PARIS (AP) — France plans to hold the line on military spending while reducing 34,000 defense jobs over the next five years, a decision the defense minister said would still allow the country to prepare for the future.
President Francois Hollande’s Socialist government laid out its five-year military program at a Cabinet meeting on Friday that would keep annual defense spending at 31.4 billion euros through 2016 — then rising to 32.5 billion euros by 2019. Key NATO ally France would remain Western Europe’s second-biggest spender on defense after Britain.
The plan goes before Parliament this fall. Socialists and their allies control both chambers.
Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Europe-1 radio the plan avoids “drastic cuts.” It does cut back on planned purchases of Dassault’s Rafale fighter jet to about 5 per year through 2019 — down from 11 previously.
The government is counting on export orders to sustain production. The Rafale, introduced in 2001, has never been exported. But Le Drian was optimistic about its future outside France, including in Qatar and India, which is in exclusive talks for the purchase of 126 Rafale jetfighters.
The minister said the five-year program allows France to “prepare the French army’s adaptation to risks of the future and new threats for the coming six years.”
However, there were some critics of the cuts in manpower.
“To win the war always means to control territory — on the ground, in the air and at sea — and at some point … numbers count,” Gen. Vincent Desportes, former head of the Armed Forces Defense College, said on France-Info radio. “Technology only very partially replaces cuts.”
He said he fears a diminished ability to intervene, as France did this year in Mali, leading an African force to chase out Islamist jihadists in the country’s north.
“In my opinion, France won’t be able to address its international responsibilities and protect French interests”, he said.
The government earmarked an average of 17.1 billion euros a year earmarked for equipment spending. For the first time, France plans to take delivery of 12 armed, long endurance drones — the U.S. system MQ-9 Reaper — and 14 shorter range tactical drones. Included in the budget is the purchase of 12 Airbus-made refueling planes, with the first two delivered in 2019.
During its intervention in Mali, France relied on U.S. drones and refueling planes.
By 2019, the French air force should also receive 15 A400M military transport planes from Airbus — the first one entering service this week — and one Barracuda attack submarine made by the French naval company DCNS.
For its intelligence services, France is looking to an electronics-intelligence satellite system known as CERES to be placed into orbit in 2020, and on two MUSIS satellites (Multinational Space-based Imaging System for Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Observation) from a European program that includes Italy Belgium, Germany, Greece, and Spain. That should be operational in 2017.