Hollande to Trim French Army as Defense Spending Is Frozen

President Francois Hollande plans to trim the size of the French army while keeping annual defense spending roughly unchanged over a decade as his government seeks savings while retaining military capacity.

The army will be reduced in size to about 66,000 deployable soldiers by 2019, down from about 80,000, according to proposals published by the government today. Spending will be held at about 30 billion euros ($39 billion) annually.

The plan amounts to Hollande’s attempt to balance France’s promises to eliminate its budget deficit with its ability to project power through military interventions such as that in Mali earlier this year or in Libya in 2011.

“What is at stake? It’s maintaining the standing of our military while mastering our public finances,” Hollande said after receiving the so-called white paper on defense in Paris. “I’ve made the decisions with one thing in mind: the national interest.”

The white paper will form the basis of a law and Hollande said he had to reconcile three imperatives.

The military needs “sufficient visibility for the coming decade,” industry requires predictable orders and the government must balance its accounts, Hollande said.

Hardware, Software

Under the plan, France aims to retain the ability to intervene in two or three separate theaters of war at once with the help of allies.

Hollande intends to boost the nation’s intelligence capability with more surveillance satellites and the building of a fleet of long-range drones.

The country will retain four submarines as part of its nuclear deterrent, as well as six attack submarines and one aircraft carrier. It will have 225 combat aircraft, including Dassault Aviation SA Rafale fighters now in production and upgrades to older Mirage 2000s, compared with about 300 jets set out in the previous strategic plan in 2008, French government documents show.

The transport aircraft fleet will comprise 50-odd transport planes, about 20 fewer than planned five years ago, with future re-fueling planes trimmed to 12 from 14. European Aeronautic, Defence & Space Co.’s Airbus Military unit is the main provider of French military transport planes and has had talks with the government over the purchase of Airbus SAS A330s converted into air-to-air tankers.

Hollande also said he wants France’s 4,000 defense contractors to have sufficient visibility to plan investment and research and development. Included in the future programs is the Aster 30 B1NT missile defense effort, as well as a replacement for the Milan anti-tank missile, and a new anti-ship weapon to be bought in conjunction with the U.K. under a plan formulated in 2010 to cooperate more closely.

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