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The French Army in the Cold War

Indochina was crucible of real experience for France when facing an insurgency. Indochina was the catalyst for serious intellectual thought and analysis by military and academic elites in France. These ideas were carried by the French veterans of the Asian conflict to Algeria. France had attempted to reassert control and influence in Indochina after WW II. In the post-W.W. II vacuum, France had believed that if they did not rush to reassert their colonial claim on Indochina, Britain or the US might interfere.

Lacking any real strength in the region after the defeat of the Japanese, the French still pushed to return to the pre-war status quo in Indochina. Eventually the issue came to a head with the Viet Minh, the Vietnamese communist and nationalist movement led by Ho Chi Minh, who fought to gain sovereignty from French colonial rule. From 1947 to 1954, French forces engaged in guerrilla and conventional warfare with the Viet Minh who were supported by China and the Soviet Union.

The French rushed to force an issue with the Viet Minh before the end of the Korean War permitted Chinese influence in Indochina to grow. However, the military strategy was not in line with political strategy. At the time of the defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the French government was suffering from internal political weakness, and a new French government was pushing for a limited victory or stalemate, including a continued presence and influence of French power in the region.

The Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN - National Liberation Front) announced its presence dramatically on 1 November 1954 with attacks and diplomatic posturing. The attacks went beyond the ability of the French police and government in Algeria to handle. From 1954 to 1962, the FLN waged a guerilla war against France and the French military for control of Algeria. In May of 1955, French forces in Algeria numbered around 100,000. By the autumn of 1956, there were approximately 400,000 troops on the ground, not counting police and paramilitaries.58 The French Army fielded a significant strike ability complimented by a full range of other operational capabilities.

The methods the French Army used in its antiterrorism campaign in Algiers from 1957 to 1958 became widely accepted military and government policy, a policy that led directly to failure and defeat. By early 1956, the FLN had the Algerian provincial government on the defensive. The French military had just been extracted from the debacle at Suez, hard on the heels of defeat in Indochina, and was not yet reestablished in Algeria. Many units that had fought in Indochina were still being reconstituted after their destruction at Dien Bien Phu and the internment of their leaders in Viet Minh prisons.

In 1958, after several years of war in the then-French province of Algeria, which resulted in thousands of military and civilian casualties, the French Fourth Republic collapsed and was replaced by a new republican government hostile to the war. In 1962, the French Army left in defeat and Algeria became independent. Ironically, by all accounts, the French Army had decisively defeated the Algerian Front de la Libération Nationale (FLN) rebels and retained control of the country militarily at the time Algeria gained independence.

By early 1958, the terrorist problem in Algiers was effectively ended. But at what price? Although torture and murder occurred throughout the war, following the operations in Algiers, such actions became systematic and even institutionalized. From then on, with the tacit approval of the government, the French Army consistently relied on these methods in all its dealings with the FLN. Clearly, such methods were effective. Coupled with a successful campaign in the countryside (with free-fire zones, forced resettlement, and other tactics familiar to students of the American war in Vietnam), the tactics used by the French Army rendered the FLN incapable of mounting any large-scale resistance by the end of the decade.

The government of the Fourth Republic lost credibility and most of its popular support because of a perceived loss of control of the military waging the war and its toleration, if not encouragement, of the army's widespread use of torture, assassination, and violent intimidation. The French Army's ruthless counterterrorism campaign in Algiers from 1957 to 1958 was a classic Pyrrhic victory. The French Army crushed the FLN in the city, but the methods it used caused an international outcry that led to the Fourth Republic's downfall and, with it, the loss of any real hope for an "Algérie Française."

In 1960, elements within the French army, in concert with colons, staged an insurrection in Algeria. Dissatisfied with the political direction of the war, and what they perceived as a policy of surrender and lack of commitment, the attempted coup divided the French military effort. Most of the army stayed loyal and the insurrection was put down. Again, in 1961, elements of the French army and the colons again attempted another revolt. It was intended to seize control of Algeria and topple President de Gaulle's regime in Paris.54 This attempt also failed and President de Gaulle became more determined to abandon the colons and extricate France from Algeria for good.

Until the end of the Cold War, France retained the defense posture laid down by President Charles de Gaulle. Built around a principle of national strategic autonomy, these policies served French interests in the Cold War when, as an associate of NATO remaining outside the unified military structure, France enjoyed the security privileges of NATO membership without sacrificing any of its jealously guarded sovereignty. a conventional army of conscripted citizens was prepared to honor national defense commitments in the face of a Warsaw Pact attack. Armed with tactical nuclear weapons, the army's engagement would signal France's determination to use whatever means required to defend its national interests. Barred from most operations outside France since the early 1960s, conscripts could not be sent to overseas operations without the approval of the National Assembly.

Confined to this secondary role in the nation's defense, an appreciative army found itself transformed into a symbol of French patriotism. Blessed with plentiful low-cost conscripts, this powerful force embodied the nation's aspirations to the rank of the world's "third military power." Simultaneously as it united young men from all walks of life under the colors, it took pride in being the melting pot where the identity and spirit of the nation is forged, kept alive, and reflected. Still traumatized by the collapse in civil-military relations during the Algerian rebellion -- which at several moments threatened to become civil war -- the institution greatly valued the presence of the conscripts, whom it saw as a "sacred current of air," and a means to maintain its ties with the nation.

The bloodbath of the Great War left the French military a believer in the supreriority of firepower over maneuver, and the defeat of France by German armor in 1940 led to a swing back in the direction of mobile warfare. Beginning in the 1950s, the French military began experimenting with organizational structures aimed at facilitating rapid battlefield maneuver, including the Javelot brigade and the 7e Division Mecanique Rapide. These organizations introduced the features that were first found in the Division Type 1967.

However, shortages of modern equipment, caused in part by the economic crisis of the early 1970s and the expense of the French nuclear arsenal, meant that the 5 Mechanized Divisions that were to follow the Division 67 blueprint were being constituted only very slowly. By the late 1970s it was decided to tailor the heavy maneuver forces to equipment that was actually available, and the 5 large mechanized divisions were replaced by 8 smaller Armored Divisions, which at first consisted of only 4 maneuver regiments (by contrast, each of the 3 brigades of a mechanized division had 3 regiments), supported by an artilery regiment.

In the course of the reorganization, armored divisions were formed instead of mechanized divisions, and the brigade link was abolished in the structure of divisions. By 1985, formed six armored divisions. Three of them (1.3, and 5th) were part of the 2nd Army Corps and stationed in the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany. The 7th and 10th armored divisions were in the 1st Army Corps, and the 2nd - in the 3rd Army Corps (these units were stationed in France). The armored division included three tank (1st and 3rd) - only two each, two mechanized, one motorized infantry, two artillery and one engineer regiments, as well as a reconnaissance squadron.

A striking feature of the French formations of this period is the extent to which they were tank-heavy. This was particularly true of the original Armored Division organization which had 12 tank and only 6 mechanized companies. This was due to their intended mode of operations. Their tactics were closer to US Armored Cavalry Regiments (or, indeed, the pre-WW2 DLMs) in that they were not intended for holding ground. Like the DLM of 1940, the mechanized regiments were to operate like the earlier dragons portes, locating and delaying the enemy and preparing the situation for a counterstroke by the tank regiments. However, during the 1980s the heavy maneuver forces saw an increase in the proportion of infantry, through the attachment of motorized infantry divisions to the corps headquarters, addition of VAB-equipped infantry regiments to infantry divisions, and an increase in the number of infantry companies in mechanized regiments from 2 to 3.

The weak point of the French ground forces was equipment. The French strategic nuclear deterrent took up such a large portion of the defense budget that in many respects French forces lagged behind other premier NATO armies in deployed forces. The most notable French weakness was the failure to field a modern main battle tank during the 1980s comparable to the Leopard 2, the M1 Abrams, or even the rather less successful Challenger 1. The highly sophisticated Leclerc MBT finally entered service only in the 1990s, and the relatively advanced AMX-40 did not enter production. As a result of the French MBT lag, the French forces would have had to rely more heavily on anti-tank guided missiles, such as the Milan and HOT which, although very effective, were not purchased in sufficiently large quantities for a prolonged conventional war. Furthermore, the most modern equipment, tended to be concentrated in the forward-deployed II Corps, with I and III Corps having to make do with older equipment. Nevertheless, the French decision to emphasize its nuclear forces, and to use its conventional forces as a "tripwire" for its force de dissuasion, was probably a correct one. French ballistic missile submarines would have likely had a far greater impact on the course of a war with the Soviet Union than a few hundreds Leclerc MBTs.

By the 1980s he French army had transitioned to small armored divisions. These divisions were composed composed of task-organized combined arms regiments (essentially large battalions) which mixed tank and mechanized infantry companies on a permanent basis. The French doctrine saw these divisions operating on rather wide frontages, with uncovered flanks if necessary, and seeking to outflank the enemy rather than engage him frontally. Head-on engagements were eschewed except as a way to fix the enemy for an enveloping maneuver, and fighting in built-up or wooded areas was similarly to be avoided due to the low infantry strength of French units and the advantages the artillery-heavy Soviet Army would have in such grinding attritional battles. In this regard the French army differed from the Bundeswehr which, although also a maneuver-oriented force, intended to fight for every kilometer of its homeland.

Backing up the draft-based armored and infantry divisions of the metropolitan army were the expeditionary divisions of the Force d'Action Rapide, a collection of volunteer-manned light armored, parachute, mountain, airmobile, and marine units. Although intended for overseas use due to their all-volunteer manning, their capabilities would have been useful in a general NATO--Warsaw Pact conflict. Had the Cold War continued into the 1990s the French ground forces would have likely been further reorganized, with the three corps of 3-4 divisions each being replaced by two corps de manoeuvre aeroterrestre of five divisions each, plus supporting units. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union meant the French military reforms in the 1990s were pursued along different lines.

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Page last modified: 21-02-2019 18:44:19 ZULU