With a new American administration coming in January and the United Kingdom departing the European Union, France could be America’s new “bridge partner” to the continent in countering high-end military challenges from Moscow and Beijing and meeting reinvigorated terrorist threats, top security experts said Thursday.
Despite divergent views “on strategic autonomy,” retired Adm. James Foggo, the former commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe based in Naples, said “that was a big question for France” in 2009 when it re-integrated its forces — including its nuclear forces — with NATO.
France pulled its military forces from NATO command in the 1960s and ordered the alliance headquarters out of Paris. Foggo noted that when France’s top military commander was asked at the time which way its missiles and nuclear forces were targeted, he said, “everywhere.”
The security situation between the two nuclear powers has flipped almost 180 degrees.
“The key thing here is continuing dialogue,” so that split doesn’t return, he said.
The incoming Biden administration should be able work with Paris “to build a coalition of the willing” to meet the new security challenges Washington and the alliance will face, said Torrey Taussig, research director at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
As a recent example, Alice Guitton, the director-general for International Relations and Strategy for France’s Ministry of Armed Forces, said, “Our cooperation with the United States is all over the place.” Speaking at the Atlantic Council online forum, she called the cooperation “unprecedented” in the history of the alliance that dates back to the American Revolution.
She cited Operation Dynamic Mongoose, a sophisticated antisubmarine, anti-surface warfare exercise involving the United States, France and Norway, as an example of “we train as we fight together.”
The cooperation goes beyond exercises and Freedom of Navigation operations in the South China Sea.
Foggo specifically mentioned how joint carrier operations with the French have matured over the years — from makeshift communication links to deconflict air and sea operations in 2009 to having carrier Charles de Gaulle (R91) fill the gap when there was no large-deck American presence in the Middle East. The navies are now backstopping each other as needed.
“We need to increase cooperation” at all levels, starting at the lieutenant and lieutenant commander level, Foggo said, to build trust over the years. Guitton, who carries the rank of ambassador, added that the collaboration crosses domains into space and cyber “to make sure we can cooperate” in times of crisis.
“It’s ridiculous [not to be able] to share intelligence, strategic data,” Foggo added. “Everybody has a right to know what the threats are, what the targets are.”
But Paris and Washington do not look at the world through the same lens. Foggo and Guitton both mentioned the United States’ National Defense Strategy’s emphasis on the return to great power competition and the need to be prepared for high-end conflict. This has been driving the Pentagon’s strategy, in terms of stationing and investment, to shift away from counterterrorism in the Middle East and Africa and put a sharp focus on the Indo-Pacific.
While France is accepting the challenges of an aggressive China and a revisionist Russia, Guitton said President Emmanuel Macron sees the immediate threat of terrorism to Europe as a top priority. The French see the evidence of the danger surfacing again in the recent attacks in Lyon and Vienna.
But Macron extends his view of terrorism as a major threat to Africa. He has dispatched air and ground forces to the continent to support governments in danger of collapse from organized terrorist attacks.
Foggo and Guitton said France is carrying the “boots on the ground” military burden in Africa’s Sahel, the nations south of the Sahara desert, to bring terrorist groups there and in Libya under control. The United States is playing a support role in providing aerial surveillance, intelligence and logistics to French forces and governments like Mali and Niger in that effort.
But Africa is not an American security priority.
In addition to de-emphasizing terrorism as a national security threat, the Trump administration announced plans to move U.S. Africa Command from Stuttgart, Germany, with the possibility of consolidating it with another regional warfighting command. Whether that headquarters continues and the next administration takes over in January is unclear.
“We ignore Africa at our own peril,” Foggo said. He noted that by 2050, the continent’s population is projected to be about 2.5 billion, with between 40 and 50 percent of the population under 25. It also is a continent where Beijing is heavily involved in building and financing infrastructure projects — dams, highways, airfields and ports — and offering advanced telecommunications technology. He said, “I think France has figured that out,” referring to Africa also as a region of great power competition that can’t be ignored.
Likewise, Foggo said China is making the same overtures in Europe, especially in offering 5G telecommunications. “5G, I [compare] it to the Trojan Horse. When we talk about interoperability, we have to be very careful” that the Chinese are eavesdropping. “We’ve seen this with intellectual property [theft] for years,” he said.
Guitton said the Sahel could be a laboratory in re-looking at “strategic autonomy” and also cause European allies to examine their procurement practices when looking to fill capability and capacity gaps in their own forces as France is doing based on its experiences in the Sahel.
She added that Paris remains firmly behind the American push, intensified under the Trump administration, to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on their own security. Guitton said French defense officials closely monitor other European countries’ security spending and what they are investing in.
“We are exactly in line with our American friends,” she said.
Although Biden favors multi-lateral arrangements like NATO and is more willing to engage with the European Union, Taussig predicts the new administration is “going to have to have tough conversations” with all the European nations over China’s growing influence on the continent and 5G.