Michel Goya, a Marine officer and doctor of modern history, has taught military innovation at Sciences-Po and the École Pratique des Hautes-Etudes in addition to his operational career. He answers questions from Pascal Boniface on the occasion of the publication of his book “Le temps des chépards – the world war in France”, published by Tallandier.
You are critical of major industrial programs (Leclerc tanks, armored vehicles, combat vehicles, infantry vehicles, Eryx anti-tank missiles, tactical helicopters, transport helicopters, NH-90, fighters, Rafale, European transport aircraft, nuclear aircraft carriers), all those expensive programs designed to combat the threat of the Warsaw Pact…
France made significant efforts to rearm in the 1980s, just before the enemy with whom the equipment was intended to fight suddenly disappeared. It was not obvious that this expensive and sophisticated equipment, designed for very high-intensity combat, was best suited to the new geostrategic context of globalized interventions, but it was decided to keep it.
The main problem is that we have decided to receive “peace dividends” at the same time, and therefore reduce the funds for their payment. This plunged the army into a protracted financial crisis. We have begun to postpone and reduce the volume of these new programs, while keeping our old equipment longer than planned. This saved money in the short term, but complicated the long-term problem with a sharp rise in maintenance costs and a sharp decline in availability. Since 2008, mass destruction (78,000 military posts in ten years) of those who used this equipment has been planned, which in turn has led to the development of catastrophic organizational reforms. In the armies there was talk of a “big crunch” with the simultaneous collapse of the number of soldiers and basic equipment. In 1991, we complained that we were able to recruit only 15,000 soldiers to the Gulf War because we hired only professionals; in 2013, this is what we hoped to deploy at best, despite the full professionalization of the armies.
And then in 2015, after the terrorist attacks in France, the defense policy of the armies changed completely. What was said to be impossible turned out to be possible. After falling to the level of 1984, in the same currency, the defense budget began to grow again, and we are beginning to emerge from the crisis. Admittedly, all this is not very coordinated.
As for the actions in Afghanistan in 2008, you write that the enemy was the last concern of this war, which is not very conducive to winning it …
Military service in France is the election of the President of the Republic, aimed at influencing the “public”, sometimes two. The president may actually be thinking of an enemy who is about to impose his will, but very often it is all about showing the allies or the world that France is a force that matters.
Accession to Afghanistan from October 2001 was intended primarily to show solidarity with the United States, but avoided any risk for years, except for the deployment of a special forces group to the south in 2003 and 2006. President Sarkozy announced the involvement of French battalions in the enemy zone of Kapisa-Surobi in 2008 during the NATO summit, he thought much less about Hezb-y-Islam Gulbuddin – the dominant armed group in the region – than about NATO and the United States. When the soldiers begin to fall, French public opinion will become a priority public. None of this really contributes to the risk required to defeat the enemy.
Isn’t it better to give up after the intervention and stay ready to intervene again than to constantly criticize the presence?
In 1972, President Pompidou decided to end the war against the National Liberation Front (FROLINAT) in Chad. France has been waging this war for three years, we have succeeded, but the enemy in the north has not been destroyed. At the same time, the French presence, which emerged after a call for help from the Chadian government, is beginning to burden the same Chadian government. Then everyone agrees that the results are then enough. However, the battalion with the capacity to intervene in the capital and the restrained forces of the pilots in the Chad Air Force were left behind.
The question that needs to be asked every time is quite simple: is it peace? If this is because there has been a military victory on the ground or, less frequently, because the parties to the conflict have agreed to lay down their arms and negotiate, we may eventually launch a “stabilization” operation, not an “international police force”. This was the case in Bosnia in 1995 after the military victory over the Bosnian Serb camp or in Kosovo in 1999 after the victory over Serbia. In these two cases, it should be noted that this required a strong presence (over 40,000 soldiers at first) and over a long period. If there is no peace, on the other hand, it is obvious that the war continues. The desire to carry out a stabilization operation between the actors of the war, and even more so if they are at war with us, is a gross mistake that has cost the lives of many French soldiers.
But if we avoid this trap and agree to go to war, the second mistake is to persevere for absolute victory, where there can only be relative victories. Operation Serval in Mali in 2013 was a relative but real success. Then remaining militarily at the center of a difficult territory with many problems, in one of the countries most sensitive to its independence from the former colonizer, and naively believing that the state of Mali would become a strong and effective state. there was an error. It was necessary to mention the “Pompidou Protocol” and return to the previous position. We were able to deploy the brigade in a few days in Mali, why did you want to leave it inside?
Is this the end of the cheetah era?
Of course not. All the reasons that made France very intervening, the combination of ease of interaction and the need to be present in world affairs in the first place, still exist. French soldiers will still be busy in places we never imagined a few years ago, and face unprecedented challenges. We just need to follow the changes in the world. In fact, there have been several “cheetah times” over the last sixty years, depending on the deep gaps in the international landscape, at the turn of the 1990s or 2010s. We more or less know how to develop within the known framework, we find it much harder to accept gaps. But these always happen. Let’s take care.