STUTTGART, Germany — The French Army is in the midst of a broad equipment overhaul as it replenishes its ammunition arsenals, procures upgraded armored vehicles and teams up with its German counterparts to develop a new battle tank. While many of these efforts have been in the works for years, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sharply demonstrated what European armies should expect in modern land warfare, and how to prepare for it.
Chief of the French Army Gen. Pierre Schill shared his perspective on the service’s path forward in an interview with Defense News ahead of the biennial Eurosatory industry conference in Paris. High on Schill’s mind is seeing the Scorpion program fully implemented, figuring out the “eternal dialectics between sword and shield” that characterize tank warfare, and avoiding getting sucked into what he called a “Ukrainian tunnel.”
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
How do you view the French Army evolving over the course of the military’s 2019-2025 strategic planning and budgeting period, known as the French Military Planning law?
Relying on the “Au contact!” model launched by former Army chief Gen. Jean-Pierre Bosser, which thoroughly reorganized the Army by providing it with high versatility, the “Operational Superiority” plan has a clear ambition: to harden the Army. In the framework of the 2019-2025 military budget law and beyond, by the year 2030, the goal is to form an army able to participate in all conflicts, up to a major engagement.
Four objectives have been defined to achieve it: troops up to the challenge of future clashes; capabilities enabling us to out-class our adversaries; training focused on the major engagement; and an operational way of functioning. Over the last decades, the Army has acquired valuable operational experience in Afghanistan, in the Central African Republic and in the Sahel, which proved to be pivotal for the efficiency of our operations.
Hardening the Army does not mean questioning this experience of peacekeeping operations and counterinsurgency conflicts. Like a pianist, we need to work our second hand to make the most of the “keyboard of action,” as former Army Gen. André Beaufre called it. The Army must be able to produce effects and to provide strategic solutions for the various engagement scenarios, ranging from the direct confrontation of wills to indirect approaches, and to compromise with the major and minor modes of conflict.
Defense is a critical topic for society: What price are we ready to pay, and how do we want to defend our country? The 2019-2025 FMP focuses on repair and stepping up to materialize the ambition. The modernization initiated with the Scorpion modernization program is probably the most significant since the end of World War II. It will renew our armored vehicles that have been in service for 40 years and will multiply their efficiency by placing them into a network.
Tomorrow, units will share the information in near-real time to define the best possible tactical combination to protect themselves and destroy the enemy. The ambition of collaborative combat consists of understanding, deciding and acting more quickly than the adversary.
Much more than a mere reequipping of the Land Force, Scorpion represents an evolution in the way of operating on the battlefield with the development of collaborative combat. Connectivity will enable a really dynamic allocation of sensors and shooters, and it will provide new tactical perspectives, owing in particular to the ability to fire beyond the line of sight.
Hardening also means anticipating and thinking about our future needs. That is the purpose of the Titan project, which will describe and define the composition and organization of our future battlefield capabilities — the upgraded Leclerc tank, new armored personnel carriers, Tiger MkIII attack helicopters, the Caesar self-propelled howitzer, and the Multiple Launch Rocket System, or LRU — by 2040, and will extend collaborative combat to the joint and allied levels.
How are the missions changing, and which military theaters will be the most important for future potential conflict?
In 1991, when I was a young lieutenant, recently appointed to a regiment, the Berlin Wall had just collapsed. The threat of a Cold War was fading away as we were ready to fight the invader on our own ground without previous notice. The events that occurred since then show that in 30 years, everything can happen. War is back on our continent. How can the conflict in Ukraine evolve? How can we build peace once the weapons have become quiet?
In the south, the situation in the Sahel will remain a security concern for a long time. And we must be careful not to be absorbed in a Ukrainian tunnel, but to keep a strategic hindsight.
Today, like yesterday, the Army must permanently adapt to the reality of the threats. War is too complex and evolutionary to be frozen in a formula. In the fog of war and against strategic uncertainties, it is imperative that we accurately understand the intent of our competitors. Who is our adversary? What are his interests? What are his objectives? Since strategic surprise remains possible, we have to consider all options.
The Army is ready to permanently operate in three strategic areas: first, in the domestic and overseas territories to ensure the protection and the defense of the nation’s sovereignty and resilience by fulfilling a wide variety of missions. Then we have to be a major actor of strategic solidarity in Europe by meeting the requirements of the alliances and agreements. We are very likely at the dawn of a new age for the security of the continent. The third area is that of prevention and influence at the outskirts of Europe and beyond, to contribute to controlling and resolving the hot spots of crises.
How will new vehicles, such as the upgraded Leclerc tanks and the future Main Ground Combat System that will succeed them, be a force multiplier for troops?
Current events demonstrate that tank capacity remains indispensable to our toughest engagements. They determine the ability for meeting engagements and getting the initiative back. In the eternal dialectics between sword and shield, the Leclerc main battle tank will be equipped with new aggression and protection capacities to be engaged on tomorrow’s battlefield.
Its successor, the Main Ground Combat System, will not be a mere tank but actually a system of systems constituting a new approach to the close-combat architecture and an efficient network in an operational cloud. It could thus comprise several platforms with different firing systems — large-caliber guns, missiles, etc. — some of them unmanned and escorted by remote-controlled air sensors.
MGCS will pave the way for new military capabilities in terms of effects, robotization and armor. Moreover, the configuration as a system of systems will allow for the integration of new technologies, which will be developed during the 21st century.
Which emerging and disruptive technologies — such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, space systems and cloud computing — will have the greatest impact on the French Army in the next few years?
Thirteen areas have been identified as having an impact on the technological progress of the air-land combat system: sensor networks; information exchange; cybernetics; resilience of connected systems; mastering of mass data and calculation power; automated systems as complements to human systems; performance of platforms; improvement of the dismounted combatant; energy; aid to decision-making and training; effects of weapons and ammunition; evolution of materials (especially those designed for protection); and artificial intelligence.
Some of these promising technologies are developed for their intrinsic potential technological breakthroughs. The objective is to drive them to maturity in a logic of planned innovation, like quantum computing. Simultaneously, we seek to integrate the already mature technologies, like artificial intelligence, into the Scorpion-generation weapon systems, into intelligence with the processing of multi-sensor data or into provisional maintenance.
The COVID-19 pandemic has sharply demonstrated gaps in the global defense supply chain across many sectors. Where has your service seen the biggest issues in getting equipment fielded on time, and how have you tried to resolve those supply chain issues?
The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the delivery of our equipment was variable. The activities related to industrial production, trials and expertise were disturbed, in particular during the first lockdown in 2020 followed by a progressive resumption of the activity. The activities that were more compatible with the social distancing measures or teleworking, like research consultancy, have been less disturbed.
However, the crisis has not delayed the achievement of major milestones defined in 2020, such as the deliveries of armored personnel carriers protected against improvised explosive devices. Owing to the involvement of all actors of both the public and private sectors, solutions have been implemented to prevent the interruption of activities or to guarantee their resumption as early as possible. Delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 were resolved at the end of 2021.
What are the lessons learned for ground warfare in Europe when it comes to new equipment and technology investments, as well as the importance of partnerships with NATO, the European Union, and other allies and partners?
The conflict in Ukraine reminds us of some fundamental principles and fully illustrates the overall complexity of the ground environment. Modern warfare and technological evolutions have not made the confrontation on the ground of secondary importance. The engagement on the ground and near the ground aims at having the ascendancy over the enemy, at dominating him both physically and morally, up to destroying him if necessary. The moral forces are of paramount importance and, beyond that, the nation’s resilience.
Tomorrow, like yesterday, that confrontation will continue to take place in the state of uncertainty that is specific to the ground environment. Attacking or destroying can be done from afar; building and conquering is done on the ground. The ground environment remains the fundamental area of strategic rivalries: wealth conquest, territorial gain, influence, and control of populations and the centers of power.
There are in Europe approximately 20 models of tanks and aircraft, and more than 150 types of armament — not to mention the diversity of signals assets. That does not make the chains of command of interoperability easy. Interoperability of capabilities is a first relevant lever to enhance the effectiveness of the operations conducted with our European Union partners.
For instance in 2018, a strategic partnership on the motorized capability, or CAMO, of the Belgian Land Component was signed. This agreement includes two dimensions: the acquisition of Scorpion capabilities — 382 Griffons, nine Caesar self-propelled howitzers, and 60 Jaguars equipped with both CONTACT communication systems and the Scorpion Combat Information System — as well as a transformation of the Belgian Land Component similar to that conducted by the French Army to shape combined arms battle groups around Scorpion.
The CAMO program, and the widening of the Scorpion community to other European partners, contributes to reinforcing interoperability with our allies and therefore to the defense of Europe. I am deeply convinced of that.
To fight together, we need to train together and be able to command together. This field of operational interoperability is the field of excellence of NATO. The Army has daily contacts with its NATO allies through the troops deployed to Estonia and Romania. Each major training milestone already includes an allied dimension, such as in the exercises Brilliant Jump and Cold Response, which were recently carried out in Norway. The Army works on the nature of its exercises to prepare for high intensity and show its strategic solidarity to its European partners. The major exercise in open terrain, Orion 2023, will therefore be as much a training as a demonstration of interoperability and a proof of our collective force.
Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.