The military threat has changed… We must change the structure of the armies accordingly

While the structure of the French armies today is inherited from an assessment of threats dating from 2013, it is now necessary to adapt it to the observed changes in threats and balance of power today.

Plan Z of 2013: the wrong diagnosis, but the right approach to expand the structure of the armies

During the work surrounding the drafting of the 2013 White Paper on Defense and National Security, a project aimed at reducing defense spending was proposed by the Ministry of Finance. Better known as Plan Z, this strategy aimed to reorganize the structure of the French armies according to the reality of the threat then perceived, with a good dose of myopia, it is true, as it ignored the trajectory of the rise in power. Russian or Chinese armies.

Bercy proposed to reduce the French land forces to an expeditionary force of 60.000 men, entrusting the whole of the defense of the territory to the sole deterrence supported by the naval and air forces, also restructured for the occasion in order to respond to this logic. .

Fortunately, the project was abandoned, largely due to a revolt from the Minister of Defense and the four Chiefs of Staff at the time, all of whom put their resignation in the balance for this.

However, this plan did not lack a certain logic, namely to structurally adapt the armies to the reality of the threat as it was (poorly) perceived at that time, but was designed on exclusively budgetary and non-operational bases.

Structure of the French armies
The French Armies, today, are organized around professional units with reserve forces to increase their resilience.

A radical evolution of the military threat over the last ten years in Europe

The fact remains that if Bercy wanted to adapt, in 2013, the French armies to the evolution of the threat to better respond to the anti-terrorist commitments of the time such as in Afghanistan and later in Mali, this same threat has evolved considerably since then, at point to question the relevance of the current structure of the armies.

So, speaking at the Royal United Services Institute's (RUSI) Land Warfare Conference earlier this week, the Chief of Staff of the British Army, General Patrick Sander, thus gave a sincere plea in favor of a return of the mass to meet future challenges, unlike the trajectory currently followed by the British Army, which should see its workforce reduced from 82.000 men in 2015 to 72.500 soldiers in 2025.

For the British general, the evolution of the threat, but also the lessons of the war in Ukraine, show that it is now essential to give the armies the volume required to engage and face in the long term an adversary as numerous than powerfully armed, as Russia can be.

british soldiers training excercise 2 e1688043553879 Defense Policy | Germany | Defense Analysis
The British Army has been significantly eroded by its engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq

And to add that it is not befitting Great Britain to rely on the armies of its allies who, themselves, will have taken the measure of the stakes (reference to Poland without the slightest doubt), and to be satisfied to bet on technology to compensate for its starving mass.

General Sander here took the direct opposite view of the conclusions of the British White Paper of 2021 which, in an approach close to that used by the French Plan Z eight years earlier, considered that technology was an alternative to mass, and that the British Army could be "specialized" in certain support and support missions for the benefit of Allied forces designed for major and high-intensity engagements.

For London, it was then a question of responding to the impossible budgetary equation generated by the considerable wear and tear on the military potential of the British Army, but also the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, to meet the constraints and costs of its commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The paradigms considered coherent in March 2021, however, have largely been swept away by the realities observed in Ukraine, to the point that the Defense Secretary, Ben Wallace, had to recognize, recently, in front of the House of Lords, that Her Majesty's armies would be hard pressed today to put up serious resistance without the support of its allies if Russia took significant military action against the British Isles.

10th Mountain Brigade Ukraine Defense Policy | Germany | Defense Analysis
The Ukrainian armed forces, almost exclusively composed of conscripts and reservists, have shown that they are capable of significant technical expertise and high combat effectiveness.

Still, it is not enough to decree a mass increase in armies to make it a reality. The British armies, like the French, German, Italian or Spanish, having made the choice of professionalization, face many constraints to achieve this, in particular at the budgetary level while the European countries are already struggling to finance their current effort.

Above all, as we have repeatedly addressed the subject in recent weeks, all these armies are encountering significant difficulties in recruiting the required profiles, and renewing the contracts of serving soldiers.

Conscription, reserve or professional army: how to respond to the challenge of the necessary increase in mass of French armies?

Under these conditions, one can reasonably question the relevance of the professional structure of a majority of European armies, which precisely combines these two constraints at their highest level, with increasingly high personnel costs to cope with the competition from civilians, and growing difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff, making the objective of gaining mass at best very difficult to achieve.


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