The French Nuclear Horn Is A Powerful – But Fragile – Ally Against Russia

French Leclerc tank.

France’s Military Is A Powerful – But Fragile – Ally Against Russia, Says U.S. Study

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France fields a powerful military with sophisticated capabilities, including advanced jets, well-trained commandos and nuclear weapons.

But the French military is also fragile, lacking reserves of munitions and manpower for a sustained conflict with Russia, according to a study by a U.S. think tank. 

“France currently possesses one of Western Europe’s most capable militaries, owing to the country’s commitment to maintaining as wide a range of military capabilities as possible and preserving its capacity to handle any kind of conflict, including high-intensity conventional warfare, without the necessity of allies,” according to a report by U.S. think tank RAND Corp.

France has always been the odd bird of the Western alliance. A founding member of NATO in 1949, it withdrew its troops from NATO command in 1966 – only to rejoin in 2009. Mindful of its history as a great power – the armies of Louis XIV and Napoleon once dominated Europe – France since 1945 has pursued a fiercely independent foreign policy that has sometimes exasperated U.S. leaders.

But facing possible conflict with Moscow over Eastern Europe and the Baltic States – and with the U.S. calling for Europe to spend more on its own defense – NATO needs all the help it can get. 

France is well-positioned to help. With around 300,000 active-duty military personnel backed by the world’s seventh-largest economy, France boasts an impressive range of capabilities for a medium-sized power. Its Leclerc tanks, Rafale jet fighters and CAESAR 155-millimeter self-propelled howitzers are in the same league as advanced American or Russian equipment. France has a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and four nuclear-powered submarines armed with nuclear-tipped ICBMs, as well as spy satellites and cyberwarfare capabilities. 

France’s problem isn’t breadth of capabilities, but depth. Not just limited numbers of weapons and munitions, but also crucial support services, such as electronic warfare, air defense and airlift capacity. 

“France’s capacity to sustain a high-end, conventional conflict is limited,” RAND said. “The French military might be able to accomplish all its assigned missions at once, but it lacks depth, meaning that such demanding operations would quickly exhaust both its human and material resources.”

Ironically, while France and America have had their squabbles, both find themselves caught in the same dilemma. Like the U.S. military, the French armed forces entered the post-9/11 era configured for Cold War mechanized combat. And like the U.S. military, they had to reorient themselves for counterinsurgency warfare. For years, France has been fighting Islamic militants in the former French colonies in the Sahel — or Saharan — region of Africa, including the nations of Mali, Mauritania, Chad, Niger and Burkina Faso. Since Operation Barkhane began in 2014, up to 5,000 French soldiers have been deployed in Africa, as well as small numbers of troops fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

TOPSHOT – Soldiers from the French Army holds [+]AFP via Getty Images

But in June 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that Operation Barkhane would end, though France will still maintain a military presence in the Sahel. France now has to prepare for both major-power conflict and small wars. 

The result is that the French military is designed for segment median, or “middle-segment” warfare, defined as “heavy enough to survive on a conventional battlefield yet light enough to remain expeditionary—i.e., deployable to austere environments, such as Mali, in the absence of ample logistical capabilities,” RAND noted.

“France has been careful to maintain the ability to do full spectrum operations, including for a conventional war in Europe,” Stephanie Pezard, a RAND researcher who co-authored the study, told me. “However, this ability has not been their main focus over the past few years, resulting recently in a new turn toward high-intensity conflict and the means necessary to wage this type of war.”

U.S. leaders such as Donald Trump have long accused Europe of not spending enough on European defense, forcing American taxpayers to pick up the tab. Yet France does see itself as defending Europe – just not in Europe. “The French consider their military’s active overseas operations, especially in the Sahel but also in Iraq and Syria, as burden-sharing—a form of in-kind contribution that enhances NATO and European security even when not conducted under a NATO or European Union mandate,” RAND noted. 

Nonetheless, NATO since its inception has focused on the Russian threat. And the French military would be an invaluable asset in a NATO-Russia conflict. “France could support a U.S.-led war in Eastern Europe; it has and is developing the capabilities required to take on a sophisticated peer and help meet some of the needs identified to participate in high-intensity conventional warfare,” RAND noted.

But France couldn’t battle Russia for long without U.S. support. “France is able to conduct military operations across the full spectrum of conflict, but it does not have the ability to sustain the fight during a protracted conflict against a highly capable adversary, such as Russia,” said RAND. “From a U.S. perspective, this means that France could participate in a large-scale conventional war in Eastern Europe for a limited time. Several capability areas, such as electronic warfare and air defenses, might benefit from increased U.S.-French collaboration and could improve France’s ability to sustain this type of conflict.”

Which leads to an even deeper question: how willing would France be to fight Russia? That depends, says Pezard. “If France becomes convinced that the security situation in Europe warrants a larger presence, then this would likely take precedence over overseas commitments — unless these overseas commitments aim at securing France’s overseas territories. Until France becomes convinced that the situation in Europe warrants more involvement on its part, it will continue to secure the next circle, such as the Mediterranean and the Sahel.”

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