French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian aboard A400M MSN3 at Avord air base in April. Photo: Amy Svitak
Word on the street is French President Francois Hollande will release a long-awaited update to the nation's defense strategy Monday. No budget figures are expected in the so-called “Livre Blanc,” or white paper, but the document will outline France's response to changes in the defense and security environment since 2008, when the most recent iteration of the strategy was issued under former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
“We do a white paper at moments of great evolution in our mission of security and defense for the nation,” Le Drian told French air force personnel at Avord air base April 12. “We had a white paper when the deterrent force was decided. We had one when it was time to think about the professionalization of the army. We had another at the fall of the Berlin Wall, a period of historical change globally.”
Le Drian says three things have changed since the last white paper was issued in 2008: The evolution of American defense posture with a new orientation to the Asia-Pacific region; a need for European and other nations to clean up their finances; and a more focused push to create a common European defense policy.
“The nation has to basically put its house together by ensuring budgetary independence, because when we have a colossal debt, and we do, we're not sovereign,” he said. “But we have to maintain a defense posture equivalent to our place in the world. That's the difficulty here.”
Le Drian did not talk numbers, but his boss did last month. In a late-March interview with France 2 television, Hollande assured the defense budget would be frozen for the next two years at the 2013 level of €31.4 billion ($41 billion), a plan that should result in a slight decrease in real terms, accounting for low inflation. Le Drian said in the weeks leading up to the white paper's release, Hollande acknowledged the need to maintain “at least what's necessary as a defense budget, despite the fact that the budgetary crisis is real.”
The new directions outlined in the forthcoming strategy, compared to those of 2008, concern all of France's defense forces, but mostly l'armee de l'air. During his visit to Avord, Le Drian singled out intelligence, aerial refueling and troop transport among top areas to be addressed.
“Intelligence is a key element in our defense that has to be given more priority,” he said. “Space as well, drones as well, certainly.”
After touring the inside of an A400M military airlifter at the base, Le Drian said France's troop transport capabilities are insufficient and need shoring up.
“We saw this in our latest military intervention,” he said, referring to the French-led Operation Serval in Mali. “We're now remedying that.”
He said the forthcoming strategy will also address inflight refueling.
“Even if we're able to manage our recent engagements, there are things we need to do, and inflight refueling is one of them,” he said.
Aircraft maintenance and operating conditions also need attention: “We're not in a desperate state, but the fact is you can't just buy new equipment, you've got to maintain the equipment you've got,” he said. “I'm going to be sure that the maintenance of means necessary to keep our equipment operational is secured.”