IN 2021, a A year before Russia invaded Ukraine, General Thierry Burkhard told economist The French army must “strengthen” itself and prepare for a possible “high-intensity war” on the European continent. A hypothetical opponent is Russia. Today, the former head of the army is France’s top military officer, in charge of all of France’s armed forces. The results of his analysis proved prescient. It also formed the basis for a training exercise for French and allied soldiers of a scale not seen in decades, which ended last month.
For 17 days in April and May, General Burkhard led a full-scale divisional exercise in eastern France, land that was contested by the great powers more than a century ago.final stage of Orion 23 A fictional invasion of “Arnland”, involving a neighboring country, takes place over a 400km wide area of fields and woods. Some 12,000 troops, 400 combat vehicles and 50 fighter jets took part in live-fire drills, hybrid warfare, mock exercises, drone strikes and inter-coalition coordination to repel invading forces.
In his Paris office, a photo of Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s most senior general, hangs opposite a portrait of French President Emmanuel Macron, General Burkhard reflected on the lessons learned from the exercise and the war in Ukraine. “A high-intensity war is on a completely different scale,” he said. “I probably underestimated that.” The general said the deaths of ten soldiers during two decades of counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and the Sahel were a “national tragedy, and rightfully so.” “That’s what’s happening in Ukraine every half hour — for weeks on end.”
General Burkhard recalled that in the Iraqi city of Mosul, jihadists tracked by French troops would resort to tricks to avoid aerial surveillance. Now the French army must contend with cheap drones that can detect tanks and “extremely precise” weapons capable of destroying them, he said. “We’re seeing a form of transparency on the battlefield,” he said, “a capability that’s almost ubiquitous.” The military must learn to reduce electronic emissions and keep moving. Command posts not only had to be camouflaged, they had to cover incoming and outgoing traffic. All of this will require changing habits and mindsets, the general said.
If lethality is increasingly dependent on technology, and modern warfare is a large-scale war with high ammunition consumption and high attrition rates, how can a medium-sized army balance quality and quantity? General Burkhard said the immediate priority is to bring the platforms together: “We have to be able to have five drones in the air with a battery, three missile launchers, a tank, and actually be flexible enough to decide what we want to do. Want what we see.” It’s no use having lots of things if they can’t talk to each other. “Coherence…must come before quality.”
This requires ubiquitous connectivity. General Burkhard cited the Starlink constellation of thousands of satellites used by Ukraine as an example of the highly resilient network the military will rely on. Ships, planes and ground vehicles need to create communication “bubbles” — a kind of military Wi-Fi — within a given area. They also need to be able to cope without it, he warns. “We can no longer hope for permanent superiority in all domains,” he argued, noting that neither Russia nor Ukraine has managed to achieve air superiority. “The advantage in terms of permanent connectivity … is also an illusion.”
To what extent is France capable of achieving these goals? Parliament is currently reviewing a 2024-2030 military budget worth 413 billion euros ($446 billion), a nominal 40 percent increase over the 2019-2025 budget.Under Mr Macron, this will enable France to meet its NATO Commit to spend 2% gross domestic product Defensively. The new budget is clearly influenced by the war in Ukraine, which is mentioned 14 times in the relevant bill. France will modernize its nuclear deterrent, build a new generation of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, and add 109 Caesar howitzers, 3,000 drones, and more.
Paradoxically, however, France has scaled back its purchases of some additional equipment.Air Force to get 48 new Rafale fighter jets, 15 fewer than originally planned A400M transport aircraft; the army will be reduced by 497 Griffin and Jaguar armored vehicles. “Because we’re trying to do everything at the same time, we’re spreading out rather than setting priorities,” said Hélène Conway-Mouret, a Socialist senator on the armed services committee.
The general countered that the new budget “points us in the right direction”, even if its full impact won’t be felt until 2030. Critics of the program, he argues, have failed to understand the importance of capable forces rather than large ones. He insisted that the number of tanks, ships and aircraft had not grown as rapidly as expected precisely because “consistency” had been prioritized. “The important thing is that if you buy a tank, you have people who are trained, who have ammunition to train on, and spare parts to take it into the field,” General Burkhard said, making “an army ready to parade on National Day , but not yet ready for war” is meaningless.■
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