is necessary to ensure that it remains ''a credible deterrent,'' the American analyst said. ''The new subs will be quieter, harder to detect, and the new multiple-warhead missiles will add decoys by being able to hit more targets.''

For a while after the French began developing their own nuclear force, American experts questioned whether it was indeed credible. Toward the end of the '70s, though, the consensus became that the French could do what they warned: destroy enough Russian cities to make a Soviet attack on France too expensive for the Kremlin to contemplate.

''The French guidance systems may not yet be up to the American level,'' an independent American defense analyst said. ''But it doesn't matter when your target is a city. We can get our missiles within a few kilometers. Both will be equally effective in destroying the city.''

After the current upgrading, the analysts said France should be better able to survive a first strike with enough nuclear firepower left to destroy a substantial number of the aggressor's cities.

''Is France worth 50 million dead Russians?' asked Mr. David. ''In any rational calculation, the answer would have to be no.''

Scary as this sounds, the analysts here say that as a result, the force de frappe adds to the West's security more than anything else the French could do. It is such a giant wild card, they explain, that the Soviets would have to weigh it against any decision to invade Western Europe.

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