In the context of the current turmoil at the eastern borders of Europe and in view of the recent elections in France, the question of French defense capabilities is back at the center of the political stage, after decades of budget cuts and underinvestment. The specter of war looming once again at the gateway of Europe should be a wake-up call for French policymakers to reassess the country’s needs in the view of its strategic ambitions and the state of its current capabilities.
The Indo-Pacific, although currently overtaken in the news cycle by Ukraine, is a case in point. As recently reaffirmed by French Minister of the Armed Forces Sebastien Lecornu in his address at the 2022 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore: “While some fear that the crisis in Ukraine would blindside us and lead France to go back on its commitments to the region, this will not be the case.” And yet, while a cornerstone of French strategy, it appears evident today that the French armed forces, and notably the French Navy, do not have the resources to meet these ambitions.
The Indo-Pacific: A Matter of French Sovereignty and Strategic Interests
Let us first recall the stakes. France is a resident power in the Indo-Pacific. With 1.65 million French citizens living in French territories in the Pacific and Indian Ocean, and an EEZ of 9 million square kilometers, the Indo-Pacific is not only a region of strategic interest but one where French sovereignty is directly on the line. What’s more, these territories face several challenges: climate change and the increase of extreme climatic events (typhoons, rising sea levels, etc.), illegal fishing, drug trafficking, and illegal migration, among others.
To meet these challenges, 7,000 military personnel, alongside 20 vessels and 40 airplanes, are permanently based in the region, organized around five command centers. Their mission is threefold: protecting French sovereignty, intervening for the protection of the population in the event of a crisis, and affirming the French presence in the region, notably to maintain France’s ability to operate autonomously in the global commons and guarantee its free access to the Indo-Pacific. The heightened rivalry between China and the United States is adding tension in the region and feeding an arms build-up between the local powers.
Within this scope, in 2018 France adopted its “Strategy for the Indo-Pacific,” further refined by the Ministry of the Armed Forces the following year in its “French Defense Strategy for the Indo-Pacific.” The objectives laid out in the paper can be summarized in three categories: protecting France’s fundamental interests (ensuring territorial integrity, the free exercise of its sovereignty, and the protection of its population); safeguarding France’s strategic interests (guaranteeing freedom of navigation and access to the global commons and supporting the stability and development of its neighbouring regions), and defending its interests as a global power, stemming from its responsibilities as a permanent member of the Security Council (fighting against nuclear proliferation, ensuring the respect of international treaties, and the preservation of strategic stability).
French Forces Stretched Thin in the Indo-Pacific
Yet the main obstacle to the accomplishment of the French ambitions in the Indo-Pacific are the French forces themselves. Since the 1990s, the format of the projected forces in the Indo-Pacific has been constantly shrinking, even as they contribute to the raison d’être of the French defense and are critical to support its deterrence posture. As a matter of fact, in July 2021, none of the four French Navy vessels based in New Caledonia was operational.
A report by the French National Defense and Armed Forces Parliamentary Commission published in February 2022 paints a bleak picture. While the current military means allocated matched the situation in the Indo-Pacific as of the early 2000s, they now appear undersized in a context of heightened tensions in the region. There has been a decrease in the size of the force deployed (for example, a contraction of around 30 percent for Air Force personnel over the past few years), and the available materiel is ageing and ill suited to the likely threats, most notably that posed by the Chinese navy and coast guard. What’s more, the format of the metropolitan French Navy and the emergence of new operational theaters in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean Sea, Persian Gulf, and Gulf of Guinea do not allow for significant deployments at a higher frequency or level than currently achieved.
Efforts are currently underway to modernize the military means deployed in the Indo-Pacific, including the replacement of the Falcon 200 fleet, the delivery of six new “offshore patrol vessels” (POM) from 2022 onward, and the renewal of the navy’s surveillance frigates after 2030. However, these replacements are insufficient and appear out of touch with China’s increased military means and capabilities. This fragility could be exploited by China to further its fait accompli policy, notably regarding fishing in the French EEZ, while exposing French seafarers to potential armed incidents.
In an interview with La Tribune in July 2021, Admiral Pierre Vandier, chief of staff of the French Navy, came to much the same conclusion. According to Vandier, the French Navy is engaged way beyond the objectives fixed in the 2013 White Paper and is stretched too thin to fully fulfil its new missions in the Indo-Pacific. For him the French Navy must not only increase its means in the region but more importantly increase its capability level. The surveillance frigates, for instance, have outdated weapon systems and must be replaced by more capable vessels.
Bridging the French Policy-Capacity Gap in the Indo-Pacific
As tensions and the risk of conflict in the Indo-Pacific are expected to rise, the case for an increase in both the size and capability of the French Armed Forces in the region is clear. Several propositions suggested by the February 2022 parliamentary report should be considered in view of a revision of the Loi de Programmation Militaire (military planning law) under the new French administration.
First and foremost, the pre-positioned platforms in the Indo-Pacific command centers should be increased and improved. The 2022 parliamentary report recommends doubling the number of patrol vessels in New Caledonia and Polynesia and anticipating the replacement of the surveillance frigates with a corvette program providing a more capable military presence, as well as the acquisition of amphibious vessels to provide a minimal force projection capability locally.
Second, the operational availability and resilience of the deployed fleet should be increased by improving the maintenance, repair, and operation capabilities of local naval bases. Third, to properly assess the situation over its vast EEZ, French situational awareness in the region should be improved through a more ambitious space surveillance program and an increased maritime surveillance airplane fleet.
And finally, the French forces should be made more visible to assert France’s presence in the region through high-visibility activities. The warming of Australia-France relations following the election of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese last month could lead to reinforced French-Australian military cooperation, and also be an occasion to revive the ambition for a Australia-India-France alliance.
Overall, the French ambition in the Indo-Pacific must translate into a strengthening of the means of the armed forces deployed in the region. Bridging the current policy-capacity gap implies increased capability investments, which must be included in both the current and upcoming military planning, setting the French margins of maneuver for the first half of this century.