France continues to maintain one of the world’s largest armed forces and the largest combined military service in Western Europe. With more than 300,000 military and civilian personnel, the armed forces of France consume annually a significant defence budget. In 2012 the country is expected to spend almost EUR32bn on defence, although the long-term trend is to reduce the defence budget, in parallel with other government efforts to reduce overall public deficit.
Although the armed forces of France can congratulate themselves on a job well done as regards French navy, air force and army operations in supporting of NATO’s air and sea campaign over and around Libya in 2011, Paris retains a sizeable deployment of troops in Afghanistan. The continuation of this mission looked in danger in early 2012, following the deaths of six French troops murdered by a member of the Afghan security forces.
President Nicolas Sarkozy has threatened an early withdrawal of French forces from Afghanistan, as had Socialist presidential candidate François Hollande. That said, such a withdrawal could probably not be achieved without causing serious controversy in NATO. Away from Afghanistan, at the doctrinal level, French and UK forces continue to deepen their cooperation with one another, performing bilateral army exercises in February this year.
Anglo-French military cooperation is deepening at the doctrinal level, and industrial cooperation is widening. A number of initiatives in the missile domain were launched as a result of a meeting between Sarkozy and the British prime minister, David Cameron, in February. Existing missiles used by both countries will be modernized, while research projects regarding the replacement of a number of missiles will start. The countries have also reaffirmed their pledge to develop new unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) At the defence industrial level, tensions between France and Germany over the future of the pan-European EADS defence and aerospace business continue. The current head of Airbus has stated that EADS operations should be consolidated at one site in France. This has bought a predictable, critical reaction from Germany, where significant parts of EADS are based.
Over the coming months, French army personnel are expected to begin training on the British Army’s Watchkeeper UAV, with the former showing a distinct interest in acquiring this system. The air force is modernizing a selection of its Mirage-2000 combat aircraft to perform electronic intelligence (ELINT) gathering, ahead of the retirement of the Mirage-F1CT/CR warplane; and will receive deliveries of upgraded ELINT platforms, plus new combat aircraft, air-to-air missiles and air-to-ground weapons. By the end of 2012, the French navy will have received new frigates, amphibious support ships and surface-to-air missiles. Finally, the French army is set to receive new helicopter gunships, armoured vehicles, medium-lift helicopters, logistics equipment and infantry modernization systems.