France overhauls military, steps into NATO's center

By STEFAN NICOLA, UPI Correspondent   |   June 19, 2008 at 4:02 PM
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STRASBOURG, France, June 19 (UPI) -- France wants to overhaul its armed forces to make them fit for the security challenges of the 21st century.

Earlier this week France introduced a White Book on Defense and Homeland Security, a strategy paper that aims to transform France's armed forces into a sleeker, more mobile organization that is able to confront terrorist threats and in the long run would re-establish itself within NATO.

There is "nothing preventing us from participating in NATO's military structures," French President Nicolas Sarkozy said a day after it was published. It is the first significant change to the country's military organization since 1994, at a time when France still had a draft and Islamist terrorism was the problem of the Middle East, not Europe.

Some even say Sarkozy's schmoozing course with NATO could turn into the most important European military decision since 1966, when President Charles de Gaulle took his country out of the alliance, troubling U.S.-French ties for years to come.

No wonder U.S. officials are happy about the turnaround announced by Sarkozy, who since his election in May 2007 has relentlessly tried to improve relations with Washington.

"We have always appreciated France's role in the alliance. But full integration of France into the military command structure has been a goal for a long time, and we are certainly pleased to see it happen," U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said at his news briefing Tuesday.

Sarkozy would not want to give up his command autonomy when it comes to participation in a mission, much less to its nuclear arsenal. Yet the decision puts France closer to Britain and the United States, in a security development that will have trans-Atlanticists rejoicing. Already, France agreed to send an additional 700 troops into eastern Afghanistan to relieve NATO forces there.

France's NATO integration, however, won't come without a price: The alliance probably would have to surrender key command posts to French generals, and there may be other rewards Sarkozy would call for once France's reintegration into NATO became a reality. Observers say this could happen as early as the end of this, or next year, at the latest.

Of course, the French military makeover changes more than just its relation to NATO: The French are mainly trying to get rid of some extra weight put on during the Cold War. Some 47,000 troops and more than 50,000 Defense Ministry staff will be cut overall, with some two-thirds of the sleeker French army to be available for rapid reaction missions. With the military diet, France is killing two birds with one stone: It not only relieves its tight federal budget (the French still have one of the biggest military budgets in the world, using more than 2 percent of their GDP on it), but also reacts to new threats and the growing importance of rapid reaction missions done in an international framework. France also will cut back on heavy tanks and reduce its military presence in Africa, shifting funds to high-tech equipment such as intelligence satellites, surveillance drones and light, 21st century armored tactical vehicles.

"France will remain a great power, a great diplomatic power and a great military power, I pledge this," Sarkozy said. "The truth is that we must stop keeping on patching up some of the equipment you use every day: 45-year-old tanker aircraft, 28-year-old light armored vehicles and 30-year-old Puma helicopters. So we have to put more investment into equipment. And for this, choices have to be made."

Bruno Tertrais, a member of the pool of experts who authored the white paper, said the changes were putting the French military on the right track. In a telephone interview with United Press International on Thursday, he underlined the white paper's strong focus on intelligence and early warning -- two security measures crucial to countering new threats like terrorism and quickly emerging violence in unstable regions.

He also said France was putting "front line first," following the British military strategy introduced in the late 1990s, which "reduced support troops and beefed up combat troops."

The white paper should not be seen as a counter-development to a joint European defense force, Tertrais told UPI.

"But there can't be a European defense without strong national defense capabilities," he said, adding the recent French overhaul may be a model "for other EU countries to follow."

This may, of course, be a nod to Germany, Europe's richest economy. The German government has tried to transform its armed forces -- it's an ongoing uphill battle, however, against notorious under-funding.

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