Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
Britons dismayed by nearly incessant reports regarding the plight of their armed forces understandably have been fretting about the state of their military and whether they have the means to fight a major war of any sort, but especially one that resembles the conflict in Ukraine. Besides the usual debates about what kind of military one needs for what kind of plausible use, the Ukraine war has brought renewed attention to the importance of something all Western militaries except for the American desperately lack: quantity.
Across the Channel, the French have been asking similar questions. Americans and Britons alike should be paying attention to the French debates. France almost certainly will be a partner of choice in any major war, and it is important to understand what the French can or cannot contribute. This was the impetus of a U.S. military sponsored RAND study I co-authored with Stephanie Pezard. For the British, the French debates are important because it is France and not the United States with which they should compare themselves. Britain and France, after all, have roughly the same size economies, and roughly the same military budgets. Both maintain nuclear weapons. Both have global ambitions rather than limit their scope to their particular corners of Europe. This also means that both face comparable budget challenges given the tension between their aspiration to have militaries that can do everything, and fiscal and political reality.
In January, one of France’s leading defense journalists, Jean-Dominique Merchet, published a book that has made a huge splash in Paris. The book’s title goes straight to the point: Sommes-nous prêts pour la guerre? (Are we ready for war?). And then comes the provocative subtitle, which gives a hint as to Merchet’s answer, The Illusion of French Power. Merchet’s book is excellent both because of the strength of his arguments and the clarity with which he makes them. All French people should read it. I’ll leave it to French readers to draw their own conclusions, however. What I’m presenting here are some highlights and insights for the benefit of Americans and Brits, to whom the French bizarrely insist on referring as “Anglo-Saxons.”
Merchet acknowledges that the subject begs several questions and takes them on directly. His answers apply to Great Britain as well. Why should France be prepared for a major war like Ukraine? Do nuclear weapons not preclude a major war from happening? Whom might the France even fight? If there was a war, can’t France assume it could rely on the United States to back it up and, in effect, fill in any capabilities that France might lack?
Merchet’s answers are honest and intellectually sound, even if unsatisfying. Merchet doubts France might fight a war against Russia, thanks to nuclear weapons, and there are no obvious candidates for any more plausible adversary. Nonetheless, Merchet insists that wars tend to happen whether one wants them or not, and it is impossible to predict when, against whom, and at what scale. No one in France anticipated French involvement in Desert Storm, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, or Mali, before each happened. One never knows. Who in London in 1981 anticipated the Falklands War, he asks. As for the Americans, Merchet does not dwell on the United States’ future commitment to defending Europe or European interest, but it is easy to infer that he is uncomfortable with the idea of relying on an outside power for one’s own security. Besides, depending on the United States has other implications, such as the fact that France effectively requires American approval for going to war.
Quantity of equipment
The main problem Merchet worries about is whether France could manage a “major conflict,” as opposed to its Afghan and Malian interventions, and, if not, whether it could afford to provide itself with a military that could. Merchet’s answer to both is no. The key issues are the size of the military, the quantity of equipment and stocks at its disposal, and its ability to scale up its military or even just replace lost men and equipment.
In a war like Ukraine, Merchet reports, based on what he learned from the French army itself, France only has the means to cover a front of 80 km in a “high intensity” scenario. In Ukraine, this is almost insignificant. The Gaza war, though geographically more contained, presents just as large of a manpower challenge: France could not sustain a ground force as large as what Israel deploys there. Besides, in modern warfare, ground units must operate in a protective bubble provided by layers of air and electronic defenses. France, like all other NATO militaries, has badly neglected both since the end of the Cold War.
In addition, given anything like the attrition rates in Ukraine, France would soon find itself short of everything from fighter jets (France only has 141 Rafales, along with a smaller number of Mirage 2000) and main combat tanks (France has 221) to howitzer shells and 5.56 ammunition. Given the small scale and almost artisanal nature of France’s defense industry, which it has stubbornly kept alive, France would never be able to replace equipment at anything like the rate required to sustain a war. According to Merchet, Dassault can make 33 Rafales a year, and it takes three years between placing an order and delivering a plane. Nexter, having ramped up its CAESAR production, can now make 70 a year. France cannot replace its Leclerc tanks because the production line closed in 2008. According to Merchet, the number of 155mm shells France can produce each year is classified, but Nexter has spoken about “doubling” the rate to 100,000 per year by 2025. He reports that the French army itself says it currently can fire at most 9,000 a year, which, he notes, is about what the Ukrainian army fires each day. And then there are drones: Modern militaries now require vast numbers of drones, some sophisticated and expensive, and some that should be cheap and basically disposable. France has few and produces few.
France theoretically could increase significantly its industrial capacity, but only with great difficulty, not to mention at great expense. Think of all the parts and subsystems that go into modern weapons systems. The supply chain, geared for decades to supply small orders at slow production rates, consists of small to medium-sized firms that rely on scarce qualified labor. One cannot simply open new Rafale or CAESAR factories. Who would work in them? Where would the parts come from? Besides, sophisticated weapons require extremely sophisticated and specialized machines to build them. According to Merchet, Nexter cannot make 155mm shells without a specialized Japanese machine of which it only has one. Private firms like all those that have a role in French supply chains cannot afford to maintain surplus capacity; the state has to invest enormous sums to make that possible.
One answer might be to renounce the idea of being capable of everything, although Merchet seems reluctant to go that route, and he notes that the French military in any case ardently rejects this idea. It insists on being a member of every military “club,” i.e. the aircraft carrier club, the nuclear club, the amphibious assault club, and most recently the deep-sea club now seen as necessary to protect oceanic communications cables. The costs mount rapidly. Merchet does not call for abandoning nuclear weapons, even if, as he details, they eat up a major portion of the defense budget not just because of the warheads themselves but because of everything required to deliver them. Merchet also rejects a return to conscription, on the grounds that it is expensive and impractical. What he suggests is developing further the reserve system akin to the American model, and finding more ways for young people to serve without their having to commit to active duty. According to Merchet, leaning on poll results, the interest is there, but the military will need to become more flexible and more creative regarding how to involve people.
Wider military commitments
Perhaps more controversially, Merchet is hostile to France’s military commitments in Africa and the Indo-Pacific and would like to see France focus much more tightly on Europe. Above all, he believes the French must get past the “illusion” of France’s great power status and lower their ambitions. Here he sticks his pen in the eye of Charles De Gaulle and his carefully created myths, such as the idea that France in 1944-1945 made any meaningful contribution to the liberation of France, or that it can act as a counter-weight to the United States. It was this illusion of power that gave Paris the idea that it had any business mucking about in Algeria or Indochina after the Second World War, or, more recently, that it could shape events in the Sahel. Merchet in effect is not arguing for doubling or trebling the defense budget so that France can fight a major war, though he does not argue against it, either. What he mainly wants to truth telling.
Perhaps Merchet’s most intriguing argument is his call for resilience. France in 1914, after just barely hanging on at the Marne, successfully absorbed the tremendous losses of that year, adapted, and built up the kind of force in quality and quantity it needed. France’s industry and its people also responded beautifully, and with a remarkable sense of unity and purpose. The United States in 1941 was not ready for war. By 1945, it was among the war’s victors. Merchet writes:
In France today, we must therefore cultivate our faculty for resilience, but above all for adaption, flexibility, and elasticity, first of all intellectually. To do that, we have permanently to encourage strategic debate and listen to those who think “outside the box” – that comfortable box that ensures good careers and the financing of research contracts.
Further Merchet concludes, “It is not for war that we must be ready,” for that is impossible. Rather, what one must be ready for “is the possibility of having to adapt, quickly and well, to a radically new situation.” This, he adds, “might be war, but it also goes for other major threats, such as pandemics, natural or technological catastrophes, or economic crashes.” Citing a forthcoming book by Olivier Schmitt, Merchet insists that our militaries need to be “learning” organizations. (One commonly hears this in the United States, though many of us are skeptical about our military’s capacity or willingness to learn.)
America and the UK?
American readers should take note of France’s military limitations. The quality of the French military is not in question. Rather, it is France’s ability to contribute to a major conflict and to sustain its contribution. Moreover, the issues Merchet points to regarding industrial capacity are universally applicable, even for the United States. As AUKUS has made evident, even the United States will go to war with what it has on hand, with remarkably little ability to replace anything it might lose. America’s recent wars have not tested American industrial capacity because they have not resulted in significant losses to more important weapons systems like aircraft or tanks. The next war might.
British readers should understand that they are not any better placed than the French to handle a major conflict. They, too, lack the numbers, and they, too, lack the industrial capacity either to scale up or replace items lost to attrition. If anything, Britain is worse off after decades of cuts and its ongoing struggle to forge a coherent vision of the kind of military it needs, and for what purpose. Britain arguably also has a failed industrial policy compared with France, even if neither has adequate industrial capacity. Ultimately, the biggest takeaway from Merchet for British readers is the need for the kind of realism Merchet advocates, and for serious debate regarding the size of the UK’s ambition.
Michael Shurkin is a former senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He is currently an independent security analyst.