Pandemic has led France to update defence strategy - Minister

Defence – Fight against terrorism/Russia/Turkey/China/Mediterranean/European Union/NATO/Sahel – Preliminary statements by Mme Florence Parly, Minister for the Armed Forces, at her hearing before the Senate’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Armed Forces Committee

Paris, 17 March 2021

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First of all, thank you for hosting me today to present an overview of our strategic environment.

As you know, when he was elected, the French President wanted to carry out something of an update to the white paper, the Strategic Review of 2017, with one goal: to conduct a full and detailed analysis of the international strategic situation, so as to act accordingly for our defence.

Faced with a world turned upside down by the health crisis, it seemed to us essential to carry out an update, a fresh analysis of the threats posed to us. The pandemic has been especially telling about the uncertainty and unpredictability of the environment we’re evolving in. The update work carried out has highlighted the persistence of the threats we identified in 2017. In some fields, it’s more than persistence, it’s a strengthening or even a speeding-up of the trends we’re currently observing: I’m thinking in particular of the disintegration of the international order, the crumbling of multilateralism, all reflected in a dangerous self-absorption and affirmations of power.

As we identified in 2017, the first threat we face and must combat is terrorism. Both in France and abroad, it threatens the safety of French people and our national interests. We’re fighting it in the Levant, in the Sahel and on our own soil. We’re engaged militarily to prevent a jihadist arc becoming established, stretching from the Gulf of Guinea to the Iraq-Syria theatre, which would be capable of planning attacks even on our country.

The world destabilization we’re experiencing is also due to the emergence of new areas of confrontation: not only cyberspace and the control of information but also the seabed, and outer space, which has become essential for the conduct of our operations and where some powers are already carrying out strategic manoeuvres. Our competitors are developing hybrid strategies there which fall under the shadow cast by their conventional or even nuclear forces, only increasing the ambiguity of these threats and blurring the lines between war, crisis and peace. I can cite Russia in particular, which applies this hybrid modus operandi in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. These opaque activities are forcing us to increase our intelligence capabilities to detect, define and attribute them, leading us to update our postures to take into account these changes in the international arena.

Close to us, on the northern and eastern flanks of Europe, Russia has for several years been developing a strategy of defiance in order to control its immediate environment. Its shows of force are growing in number as its military capabilities are upgraded. Russia has also emerged as one of our main strategic competitors south of the Mediterranean, in the Levant and in Africa, where it’s seeking to secure its bases and not hesitating to challenge our action and the French system, relying on non-State actors and disinformation manoeuvres.

These strategic competitors in the southern Mediterranean also include Turkey, which has been a destabilizing, “disruptive” player in recent months, conducting an offensive and aggressive foreign policy, particularly by organizing gas exploration campaigns in the eastern Mediterranean under escort from numerous warships. Turkey is seeking to prevail by force and by faits accomplis: by violating the arms embargo on Libya or by interfering in the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, where it has lent decisive support to Azerbaijan against Armenia.

Last but not least, China is positioning itself. It’s doing so wherever it can in the world, to achieve its goal of becoming the world’s leading power by 2049: on the Belt and Road, in the Indo-Pacific, in Africa, in the Arctic and even in our overseas territories, China is investing massively and expanding its presence. It no longer hesitates to impose its own system of values and flout international rules, particularly those on free movement in the air and at sea: I would add that, since 1 February, there’s been a law authorizing the Chinese coastguard to use weapons to force foreign ships to leave waters claimed by China. In the Taiwan Strait, Chinese planes carry out regular incursions into airspace controlled by Taiwan.

All these power strategies are based on rearmament processes. Despite the pandemic, it’s estimated that defence budgets worldwide reached $1,830 billion in 2020, a 3.9% increase compared to 2019. That’s especially striking given that in 2019 the total figure for defence budgets worldwide had already increased by 4%, an increase considered to be the greatest in the entire decade. These increases are of course driven by the rivalry between the United States and China, which saw their defence budgets rise by 6.3% and 5.2% respectively. The United States alone accounts for 40.3% of global spending, with $738 billion, while China accounts for 10.6%, with $208 billion.

There’s clearly a very strong desire on China’s part to call the United States’ power into question. We’re seeing rivalries develop in every sphere, from trade competition to military rivalry. For example, in the third quarter of 2020 China became the European Union’s leading trade partner and overtook the United States for the first time, a direct consequence of the COVID-19 epidemic.

Our imports from China have increased by 4.5% compared to 2019, particularly in the medical and electronic fields. This says a lot about our dependence on China, which we absolutely must reduce, in particular in areas I’d describe as critical. I could cite the example of our dependence on critical minerals, rare earths, which we import from China and which are essential for manufacturing our defence equipment, from the Rafale to drones and from telecommunications equipment to our soldiers’ mobile batteries. This issue of access to resources is a very important one for our armed forces, and that’s why I wanted it to be central to our defence energy strategy. Despite its efforts to develop recycling and eco-design, the European Union imports between 75% and 100% of the raw materials it needs, such as cobalt, nickel, lithium and natural graphite, which are used to manufacture electric batteries.

This strategic context is admittedly very grim, but we mustn’t see it as inevitable, because we have the means to act.

We have very effective, highly-trained armed forces that are improving every day so as to remain at the cutting edge of emerging battles. I’m thinking, for example, of the AsterX exercise which the President attended last Friday – the very first military space exercise, where we simulated an attack on our satellites.

I’m also thinking of another exercise I’d now like to outline to you, which was conducted on 13 March – last week. The French armed forces conducted an unprecedented counter-terrorism exercise in the Mediterranean, off Crete.

Imagine a hostage situation on a merchant ship: terrorists taking control of a ship and turning it into a floating firing base. That was the scenario that mobilized the whole top end of the spectrum of our land, naval and air assets. In the space of just a few hours, marine commandos were flown to the area with a light assault vessel. Rafales and Caracal helicopters took off from France to reach the ship under the terrorists’ control, 2,000 kilometres from our bases, and were directly involved in freeing it.

The manoeuvre involved 450 service personnel: army soldiers, airmen, navy vessels regularly operating in the area, and significant command and control capabilities. The attack was brief thanks to our armed forces’ very high responsiveness and their projection capability.

Basically, through this exercise we’re sending a message. The message is that under our vigilance – France and Europe’s – the Mediterranean will never be a lawless area. May I point out that only three nations in the world are capable of conducting such an operation, and France is one of them. France is determined to help maintain the security and stability of the Mediterranean basin, alongside its allies. By projecting its intervention capabilities at long range and deploying its exceptional expertise, France is showing it has the means to defend itself together with its allies.

Because yes, we have the means, but we must do so together. That’s essential in order not to suffer any strategic downgrade.

Strengthening Europe’s strategic autonomy is the solution to tackle these many challenges, obviously working closely with NATO, because in order to have a strong Atlantic Alliance, we must also have a strong Europe.

This strong Europe firstly means a Europe which I’d describe as being on the ground. The Takuba Force, which we’re making operational in the Sahel at the moment, is a great success on this front. Many servicemen and women from various European countries’ special forces are daily fighting terrorism side by side. I’ll have the opportunity to talk about this soon to my Swedish, Czech, Estonian and Italian counterparts, and representatives of other countries thinking of joining us. The Europeans’ commitment to the Sahel obviously goes well beyond Takuba; there are very many in Operation Barkhane and the European Union and United Nations missions.

Consequently, more and more Europeans are committing themselves to fighting the expansion of these terrorist movements which directly threaten European territory. And it is excellent news that Europe is daring to stand up in defence of its interests, its territory and its citizens. We are building this European momentum more every day with the European Intervention Initiative.

The Coordinated Maritime Presences soon to be trialled in the Gulf of Guinea, where piracy sadly remains prevalent and which is seeing its resources plundered, follows exactly the same logic. It will strengthen our culture of shared engagement, while upholding the basic principle of freedom of movement at sea.

This strong Europe I’m talking about also means an industrial, innovative Europe. Our interoperability will be reinforced through the development of joint capabilities and the reduction of our technological and industrial dependence.

Today, we’ve got to carry through to a successful conclusion the capabilities projects under way with Germany – I’m thinking of the FCAS and MGCS, of course, but also the Tiger programme with Spain and Eurodrone with Italy.

As far as the FCAS is concerned, my defence minister colleague Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and I asked manufacturers to continue their discussions to reach an agreement on the demonstrator. It is an essential phase, and one which must absolutely take into account the major principles we endorsed in 2017, i.e. identifying leaders for each of the programme’s areas of work and the “best athlete” principle. It’s a principle on which we can’t compromise: for our servicemen and women, for our young engineers and technicians who will be involved in the project, for our fellow citizens – because we’ve got to be absolutely certain that performance is what guides our choice when it comes to defence and that our servicemen and women are equipped with the best possible weaponry.

This strong Europe also means a strategist Europe, able to forge strong partnerships allowing it to assert its position in the international arena. Finally, it means a mutually supportive, resilient Europe, able to defend itself more effectively against external attempts to divide or weaken it.

To build this strong Europe, we obviously need to be stronger nationally, and this requires continuing efforts to make our armed forces more powerful, which we’ve been implementing for more than three years now.

I think we can have the collective satisfaction of saying that we’re on the right track. Strict adherence to the Military Estimates Act is proof of this. In 2020, defence equipment investment amounted to €28.1 billion. It’s estimated that €1 million of turnover achieved in defence generates between seven and eight jobs, not including the construction, public works and infrastructure fields. Consequently, the increased budgetary resources planned in the Military Estimates Act would create roughly 25,000 additional direct jobs between now and 2022 and up to 70,000 by 2025.

What must be clearly understood is that this spending benefits everyone. A competitive defence industry means jobs for French people and stronger armed forces. Strong armed forces mean French people who are protected, in all circumstances. Moreover, during your questions we can perhaps talk in more detail about our recent participation in robust vaccination efforts in France and in the special support we’re providing Overseas France to cope with the health crisis.

In this deteriorated strategic environment, the vitality, strength and agility of our armed forces will be essential for guaranteeing the security and protection of our interests, those of France and French people.

Thank you very much for listening; I’m at your disposal to answer your questions./.

Published on 22/03/2021

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