The Big Question: What is the new French defence strategy, and should we follow suit?

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The Independent Online

Why are we talking about this?

Because Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, unveiled plans yesterday to overhaul France's defence and security strategy for the first time in 14 years. The French reforms come after 9/11 and they respond to the strategic challenges and the new threats from globalisation, such as cyber-attacks. The white paper is being closely scrutinised because France and Britain are the two biggest military powers in Europe, with the capability to dispatch expeditionary armed forces way beyond their borders for a sustained period.

What's in the package?

He wants to streamline French forces to make them more flexible in terms of rapid deployment "from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean", and is calling for cuts of 54,000 defence personnel. But under the reform, France would be able to project 30,000 men with 70 fighter planes within a six-month period for up to a year. There's also a new focus on intelligence and on early warnings of threats, to prepare for possible attacks from weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, biological and chemical) or from ballistic missiles, at a time when more countries such as Iran are developing long-range missiles.

M. Sarkozy had a lot to say about European defence and his intention to bring France back into Nato's integrated military command. He said that France's European partners were confused about French intentions because it had sat on the sidelines since 1966, despite being one of Nato's biggest troop contributors and a founder member. M. Sarkozy stressed that he remained committed to French independence, saying that France would not give up command of its own forces in peacetime, and its nuclear forces would remain under national control. Linking his Nato initiative to greater European integration, he reaffirmed his commitment to building European defence, and called for Europeans to be able to project a total 60,000 military personnel at the same time outside the bloc's borders.

What are the greatest threats?

M. Sarkozy identified terrorism as the biggest threat to France. "Today, the most immediate threat is that of a terrorist attack," he said. "Thanks to the effectiveness of our security forces, France has not been attacked in recent years. But the threat is there, it is real and we know that it could tomorrow take on a new form, even more serious, by nuclear, chemical and biological means."

But he added that Iran is "the biggest threat to the world today", saying that France would act with its partners to "do everything to resolve the Iranian crisis".

What's the reaction to the shake-up?

Some people have called it a French "revolution" because of the bold ideas. But even before the president's address to 3,000 senior military officers in Paris, he had been criticised for "downgrading" the French military.

The centre-right president took this criticism head on in his speech and strongly denied that this was his intention, promising that there would be no budget cuts during his five-year term. The white paper's main thrust has been leaked in the past few days, and M. Sarkozy has on previous occasions outlined some of the main points, including the strengthening of France's nuclear deterrent, the establishment of a French military base in the United Arab Emirates, and the renegotiation of defence with African states.

Two Socialist MPs resigned on Monday from the committee that was preparing the white paper, accusing M. Sarkozy of pandering to President George Bush by confirming that France will rejoin Nato's integrated military command. The French parliament is to discuss the document next month.

Should Britain be following the French example?

In fact, the French are following Britain's lead and the white paper is long overdue, according to defence experts. The UK set the standard on defence strategy 10 years ago with a review in 1997-98, which has been adapted since then.

The French are now trying to catch up with Britain by applying the new strategy to both domestic and international threats, with more money going on homeland defence. France realised its weaknesses in the first Gulf War in 1991 when it was unable to project the same number of forces in Iraq as Britain.

M. Sarkozy's predecessor, Jacques Chirac, did not implement any large-scale military reforms after announcing the full professionalisation of the armed forces in 1996. Now, M. Sarkozy has taken a hard look at the military structures to make the armed forces more flexible and mobile.

But that will involve cutting defence personnel from a total 320,000 to 266,000. Over the coming six or seven years the army will be cut by some 17 per cent; the air force by 24 per cent; and the navy by 11 per cent.

How do the two countries compare?

France still has slightly more armed forces, and has the biggest army in Europe, even if you take the planned cuts into account. In 2007, France had 255,000 men and women in active service, compared to 180,000 for the UK.

In terms of defence expenditure, France was spending 2.4 per cent of GDP, compared to 2.5 per cent in Britain. When you look at the amount of spending on defence personnel, Britain's spending on administration and supporting roles is lower (40 per cent) compared to 60 per cent in France, so the overhaul will give the French more room to manoeuvre in terms of investment.

In fact, both countries, which are medium sized powers – M. Sarkozy described France as a "major diplomatic and military power" – co-operate very closely on military matters and have much respect for each other.

M. Sarkozy specifically mentioned the Franco-UK St Malo defence accords in his speech. The president pointed out though that, compared to the military might of the American defence industries, Europe remains a midget.

Anything else?

There is another similarity between the two countries, raised by M. Sarkozy when he talked about the poor quality of some military equipment, which will strike a chord with British soldiers.

He revealed that only one in two Leclerc tanks were working, and that refuelling planes were 45 years old, some light tanks were 28 years old, and some Puma helicopters were 30 years old, as he spoke of the need to invest in modern equipment that works.

British soldiers have complained about being sent into the field with faulty SA80 rifles, while Challenger tanks deployed in the Gulf have lacked spare parts.

Are France and Britain on the same wavelength on defence?

Yes...

* They have much in common because they are both medium-sized world powers in Europe

* Their militaries are very capable and are co-operating well

* They have already agreed to take a joint lead on European defence policy

No...

* They will never co-operate closely because they are rivals

* The threats faced by the island power and the continental power are too different

* France has brought out its white paper to compete with the UK, not to emulate it

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