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War economy: how is France adapting to high intensity?

France's military capabilities have been weakened by several decades of peace in Europe. With this in mind, the executive intends to adapt the armed forces to the new strategic situation created by the war in Ukraine.

Decades of declining capacity growth

In the mid-1980s, the launch of perestroika by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signalled the end of forty years of Cold War. For the Western democracies, it was time to reap the "peace dividend". In France, a nuclear power, the defence doctrine is now based on two pillars: nuclear deterrence and the ability to project rapidly onto external war zones.

In political terms, this new situation means that military spending is highly dependent on economic constraints. The defence budget is becoming a budgetary adjustment variable: equipment credits "are seen as something that can be deferred, postponed or even cancelled in part", notes economist Julien Malizard, deputy chair of Defence Economics at the IHEDN, in a meeting in January.

The defence budget is becoming virtually neutral (and sometimes negative in relation to the rate of growth). We are seeing a "fundamental failure to implement military programming laws, with sometimes a year's worth of equipment missing from the 4 or 5 years of implementation of a LPM", adds Julien Malizard.

As a result, democracies in Europe are disarming on a massive scale: "Between 1999 and 2014, European countries themselves reduced their battle tank fleets by 66 %, their combat aircraft by 45 % and their fleet of surface ships by 25 %", according to IFRI researchers Michel Pesqueur and Élie Tenenbaum. in the Revue Défense Nationale. And between 2009 and 2014, the French armed forces lost almost a quarter of their personnel.

First switchover since 2014: filling gaps, adjusting volumes

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, US President Barack Obama is beginning to disengage his country from foreign conflicts. The Western superpower is increasingly occupied with Chinese rivalry, which is not lost on America's allies.

France is taking the measure of this new strategic context, summarised by economist Nicolas Baverez and former Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve in a report for the Institut Montaigne in 2021 Financial crisis, cyber attacks, Islamist terrorism, pandemics, information manipulation, foreign investment in strategic sectors, the return of military powers: since the 2000s, the risks and threats facing France and Europe have increased and diversified".

The nuclear deterrent/external projection diptych is outdated. And "the model based on quality, but with reduced quantities for cost reasons, is now under threat", adds Nicolas Baverez. the meeting organised by the IHEDN Defence Economics Chair. France recognises its shortcomings: drones purchased abroad, insufficient ammunition and spare parts, etc.

The economist cites two examples of equipment that was under-delivered because of budgetary trade-offs:

  • France only has 76 Caesar guns, the last order for which was placed in 2011.
  • of the 17 FREMM frigates planned in 2000, only 8 have been delivered by 2023.

In budgetary terms, it's better: French defence spending has increased by 12% since 2014-21, to 52 billion US dollars in 2019. But Germany and Italy, which started from a lower base, have seen theirs grow by 30% and 25% respectively.

Since the war in Ukraine: producing more and faster, while controlling costs

In 2022, the conflict in Ukraine triggered a major realisation, including in public opinion. From then on, "the key was the return of the capacity to deal with high-intensity combat", according to Nicolas Baverez. France is entering a war economy.

In September, the Minister for the Armed Forces, Sébastien Lecornu, therefore took the following decision four commitments to the leaders of the defence technological and industrial base (DTIB)to help them achieve their goal of producing more, faster:

  1. simplify the expression of need : "To meet the need for mass production, the DGA (Direction Générale de l'Armement) and the armed forces must formulate requests that are simpler to implement.
  2. Simplifying administrative procedures: It's "essential", because "the culture of risk in wartime cannot be the same as in peacetime".
  3. Setting up a relocation agenda". to avoid dependence on foreign know-how and to protect French know-how".
  4. Change your approach to stock management, "which will now be assessed in the light of the possibility of a major commitment.

Announced in January 2023, the 2024-2030 LPM (with a budget of €413 billion) marks a return to a commitment comparable to that of "the Gaullists in the 1960s", according to Sébastien Lecornu. Nuclear deterrence will be strengthened, with new missiles and a third generation of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SNLE).

The aim of this LPM is to transform the armed forces to adapt them to the emergence of new threats: "France is going to make a greater commitment to areas such as cyber, space, intelligence, new-generation ground-air defence and drones. These areas alone represent several tens of billions of euros between 2024 and 2030.

At the same time, the executive intends to boost Europe's strategic autonomy in order to carry more weight within NATO, while making economies of scale.


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