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Why the European armies aren’t ready for a war with Russia: The case of France

It has now been a year since Russia’s war in Ukraine began, when president Vladimir Putin announced a special military operation in a televised speech on the 24th of February 2022 and sent his troops across the border at dawn to invade the neighboring Ukrainian territory. Ever since then, the Western world, represented by NATO and the United States, have pledged to help Ukraine in all possible ways such as imposing sanctions on Russia and sending armament to protect its east European ally. Yet this support has its own limits, as NATO does not wish to go into direct confrontation with Russia neither do they wish to give president Putin enough reasons to strike at NATO (it is also why they especially refrain from sending Ukraine heavy arms like F-16 fighter jets). But let us imagine a scenario, what if Russia were to engage the strongest European army on the continent, France?

While it is no secret that France is a formidable global military power both on the European and world scales, it has a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council with a right to veto, its bases have multiplied around the world, especially in Africa and in its former and current colonies and territories. The French army (Armée de terre in French) has a long history of glory and domination. Who could forget the days of the great military strategist and Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte who with his army put most of Europe under his control, reaching the Russian borders. Or even Charles de Gaulle who led France to its liberation from the Nazis and restructured and molded the shape of the military after the war,including the development of nuclear weapons. But those days are long gone, and today the French army is much different.

A Shrinking Army

France is often accused of being lagging behind, militarily speaking. Their military production is lacking as Léo Péria-Peigné, researcher at IFRI and at the Observatory of future conflicts says « Let's imagine if we had to hold on to heavy artillery ammunition, I think that in less than a month and even being generous, we would be in trouble. To give you an example, by mid-March the Russians had lost more than 300 tanks. In France, we have 180 which are operational » Other than tanks, production in fighter planes has also decreased from 700 in 1991 to almost less than 250 operational ones at present. Adding to this, high commanding chiefs in the armed forces have been regularly commenting about the shrinking size of the forces, stating for example that the size of the Navy has never been this small ever since 1945.

Furthermore, the defense budget has been shrinking significantly. The defense budgets, which represented 4% of GDP at the end of the cold war, fell to a mere 1% under Nicolas Sarkozy's mandate. The army has reduced its workforce by 30% since the 1990s. And all tha has resulted in harsh realizations. According to a report, the tricolor army would not last more than a few days in the event of war. This report came after two military exercises (Warfighter and Polaris) conducted in 2021 showed that France would not be able to face a high intensity war: “Warfighter showed that in a week of high intensity confrontations, France would have 800 to 1,000 men killed or injured, and no more ammunition”, affirms Jean-Louis Thiériot, deputy of the Les Républicains political party who wrote a report on the subject.

Defeats in combat

Other analysts point to the fact that the French army’s ineffectiveness in combat has already been demonstrated in action. With the most famous example being the fiasco in the Sahel region where France could not annihilate jihadist groups present in countries like Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso in what was once known as Operation Barkhane. This operation lacked strategic purpose to an extent where Paris had to rely on political tools to keep on justifying the military presence who took on roles from combat fighting to aid providing to the affected populations along with counterinsurgent fighting against the jihadists.


Supporting allies

While France’s army production has failed miserably in defending their own country, the politicians keep on sending weapons in aid or export them to other countries. Like in Ukraine for example, it is estimated that 25% of France’s Caesar canons have been sent to Ukraine in its current war with Russia. It is also worth mentioning that 12 more canons will be sent to Kyiv as promised. This lack of weaponry, soldiers, production and ammunition have raised several concerns in the hexagon country as other major superpowers have been investing more and more into their defense budgets, like China, the United States and Russia. For instance, Russia has even denounced the New Start treaty, signed in 2010 with the United States, and extended by 5 years in 2021, which aims to gradually reduce their stocks of nuclear warheads. Multiple solutions have been appearing, French president Emmanuel Macron has been actively trying to get the defense budget raised as well as pleading with industrialists to ramp up production, but these things cannot happen overnight. It has been clear that for now France is heavily dependent on its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and its cooperation with the US, making it amply clear that if it should find itself in a direct war scenario, the French army will be joined by a larger coalition. Moreover, We should consider the fact that France possesses nuclear weapons capable of giving them the upper hand in extreme cases.

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