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France, Syria, and Power Projection

By Taylor Marvin

After the Obama administration’s weekend announcement that it will seek congressional approval before launching airstrikes in Syria, France has too announced that it will wait on the American government’s decision. On Twitter, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf took the opportunity to remark that regardless of its decision to wait, France could punish the Assad regime’s chemical weapons use no matter what the US eventually decides.

But solo French strikes in Syria are so unlikely as to be nearly unthinkable, and power projection capability outside of America’s is much more restricted than Friedersdorf argues.

In his announcement that France would wait on the US Congress’ decision, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls explained that despite the French government’s desire to act it ‘needs a coalition’ before striking the Assad regime and could not “go it alone”. This wasn’t a reference to a French desire for international diplomatic support; instead, it is a veiled allusion to the French military’s very real need for cooperation from US force. As Robert Farley noted, despite their relatively high defense spending major NATO allies France and the UK lack the cruise missile assets necessary for striking Syria in any systematic fashion and, in Farley’s words “most of the NATO militaries have, for better or worse, been optimized for coalition ops with the United States.” While the French Navy is perhaps more balanced than today’s air-defense and anti-submarine warfare-optimized Royal Navy, in operations requiring air defense suppression or launching large numbers of cruise missiles — with the latter obviously relevant to the proposed strikes in Syria — both countries depend on working in tandem with more capable US forces.

USN photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Denny Cantrell, via Wikimedia.

Is it any wonder the country of Monet would design the prettiest aircraft in NATO? USN photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Denny Cantrell, via Wikimedia.

As Daniel Drezner alluded to on Twitter and I briefly noted earlier this week at Political Violence @ a Glance, the air campaign over Libya definitively illustrated that British and French sustained power projection is depending on US cooperation. During the Libyan campaign non-US NATO member participants benefited from extensive opening-phase US strikes that decimated Libyan air defense networks and quickly ran short of precision-guided munitions, relying on US stockpiles to plug the gap. As I wrote at the time, the lesson here is that the British and French defense budgets are essentially optimized only for power projection alongside the US. Both countries spend far more than would be necessary if they only intended to operate within NATO’s original mission — that is, self-defense. But the gap between the spending required for fielding moderately capable defensive military forces and those capable of sustained power projection is enormous. By keeping their defense spending in the no-mans-land between these two benchmarks the UK and France both field militaries that for practical purposes service maintaining the pretext of global power — in the words of GlobalSecurity.org’s John Pike “maybe they were just planning on using their air force for air shows” — but incapable of actually fighting sustained campaigns overseas without close US support.

But of course the Libyan campaign isn’t an analog for the proposed strikes in Syria — while in Libya NATO air forces essentially provided direct air support and strategic strikes to rebels forces, airstrikes in Syria would be much more restricted, only involve standoff weapons, and likely aim to only target military forces associated with the regime’s chemical weapons use. France does possess the air assets necessary to conduct very-limited standoff strikes on Syria. Given that the Obama administration is apparently considering only extremely restricted strikes that will only — arguably — symbolically punish the regime for Assad’s chemical weapons use, it’s possible that the US will elect to mostly limit itself to strikes the French in effect would be theoretically capable of on their own. But as Valls said, despite the very limited options on the still-nebulous coalition’s table France is unlikely to go it alone for both practical and political reasons. If Americans want Assad punished, it’s a punishment that the US forces will have to be involved in administering.

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