Lessons learned from France’s military engagements in foreign operations and internal security

4 février 2022
Interview de Jean-Pierre Maulny - IISS
Armies must be built for wartime, not peacetime. This is the lesson that France has learned in recent years from its involvement in military operations. An army cannot be built solely on paper: it must be put to the test to see if its capabilities are effective operationally. More specifically, it is essential to guarantee its capabilities’ operational readiness, which depends on the forces’ training and the availability of equipment, together with the sustainability of these forces in the event of protracted military engagements.

In recent years, France has found it difficult to strike the right balance between the need to manufacture new equipment using the latest and most sophisticated technologies in order to gain an edge over adversaries, and the need to have an army that is fit for combat over an extended period of time. Two experiences have proved very useful for determining the
proper ratio between the different domains that constitute a military capability’s effectiveness.

The first of these is Opération Sentinelle, which can be described as internal-security deterrence following the terrorist attacks that struck France on 13 November 2015. It was decided at the time to deploy 10,000 soldiers to patrol within France, more specifically near sites that could be described as sensitive and potential targets for terrorist attacks, such as train stations and airports, through which large numbers of people transit. This figure of 10,000 soldiers corresponds to the national-security operational contract set down in the 2013 White Paper on Defence and National Security. The 10,000 soldiers were swiftly deployed, reflecting both their operational readiness and the command’s capacity to plan an operation of this type. However, it proved to be impossible for command authorities to schedule these troops’ mandatory relief after a four-month deployment. The number of soldiers turned out to be insufficient to allow for personnel to be rotated and take time off to rest and recuperate. Under the 2014–19 military planning law, adopted in 2013, the number of military personnel was to decrease, while a reorganisation was designed to increase the percentage of officers relative to the number of other ranks. But to continue Opération Sentinelle and fulfil the operational contract for 10,000 personnel in the long term,
it would be necessary to stop reducing the number of basic soldiers.

The second lesson learned concerns France’s concurrent involvement in Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria and Opération Barkhane in the Sahel from the end of 2014. From that time, French forces were engaged in two external operations that required significant air assets in Iraq, with aircraft deployed either on the ground or on the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, along with substantial land-based assets in the Sahel (with 5,100 troops), also requiring air support. These two external operations and Opération Sentinelle had a ‘snowball effect’ when it came to the operational readiness of the French armed forces:

  • Firstly, the conjunction of Opération Sentinelle and operations Inherent Resolve and Barkhane led to reduced training time for land forces and for pilots of combat aircraft, helicopters and especially transport aircraft, with the training shortfall amounting to nearly one-third of the intended flight hours. These personnel were on active duty and no longer receiving sufficient training.

  • Secondly, the equipment was in intensive use and wearing out more quickly, but the budgets allocated for Military capabilities in Europe: a framework for assessing the qualitative dimension maintenance proved to be insufficient, which meant that equipment-readiness rates fell. Readiness rates were very low for transport and attack helicopters in particular – just over 50% in 2017 – and for the armoured vehicles used in
    the Sahel, only three-quarters of which were serviceable during the same period.

Two measures were taken to respond to the lessons learned from the forces’ engagements during 2013–17. Importantly, all the French forces’ operations were cut back. Even though Operation Sentinelle has been maintained, the number of troops deployed was reduced to 7,000 in 2016 and stands at only 3,000 today, but with the capacity for a rapid increase to 7,000. At the same time, the forces to be deployed in Operation Inherent Resolve have been reduced, while the deployment to Opération Barkhane in the Sahel will decrease from 5,100 to 2,500 troops in 2022, with deployment concentrated in the ‘three borders’ area between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. These arrangements will help prevent the units from becoming overstretched and unable to undertake sufficient training to achieve operational readiness.

Secondly, the Military Planning Law 2019–25 will accordingly factor in the lessons learned from the armed forces’ activities during 2013–17 to re-adjust the balance of budget allocations between new-build equipment and maintenance requirements, with a view to increasing the readiness rates of equipment in service. Maintenance budgets have been significantly increased. In 2019, nearly €400 million of additional funding was allocated, 10% more than the previous year. Over the entire period from 2019–25, maintenance funds will increase by one-third, excluding inflation, whereas the defence budget will increase by only 25% over the same period. This suggests that planners have realised they need to stop sacrificing maintenance costs so that they can instead guarantee equipment serviceability.


Excerpt from the report « Military capabilities in Europe: a framework for assessing the qualitative dimension » by Bastian Giegerich and James Hackett for IISS.
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