- The Ever Given is free, and Suez traffic has resumed. Ironically, the first ship to pass through the Suez after it was reopened was the YM Wish, which itself ran aground in the Elbe River in Germany six years ago.
- The near-weeklong blockage could cost billions due to trade delays, although the Suez is now open 24/7 to clear the backlog of traffic. Still, the delays are going to reverberate in global shipping for weeks. At least we got some good memes out of it.
- Islamic State’s Central African Province finally claimed the capture of Palma, which started last Thursday. Dyck Advisory Group says fighting is ongoing, but information is still scarce and unreliable. There’s no doubt the incident eroded confidence in Mozambique’s armed forces; it may force a pause to Total’s LNG plans too.
- France reopened its embassy in Libya (on the outskirts of Tripoli) after a seven-year closure. Pres. Macron met the head of Libya’s new presidential council, Mohamed al-Manfi, last week—which is probably what led to the decision to reopen the embassy. The U.S. mission to Libya is still based in Tunis.
- The joint WHO-China report on the origins of the COVID pandemic was released in full. It concludes that China still doesn’t have information to conclude how or when the pandemic started, although it’s “extremely unlikely” it started in a lab. The report doesn’t say whether China will keep letting WHO experts explore the mystery in China, which suggests it probably won’t.
- Meanwhile, China reduced the share of directly-elected seats in Hong Kong’s legislature from 50% (35 of 70) to just 22% (20 of 90), dealing another blow to the territory’s pro-democracy movement. The committee that picks Hong Kong’s Chief Executive would select the remaining 70 Legislative Council members.
- After last weekend’s bloody repression of protests in Myanmar, the U.S. Trade Representative said the U.S. will curb its trade relationship with Myanmar by stopping all trade engagement under a 2013 bilateral trade agreement (but not trade with Myanmar altogether). I’m not sure how much of the U.S.’s $1.4 billion in trade with Myanmar happens under the 2013 agreement, but probably not much—i.e., the suspension is mainly symbolic.
- One analyst at the Lowy Institute thinks Myanmar is on the brink of becoming a “failed state” and needs international support to stop pressure commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing to retire in June as he’d planned. With the U.S. and China at odds over how to handle Myanmar, it’s unlikely they’ll coordinate that kind of pressure.
Sahel / France
- Niger’s new president, Mohamed Bazoum, called France’s Barkhane force—which operates across Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger—a “relative failure” despite years of presence in the region, and indicated that he’d be ok with a drawdown as long as France kept air support in place. [Pres. Macron has said he intends to reduce troop levels (from 5,100 today) over the coming years—but not immediately.]
- On a tangentially related note, The Economist notes that France is quietly shifting its military strategy away from a focus on counter-insurgency operations and towards preparing for high-intensity wars—think Russia or Turkey. Article pasted below.
- Pres. Biden is preparing a new, larger stimulus package to dramatically increase investment in green initiatives like renewable power, EV production, and energy efficiency. It’s likely to be expensive.
- COVID cases are rising across the U.S. in a potential fourth wave, and CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky appealed to Americans to “hold on a little while longer” to let vaccine efforts take hold before returning to pre-pandemic socializing (that caution is based on a 16% rise in new U.S. cases over the past two weeks—a bump of the size that led to major surges of new infections in Europe).
- Over 20 global leaders—including the leaders of the UK, France, Germany; but excluding the presidents of Russia, China, and the U.S.—signed a letter calling for a global pandemic treaty to improve cooperation on future outbreaks. The WHO seems like the most likely coordinator for such an effort.
A new hypothesis: The French armed forces are planning for high-intensity war (The Economist)
After a decade of counter-insurgency, plans are changing
IN THE FORESTS and plains of the Champagne-Ardenne region, where once the great powers went into battle, the French armed forces are beginning to prepare for the return of a major conflict. Planned for 2023, Exercise Orion is a full-scale divisional exercise that will last several days, based probably out of camps at Suippes, Mailly, and Mourmelon. It will involve the full range of French military capacity on a scale not tested for decades. The drill will include command-post exercises, hybrid scenarios, simulation and live-fire drills. Around 10,000 soldiers could take part, as well as the air force and, in a separate maritime sequence, the navy. Belgian, British and American forces may join in.
There are other signs that the French armed forces are in the midst of a generational transformation. In January the general staff quietly established ten working groups to examine the country’s readiness for high-intensity war. French generals reckon that they have a decade or so to prepare for it. The groups cover everything from munition shortages to the resilience of society, including whether citizens are “ready to accept the level of casualties we have never seen since world war two”, says one participant. The spectre of high-end war is now so widespread in French military thinking that the scenario has its own acronym: HEM, or hypothèse d'engagement majeur (hypothesis of major engagement). The presumed opponents are unnamed, but analysts point not only to Russia, but also Turkey or a North African country.
That represents a seismic shift for French forces. Thirty years ago they mostly did peacekeeping. Over the past decade, they have turned to counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism, whether abroad (Opération Barkhane in the Sahel) or at home (Opération Sentinelle). In his strategic vision for 2030 published last year, however, General Thierry Burkhard, the head of the French army, outlined the need to prepare for high-intensity, state-on-state conflict.
“We absolutely have to prepare for a more dangerous world,” General Burkhard recently told The Economist. This requires what he calls a “hardening” of the land army. Currently France keeps 5,100 troops in the Sahel as part of Barkhane. Future operations “could involve brigades, or a division”, meaning 8,000-25,000 soldiers. The need to change scale over the next decade, says the general, will require a mix of reforms: more demanding recruitment; investment in modern equipment; simpler organisational structures to make the army more nimble; and toughened training for a major conflict. “We will be tested more and more brutally,” he says. “We need to realise this.”
When Emmanuel Macron was elected president in 2017 he raised initial doubts within the armed forces about his commitment to military spending. After imposing a round of short-term cuts, he rowed publicly with General Pierre de Villiers, then head of the joint chiefs of staff, prompting the general to resign. Since then, however, Mr Macron has kept a campaign promise to invest heavily in his soldiers.
The defence budget for 2019-25 got a big boost, taking annual spending to €50bn ($59bn) by the end of the period, by which time it will be 46% up on its level of 2018. Weighted towards the later years, the budget allows military planners to think ahead, buy kit and reorganise. “It’s the first time in memory that we have a reasonable fit between the planning documents and the budget allocated,” says François Heisbourg, of the Foundation for Strategic Research. It also means that France now meets its NATO commitment to spend at least 2% of its GDP on defence.
The core of French military modernisation is the Scorpion programme, a $6.8bn project to replace virtually every front-line motorised and armoured vehicle in the army, upgrade the 1990s-era Leclerc tank and connect all these together over a new digital network. The idea is that a first fully-equipped Scorpion brigade should be ready by 2023. Rémy Hémez, a French officer and researcher, says that in the 15 years between 2010 and 2025, the army’s equipment will have changed more than it did in the four decades between 1970 and 2010.
In many respects, France’s approach to future war differs from the tech-heavy vision recently unveiled by Britain. Whereas Britain is cutting troops and armour, France is keeping 60% more soldiers than Britain plans to, and 50% more tanks. It has been relatively slow to acquire and arm drones. “There is a great risk of falling behind as automation on the battlefield accelerates,” warned a report by the Institut Montaigne, a think-tank. Indeed, French officers tend to be more sceptical than British or American ones that technology will transform the battlefield. “Technology is never 100% effective,” warns General Burkhard. “Soldiers must always be able to fight in a degraded way…when the technology does not work any more.”
That does not mean France is ignoring new domains of war; space, in particular, is a priority. In September last year France’s air force became the “Air and Space Force”, having earlier stood up a new military space command in Toulouse. The French armed forces are also expanding their information warfare and cyber capabilities. In December 2020 Facebook and Instagram removed a network of 100 fake accounts linked to the French armed forces after they sparred with Russian-backed ones over the Central African Republic and Mali, among other African battlegrounds where the two countries vie for influence.
As France starts to gear up its armed forces for all these new forms of warfare, however, there are a number of serious challenges. The Sahel experience, says General Burkhard, is “undeniably a real strength”. Over a vast area of semi-arid scrub, soldiers and special forces take part in high-risk combat operations, which are both technically and tactically challenging. The French army has reported 57 deaths since 2013. Yet Barkhane is a highly asymmetric conflict, in which the French enjoy air supremacy, with no communications interference nor threat from drones, missiles or cyber-attacks.
The other problem is that French forces are being pulled in several directions at once. In mid-March a dozen French tanks, 160 armoured vehicles and 300 troops arrived in Tapa, in Estonia. They were the latest French contribution to the NATO battlegroups stationed in Poland and the Baltic states to deter Russian attack. Indeed military staff assume future engagements would be alongside allies—if not NATO, then at least America, or a coalition of the willing. These modernisation efforts are consistent both with NATO’s priorities and with Mr Macron’s desire for Europe to bolster its indigenous defences, though France and others remain reliant on American support for key enabling assets, like airlift and air defence.
In addition to eastern Europe, France is increasingly preoccupied to the south. In the eastern Mediterranean, France and Turkey have clashed over Libya, Syria and Cyprus, prompting Mr Macron to dispatch two warplanes and a frigate to Greek waters last August. On top of that, France is also deeply involved in the Indo-Pacific, where its overseas territories contain 1.6m French citizens and 7,000 soldiers. France has sustained a steady naval presence in the area.
The catch is that the navy has just 15 major surface ships to deal with all these issues, points out Admiral Pierre Vandier, France’s chief of naval staff. “All of us Europeans are on thin ice. We may stretch our forces between doing well in the Atlantic, doing well in the Med, doing well in the Gulf and doing well in the Indo-Pacific.” Prioritising between these is no longer a job for the armed forces, he says, but “a political decision” for Mr Macron or his successor. “We will have choices to make, for sure.”