N ° 5 Top 2021: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the French Army?

Article from November 22, 2021, N ° 5 of the TOP 2021 with 49.000 unique reads

When his hearing before the Senate Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the Chief of Staff of the Army (CEMAT), General Schill, declared that it would be a priority to restore to his army increased capacities in terms of artillery and close air defense in the occasion of the next Law of Military Programming. It is true, and we have on several occasions broached the subject in our lines, that these two areas are today part of the weak points of the Army, in particular to engage in a high intensity conflict. But through the declarations of the French General, and the observation of the reality of the forces present, in particular in the face of a powerful adversary, the Army, if it has particularly notable qualities and intrinsic forces, at the same time suffers from significant weaknesses. In this article, we will address both subjects, in order to understand the programmatic challenges to come in a particularly tense international context.

Advanced and sometimes unique operational capabilities

It is common to systematically denigrate the French Armies, and in particular the Land Army, in particular when one wants to compare it to other forces such as the Russian Army. However, it has many specific assets, constituting significant operational gains on the battlefield. We naturally think of the excellent operational level of the men who make up the Land Task Force, the armed wing of the Army, experienced in combat with numerous engagements in the Middle East and Africa. With the exception of the British Army, and the Russian Armies, no armed force in Europe displays such a hardening and combat know-how of its personnel, a critical factor in particularly high-intensity engagement.

The replacement of the venerable VAB, the VBMR Griffon, has recently been deployed on an external operation in Mali as part of Operation Barkhane. The Army is one of the armies with the highest rate of armor mobility in the world.

In addition, the French Army has the largest number of armored vehicles in Europe and in NATO, apart from the United States. With more than 3000 armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles, supported by more than 1200 light armored vehicles, the Army has the highest rate of armored transport for its forces, giving it mobility at fire without any equivalence in Europe. Even the Russian forces, with more than double the APC (Armored Troop Transport) and VCI (Infantry Combat Vehicle) in line, do not reach half of this French rate. In addition, beyond its heavy Leclerc tanks In short supply, the Army also has many self-propelled light combat vehicles, such as the AMX-10RC light tanks and its successor the EBRC Jaguar, further increasing this component which offers unparalleled armored maneuvering capability.

In the field of aeromobility, the Army also has a fleet of maneuvering helicopters of more than 100 NH-90, Puma and Cougars, as well as proven know-how in this field, always in favor of a maneuver wanting to be dazzling and decisive. Finally, it aligns several highly specialized regiments, in amphibious assault, engagement in mountainous environments, airborne assault and intelligence, giving it specific very high-level response capabilities, sometimes even envied by our most powerful allies. . Under these conditions, one can think that the Army is today largely on level to support the comparison with the armies of the European and Mediterranean theater. Unfortunately, it also suffers from major weaknesses inherited from 25 years of budgetary and capacity neglect.

Significant capacity weaknesses

As General Schill pointed out, two of the most significant current Army capability weaknesses, to meet the needs of high intensity engagement, focus on the areas of artillery and air defense. In terms of artillery, yet one of the strengths of the French Army since the 15th century, the situation is indeed critical, with only 77 CAESAR systems in service and a handful of unit rocket launchers or LRUs, supported by towed mortars from 120mm and a few dozen AUF1 self-propelled guns inherited from the Cold War and more capable of carrying out modern engagements. Compared to the strength of the Land Operation Force, the rate of artillery pieces for the French forces is 5 times lower than that of the Russian forces, a very significant power gap, further aggravated by the lack of medium and long range capability. .

The CAESAR has shown its efficiency and precision in external operations. But with only 77 pieces in service, the Army has an artillery support coefficient 5 times lower than that of the Russian Army.

The situation is even worse in the area of ​​close air defense. Indeed, in the absence of a real threat, the Army has gradually abandoned its self-defense and detection capabilities in this area, in favor of the simple use of Mistral infantry missiles, admittedly efficient but unable to respond. to the needs of high intensity warfare in their current configuration. Moreover, to date, there is no program intended effectively to respond to this increasingly significant threat with the arrival of drones and stray munitions, or in the field of C-RAM defense against cruise missiles. , rockets, artillery and mortar shells. In other words, today, in the absence of protection in this area offered by a possible ally, French units engaged in a high intensity conflict would be very vulnerable to the majority of air strikes and threats.

These two dimensions are indeed critical, but they are not the only Army capability weaknesses requiring a rapid response. Thus, if it has many armored vehicles, they lack firepower, in particular with regard to the 650 Infantry combat VBCIs equipped only with a 25mm gun much too light to face the 35 guns, 40 or even 57mm with which other modern IVCs are equipped. In addition, from now on, the majority of VCI turrets have been added anti-tank missiles to increase this firepower, missiles which again are lacking in French VBCIs. The same goes for armored personnel carriers, including the new Serval and Griffon, which will only be equipped, in the best case, with a cupola armed with a heavy machine gun or infantry, where the Russian APCs are equipped with heavy machine guns or light cannons.

Mobile and efficient, the VBCI has done wonders in Mali. On the other hand, its weak armor and its 25mm gun seem insufficient in a context of high intensity.

In addition to the lack of firepower, the French armored vehicles are also vulnerable, except by relying on their mobility and on the soft-kill systems that equip the VBMR and EBRC. Indeed, no French armored vehicle is equipped, nor is it planned to be in the short or medium term, with active protection systems of the hard-kill type, yet in many points essential to increase the survivability of these vehicles. in combat, and protect the transported soldiers. This is particularly critical for front-line armored vehicles, such as Leclerc tanks and VBCIs, which would greatly benefit from this renewed protection in a high intensity context.

Finally, certain critical capacities are currently absent or very largely under-represented in the arsenal of the Army. This is the case, for example, with offensive and defensive electronic warfare systems, as well as drones and more particularly wandering munitions, or even amphibious and crossing capabilities. These issues, partly forgotten since the end of the Cold War, are once again essential to ensure a smooth and efficient maneuver, in particular in the European theater and in a context extended to the electromagnetic spectrum for example. Here again, failing to be able to rely on an ally capable of compensating for these operational deficiencies, Army units engaged in a High Intensity conflict facing an advanced adversary could find themselves very exposed.

An inadequate format in the face of the challenges

But the most important issue put forward by General Schill during his hearing, and yet passed unnoticed by senators, goes far beyond these technical and technological aspects. Indeed, according to him, it will be essential for the Army to be able to engage an armed force at the scale of a division, that is to say an operational force bringing together 15 to 20.000 active combatants. in a coordinated manner on the battlefield. If the command and communication system at the heart of the SCORPION program and its evolution TITAN theoretically allows this, the format of the Army today does not allow it to deploy a force exceeding the format of a brigade to short term, and two brigades within 3 months, in the best case, according to NATO prospective studies.

Despite its strengths, the Army suffers from serious capability gaps, and a format that is too constrained to respond to emerging security issues.

Therefore, to be able to simultaneously engage a division, that is to say 3 brigades, within a reasonable period of a few weeks, the Army will have to profoundly change its current format. It would then be necessary to be able to support the deployment of a brigade in continuous action in an external operation, as is the case today of Barkhane in the Sahel, but also to maintain an entire division, i.e. 3 brigades. , ready for engagement within a deadline not exceeding 3 or 4 weeks. This would imply, in fact, to increase the operational strength of the Army from nearly 40.000 to 50.000 men, or 35 to 40 regiments, but also to equip, train and house them.

To achieve this, it would be necessary to increase the budget dedicated to the Army from 6 to 8 billion euros per year, as well as to put in place largely reinforced recruitment procedures to increase the number of candidates, as well as the retention of the military themselves. Indeed, nothing guarantees, today, that the Army can maintain its standards and recruitment requirements to achieve such a format, especially if the objective is to achieve it within relatively short deadlines in line with the evolution of the threat. We can naturally envisage the reinstatement of a National Service, but this would prove to be totally counterproductive in responding to defense issues. Indeed, the technicality required of modern soldiers, including infantry and armored personnel carriers, far exceeds what it would be possible to inculcate in conscripts in a year or less. In addition, it would mobilize immense capacities in terms of training and personnel, without any effective operational benefit. This would undoubtedly be the worst solution for the Army, which would be subject to the greatest constraints.

On the other hand, it could be possible to envisage the constitution of a form of National Guard, composed mainly of reservists supervised by career soldiers, and specialized precisely in the engagement of High Intensity. This hypothesis had already been the subject of a detailed analysis. a few months ago, and could represent a preferred solution to meet these challenges in a budgetary and HR context and a constrained schedule. Be that as it may, one way or another, the Army will have to increase its available manpower to meet the defense challenges that are looming in the increasingly near future.

Conclusion

It is understandable that the French Army today has serious assets to assert on the battlefield, but also certain very problematic shortcomings when considering a major high-intensity engagement. The answers that must be provided are now constrained by a timetable that is no longer within the remit of the French authorities, nor of their political or budgetary agenda, but which is driven by the international tensions which are increasing on the planet, including in Europe. .

One thing is however certain, in spite of the indisputable qualities which the units and the men and women of the Army demonstrate today, it will have to, very quickly, to evolve in depth to respond to the transformations underway. on the international scene. The same goes, moreover, for the French Navy and the Air and Space Army, both being like the Army, constrained by formats and doctrines of engagement inherited from 'a bygone era. One can even wonder if, today, it is relevant to wait for the results of the next presidential and legislative elections to arbitrate in this area, as it appears clear that the gap is widening rapidly in the face of certain potential adversaries. By wanting to stay in its comfort zone too much, France risks sending its soldiers into combat without them having the necessary means to fulfill their mission, or more prosaically, without their having the capacity to defend themselves effectively. .

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