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The armée de Terre ‘benchmarking’ blog series: Organisational structure

27 August 2020
French Cobbers statue in foreground with French National flag flying to left in background

This is the third blog in a series on the French Army, benchmarking the armée de Terre, its culture and in this post, its structure. This series will offer an outsider’s perspective on its organisational culture. In doing so, it will review the observations relevant to the increasingly important Army-to-armée partnership. The author currently serves as Army’s Liaison Officer to the armée de Terre in France.

Humans embrace structure – of all kinds. It codifies chaos. With neatness and simplicity, structure aids our common comprehension. In its various forms, structure intimates efficiency. More than that, it implies effectiveness – individually and organisationally.

Structure enables an organisation to achieve its goals. Internal appreciation of organisational structure empowers shared purpose, understanding and functionality. External appreciation of structure promotes productive partnerships. In the military context, it has been said that ‘war is not won with bayonets, but effective organisation.’

This third blog on the armée de Terre describes its structure for an Australian Army audience. This description will avoid structural stereotypes. Rather, it will detail those aspects of the French Army’s structure most relevant to the engagement and exchanges underpinning the enhanced Army-to-armée partnership.

First, the figures. The French Army totals over 130,000, making it the largest land force in Europe, and by some measure. Of this total, 106,000 are ‘regular’ and 24,500 are ‘reserve.’ Reservists are integrated into ‘regular’ Regiments and headquarters. By way of recent history, prior to the cessation of national service in 1996, the French Army peaked at 331,600, comprising three Corps, 15 Divisions and 229 Regiments, of which five fielded nuclear capabilities. A series of cuts saw this figure bottom-out at 96,444 in 2014. Following the strategic shock of the 2015 terrorist attacks, within 12 months, an additional 11,000 were recruited to create the current establishment. The armée de Terre’s ‘operational contract,’ France’s White Paper, directs its land force maintain 77,000 ‘ready.’

Next, command and control. The French Army is led by a four-star general. His mission and focus is near identical to Australia’s Chief of Army. The French Chief’s headquarters is led by the Deputy Chief of Army, a three-star general who implements their Chief’s strategic vision throughout the French Army. The headquarters incorporates personnel (G1), operations (G3), logistics (G4), training (G7), modernisation/future concept (G8) and international engagement functions. Additional support to the French Chief is provided by three additional three-star commands. One is responsible for human resources. The second sustains all land material. The third general, the ‘Forces Commander,’ leads the largest component of the French Army, the one responsible for force/operational generation of the French Army’s deployable Corps headquarters and its ‘unit of action.’

Perhaps of greatest importance to any discussion of a partner land force’s structure is its ‘unit of action.’ Such discussion offers insight into operational opportunities, engagement foundations and interoperability challenges. For Australia, it is generally the ‘Combat Brigade.’ Since 2015, the ‘Combat Division,’ has been the French Army’s ‘unit of action.’ The French Army maintain two, enormous, 25,000 strong, corresponding Combat Divisions. Both have sizable ‘heavy’/’warfighting’ Combat Brigades. Equally, both maintain large ‘medium’/’multi-purpose’/’amphibious’ combat formations. Each has a specialist Combat Brigade; one airborne, the other mountain-warfare. Finally, one is responsible for the combined Franco-German Combat Brigade. These divisional ‘units of action’ follow a two-year force generation cycle (more on training in a subsequent piece).

Enabling each Combat Division’s preparations for operational deployment and contingency response are a number of supporting Divisions. The ones that fall within Forces Command include Intelligence, Communications, Logistics, Maintenance and Combined-arms individual and collective training/certification. External to Forces Command, Special Forces, Aviation, Ab initio training Divisions plus one facilitating the French Army’s considerable, and continuous, contribution to the French community and its civil authority, round out the enablers. Of interest, a newly created branch in their Forces Command headquarters prepares individuals and teams deploying for capacity building initiatives. The sum of these ‘units of action’ and enabling components meets the French Army’s significant contemporary internal and external operational and contingency responsibilities, numbering around 26,000 persons.

The structural relationship between the armée de Terre and broader French military matches the Australian Army’s context. As operational deployments trend joint, the French Army is increasingly working with its sister services. Equivalent to the Australian Defence Force, the French Army prepares and assigns individuals, teams and land material for its Joint Operations Command, or Interior Ministry for domestic operations, to command and control. An array of Departmental groups and services support the French Army’s primary functions: that is, to fight wars - or prepare to fight them.

In 2015, triggered by the infamous terrorist attacks in France, as well as the announcement of its unprecedented modernisation program, the armée de Terre transformed its organisational structure into its current form. In true French style, this transformation was accorded an inspiring title, ‘Au Contact,’ or ‘ready for combat.’ Following a number of refinements, the structure is largely mature. That is not to say that it is static. The French Army respects the managerial maxim that enduring organisational success, if not survival, is contingent on a structure that accepts change as its basic premise.

As with prior blogs, correlation between the Australian and French armies is once again apparent – this time on the subject of structure. Such similarities set the conditions for a profitable bilateral partnership, regionally and beyond. Additional points of convergence (and difference) will be explored in the next blog in this series. It will focus on human resources and force generation. Like culture and structure, comparisons between these key land force functions reveal common ground, and, in turn, opportunities for enhanced engagement.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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