By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow
DECEMBER 2018—For nearly 75 years, America and Britain have enjoyed a “special relationship.” Churchill coined the term in 1946 to reflect the deep Anglo-American bonds forged and defended in war. Yet with London retreating from global responsibilities and slashing its military in recent years, a surprising candidate has emerged to take Britain’s privileged position: France.
But don’t take my word for it. None other than Defense Secretary James Mattis has warned British leaders that France is on the verge of replacing Great Britain as “the U.S. partner of choice,” in his words. “As global actors, France and the U.S. have concluded that now is the time to significantly increase our investment in defense,” Mattis recently wrote in a pointed letter to his British counterpart. “I am concerned that your ability to continue to provide this critical military foundation for diplomatic success is at risk of erosion, while together we face a world awash with change…A global nation like the UK, with interests and commitments around the world, will require a level of defense spending beyond what we would expect from allies with only regional interests.”
This is a not-so-veiled warning that France could soon supplant Britain as America’s go-to transatlantic partner. And Mattis isn’t alone in this assessment. “We now see the center of gravity in Europe shifting toward France,” DNI Dan Coats said this year. “President Macron is clearly taking a more assertive role in addressing European and global challenges.”
Recent policies, operations and decisions pursued by the French government underscore that France is committed to standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States in defending the West.
From the very beginning, France has been committed to the fight against ISIS. At the height of anti-ISIS operations, the French air contingent represented the second-largest contributor to the coalition (behind only the U.S.).
France is one of just four allies flying sorties against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, with French warplanes conducting more than 27 percent of non-U.S. airstrikes.
Operating in both the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle has served as command center for Task Force 50, the component of U.S. Naval Forces-Central Command that plans and conducts coalition strike operations in the Middle East. As the U.S. Naval Institute detailed in 2016, “In the early days of de Gaulle’s strikes against ISIS, the French carrier was the only one launching planes…in the absence of an American carrier.”
The Charles de Gaulle was even placed under U.S. command. As The Washington Post reported in 2015, “The mission marks the first time that France has placed the Charles de Gaulle, the only non-U.S. nuclear aircraft carrier in the world and a jewel of the French military, under the operational command of a foreign nation.” U.S. warplanes landed on the Charles de Gaulle, with the French ship operating alongside the carrier USS Carl Vinson. Likewise, French Rafale fighter-jets operated from U.S. aircraft carriers in the Arabian Gulf.
On the ground, French artillery units played a key role in operations to retake Mosul. And even now, French commandos are fighting alongside American Special Ops units in eastern Syria, backed by U.S. airpower. As Mattis observed in May, the French have “reinforced us in Syria with special forces.”
Of course, the fight against ISIS is just one front in the wider war on jihadist terror. To its credit, France is committed to this global struggle.
In 2013, for instance, then-French President Francois Hollande launched a major military operation in Mali to prevent the West African nation from falling to jihadists. Some 4,000 French troops and dozens of warplanes took part, and the U.S. military provided a range of enabling support. The U.S. stood up a base in Niger to conduct drone flights over Mali in support of the mission. U.S. C-17s and C-130s delivered hundreds of French troops and thousands of tons of equipment and supplies to Mali. U.S. KC-135 refuelers extended the range of French warplanes. And U.S. intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets were tasked to the operation.
French fighter-jets and attack helicopters returned the favor in 2017, racing to support U.S. troops during deadly firefights in Niger.
U.S. and French commandos also have been targeting jihadists in Libya.
All told, France has 30,000 military personnel deployed worldwide fighting terrorism. One study found that France has the third-highest percentage of its military deployed overseas (behind the U.S. and Turkey).
Ensuring Freedom of Navigation
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told a recent Asian security conference that France would encourage the European Union to carry out “regular and visible” freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, as The Diplomat magazine reports. “If we want to contain the risk of conflict, we must defend this right, and defend it ourselves,” Le Drian said.
Toward that end, French air and naval assets transited the region throughout this past summer and fall, making stops in Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and India. In addition, France has deployed air assets to Australia to support freedom of navigation ops in the South China Sea.
“Several times per year, French navy ships cross the waters of this region, and they’ll continue to do it,” Le Drian said, vowing that France is committed to “sailing its ships and flying its planes wherever international law will allow, and wherever operational needs request that we do so.”
Defending the Global Commons
On multiple occasions since 9/11, France has commanded Combined Task Force 150, a standing multinational maritime force that conducts counterterror operations at sea. France also contributes to Combined Task Force 151, a 25-nation coalition focused on fighting piracy in and around the Indian Ocean. And France is a key member of the Proliferation Security Initiative, an international effort launched by the U.S. aimed at interdicting weapons of mass destruction and related materials bound to and from rogue states and non-state actors.
Related, France also has joined the U.S. in defending international norms of behavior. After Assad conducted chemical attacks in spring 2018, France joined the U.S. in delivering a barrage of punitive strikes against the Assad regime.
Promising to meet the NATO benchmark of investing 2 percent of GDP in defense, President Emmanuel Macron announced plans in February to increase defense spending by a massive 40 percent. As Defense News details, the fresh military spending will yield 6,000 additional personnel, 1,700 armored vehicles, five frigates, four attack submarines, nine patrol vessels, a dozen midair refuelers, six armed Reaper drones, and more than 80 new fighter-bombers. In short, France is a power-projecting nation.
While French politicians invest in the common defense, French troops are sharpening their skills alongside American troops. U.S. and French units have been training together this year in and around Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia. “France is our oldest ally and a vital partner in ensuring security and stability,” said Rear Adm. Gene Black, commander of Carrier Strike Group 8, during joint operations with the French Navy.
Add it all up, and the United States and France are working together in ways that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago—a time when Washington was deeply wounded by the actions of the French government in the run-up to the Iraq War, a time when Paris seemed intent on turning the European Union into a counterweight to the U.S. This is a welcome reversal for America and France.
All that said, this need not be an either-or proposition. America needs France and Britain to share in the burden of global leadership. However, as Britain contemplates just what kind of partner it will be in the 21st century, it’s good to know France is with America on the frontlines of a dangerous world.