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French military overstretched as Hollande pushes active role

By Gregory Viscusi | Bloomberg | Published: January 23, 2016

French President Francois Hollande says his country will continue to play a leading role in fighting Islamic militants from West Africa to the Middle East. Former military officials warn the country may not have the resources to honor that pledge.

They say the military is active on too many fronts, and soldiers are being used in missions for which they haven't been trained, such as protecting possible targets against terror attacks. While the French military can still run its two main overseas missions — tracking militants in the southern rim of the Sahara and carrying out air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — it won't be able to give its personnel proper rest and training, and would be unable to cope with a new emergency in, say, Libya or Ukraine.

"Our military has reached an unprecedented level of excellence but we've used all our resources," Alain Coldefy, a retired admiral and head of defense research at IRIS, a Paris- based research institute, said in an interview. "We're completely out of breath. The French military isn't in any position to lead a new operation."

France has 3,500 elite troops across the Sahel, part of an operation that grew out of a January 2013 intervention to prevent Mali falling to Islamic militants. France was the first European country to join the United States in carrying out air strikes in Syria and Iraq against Islamic State, and a French admiral aboard the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier is now commanding the naval component of the anti-Islamic State coalition. There are also troops committed to keeping warring militias apart in the Central African Republic, protecting Lebanon, and hunting Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean.

"There is no minister of defense I spend more time with than Jean-Yves," Secretary of State Ashton Carter said Jan. 20 in Paris after yet another visit with French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Hollande and Le Drian have said there will be no let-up in 2016. "Interventions against Daesh will accelerate and France will play its part," Hollande said Thursday in a New Year's greeting to diplomats, using the preferred French term for Islamic State. "We are facing a very serious threat and will be calling heavily on the military," Hollande said in a New Year's message at the Saint-Cyr military academy on Jan. 14.

France's actions have proved a good advertisement for its military hardware, with arms export orders doubling last year to 16 billion euros ($17.3 billion), boosted by contracts signed for Dassault Aviation's Rafale fighter jet with Qatar and Egypt.

Still, Vincent Desportes, a former French general, said in an interview with Le Figaro in July 2015 that "the French military doesn't have the means to carry out the missions it's assigned. It's capable of achieving quick tactical victories but not long-term strategic results."

France has the most capable military in the European Union, says Michael Shurkin, senior political scientist in the Washington bureau of RAND Corporation, but "many of France's current operations are too small to accomplish more than minimal objectives, namely keeping bad situations from getting significantly worse." Even so, it can't continue to operate at the same pace, he says.

"The available evidence suggests that the French military's overall capabilities and readiness will decline as a result of its high operational tempo," Shurkin said in an interview. "The French army is so busy conducting operations that it has little time for training, and soldiers are almost certainly being worn out because of insufficient downtime."

A possible flash point for the French military could be Libya, where a national unity government is being formed to confront groups allied to Islamic State that now control much of the North African country's central coastline. French and Italian officials have said they are willing to help train the Libyan military, and for the moment don't intend to conduct military strikes, as they did in 2011 to help oust Moammar Gadhafi. But Libyan officials have suggested the unity government, once formed, could ask for air support.

"If there is an operation in Libya we could take part but in a very reduced way," said Coldefy, who commanded an aircraft carrier during Balkan operations in the 1990s. "We couldn't lead it the way we did in 2011."

Following last year's terror attacks around Paris, Hollande raised the military's operating budget for this year to 32 billion euros from the 31.4 billion originally planned. He reversed planned cuts and added a net 2,300 jobs, with an eventual goal of 77,000 operational soldiers instead of the 66,000 originally planned in a 2013 so-called "white paper." At Saint-Cyr last week, he called for increasing the number of reservists to 40,000 from 28,000, and said the mission in the Central African Republic would soon end, with French troops being replaced by Africans and other Europeans.

For military experts, the most controversial use of the French army was last year's decision to use 10,000 soldiers to protect sensitive targets after Islamic terrorists killed 17 people in January and another 130 in November in coordinated attacks in the Paris region. Soldiers in full combat gear are now a common site at train stations, at tourist sites, outside synagogues and mosques or simply patrolling the streets.

"The army is perfectly capable of doing that, but police are made for that," said Rand's Shurkin. "The sooner France can recruit more police and use them to replace the army the better. Keeping guard over synagogues not only squanders the army's capabilities but keeps it from doing better things with its time and resources."
 

A Rafale fighter jet, manufactured by Dassault Aviation, prepares to land at the Dubai Air Show in November. The high profile of the French military is proving a good advertisement for its military hardware, but experts warn the armed forces are overstretched.
Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

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