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Benchmarking the French Army’s ‘model’ modernisation program

4 December 2020
Silhouetted soldier with palm trees and sunshine in background

This is the sixth blog in a series on benchmarking the French Army – the armée de Terre. To date, this series has ‘benchmarked’ the armée de Terre, its culture, its structure, its people capability and its approach to training. This post will analyse the French Army’s modernisation program. In doing so, it will highlight points relevant to the increasingly important Army/armée de Terre partnership. The author currently serves as Army’s Liaison Officer to the armée de Terre in France. An extended-length version of this blog, has been published within the Australian Defence Magazine.

For military organisations, few decisions are more strategic than their modernisation programs. Military modernisation programs seek to ensure enduring mission readiness – arguably the most important objective for any military organisation. This is certainly the case for the Australian Army. Underwriting the Australian Army’s emphasis on ‘future readiness’ is its unprecedented modernisation plan – one unmatched in dollar value and unparalleled in its transformation of current capability.

Conceived in the early 2000s, and successfully delivering since 2016, the French Army’s modernisation program is a bold, broad, innovative and commendable model sharing many of the features of the Australian Army’s decade-long modernisation agenda. It is equally unprecedented, unmatched in cost and unparalleled in its profound transformation of current capability. These points of convergence, amongst others, establish the French Army’s modernisation program as an external, equivalent and contemporary ‘model’ to benchmark the Australian Army’s strategic modernisation plan.

The French Army’s modernisation program could hardly be described as your stock standard military modernisation-by-replacement model - as and when federal funding becomes available. Indeed, its broad physical focus and innovative philosophy make it worthy of comparison.

The physical focus of the French Army’s modernisation program is broad. Headlining its lethality, mobility and protection revolution is the acclaimed Scorpion initiative, which is introducing new Armoured Personnel Carriers (Griffon), Combat Reconnaissance Vehicles (Jaguar), Medium Protected Mobility Vehicles (Serval), upgraded Infantry Fighting Vehicles (VBCI) and vastly improved Main Battle Tanks (Leclerc). Concurrent assault weapons (HK416, SCAR, Glock 17R), anti-armour missiles (MMP), night-fighting equipment, combat uniforms and body armour will address the current and emergent needs of the dismounted combat fantassin. Combat (Tigre) and Mobility (Caïman  - NH 90) helicopter upgrades will guarantee a substantial increase in aerocombat capability – as will the replacement of the venerable Gazelle light helicopter (Guépard).

Beyond transforming combat capability, the French Army’s modernisation model will introduce, replace or upgrade its combat support and logistics platforms. Physically, it will deliver light and protected reconnaissance vehicles (VBAE), armoured engineer vehicles (MACPAC), mounted and automated 120 mm mortars (Griffon), logistic platforms (PPT), upgraded air defence systems – including counter UAS (unmanned aerial systems), an array of surveillance equipment and enhancements to their operationally-proven self-propelled artillery (Caesar) – inclusive of more lethal and precise munitions. The sum of this combat and combat support platform amelioration promises a clear future capability and competitive advantage.

According to the French Army, connectivity is the physical centre of gravity of its modernisation agenda. For the first time, a federated BMS (SICS) and combat communications system (CONTACT) will facilitate state-of-the-art sensor-linked, data-fused, man/machine interface capable, ‘digital networking’ between all combat and combat support platforms. This unprecedented connectivity will enable unmatched, near-instantaneous shared situational awareness as well as the capacity for accelerated individual and collective actions - offensive, defensive and even logistic. This new way of operating and fighting, designated ‘collaborative combat,’ combined with the modernisation plan’s physical transformation of lethality, mobility and protection, will aim to ensure the French Army’s combined-arms teams are ‘future ready.’

The final component of the modernisation program’s physical focus is its investment in cutting-edge technology. This effort is being implemented, and inculcated, by the French Army’s new ‘digitisation and innovation’ division and its subordinate Battlelab Terre. Under its modernisation umbrella, the French Army is integrating increasing numbers and types of unmanned systems, remote weapon stations, tactical cyber capabilities, loitering munitions, energy weapons, electronic warfare (EW) and signature management devices, augmented/virtual reality techniques, NRBC-D equipment, artificial intelligence enabled tools, a reboot of its ground-breaking FELIN soldier combat system and numerous internally-inspired, or externally sourced, concepts.

While the magnitude of the modernisation program’s physical focus is exceptional, its inventive philosophy is what makes it truly exemplary. Unlike many land force modernisation models, including preceding French Army plans, its philosophy is not merely platform oriented. Rather, it seeks to transform the way the French Army trains, operates, fights and wins (gagner au contact). Accordingly, from the outset, the modernisation agenda has focused on transforming the French Army’s doctrine, approach to training and interoperability with the allies it will most likely fight with during future high-intensity, peer-adversary conflict.

Shortly after the formal announcement of its modernisation program, and two years prior to the delivery of its first high-profile Scorpion Armoured Fighting Vehicles (AFV), the French Army pioneered an organisation to revolutionise its warfighting doctrine. Since 2016, the Scorpion Battlelab, a partnership between the French Army’s education/doctrine command and its combined-arms training division, has diligently developed, tested and produced new, modernisation-enabled, warfighting doctrine. This initiative is a first for the French Army. It represents a significant departure from prior practice of introducing doctrine as a sequel, if not afterthought, to material delivery. Throughout 2021, this transformative provisional doctrine will be tested, validated and evolved by the first modernised French Army combined-arms teams. Lessons learned from applying this new doctrine, in training and while deployed, will incrementally and iteratively improve it.

In designing its modernisation model, the French Army has prioritised that all-important input to transforming combined-arms capability: leading training. This crucial component, often eclipsed by the shiny hardware headlining land modernisation agendas, is at the program’s forefront. This emphasis emanates from the top, with the French Army’s Chief, General Thierry Burkhard, underlining the modernisation-inspired training transformation as his ‘main effort.’ It is also aligned with French cultural scepticism of technology being the sine qua non of combat advantage. Accordingly, the French Army is leveraging its modernisation program to elevate their already benchmark combat-team ‘live’ combined arms training to battlegroup level plus. Via its modernisation model, it is significantly improving its combat training facilities and certification centres. Perhaps the best example of this is the near-complete live-instrumentation fit-out of its world-class national urban training centre.

The modernisation program’s exemplary philosophy is bookended by its emphasis on enhancing the French Army’s ability to train, operate and, potentially fight, alongside its closest allies. Consistent with his weighting of training transformation, General Burkhard has prioritised enhancing interoperability with benchmark allied land forces. Wherever possible, and more than ever before, the French Army is seeking, encouraging or adopting modernised system/platform architecture that is compatible, or can at least interact, with whom they will likely operate and fight.

If the French Army modernisation program’s broad physical focus and innovative philosophy are worthy of benchmarking, its characteristics are equally exemplary. For military benchmarkers, the program’s characteristics, like principles, endure - even after separating unique French context and circumstance. It would be fair to characterise the French Army’s modernisation model as coherent, comprehensive, capability-oriented, cost-effective and challenge-focused.

The most prominent, and arguably impressive, characteristic of the French Army’s modernisation program is its coherence. Consistent and compelling messaging (and marketing) has energised, galvanised and focalised the entire French Army– as well as key external stakeholders, including industry, the bureaucracy, politicians and relevant allies. The modernisation program’s cohesion is equally evident in its systematic sequencing and supervision of all inputs to assuring the French Army’s future readiness - notably doctrine/concepts, policy, structure, human resources, training, sustainment, platforms and partnerships.

The program’s comprehensiveness is equally impressive. Its two tranches underline its comprehensive sequencing. Tranche 1, already funded by the current French six-year Integrated Investment Plan equivalent, la loi de programmation militaire (LPM), extends from 2019 to 2025. The second tranche, to be funded, yet endorsed in principle by the French government, will extend from 2025 to 2030.  The comprehensiveness of the French Army’s modernisation program extends beyond its schedule. Anticipating the plan’s purpose will endure beyond its schedule, the French Army is already preparing its land modernisation agenda post Scorpion. Designated Titan, (see image below) the French Army, in cooperation with its closest European allies, namely Germany, will introduce a new Main Battle Tank/Infantry Fighting Vehicle (Main Ground Combat System), future artillery system (Common Indirect Fire System), including long-range precision fires, and a state-of-the-art attack aviation platform.

French Army Land Modernisation Agenda


Another model characteristic of the French Army’s modernisation program, worthy of benchmarking, is its capability focus. This focus is abundantly clear in the French Army’s acquisition of cutting-edge capabilities as well as its systematic sequencing of aforementioned vital inputs to ‘future readiness.’ Importantly, this capability emphasis remains true to the French Army’s enduring combined-arms, expeditionary (‘rapidly deployable yet sufficiently robust’), operationally focused and mission-command ethos. It is equally consistent with the French Army’s‘ operational contract’ with the French nation, as defined in its White Paper. Accordingly, the modernisation agenda’s initial capability objective is to deploy a ‘Scorpion battlegroup’ by 2021, a ‘Scorpion combat brigade’ by 2023 and a ‘Scorpion division’ by 2025 (if required). The program is also driving positive change to the composition and capability of the French Army’s high-readiness contingency forces. A final example of the model’s capability focus is the French Army’s initial definition of ‘how we will fight’ post modernisation. This definition, one that often eludes land force modernisation architects, established some five years before the delivery of the program’s first AFV, is simple, well-understood, and guides the French Army’s doctrine development, training transformation and platform provision.

The cost-effectiveness of the French Army’s modernisation program merits comparison. Comprising a modest proportion of the six-year €172.8 bn /$288.7 bn AUD LPM, (a sum incorporating tri-service modernisation, innovation, sustainment, condition of service and facility costs), it could well be one of the most cost-effective, contemporary land force modernisation models. The plan reflects the French Army’s cultural pragmatism. This virtue allows it to acquire sufficient technically superior platforms to train for and meet its strategic obligations, while avoiding unnecessary, and perhaps idealistic and unsustainable, bases of provision. It manifests equally in its astute, and coherent, investment in supporting simulation, concentrated training aids and centralised training facilities for its efficient force generation cycle.

It would be reckless to consider the French Army’s modernisation program immune to the ‘bluff and bluster’ of domestic and international turmoil – and, while daring, the French Army is far from negligent. Accordingly, their modernisation model does not shy from current and future challenges, prudently avoiding any suggestion that it is a ‘done deal,’ permitting ‘fire and forget’ oversight.

The French Army’s leadership are working diligently to protect the program’s long-standing coherence against internal distractions and an increasingly uncertain geopolitical context. Continuous effort is also apportioned to ensuring the plan remains comprehensive - adaptive to spiral development, new technologies and interoperability requirements. It is a continuous challenge to ensure the model delivers the capability-edge that will allow the French Army to fight and win on future battlefields, alone or ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ with their allies. It is an equal challenge to prioritise the program’s innovative philosophy over military penchant to focus, often exclusively, on the ‘heavy metal’ manifestation of modernisation. Productive collaboration with industry, both sovereign and European, compels meticulous management – thereby ensuring enduring value-for-money. Finally, achieving ‘cost-effectiveness’ will be an ongoing challenge, particularly given the deleterious impact of COVID-19 on the French, and global, economies.

Conceived almost 20 years ago and currently delivering its first tranche, the French Army’s modernisation program is worthy of benchmarking. Its bold purpose, broad focus and innovative philosophy are unique, and perhaps, unmatched. Its far-reaching physical focus and original philosophy make it a study of the exemplary. Stripped of idiosyncratic context or circumstance, its commendable characteristics - coherence, comprehensiveness, capability orientation, cost-effectiveness and challenge focused - offer profound, and perhaps original, insights for an Australian Army pursuing similar modernisation objectives and confronting equivalent challenges and risks.

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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