PARIS — The French Army’s Scorpion modernization program will likely suffer from this year’s €850 million (U.S. $1 billion) defense budget cut, with Contact, a key software-defined radio, expected to be a casualty, Army Gen. Pierre de Villiers, former chief of staff, told members of Parliament before he resigned.
“It goes without saying that the Scorpion program is one of the critical elements in the budgetary combat,” the former chief of staff told the National Assembly‘s defense and armed forces committee on July 12.
The minutes of the committee hearing, which were recently released, are de Villiers’ last remarks as chief of the armed forces before he resigned in protest against the slashed budget. His July 19 resignation came days after President Emmanuel Macron backed the defense spending cut.
De Villiers also told legislators that even as Britain is leaving the European Union, known as Brexit, that country is, paradoxically, keen to hang onto the Lancaster House defense treaty with France.
Force protection underlies the Scorpion program, he said.
“If we do not receive the required funding, we will need to postpone this program, with all the consequences that will entail,” he said. A spending cut will hurt Contact, which allows the Scorpion program to work, he added.
The armed forces are interdependent in combat and depend on technology, with Scorpion taking an overall approach that includes munitions, spares, information systems and crew training rather than just “a combat vehicle,” he said.
“But can we allow ourselves to send our soldiers into combat in 35-year-old troop carriers, when you can imagine the wear-out rate and level of protection? I say, ‘No,’ ” he said.
Thales supplies the Contact system and is an industrial partner with Nexter and Renault Trucks Defense on the Griffon troop carrier as well as the Jaguar reconnaissance and combat vehicle in the Scorpion program.
On cooperation with Britain, de Villiers said: “There is a paradox: The more the British distance themselves from Europe, the closer they hang onto Lancaster House.”
European defense would be built on three pillars, he said: Britain, France and Germany, with other countries joining in on an ad hoc basis depending on “concrete projects and in a variable geometry.”
De Villiers said the British and Germans met in his office last autumn, followed by a similar meeting in London. He added that a further meeting would be held in Berlin after the summer.
Cooperation with Germany can be envisaged in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, in-flight tankers, transport aircraft, drones, logistics, security, and development, he said.
There is already French operational cooperation with the British in regard to the combined joint expeditionary force, and there are programs signaled in the Lancaster House treaty, he said.
Other countries could join in by 2025 on the European medium-altitude, long-endurance drone, he said. There is a stronger cooperative dynamic now, particularly with Germany, which is expected to boost defense spending in four years to 1.5 percent from 1.2 percent of gross domestic product.
France has capability gaps, lacking helicopters, drones and in-flight tankers, forcing a delay in operations and missed opportunities, he added. The forces rely on support from the U.S. and other allies. Bulletproof vests, ammunition stocks and more armored vehicles are needed.
Meanwhile, the military operations exceed by 30 percent the missions set out in the white paper on defense and national security, he said. Modernization of airborne and submarine nuclear deterrence will require annual spending to rise to €6 billion in 2025 from the present €3.9 billion.
France needs to spend €50 billion a year on defense by 2025, excluding pensions and overseas operations, if it is to meet the NATO target, he said. That calls for the 2017 budget to be “absolutely respected,” increase in 2018 and see a €2 billion annual increase in the 2019-2025 military budget law, he said.
That multiyear budget law will be based on a defense and national security review, due to be delivered Oct. 1, he said.
“The budget does not match up with what I have asked for … nor what the armed forces minister asked for,” de Villiers said.
De Villiers concluded his remarks to say that economic sovereignty did not contradict defense sovereignty. “What is required is a fair and balanced way between the two,” he said. The price would be potentially high if defense were forsaken, leading to operational withdrawal.
Decisions would be needed to leave which theaters, which forces to lighten in domestic or foreign operations, and cut back on French ambitions at a time when many nations, “some of which are unreasonable, are keen to have their voices heard in the concert of nations,” he said.
“Such a decision would be respectable, but, politically, things need to be clear,” he said.
There was applause on all sides as the meeting closed, the official minutes said.
In response to a media leak of de Villiers’ parliamentary remarks, in which he used an expletive to describe the defense cut, Macron said July 13 at an official garden party: “I think it is not dignified to lay out certain debate in the public arena. I have commitments. I am your chief.
“The commitments that I have to our citizens and the services, I know how to uphold. And in this respect, I have no need for pressure or comment.”