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France Unveils Revised Military Strategy Following Paris Terror Attacks

France’s defense minister has announced more troops to combat Islamist insurgents in Africa's Sahel and a continued military presence on French soil, in the wake of January's terror attacks.

by Pierre Longeray
Mar 14 2015, 2:31pm

Image via État-major des armées / armée de Terre

This week French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian unveiled the government's 2015 defense plans, revised in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris and the ongoing militant Islam threat in Africa.

"Never before in its recent history has France seen this level of connection between the direct threats on home turf and those outside its borders," said the government in a document outlining the coming year's defense priorities.

In order to maintain its military presence at home and abroad, the government has decided to save 23,000 posts that were set to be scrapped by 2019, within the framework set out by the Military Programming Law — 2013 legislation that outlined France's military agenda for the next six years.

The troops currently deployed throughout France as part of Operation Sentinelle — a nationwide security operation, which was triggered in January to protect 682 sensitive sites across the country — will remain stationed "at least until the beginning of the summer," said Le Drian.

Operation Sentinelle, which costs the French government 1 million Euros ($1.06 million) a day to run, mobilizes a total of 10,000 troops, 7,000 of which are posted at religious sites across the country. The remaining 3,000 soldiers patrol the country's railway stations, airports and tourist sites with Vigipirate, France's national security alert system.

As part of its operations against militant Islam movements in the African Sahel region —a semi-arid belt south of the Sahara Desert— France will send more troops, marking a reversal of a 2013 decision to freeze the defense budget and cut jobs in the military.

France is currently engaged on three international fronts: Operation Sangaris in the Central African Republic (CAR); Operation Barkhane in Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad; and Operation Chammal in Iraq.

Launched in 2013, Operation Sangaris is a peacekeeping military campaign to restore law and order after fighting broke out between primarily Muslim Seleka rebels and mainly Christian anti-balaka militias. France announced in December that it would be downscaling its troop presence as United Nations peacekeepers are moved in.

Operation Barkhane was launched the following year and is headquartered in N'Djamena, Chad's capital. Barkhane succeeded the previous French military campaign in the region, Operation Serval, which aimed to rid northern Mali of jihadists.

The Human Cost of War in the Central African Republic. Read more here.

Le Drian said that military disengagement in the CAR was on the horizon, and that the army would reduce its Sangaris contingent, currently 1,700 strong, down to 1,000 by the end of the year.

This partial withdrawal from the CAR is expected to help strengthen France's efforts in the Sahel, which includes the Lake Chad region, where the Nigerian insurgency group Boko Haram has multiplied cross-border attacks over the past few months.

Le Drian has said that France would "slightly increase" the numbers on Barkhane, but France will "not take part in the fighting." The added troops are expected to support the operations of the Mixed Multinational Force (Force Multinationale Mixte, or FMM), an 8,700-strong regional military alliance to combat the militant group.

In his unveiling of the agenda, Le Drian also mentioned France's continued operations in the Persian Gulf as part of Operation Chammal, a campaign of French military airstrikes in Iraq, and France's contribution to the US-led military intervention against the Islamic State (IS). The defense minister said France would continue "to play its part" in the fight against those that opposed "its interests and values."

France already strengthened its commitment to the fight against IS in February, when it deployed its flagship Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier in the Gulf to back French troops taking part in operation Chammal.

Related: France's Largest Warship Has Officially Joined the Fight Against the Islamic State

Military priorities and the cost of war
For Bruno Tertrais, a senior research fellow at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, France's newly revised military agendahas forced the government to review its defense priorities.

"France has to make some difficult decisions," Tertrais told VICE News, "which is why [the government] has decided to downsize operations in the Central African Republic, where the [improved] security situation is no longer a top priority."

"The main argument for downsizing and reducing the number of troops," Tertrais added, "is a financial one." According to the researcher, "The air and ground forces that are currently deployed exceed the quotas mentioned in the French White Paper on Defence and National Security," a government-sponsored report which outlines the country's military strategy for the next 15 years.

Referring to the continued deployment of 10,000 troops on French soil, Tertrais described the move as "unsustainable in the long term" in terms of cost.

The rising threat of Islamic State (IS) sympathizers in Libya and of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Mali means that the Sahel region remains a "priority concern" for France. "The threat is most urgent in the Sahel region," said Tertrais, "where France is positioned as a leader."

"From the Atlantic to the Middle East, there is a belt of weakened states where jihadist insurgent groups proliferate," added Tertrais."France, for example, has been sounding the alarm for months over the situation in Libya. France won't lead operations in Libya, but it's still a major point of concern for the country."

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Le Drian also pledged to make the French army more versatile by investing in cyber warfare and intelligence. While the improvements to cyber warfare will be mostly staff-based — with an extra 500 specialists recruited to respond to the ever-evolving terror threat — the modernization of French intelligence services will be mainly technical.

As part of the technical enhancements slated for 2015, France has plans to launch a military reconnaissance satellite in March, in collaboration with Germany, and is also negotiating the purchase of three US-made Reaper surveillance drones, which could be operational by the summer.

Le Drian also confirmed the defense ministry's plans to move into a new state-of-the-art facility — which has already been dubbed "the French Pentagon" — by fall 2015.

Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter @PLongeray