Sacré bleu! Should we be more like the French?
In the lead-up to this year’s Bastille Day, I had the opportunity to visit Satory in France, an area that has a rich history both for the defence industry and armed forces. While there, I spoke to local defence companies, DGA procurement officials and the armed forces about the Scorpion programme, an ambitious effort to revamp the army’s vehicle fleet and C2 systems for the 21st century.
The French Army and domestic industry is clearly proud of its modernisation agenda and the programme achievements so far, inviting leading media outlets to Satory to see it all first hand. This involved an exclusive look at the first prototype of the Griffon 6×6 vehicle, which is currently going through testing, as well as demonstrations of the army’s new sensors and communication systems, including an updated FELIN soldier suite.
Indeed, one of the French Army’s biggest achievements is the fact that despite being so ambitious, it has not become so massive that it has collapsed in on itself like other modernisation initiatives undertaken by the UK and US. Studies for Scorpion were initiated as far back as 1999, with work ramping up in the mid-2000s.
‘We have been preparing this programme for a very long time,’ the project manager told me in Satory.
Many might consider this to be a drawn-out procurement process, but as Scorpion begins to provide tangible results, it actually shows that France’s slow and maturing approach has delivered results (much like a vintage Bordeaux wine).
This is in stark contrast to the US Army’s disastrous Future Combat Systems modernisation programme, which ran through the 2000s and was eventually cancelled, wasting billions of dollars in the process.
Similarly, the British Army’s strategy to recapitalise its armoured vehicle fleet in the 2000s, known as the Future Rapid Effects System also ended with little to show except wasted taxpayer’s money and capability gaps. Indeed, the UK is still attempting to pick up the pieces of that failed procurement process and has once again kickstarted acquisition for the 8×8 Mechanised Infantry Vehicle, which will likely be a focus of this year’s DSEI.
Even the British Army’s less ambitious attempts to upgrade its existing inventory of armoured vehicles and replace obsolete subsystems appears to be moving at a snail’s pace. Countries such as France and Germany have already started programmes that will see comprehensive upgrades of their MBT fleets, yet the British have only formally contracted an assessment phase for its ageing Challenger 2, which will determine what needs to be upgraded.
The UK’s attempts to upgrade its Warrior fighting vehicles under the Warrior Capability Sustainment Programme has also been dogged by uncertainty, with a production contract yet to be signed despite the upgrade effort now being in its sixth contracted year. Prime contractor Lockheed Martin UK is understandably anxious to be awarded a production contract to provide some certainty in an increasingly uncertain economic environment.
Of course, decisions to delay or cancel modernisation initiatives can be put down to budgetary concerns and pressures. The French, however, spend roughly the same on defence as the UK (and considerably less than the US) yet in terms of ‘effect’ (to use a military term) it appears to have much greater impact and spends its money much more wisely.
French defence industrial capability is also strong, with the country still able to produce high-end equipment for its armed forces unlike the steady erosion seen in the UK and elsewhere.
It will pain some in the defence industry to hear this, but should we be more like the French?