Minister sets out France’s strategic challenges in 2021

Defence – 2021 strategic renewal/summary – Communiqué issued by Mme Florence Parly, Minister for the Armed Forces

Paris, 22 January 2021

In February 2020, the French President emphasized the upheavals affecting the international environment, confirming the trends identified in the 2017 Strategic Review (RSDSN). A few months after the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the international socio-economic and environmental situation has never seemed as uncertain as today.

1. Ongoing threats against French interests

France’s level of international commitment has not weakened since 2017, in the face of multiple crises exacerbated by both structural and cyclical factors: global demographic pressure, migration, and the impact of climate change, but also the economic and political consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Added to these crises and fragilities are the three persistent threats identified in the RSDSN 2017: jihadist terrorism, which – though weakened by the loss of many leaders – is continuing its strategy of local entrenchment and global propagation; the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems, illustrated by the worsening of the North Korea and Iran nuclear proliferation crises; and finally, the return of strategic competition between powers.

2. Fiercer competition between powers

Whether it concerns Russia or China, the return of strategic and military competition has now been asserted. The posture of strategic intimidation developed by Russia is based not only on a range of non-military tools but also on the development of sophisticated military capabilities. For its part, the People’s Republic of China has doubled its defence budget since 2012 – pushing it to the second highest in the world –, increased its nuclear arsenal and demonstrated new ambitions in terms of projecting power. In response, the United States has raised its military budget to $720 billion and has made competition between major powers the main deciding factor in its defence policy.

3. Emboldening of regional powers in the Middle East and Mediterranean

America’s renewed focus on rivalry with China is also prompting ever bolder stances by countries like Iran and Turkey, which are seeking to affirm themselves as regional powers and exploiting every opportunity to impose their interests, with the growing military adventurism this entails. In turn, these transformations are bringing about changes of posture from the other regional players, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt, which are seeing a deterioration in their strategic environments. The Mediterranean embodies all these developments: illegal trafficking is constantly increasing and is now combined with the instability caused by energy issues, the projection of regional powers, in particular Turkey, the strengthening of Russian and Chinese influences and the decline of the Western military presence.

4. Hybrid and multifaceted strategies

The globalization of competition also means that fields of confrontation are broadening, in particular in areas that lend themselves to ambiguous attacks. Some of our competitors, be they State or non-State, are using “hybrid strategies”. Combining military and non-military, direct and indirect, legal and illegal modes of action, these strategies are designed to remain below the assessed threshold for retaliation or open conflict. The use of armed groups, cyber, space, the manipulation of information and the exploitation of the law (“lawfare”) through the extensive use of extraterritorial sanctions and the unilateral promotion of standards are all possible levers of power for supporting military intimidation manoeuvres and achieving strategic objectives.

5. Consequences: a disputed international order and security architecture

Although global challenges should mean more cooperation between States, the international order is steadily crumbling, undermined by the effects of strategic competition and the behaviour of players who prioritize bilateral arrangements and power relationships. The associated risks of uncontrolled escalation are significant, in particular in regions with no crisis-resolution mechanisms. In Europe, the weakening of the security architecture inherited from the Cold War is continuing inexorably, with multilateral institutions and agreements being called into question. On all these challenges, the new American administration could choose international cooperation; it will then be up to the Europeans to respond resolutely to these overtures in order to rebuild strategic stability on their continent.

6. Europe and France at risk of a strategic downgrade

This background of instability brings new risks extending to Europe’s threshold and in the Mediterranean. Unless they make an appropriate response, the Europeans risk undergoing a real strategic downgrade. The desire shown by the great majority of our partners to continue the growth in their defence effort, despite the economic crisis, is a positive sign which we should confirm in the long term. Indeed, the aim of France’s efforts to give more political meaning to NATO and more consistency to European defence, within the EU or in ad-hoc frameworks like the EII, is to enable the Europeans to address the challenges they face.

7. Military Estimates Act, cyber, space, AI, energy: our defence is adapting

Building on the analyses of 2017, three priorities for adaptation have been followed: consolidating our defence strategy, constantly mobilizing our partners and allies, and modernizing our defence tool. The adaptation of our defence strategy has focused on new areas (cyber, space, AI, energy) in which France must invest, because they are essential to its freedom of action amid the spread of hybrid strategies. The 2019-25 Military Estimates Act, combining regeneration and innovation, signals a desire for genuine renewed strength, through a financial effort unprecedented since the end of the Cold War. It aims to restore to the armed forces the resources to fulfil their missions in the long term, and to modernize to respond to future challenges.

8. Challenges to be met: rallying together on the basis of European sovereignty and shared interests

Whilst significant headway has been made since a requirement for “common strategic autonomy” was acknowledged in June 2016, we still need to build, in line with NATO developments, a genuine European security and defence pillar. This involves making progress in three areas: consolidating Defence Europe, reducing our technological and industrial dependency and developing joint responses to hybrid aggression. The harmonization of capability tools and the consolidation of an innovative, competitive European defence industrial base are major challenges in achieving genuine strategic autonomy. The defence industry is an essential component of this autonomy and a key sector for the national (200,000 direct and indirect jobs, 20% of research) and European economies.

9. Helping make the nation more resilient

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the armed forces maintained all their permanent missions and operational commitments (nuclear deterrence, protecting the country, internal and external operations), while conspicuously contributing to the national effort to combat the virus through Operation Resilience. The armed forces’ capabilities nevertheless need to be strengthened to deal with large-scale crises in metropolitan and overseas France. In this respect, implementing a strategic “protection-resilience” function and regaining a certain organic “depth” (supplies, logistical resources etc.) now appear essential.

10. Preparing for the future by continuing the scaling-up towards Ambition 2030

Geopolitical upheavals, tougher operational environments and increasing fields of confrontation now make the scenario of a direct confrontation between powers credible. In order to be able to challenge access-denial postures in every field, project and strengthen its overseas apparatus and guarantee its ability to intervene, France absolutely must continue the scaling-up it started in 2017. Beyond the substantial modernization already begun under the Military Estimates Act, major programmes have been launched, nationally or in cooperation with our closest partners (FCAS, MGCS), in order to renew the necessary capabilities beyond 2030 and prepare for tomorrow’s war. Ambition 2030 together with the Military Estimates Act must be considered an intermediate but essential step towards a comprehensive, robust, agile and therefore efficient and top-of-the-range army model, in which conventional and nuclear forces continuously support each other. This is how we can guarantee our security and autonomy, and our ability to bring others with us in Europe and beyond./.

Published on 26/01/2021

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