French land forces and the land defence industry today

In 2010, French land forces will contribute 80% of all current military operations involving France’s Army. Yet French military spending provides the land forces with only 20% of the total equipment budget in the five-year “Loi de Programmation Militaire 2009-2014” or National Defence Procurement Plan, a comprehensive document listing all defence procurements needed for that five-year period, and adopted after a majority vote by the two houses of the French Parliament.

1st Jun 2010


In 2010, French land forces will contribute 80% of all current military operations involving France’s Army. Yet French military spending provides the land forces with only 20% of the total equipment budget in the five-year “Loi de Programmation Militaire 2009-2014” or National Defence Procurement Plan, a comprehensive document listing all defence procurements needed for that five-year period, and adopted after a majority vote by the two houses of the French Parliament.

In France, and particularly since the end of the Cold War, land forces have always received the bare minimum with the Navy and the Air Force gulping down a vast majority of the procurement funds afforded yearly by the national defence budget – of which between 20 and 25% go exclusively to the nuclear strike force and the costly maintenance of a four-vessel ballistic submarine fleet. The meager amount given to the land forces in France is well reflected by the fact that they get only €50 million per year in the research field, that is 7% of all military research and development annual funding when they actually comprise 16,000 first line jobs!

But the tide is now changing and the coming months should see the first visible signs of a modernisation process of the French land forces. As France’s Army chief, General Elrick Irastorza puts it: “The French Army is now at the start of its third major modernisation phase since the end of World War II. The first being the reconstitution of France’s Army under the Marshall Plan and NATO in 1949, the second being under General de Gaulle’s presidency during the ‘60s. And the third being now along with our full return to the NATO alliance since 2009.”

A leaner and professional Army

Since the end of general conscription was decided by President Jacques Chirac in 1995, the French land force has been a purely professional force. The land-based component of the French Armed Forces employs 112,860 personnel (of which 10% are female soldiers) making the French army the second largest in the European Union after the British Army and the fourth largest in NATO after the armies of the USA, Turkey and the United Kingdom. All soldiers are now considered professionals, following the suspension of conscription voted in parliament in 1997 and effective as of 2001. The French Army switched from multi-brigade divisions to smaller divisions of about four to five battalions/regiments each in 1977, at which date some 400 regiments of active and reserve forces existed. During the late 1990s, when the professionalisation process was going on, numbers dropped from 236,000 (132,000 conscripts) in 1996 to around 140,000. By June 1999, the Army's strength had dropped to 186,000, including around 70,000 conscripts. Meanwhile, 38 of 129 regiments were planned to be stood down during the 1997-99 period which witnessed the most important shrinking move. The previous structure's nine divisions and sundry separate combat and combat support brigades were replaced by nine combat and four combat support brigades. The present Armée de Terre numbers some 80 regiments only which are gradually undergoing an important transformation in order to turn them into NATO-sized battle groups capable of fulfilling all sorts of missions and readily deployable overseas under short notice. As to be expected due to France’s spirited sense of independence, all the regiments of the Armée de Terre are mainly equipped with French-made hardware, ranging from the Leclerc main battle tank (produced by Nexter) to the small VBL armoured scout vehicle (made by Panhard) and the ubiquitous VAB (made by Renault Trucks) armoured infantry transport (or personnel carrier) vehicle everywhere to be seen in operations where the French Army is involved.

The present objective for this decade – under the successive 2009-2014 and 2015-2020 procurement laws - is an Armée de Terre (Land Army) making up an operational force of about 88,000 men and women organised around a strict total of eight composite brigades equipped with some 250 Leclerc MBTs, some 650 wheeled armoured infantry combat vehicles of the new VBCI type introduced in 2009, a concise 210 helicopter force (made up of 80 attack helicopters and 130 medium lift transport helicopters) and 22,588 FÉLIN individual combat kits. Added to this nucleus will be three specialised brigades and one special forces brigade backed by “adequate support means”.

Current equipment

The current equipment of the French land force closely reflects the production of France’s (and Europe’s) defence industry over the past three decades. Whether this is the infantry standard FAMAS 5.56mm assault rifle (made by Giat, now Nexter) at the bottom line or the Tigre attack helicopter (made by Eurocopter) on top of the basket. If some of this hardware is now long in the tooth, part of it has been updated and modernised to cope with the needs and tempo of overseas operations, either in support of NATO or within EU-led coalitions. On top of that, the French Army is the first in the world to introduce in earnest a fully developed individual combat soldier modernisation programme with FÉLIN, one of the first ‘bricks’ in the overall ‘Scorpion’ programme aiming at developing the NCW-enabled French Army of the 21st century.

In quick and cursory figures let’s recall what the French Armée de Terre represents today :
• about 400 MBTs (all of the Leclerc type) and almost as many light wheeled tanks of the AMX10RC and ERC90 types;
• about 4,000 VAB 4x4 armoured infantry vehicles due to be replaced by the future VBMR during this decade;
• about 1,000 AMX-10P tracked armoured infantry combat vehicles due to be replaced by 700 wheeled VBCIs before 2020;
• about 1,100 VBL 4x4 armoured scout vehicle and 1,500 PVP light protected personnel carrier;
• about 350 helicopters (Tigre, Gazelle, Puma, Cougar, Caracal types) and 18 fixed-wing support aircraft (TBM 700 and PC-6). Right now only 20 EC665 Tigres have been received and average age of France’s light army aviation fleet is high pending the arrival of the NH90 TTH during this decade.
Under a new management programme – PEGP, Politique d’Emploi et des Gestion des Parcs – all of this hardware should be used and maintained under a fully centralised and less waste producing policy.

Much of the Cold War era SPGs and tracked artillery in service in France is now leaving the place to more mobile and air transportable equipment such as the Nexter Caesar 155mm/ 52-calibre self propelled artillery system (which is replacing the tracked AU F1 155mm gun, based on the AMX-30 tank chassis) while emphasis is now being put on mine-detection and IED counter-fighting, through the purchase of a limited number of specific specialised equipment obtained through crash programmes or UORs, for instance the Nexter Aravis mine protected vehicle, Souvim 2 mine detector system and the Force Protection Buffalo A2 (purchased under FMS from the USA).

Three main industrial actors

In France a little less than 200 companies work for the land defence industry. In business figures, this represents about €4 billion per year, about 25 to 30 % of which is solely for export. Three main companies, of which two are multinationally owned, dominate this business sector: Thales with €1350 M (30% exports); Nexter €579 M (20% export) and Eurocopter €441 M (80% export). Other companies, like MBDA, provide tactical missiles or, like Panhard and Renault Trucks, various types of tactical vehicles.

Even if exports are an important concern for the French land defence industry, this sector as a priority works to supply the French Army with the hardware it requires, either in the long or the short term. Evidently, if getting prepared for a large scale war is not abandoned, it is not seen as a primary issue any longer. And the way defence budgets are now distributed illustrates the prime concern of the Army for transport helicopters, protection of the ground combatants, and the re-inforcement of special forces. Interestingly, it shows that the French casualties on the Afghan theatre did not die in vain and that the protection of the soldiers’s life is now the number one issue, both for the commanders and for the political deciders. A real and major change of mind for France and something that now instills itself well in the mind of the defence industry designers for whom as well the ‘zero-death’ concept is dead and well. However, for the arms designer the question still is: how to increase the combatant’s protection without hindering his mobility too much?

The very significant increase in the number of UORs in France places at the centre of the problem how and when long term acquisition should now be made. Between 2008 and 2009, the number of “crash programmes” increased two-fold, rising from €131 M in 2008 to €261 M a year later. All these UORs focused on vehicle protection and countering the current IED threat which is reponsible for some 80% of all human losses in Afghanistan.


Current main French programmes

On account of what is going on in Afghanistan today a large aspect of current French military programmes is related to protection (vehicles and combatants); research on new material; land drones and robotics; advanced optronic systems, both in active imagery and vetronics; reduced-lethality weapons; and urban combat, all this in view of the development of suitable equipment adapted both for immediate and future French Army needs. As well the intention is to preserve a sovereign approach in the design of armaments, both for reasons of independence and to develop the competitive side of the French defence industry in a very challenging field where new actors are becoming very active – Israel and China, in particular.

Benefiting only from about €50 million per year, French land defence R&D is now asking for at least €100 million annually in order to be able to prepare its future programmes which concern “Le combat débarqué (FELIN futurs)” or disembarked soldiers; “Le Combat embarqué (plateformes futures)” or future combat vehicles, for example the EBRC light tank fitted with a CTA40 turret; “Les Moyens transverses pour la synergie interarmes du GTIA” or, in short, new cohesion means for large battle groups, for example Scorpion; and “L’Engagement en zone urbaine” or combat warfare at its best.

In terms of reactivity of the French arms industry, the development of Souvim 2, a mine path clearing system designed and manufactured by MBDA since 2008, is a case in point and a programme which has just been completed. The project started as a long-term procurement system which gradually turned into a “crash programme”. Two units of this unique land vehicle system will be delivered very shortly to the French armament procurement agency DGA and will undergo final qualification testing before delivery to the French Army for use in Afghanistan. In line with the DGA procurement agency’s aim, the French Army will be ready to deploy this system in foreign theatres before the end of 2010.
Interestingly, Souvim 2 was designed for use in mobility support missions, allowing quick clearing of mined paths over long distances behind the lines: over 100 km of track cleared daily, with extensive counter-mining capabilities. It is said that the system’s performance is currently unequalled. It relies on the combined action of two vehicles towing mine-activation trailers. The first vehicle is designed to roll over a pressure mine without activating it. It tows a "mine-triggering trailer" (RDM), the weight of which will trigger pressure-sensitive mines and thereby secure the second vehicle's progress. This latter vehicle tows two further RDMs whose different wheel bases help cover the whole width of the track to be cleared. Adaptive tests have shown the system to be able to handle all existing mine threats, IEDs included.

On the long-term side, the French Army Scorpion programme is targeting the complexity of modern combat along an industrially led architecture plan likely to answer three distinct objectives:
1 – to improve the synergy between the large elements of a composite brigade (GTIA and SGTIA, in French tactical parlance);
2 – to improve battle management, improving access to total interoperability and the way programmes are run;
3 – to preserve the manoeuvrability and combat capacity of the disembarked soldier.

Multiplicity of programmes

Under these two approaches, the French Land defence industry is supervising a multiplicity of programmes which cover the entirety of domains generally of interest to the forces. A full listing here would be beyond the scope of this article, but all of them involve, at one stage or another, a very large part of the French (or European) industry. The most prominent new French arms programmes include Renault Trucks VBMR (véhicule bindé multi-rôle) and Panhard’s new Sphinx light wheeled tank.

In France, the land defence industry is represented by the land and air land defence and security industries group GICAT, which currently that has almost 200 members, including the main industrial prime contractors, equipment suppliers, system integrators and a network of dynamic and innovative small businesses, with one sole notable exception – Nexter Systems which pulled out a few years ago over disagreements. These companies, which have a diverse range of activities – industrial contractors, consultancy and service providers, as well as clusters and research institutes – possess the skills and know-how adapted to the needs of the sector, from design to production and the management of equipment support and removal from service. This highly specific set of skills constitutes the technological and industrial foundation of the sector. GICAT’s primary goal is to federate the offering of the entire sector with a view to consolidating in the long term the defence and security industrial and technological base. Towards this goal, the group provides promotion for the products and services of its members. Its subsidiary COGES (Commissariat Général aux Expositions et aux Salons), which is in charge of organising every other year the Eurosatory exhibition, federates the participation of French companies in a certain number of defence exhibitions outside France.

The land defence and security industries group (GICAT) pursues an active policy in relation to the main authorities in contact with the profession. On a European and international level, GICAT plays an active role within European structures that promotes the position of the European defence industry, and NATO (NIAG, NAMSA, NC3A). It actively participates via CIDEF (the Council of French Defence Industries) in the decisions of the AeroSpace and Defence Industries Association of Europe (ASD), which represents the European defence industry. In this body, it constitutes one of the founding pillars of the European Land Defence Industry Group through which it maintains exchanges with the European Defence Agency.
Nationally, GICAT is in contact with top-level political and government authorities, the Army (EMAT, SIMMT, SMITER, STAT departments), the armed forces chief of staff, the DGA procurement branch of the French MoD and the security forces. It has concluded a partnership arrangement with the French army based on a strong convergence of interests between designers, manufacturers and users of land and air land equipment. This dialogue extends to the various GICAT working groups. Regionally, GICAT has developed a number of partnerships with chambers of industry and commerce in France’s regions.

Alongside its traditional export support missions, GICAT proposes a range of services specially adapted to companies in the sector wishing to stimulate their network and boost their communication. To achieve this, GICAT proposes a range of services available to every member: press clippings related to the sector, newsletters, meetings, conferences on various topics, introductions to decision-makers and prime contractors, access to sector cartography, partnership with defence publications and a web site.

The group has made a particular effort to develop its services for small and medium businesses within the sector, which comprise 90% of the group’s members. GICAT’s small business working group is specifically focused on the needs and expectations of SMEs in the sector. In consultation with the latter, GICAT has developed several services adapted to small businesses, such as export support, access to defence and security markets and strategic information and, in particular, introductions to the main prime contractors. Since 2009, the small businesses have had a permanent representative on the GICAT board.

One of GICAT’s primary missions is to promote French capabilities. This takes two forms: promotion of capabilities and support for companies in international markets. GICAT offers its members special conditions for international activities. A specific package (co-exhibitor subsidy) is proposed to GICAT members, particularly the small businesses, to ensure that they are represented at defence and security exhibitions in France and internationally.
Every other year, GICAT invites members to attend Eurosatory, the leading land defence and security exhibition. GICAT also proposes international support, including the preparation of country information packages and introductions to defence attachés.

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