France plans for leaner, smarter military

FRANCE announced a vision for its 21st-century military — a leaner, smarter and more high-tech force, capable of detecting threats like terrorism early and deploying quickly to battlefields abroad.

The outlook was laid out in the first top-to-bottom review of the defence posture of this nuclear-armed country in 14 years.

The review, nearly a year in the making, suggests that France wants to move closer to the NATO alliance — while maintaining a free hand on its commitments.

The review comes as France, like many other European countries, is grappling with ageing military equipment, tight budget constraints and threats like terrorism, drug trafficking and Internet-based crime.

“Weapons always need to evolve,” Defence Minister Hervé Morin told Associated Press Television News at an arms show outside Paris.

“We are adapting our defences against such new threats as, for example, terrorist threats, the risk of nuclear proliferation.”

The document places a greater focus on intelligence-gathering and more spending on satellite and airborne drones — paid for in part by reducing staff.

The review calls for a reduction of 54,000 defence jobs among the Defence Ministry’s total staff of about 340,000 today.

President Nicolas Sarkozy is to present the plan to military and security officials today.

The new strategy, to be discussed in parliament later this month, foresees no expansion of France’s nuclear arsenal, though it says that will remain the country’s “life insurance.”

The review will play a key role in shaping France’s five-year military planning law, expected to be passed later this year.

Analysts said France’s European and North American allies have been looking forward to the review to get a sense of Sarkozy’s military vision.

The president has sought to rebuild trans-Atlantic relations that frayed over the Iraq war.

Alastair Cameron, a European security expert at RUSI think tank in London, said it was “high time” for the review given that the new threats facing the world.

The paper puts France’s international emphasis on a stronger European Union defence policy — and Paris has sought to assure the US that EU defence doesn’t conflict with NATO.

France withdrew from NATO’s military command in 1966, and the country remains outside the alliance’s nuclear group and its planning committee.

The document confirms France’s interest in returning at least partially to NATO’s military command on the condition that French leaders retain a free hand concerning their country’s nuclear arsenal — an indicator that France may not join NATO’s nuclear planning group.

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