Earlier this year, The Strategy Bridge asked university and professional military education students to participate in our first annual writing contest by sending us their thoughts on strategy.
We are pleased to present an essay selected for honorable mention from Nicolas Maldera, a student at Sciences Po Grenoble, France, and the Universität Konstanz, Germany.
According to a broad definition, uncertainty refers to a partial absence of information. More precisely, it means the impossibility for a given actor to anticipate the outcome of a decision and to assign a probability of occurrence to it. Uncertainty integrates two distinct dimensions: ambiguity (Is this information supposed to be interpreted in different manners?) and probability (To what extent is this information credible?). By nature, uncertainty is present in every human activity, and no organization or individual can have complete knowledge of every actor’s strategies or motivations within the environment. This universality of uncertainty has been largely acknowledged by many academic disciplines, including psychology, mathematics, microeconomics, and international relations. In the latter case, the relevance of uncertainty became a popular explanation for several international phenomena. As Gartzke said, “Uncertainty is probably as ubiquitous a feature of international affairs as is warfare.” Depending on the school of thought in international relations, uncertainty is understood as ignorance of the rules of the game, confusion about the international system complexity, indeterminacy of the socially constructed reality, or fear about adversaries’ intentions because of fragmented information.
Even if universal in human activities, uncertainty is often absent from weapons procurement studies. Despite pioneering works of Scherer and Peck that recognize uncertainty as a main characteristic of weapons acquisitions, academic works that follow often do not investigate this feature in depth. Indeed, weapons procurement studies generally do not consider uncertainty as a crucial factor in explaining why weapon programs fail completely or encounter costs overrun, delays, and deficiencies in delivered capabilities. Explanations range very often from technologically overly ambitious military service’s technological over-ambitions to the deficient procurement strategies of their respective bureaucracy’s deficient procurement strategy. In this paper, we will go further in explaining why some programs fail to produce new weapon systems with in terms of costs, delays and capabilities. As the majority of academic works about weapons acquisition consider the U.S. case, we will bring some change by focusing on the French military establishment.
...weapons procurement studies generally do not consider uncertainty as a crucial factor in explaining why weapon programs fail completely or encounter costs overrun, delays, and deficiencies in delivered capabilities...
We attempt to explain how strategic uncertainty has influenced weapons procurement processes in France since the beginning of the Cold War. The French case is interesting for two reasons. First, the variety of weapons programs undertaken since the 1950s provides numerous examples to inform empirical study. Second, there are few academic works examining defense policy and weapons acquisition processes for the French case. Investigating the French case could thus bring an interesting contribution in weapons procurement studies.
The article is structured as follows. First, we show that the Cold War period was a stable era in terms of military threats in contrast to the modern era. Second, we argue the collapse of the Soviet Union has disrupted the old logic of French weapons acquisition, rendering many of them useless and leading to their partial failure in terms of costs.
International Context and Strategic Uncertainty
The strategic context has to be understood from two different perspectives. On the one hand, it refers to the state’s competitive position on the international scene in defending its interests. If this international competition is often political and economic, it can obviously become military. On the other hand, it is related to the current strategic paradigm, essentially the state’s vision of international relations and of the role it wants to play. These two perspectives, which are meant to be integrated into a national strategy, together shape the state’s military system in terms of threats and opportunities. Even if there remains an on-going debate between proponents of realism and supporters of the bureaucratic/institutional school, one should assume weapons programs are at least partially initiated to counter the weapons of an enemy or potential enemy and are integrated into a larger arsenal. Strategy is a matter of rationality first.
Strategically speaking, the period from the end of the Second World War to the collapse of the Soviet Union was stable in terms of providing an environment in which to develop and field new weapon systems. The military threat for NATO’s core members, even with nuances, was clearly identified, as were the requirements for the form of conflict to be waged. Despite an obvious lack of information regarding the Warsaw Pact’s war-fighting capabilities and difficulties for western policy-makers and academics in interpreting Soviet military doctrine, strategic uncertainty was relatively low. In case of any military escalation between the two blocks, NATO member states would have to counter waves of Warsaw Pact ground forces, either involving tactical nuclear strikes on allied lines or not. Soviet strategic plans and tactical guidelines called for a rapid advance into NATO’s depths through the German plains, the Fulda gap, and the Hof corridor. The objectives were to surround NATO’s resisting units; disrupt their logistics; capture their military airfields, navy facilities, nuclear arsenals, and command and control capabilities; and quickly reach western political and economic centers. In a timeline between a single week and 45 days (depending of the plan and NATO’s resistance), Soviet Operational Manoeuver Groups were supposed to have reached French Atlantic shores and the Spanish border to hinder the arrival of U.S. heavy reinforcements.
Likely offensive avenues by Warsaw Pact Forces.
Part of the Alliance since 1949, France deployed its 1st Army on the Federal Republic of Germany’s soil until 1993. French headquarters and main forces were located in Baden-Baden, between Stuttgart and Strasbourg. In comparison to other NATO members, French conventional forces in Germany had to play a shock-absorber role for the benefit of French nuclear forces. This was consistent with the foreign policy of Charles De Gaulle, who believed national self-interests dominated all other interests. If the Gaullist approach was opposed to the American influence on Western Europe, it acknowledged at the same time that France could not withstand any Soviet offensive alone. Therefore, autonomous development of national military capabilities became, with the nuclear program in development since the 1950s, a true guideline for French defense establishment. If waging a high-intensity conflict in continental Europe was not the only strategic imperative France faced at the moment, it was the issue that produced the most significant weapons acquisition logic. Insisting on principles of sovereignty and independence from a potentially hegemonic American ally, the first two Cold War decades coincided with the launch of many large weapons programs to answer the multidimensional Soviet threat.
Dealing with the Soviet Threat: French Cold War Military Planning
To blunt any Soviet assault without being surrounded, anti-armor firepower and tactical/operational mobility were required by French units. The latter material requirement was satisfied by French military culture placing a high level of trust in maneuver capabilities. If we follow a purely materialist perspective, this environment gave birth to AMX-30B/B2 main battle tanks (1966), AMX-10P infantry fighting vehicles (1973), and AMX-10RC light reconnaissance vehicles (1981). But dealing with the Warsaw Pact’s ground forces also required tactical air support, which created a requirement for air superiority. Therefore were born Mirage III interceptors (1961) and Mirage F-1 (1973) and Jaguar attack aircraft (1973). Simultaneously, the French nuclear triad needed to be constructed from nothing, giving birth to S2 (1971) and S3 (1980) land-based intermediate range ballistic missiles, the Pluton short-range ballistic missile (1973), M1 (1971) and M2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (1974), the Le Redoutable nuclear ballistic missile submarine class (1971), and Mirage IV strategic bombers (1964).
These Grands Programmes—recognizable by the financial resources needed, the strategic value of the system fielded ,and sometimes their duration—became the French state’s symbols of industrial commitment. To maximize organizational efficiency of national military programming and accelerate the construction of national military capabilities, the defense sector benefited from bureaucratic practices already in use in French public administration. After the Second World War, France’s reconstruction was indeed driven by a formidable increase of state’s involvement in economic activities in comparison to the pre-war period. The 1946 goal was to rapidly increase living standards, to enhance basic agriculture and industrial capabilities, and modernize productive capacities through the pursuit of planning cycles or plans. The General Planning Commissariat was in charge of their implementation and focused on reaching quantitative objectives every three to six years. In 1960, President Charles de Gaulle decided to use this form of state planning to build an independent national defense and drive the state’s military policy. Massive investments required by the nuclear program and the conventional military build up could not be integrated in normal budget laws anymore due to the financial resources required. Taking into account the General Planning Commissariat, a specific administrative procurement authority was created in 1961. The General Directorate for Armaments (DGA) has since had full responsibility in weapons acquisition for French armed forces.
Since, the French Military Programming Act every five years defines resource allocation between areas according to the chosen defense posture. Major weapon programs since the very first law covering the years 1960 to 1964 have been the cornerstones of this process. The first three Military Programming Acts, lasting until 1975, planned mainly the development of the nuclear strike force and French armed forces' adaptation to the end of the Algerian war in 1962. In comparison, the following Military Programming Act (1977-1982) was mainly devoted to enhance the operational capability of the conventional ground forces. At the time, French major weapons programs proved to be very successful. Despite some normal technical uncertainties, it appears the majority of equipment developed respected cost predictions, deadlines, and technical requirements. France’s weapons exportation reached high levels as well, especially between 1965 and 1985. Avoiding classical failures in terms of delays, costs overruns, or diminished capabilities, France was able to propose affordable and capable military hardware on the international market. From a political perspective, it was a third path between weapons manufactured by the United States or the Soviet Union.
France’s weapons exportation reached high levels as well, especially between 1965 and 1985.
Finally, such successes in weapons procurement, both for self-acquisition and exportation, can be explained by the conjunction of a very stable strategic environment—which remained so for decades—and a large state “machine bureaucracy.” Strategic stability and bureaucratic rationality produced a set of conditions that allowed weapons acquisition processes to achieve a certain level of efficiency. Planning cycles institutionalizing development and production of major weapons on a long term basis—15 years—were not to be disrupted by any real strategic uncertainty about the future, as the essence of the military competition with the Eastern Block and the industrial war paradigm at work in political and military spheres remained stable. New weapons systems could therefore be developed and fielded as originally planned, their requirements and operational purposes staying relevant during the whole program duration. The Cold War logic of long-term military planning for weapons acquisition and the Grands Programmes approach thus appeared to have been truly adapted to the long preparation for such a potential conflict.
The End of the Cold War and the Disruption of the French Military Planning Logic
The middle of the 1970s announced a third generation of military hardware for western nations and eastern countries as well. Pursuing its Grands Programmes planning policy, France initiated developments to field new weapon systems and replace older-generations of equipment. Fundamentally, the Warsaw Pact’s threat hovering over Western Europe was strategically not very different than it has been in the past. Even if normal lack of information regarding exact performances of Soviet hardware and some evolution of Soviet military doctrines persisted, Soviet ground forces continued to be focused on conducting a large-scale combined arms offensive under nuclear or non-nuclear conditions to a depth of 1,500 kilometers and more. They continued to foresee a fluid battlefield in which highly mobile forces on both sides would strive to seize the initiative and make the difference.
Materially speaking, however, the balance of power evolved dramatically in favor of Soviet forces for a while. In every category, either nuclear or conventional, new equipment with increased reliability and performance was fielded by Soviet manufactures. Newer main battle tanks with new fire control capabilities and enhanced protection and newer combat aircraft and combat helicopters for aerial superiority and close-air support missions jeopardized NATO’s abilities to defend its lines. The United States, the Federal Republic of Germany, and the United Kingdom began to replace their older equipment to answer these developments. At the end of the 1980s, main western ground forces reached a technological edge and were revitalized. The U.S. 7th Army deployed new M1A1 Abrams, M2A2 Bradley, AH-64 Apache, and UH-60 Blackhawk. The U.S. Air Force deployed F-15C and F-15E Strike Eagle. West Germany fielded new Leopard 2A4 tanks and Marder 1A2 infantry-fighting vehicles, while the British Army started to deploy new Challenger 1 tanks and Warrior infantry fighting vehicles.
France was, at some points, compelled by this double modernization process to launch three major weapons programs to remain at the cutting edge: the Leclerc main battle tank, the Tiger combat helicopter, and the Rafale fighter aircraft. As the global strategic uncertainty was low and the military threat remained clearly identified, these three weapons systems were designed for a high-intensity conflict in continental Europe, just as their predecessors had been. For French policy-makers, the increasing overall quality of new Soviet equipment had to be countered by an increasing use of electronic and computer technologies, overtaking previous generations in terms of battle management, situation awareness, and fire control. By doing so, creating a proficient ratio against Soviet units would become more achievable than it was with previous hardware generations.
This perception of how to answer the Soviet threat during this last Cold War decade coincided with the French state golden age regarding its involvement in large technological programs, such as the Concord supersonic airliner and the civilian nuclear sector. Within the state structure itself, three weapons programs were strongly supported; more than ever, they were perceived as symbols of state’s greatness. One should therefore see them as the result of both a strategic imperative and efforts of elites embedded in state bureaucracy.
The Tiger combat helicopter was launched in cooperation with West Germany in 1984, after preliminary studies that began in 1976. France and the German Federal Republic had to replace, respectively, their 261 Gazelle and 300 Bo-105 light utility helicopters with a heavier combat machine. The purpose of the Tiger program was to stop any Soviet armored columns advancing into Western territories. The Leclerc main battle tank program officially started in 1986, after two decades of studies, technological feasibility assessments, and polemical reports. Since its conception, the purpose of the new tank was twofold: to replace the 1,200 AMX-30 and AMX-13 French tanks in service and to field “the best tank of the world” in terms of technological achievements (able to fight most recent Soviet tanks with a 1:3 ratio). Finally, the Rafale combat aircraft was officially initiated in 1988, after more than a decade of studies and an aborted cooperation with the United Kingdom and West Germany. Here as well, the purpose of the program was twofold: to replace all Jaguar, Mirage F-1, Crusader, Super-Etendard, Mirage III, Mirage 2000, and Mirage IV combat aircraft in service (rationalizing the combat aircraft fleet) and to deploy one of the most capable multi-role fighter aircraft in the world.
The Strategic Vacuum
Completely unanticipated by the majority of policy experts, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991 signified the disappearance of any major military threat from Eastern Europe, for years if not decades. In the space of two years, the industrial war paradigm that prevailed during 45 years in every western military establishment vanished, to be replaced some years later by a war amongst the population paradigm. The world entered into a new era, where traditional landmarks of military power became heavily blurred, where states of war and peace are deeply entangled, as are combatants and civilians. Strategic uncertainty became a key variable.
The disappearance of the massive Soviet armored waves in Eastern Europe and also the vague edges of 1990s asymmetric operations applied structurally to military planning. In just two years, the French General Directorate for Armaments found itself with three Grands Programmes still being developed, under test, not yet fielded, but with no strategic threats to answer anymore. Despite many initial difficulties, notably related to aborted cooperation, these three programs continued through the same long-term planning logic already at work, due to a heavy path dependence of the French military establishment and the pressure of sector elites. Nevertheless, such major programs appeared to be heavy constraints to deal with for the French Defense Ministry, especially as political spheres decided to reduce the size of combat forces and the overall defense effort. Consequently, these new systems being more expensive than their predecessors (between two and eight times) and military spending stagnating, the programs’ outcomes could only be challenged in terms of purchased quantities. Because of the resources already engaged in such programs during years (if not decades), cancelling them would have been impossible. Therefore, we can consider that the French Grands Programmes approach failed to address such strategic disruption and themselves in itself in an onerous fiscal logic.
In the 1980s, it was planned to order more than 1,500 Leclerc main battle tanks to replace older AMX-30B2 in service in cavalry regiments. As the consequence of strategic uncertainty, this number fell to 650 in 1993. The whole production chain became a financial hole for the French state. Three-hundred and eighty-eight Leclerc tanks were sold to the United Arab Emirates, in an unsuccessful attempt to make the production sustainable. In 2001, 406 Leclerc had to be fielded until 2007 for the French forces, less than a third of what was planned during the Cold War. This reduction in the ordered quantities lead predictably to major costs overruns. Planned to cost $5.6 million in 1982, a single machine reached $10.1 million in 1993 and $19.6 million in 2001 including the tank itself as well as infrastructure, ammunition, spare parts, and crew training.
...we can consider that the French Grands Programmes approach failed to address such strategic disruption and trapped itself into a very onerous logic.
The case for the Tiger helicopter is similar. Originally, the French Army Light Aviation planned to order 215 aircraft. Acquisition targets then fell to 180 and 120 afterwards in 1998, and 80 in 2001. In 2013, the newly released White Book registered only 60 Tiger helicopters. For the Bundeswehr, decreasing acquisition targets were analogous. While the German Army’s 1984 plan intended to purchase 212 Tigers, German officials wanted 140 machines in 1991 and 75 two years later. Finally, only 57 Tiger UHT will be bought, one quarter of the original objectives. Consequently, costs rose here as well. At the beginning of the program, one Tiger was expected to cost $20 million for both nations, whatever the variant.41] In the French case, prices reached $32.2 million to $42.4 million depending on the variant in 2015.
Finally, successive decline of purchased quantities also impacted the Rafale program. Originally, 320 aircraft were supposed to be fielded against Soviets. In 2004, the target was reduced to 294. In 2008, the White Book mentioned 286. In 2013, the new White Book called for a fleet of 225 total aircraft, including naval aviation assets. This reduction led to higher purchase costs as well. Before the quantities shrunk, one Rafale was expected to cost around $96 million in 1986. Two decades later, after the successive reductions, the unitary cost was about $146 million. It is only with technological maturation and potential export that it was re-valued at around $101 million per aircraft by the French Court of Auditors in 2010.
This limited overview of the relationship between strategic uncertainty and three French major weapons programs could provide some empirical examples of the difficulties encountered by long-term military planning, particularly regarding the French case. In this article, we showed how the Soviet military threat and the French state ambitions after the Second World War shaped efficient long-term planning strategies for weapons procurement. Strategic certainty about the competitive nature of the international system allowed the French bureaucracy to efficiently plan and organize weapons acquisition focusing on key capabilities of national defense. Lasting sometimes decades with preliminary studies, the Grands Programmes approach needed a stationary and steady strategic environment to field new weapons systems on schedule and without major costs overruns.
The critical juncture appeared during the middle of the 1970s, when a modernization and replacement process of 2nd generation military hardware was initiated by a majority of countries of the two blocks. When the French General Directorate of Armaments launched the three programs examined above, it was already late to develop a new main battle tank, a new combat helicopter, and a new fighter aircraft from scratch. With the Soviet Union disintegration and a rising uncertain environment for policy-makers, we could observe how the strategic rupture produced costs overruns for weapons programs that lost their military purposes and became useless. The main causal mechanism thereby appears to be one very simple economic dual-mechanism: economies of scale. Nowadays, the Grands Programmes logic remains the cornerstone of French military planning, not without numerous criticisms. With a declining defense effort, the sanctioning of major weapons programs lead to the inevitable purchase of very small series and an unavoidable depletion of other smaller-scale programs, threatening France’s abilities to achieve strategic objectives due to very low available quantities of military hardware.
However, it would be tough to consider that the sole use of the strategic uncertainty concept can explain why some weapons programs fail while others succeed. Numerous factors—resource allocation or bureaucratic dysfunctions—have to be mentioned as well. Additionally, strategic uncertainty should be coupled with other categories of uncertainty. Two main types of uncertainty could be, in further studies, be considered too. First, one must take into account impacts of multinational cooperation in the outcome of weapons programs. The confrontation of differing rationalities among various actors often leads either to very different specifications impossible to conciliate, or requirement inflation making the cooperation costly. Uncertainty, produced by differing strategies among the actors, could lead to a partial or complete program failure. Empirically, the European military airlifter A-400M Atlas program could be illuminating from this point of view. Second, technological uncertainty produced by increasing specifications and the intrinsic requirements in terms of reliability, specialization, and systems integration must certainly be taken into account to investigate weapons procurement deficiencies. Generally, technological uncertainty makes the weapons programs requiring more time and investments to be overtaken by events and changing technology. Henceforth, with the new highlights it could bring, the concept of uncertainty should certainly be expanded more in depth into the weapons procurement study field.
Nicolas Maldera is a French student pursuing a double-degree from Sciences Po Grenoble, France and the Universität Konstanz, Germany in Financial Engineering (MA) and Politics and Public Administration (MA), respectively. He has worked in the Fondation iFRAP as a research fellow since June 2016. Based in Paris, this small organization is in charge of studying French policy-making and public policies. His areas of research mainly concern the weapons acquisition processes and western defense policies. He has been in the French Army Reserve in July 2016 and serves in the 35th Infantry Regiment.
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Header image: French Leclerc tanks of the 501st regiment parade down the Champs-Elysee | Dominique Faget, AFP
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 Ibid, p.61.
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 According to the words of General Sir Rupert Smith in his famous book “The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World.” Penguin Books, 2005.
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