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France Reworks Defense Strategy

Critics say reliance on nuclear weapons left the country unprepared for the Gulf war

THE one-two punch of last year's Warsaw Pact disintegration and this year's Gulf war has thrown France's defense makeup and security strategy against the ropes. The wisdom and continued relevance of a defense based largely on a drafted Army and a security arrangement based on a doctrine of independent nuclear deterrence have come under deep questioning as the military threat in Europe has receded.

At the same time, calls for defense reform have grown as the Gulf crisis has suggested to some analysts that future conflicts involving France are more likely to be outside Europe and of a conventional nature. In both instances, France's ability to respond remains weak.

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The Gulf war has made this glaringly clear. France, with nearly 14,000 military personnel in the Gulf - less than half Britain's total - was criticized for not taking a greater part in the international coalition's military deployment. But its participation is in fact at the very limit of its capabilities.

In terms of men, the French Army is largely made up of young draftees accomplishing their obligatory one-year military service, and the country has an unwritten rule against sending nonprofessionals into combat. In terms of materiel, France decided under President Charles de Gaulle, as one analyst put it, to ``place most of its national defense eggs in the nuclear basket,'' which has left it without the kind of materiel the United States and Britain have displayed for a distant conventional war.

Confronting the country's military shortcomings has been traumatic for many French, who want an international role for their country and who have consistently approved periodic policing actions in Africa.

``The emperor was caught without his clothes,'' says Peter Ludlow, director of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels.

The Gulf experience also has awakened the French to the uncomfortable realization that their much-vaunted doctrine of national independence - the doctrine that led De Gaulle to pull France from NATO's integrated military command in 1966 - is increasingly a chest-thumping slogan without the military muscle to back it up.

One of the lessons for France in the Gulf war ``is that our military means didn't permit us to follow a singular policy in the Gulf,'' said Fran,cois Heisbourg, director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, in a recent talk here. ``The crisis demonstrates the need to reform both our doctrine and our defense apparatus.''

Yet the Gulf war may not be the experience on which to base a reform of French defense, some analysts warn. It is far from certain that the Gulf war will turn out to be the ``typical conflict'' of the future, notes Fr'ed'eric Bozo, a defense and security specialist with the French Institute of International Relations.

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``Even if the eventual outcome is not in doubt, it is not certain that the idea of international policing will be considered valid when this is over,'' says Mr. Bozo. At the same time the evolution in Eastern Europe, particularly in the Soviet Union, remains ``an uncertainty that France cannot afford to disregard.''

Undoubtedly France will have to rebalance the weight it has apportioned to nuclear and conventional forces, Bozo says, noting that for 30 years France has backed up its policy of independent nuclear deterrence with up to one-third of its military spending. Yet last week President Fran,cois Mitterrand told the nation that he ruled out the use of nuclear weapons in the Gulf war - publicly recognizing the limited interest of France's major defense pillar.

ANY shift from a reliance on conscripts to a professional Army will also be difficult. Universal military service was invented in revolutionary France in 1798, and, as Bozo notes, ``it still plays an important role in our political concepts.''

Just this week in a published interview Prime Minister Michel Rocard said that if France gave up its long tradition of a draft Army it ``would lose a lot.'' Among other things it would lose more of the national budget to the military, since switching to a professional Army would cost more than $4 billion annually.

Analysts like Bozo say the Gulf crisis actually caught France at the worst moment, since several major adjustments to improve conventional warfare capabilities are in the works.

Yet the growing consensus is that France's defense and security future lies in the weight it can only find in greater European cooperation. ``Only the European dimension will allow us to manage this kind of crisis on the military level,'' says Mr. Heisbourg.

Bozo agrees, adding that the direction followed in a recent French-German proposal for defense and security cooperation - itself a response to Europe's poor showing in the Gulf - is the direction a European Community (EC) made up of 12 independent countries will have to take.

The proposal calls for progressive development of ties between the EC and the Western European Union (WEU), a defense organization comprising nine of the EC's 12. The WEU would become a strengthened ``European pillar'' of NATO, while the EC's heads of state would take increasing control of the WEU.

Yet countries would retain margins for following individual interests.

``That remains important not just for the French,'' says Bozo. ``If ever there is going to be a European security and defense, it will be through a coordination of national interests, and not by some sort of European Army.''

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