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Why France Can’t Fight

Tuesday 29 January 2013

Years of shortchanging defense are showing up in its Africa campaign.

The French armed forces field some of the world’s most sophisticated fighter jets, nuclear submarines, attack helicopters and armored vehicles. The country spent $52 billion last year on defense, which puts it in the world’s top league in total military spending. That’s more than twice what such robust middle powers as South Korea, Turkey and Israel spend. Yet in its commendable efforts to fight terrorists in Mali, Paris is all but begging for logistical and military support and has come up short on everything from refuelling to surveillance to heavy transport.

Independently deploying a brigade-sized force to a country a mere five hours flight-time away is proving a bridge too far. How did that happen? The question is worth asking because it tells us something about the nature of current European militaries—and perhaps the future of the U.S. military, too.

Consider personnel costs. In the U.S., military planners fret that the Pentagon spends $107 billion of its roughly $600 billion budget on salaries, another $53 billion or so on health care, and another $50 billion on retirement costs. In France, the Defense Ministry spends an astounding 50% of its total budget on personnel costs.

Some of that is the result of moving to an all-volunteer force, as France did in 1996, which has made the military smaller but more professional. But the bulk of the problem is that the Defense Ministry spends €7.6 billion ($10.2 billion) on retirees—roughly 20% of its budget, euros that are effectively taken away from war-fighting needs.

The result is an increasingly hollow military. On paper France has 230,000 men and women in uniform, but only 30,000 are estimated to be deployable on six months notice.

France does spend money on modern weaponry: Since 2009, one of the few pieces of equipment that saw an upward revision in planned inventory through 2014 is Dassault’s twin-engine Rafale fighter jet, of which France already has more than 70, with plans for nearly 160 more.

But militaries need the not-so-sexy stuff, too, and here Paris has been shortchanging its soldiers for years. French infantrymen must now deploy with barely half the number of logistical transport vehicles the military had planned four years ago. French diplomats spent the first week of the Malian intervention haggling with the U.S., Canada and Britain for American-made C-17s to transport soldiers and gear to Mali.

France has no C-17s, though for nearly a decade it has had an order in for 50 A400-M cargo planes. The A400-M (aka the Airbus "Atlas") is a joint project of several European governments, whose inability to pay for it has delayed the program repeatedly. The A400-M can handle only about half the payload of a C-17.

France is also still hunting for more air-refueling tankers to back up its small fleet of aging KC-135s, which are the only way its Rafales can carry out attacks throughout northern Mali. The U.S. hasn’t agreed to help on that one. Again, Paris has an order in for 14 new Airbus 330s to replace its tankers, but this purchase was postponed in 2010.

Refueling capacity is one of the many areas covered in France’s 2010 "Defense and Cooperation Treaty" with the U.K., through which the allies were meant to make up the growing holes in each other’s military capabilities should the need arise. But now that the need is there in Africa, British defense officials say they have no tankers to spare. Theirs are either busy in Afghanistan or on standby in case they need to get to the Falklands.

Given the Obama Administration’s unfortunate unwillingness to provide more than minimal help in Mali, policy makers across Europe must now reconsider their future defense-to-GDP ratios with some urgency.

Meantime, France needs help to secure the Sahel from Islamist insurgents. Paris’s misguided spending priorities have compromised its ability to win on its own in Mali, but neither France nor its allies can afford to see it lose. A version of this article appeared January 28, 2013, on page A14 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Why France Can’t Fight.

See online: Why France Can’t Fight