Before his trip to Lorient, on Monday 7 November 2022, Sébastien Lecornu, Minister of the Armed Forces, takes stock with Western France on the terms of defense.
In the face of major economic, health and social problems, is defense still a key issue?
Threats to France and the security of the French are changing very rapidly. For more than 20 years, the fight against armed terrorism has been the top priority for our armies. From now on, we see it with the war in Ukraine, it is the high intensity return to Europe that exposes us to new conventional threats, sometimes under nuclear cover; then, hybrid threats appear concurrently, or the diversion of civilian objects for military purposes: energy blackmail, blackmail of food raw materials, information warfare, cyber threats, etc.
Basically, our roadmap is simple: while threats add up and take different forms, the French defense system – I don’t use the word “armies” because armies are the main actor but not the only one – must be in able to respond to these new threats. Furthermore, this historic update of our defense system will remain one of the strengths of the President of the Republic’s budget.
A new law on military programming is in preparation. What specific ambitions do you have for the French armies?
There is an important issue of strategic autonomy. We currently ensure the role of NATO framework nation in Romania, meaning that it is up to France to provide the military structure necessary for a deployment whose size can evolve according to the Russian threat and which involves our allies. This deterrent defensive mission provides the model of what our army should be, because few countries can and know how to do it. This is one of the entry points into the next LPM (Military Planning Act).
Furthermore, this autonomy also involves our nuclear deterrent, which we are continuing to modernize. Finally, our ability to be more autonomous depends on our stockpiles of equipment and ammunition, as well as the manufacturing and innovation capabilities of our defense technology and industrial base. I would also like to add that our autonomy will also pass by meeting the challenges of cyber, space or information warfare.
In the naval field, do we have to wait for the changes to face the challenges?
In the past, in addition to traditional naval combat, the sea was used to strike on the ground, landing men or hitting coastal targets with missiles. Today the sea has become an area of conflict as such and participates in the globalization of threats. We see it with the seabed: the sabotage of the Nordstream pipeline, the safety of the communication cables.
We also see this with the strategies of denying access to the sea to hinder world trade. That is why, in order to guarantee our sovereignty, we must adapt. This new range of frigates, such as the one to be launched on Monday in Lorient, is one example. I remind you that France is not a country like any other. Thanks to our overseas territories, our maritime area is one of the largest in the world and borders the Pacific! Our navy must therefore have this dimension. Furthermore, while maintaining tools that allow us to carry out classic naval operations, we must also be modern, having underwater drones, relying on space. The technological challenge for tomorrow is very high.
Thickening, massification, high intensity… What does it require on a daily basis?
One: mass is primarily based on the availability of equipment in the fleet. It is one thing to have helicopters, they still need to be able to fly! For the next LPM, but also from the 2023 Budget, one of my main priorities will be to strengthen the resources allocated to maintenance, the availability of spare parts and access to fuel.
Two: in France we have an army of jobs, which is not the case in all countries. Historically, our armies have been engaged in many operations; it is therefore necessary to maintain a high level of training to be operational all the time.
Three: do not leave out anything about the fundamental and vital functions. For example, the health service, catering and logistics of the Armed Forces cannot be neglected. Not to mention the ammunition. In Ukraine we see that these functions are of great importance at the forefront.
In terms of numbers, how to consolidate? With more reservations?
On the reserves, we are now in the middle of the ford. What does not satisfy me; and I say this both as a minister and as a reservist. The reserve is a pool of great people who are sometimes not employed at their right level in France. However, there are countries, such as the United States, that use their otherwise more qualifying and more effective reserves.
In these countries, nothing distinguishes the uniformed reservist from his active comrades. This will be another strong point of the LPM: how to have a new generation reserve capable of responding when the Nation needs it. But also capable of providing armies with technical expertise on complex issues. This will help strengthen our military model that must integrate civilian knowledge to address hybrid threats.
On the LPM in preparation, are the minister and the main military decision-makers in unison?
There is no minister on one side and the military on the other! The same questions and challenges arise for both politicians and the military. With the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, we work in pairs to build this law. We listen to all approaches, which are not the same between armies, between generations of officers, depending on the culture. All this is wealth. For example, we must find the balance between the efforts to be made on the equipment already existing in the armed forces and the share of revolutionary innovation and the technological leap to be accepted for the future.
And the Universal National Service… Where are we after this year of experimentation?
The President of the Republic will speak on this subject in the coming weeks. On SNU we are in a middle ground because the experimental phases are over and now we have to draw conclusions for the future. It is clear that the UN, as we know it today, is destined to evolve. Sarah El-Haïry is working on comprehensive feedback, essential to learn lessons that will serve the next version of the UN. For example, achieving social diversity remains a challenge: SNU must be a republican and social accelerator, like military service in the past.
In defense, is the opposition in the constructive nuance or in the annoyance?
The LPM vote will answer this question. But I already see that there is a gap between the ideas of the election campaigns and what is happening in the hemicycle. During the campaign, the RN and the LFI had completely questioned France’s participation in NATO, which sent an absolutely frightening signal of strategic loneliness to all our partners – Europeans in the lead – but also to our competitors. We must not forget that France is a founding country of NATO, even though General de Gaulle – and President Macron is part of this tradition – ensured that we kept our freedom within it.
However, no one talks about this question in the Chamber anymore, and for good reason: it is not serious. Another example: Jean-Luc Mélenchon had questioned the principle of nuclear deterrence that existed during the campaign. From now on, the LFI elect are silent on this matter. As for the RN, sometimes it asks for increases in credits already voted … In short, I believe that the oppositions have difficulty in pointing out to Emmanuel Macron that the work is done and I see it on strategic issues such as deterrence or in our alliances, there is a great embarrassed silence or not very reassuring approximations. It is difficult to assume that their electoral proposals ultimately rhymes with an agenda of weakening France.