1,300 km from France, the fighting is raging. The Russian attack against Ukraine, launched in February, caused an electric shock within NATO. For three months, Volodymyr Zelensky’s Western allies, including France, have been supplying numerous arms and equipment to kyiv. None, however, sends troops on the ground, for fear that the conflict will become frontal with Vladimir Putin.
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If France entered directly into a war “high intensity”, it could count on the support of its military allies and, as a last resort, on nuclear deterrence. Without being “most likely”this extreme hypothesis “can no longer be excluded”, warned a National Assembly report on high-intensity preparedness published a week before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. France must prepare for all scenarios. This is what the experts interviewed by franceinfo agree. These defense specialists dissected what the conflict in Ukraine teaches us about our armies.
Insufficient “mass” in high-intensity conflict
Tanks, armored vehicles, helicopters… The war in Ukraine is swallowing up heavy equipment by the hundreds. Moscow has so far lost more than 670 tanks, around 40 helicopters and nearly 120 planes, according to the specialized blog Oryx (in English) lists Russian vehicles destroyed, abandoned or captured by Ukrainian forces.
France is far from having as much material, according to a report by the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri) devoted to the “mass in the French armies”. Between 1991 and 2021, the number of tanks has been divided by 6 (222 tanks against 1,349 20 years ago), combat aircraft by 2.7 (254 against 686). The military personnel are also two times less numerous (203,000 against 453,000), the reservists, ten times less numerous (41,000 against 420,000).
The parliamentary report published in February also points to a potential problem with the stock of certain ammunition, the lifespan of which is ten years. To replenish a stock of missiles, for example, it would sometimes take up to three years between order and delivery.
Peacetime production, hard to ramp up
“France produces today in the rhythm of peace, guaranteed by nuclear weapons”, notes Léo Péria-Peigné, researcher at Ifri, specialist in armaments. In the event of a high-intensity war, neither stocks nor production rates would be sufficient. For exemple, “the 150 Rafale planes could disappear in one to two weeks” if they were engaged in such a conflict.
If France were to mass-produce in the face of an attack, several months or years would be needed, depending on the models. “Dassault depends on more than 200 subcontractors, some of which only produce certain parts, which they are the only ones to produce”, illustrates Léo Péria-Peigné. Not to mention the weapons co-produced with other European countries, such as the EC665 Tiger helicopter, or those that the country no longer produces, such as infantry weapons, purchased abroad.
Something to remind you in passing that money also remains the sinews of war. The 2022 French defense budget, excluding pensions, amounts to 40.9 billion euros, according to the Ministry of Defense, up 8.5 billion since 2017. The military programming law promulgated in 2018 by Emmanuel Macron set the goal of raising the defense budget to 2% of GDP by 2025. A target exceeded by 2020, according to the World Bank, but which remains well below the expenditure of Russia, which devoted 4, 3% of its gross domestic product to its defense in 2020, from Ukraine (4.1%) and the United States (3.7%).
“To strengthen France’s armament capabilities, recruit and retain our troops, we need more budgetdefends Patricia Mirallès, LREM deputy for Hérault and co-rapporteur of the mission dedicated to the National Assembly. “The best way to avoid war is to prepare for it.declares the chosen one. Even if we wouldn’t go to war alone.”
An army shaped by and for asymmetric conflicts
If the French armies appear under-equipped for a conflict between States, it is because the geopolitical situation has changed a lot since the beginning of the 1990s. “Before the fall of the Soviet Empire, during the Cold War, France was still preparing for the possibility of high-intensity, symmetrical inter-state combat”recalls Edouard Jolly, researcher in theory of armed conflicts and philosophy of war at the Strategic Research Institute of the Military School (Irsem).
In the 1990s, military service was no longer compulsory, army budgets fell. “Since then, France has participated in external, asymmetrical operations. Barkhane in the Sahel, Sangaris in the Central African Republic, Pamir in Afghanistan… These armed conflicts against insurgencies have shaped our military tool.” These operations required less heavy means than a conflict between States. They have also enabled France to beef up its logistical capacities.
Tanks abandoned for lack of gasoline, rations expired… From the start of the conflict, the signs of a certain disorganization of the Russian army struck the international community. Above all, these errors gave Ukraine the opportunity to resist against a numerically superior army. “Logistics convoys are particularly vulnerable when conflicts involve long distances”, explains Angélique Palle, researcher at Irsem, specialist in energy and the environment. She recalls that in Iraq, “the United States lost nearly 3,000 personnel on logistics convoys”. France is “rather good on logistical supply issues, the mission in the Sahel has trained the army a lot”however, notes the researcher.
A well-established cyber defense
Land, air, sea, the war in Ukraine is everywhere. Less visible, it is also present on the networks. “Even before 2014, cyber weapons were used by Russia to attack banks, media, infrastructure, to interfere in elections”analyzes Arthur Laudrain, doctoral student at the University of Oxford, expert in cybersecurity. “Since the beginning of the conflict, these cyber attacks have had major consequences on the population and its ability to obtain information, access state services and even get light.”
In total, around thirty Russian cyberattack campaigns have been documented by the CyberPeace Institute, questioned by the investigation unit of Radio France. On the very first day of the conflict, Thursday February 24, the American ViaSat satellite network, widely used by the Ukrainian army, was attacked. The repercussions went beyond Ukrainian borders, since 9,000 people found themselves without internet access in France.
France is aware of the risk since the attempts of Russian interference in the 2017 presidential election, and is preparing. Its teams also won first place in 2019 at the international cyber defense exercise Locked Shields, which brings together 30 nations. Among the tricolor assets, incentives for startups to stay in the territory “for 5-6 years” and “a well-established level of public-private cooperation, which is not the case everywhere”believes Arthur Laudrain. “Many companies that could be targeted in a cyber conflict scenario maintain privileged relations with the State, such as EDF, GDF, SNCF…”
Reflections initiated for the long term
War also involves the control of information. Vladimir Putin may censor the press and tighten propaganda on his territory, “the Ukrainians succeeded in imposing their narrative against the Russians, who were somewhat the masters in the matter”, notes General Thierry Burkhard to AFP. Researcher Samuel Longuet confirms: “At the start of the invasion, it was expected that pro-Russian trolls would flood social media with the Kremlin narrative.” However, with his all-terrain communication and his interventions in front of numerous parliaments, Volodymyr Zelenski knew how to occupy the media space.
In France, “the reflection on information warfare has already been initiated”, recalls Samuel Longuet. At the end of April, the French army declassified a drone video to counter an attempt to manipulate Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group in Mali.
In this information war against Moscow, Ukraine massively uses its drones, which capture images of the fighting. They are also used to confront a great air power, by locating the day of the targets to attack at night. Or by bombarding “Russian anti-aircraft batteries and fuel convoys”, explains Samuel Longuet, post-doctoral researcher in international relations at the Free University of Brussels. In a note published in April, the Center for Strategic Aerospace Studies (Cesa) closely observes these multiple uses of drones, from which France could draw inspiration.
Soon, the energy issues that agitate the world will also arise in the army. A Leclerc tank consumes about 300 liters per 100 km, under high temperatures. “However, fossil fuel resources are becoming scarce”, recalls Angelique Palle. The armies will therefore face new trade-offs: diversifying energies, but being the first to use only renewable energies could amount to ceding an operational advantage to opponents. “A tank running on solar energy will necessarily be less powerful, slower and less armored than a tank running on oil.”