Think Tank to U.S. Army: Be More French

Yeah, that's not going to happen

By Robert Beckhusen & Matthew Gault

For an American military struggling to respond to crises around the world, the answer might be just a little less firepower and a little more coup de maître.

At least that’s the RAND Corporation’s idea. A new report from the California think tank analyzes Operation Serval—France’s 2013 intervention in Mali—and argues the United States can learn a lot from how the French fight.

This is also relevant as Army chief Gen. Ray Odierno wants the Army to shift to smaller units more closely tied to the service’s six combatant commands.

The commands divide the world up into six regions. More and more, Army brigades align with particular commands—and learn the appropriate languages and skills to match the region.

That’s a lot different from how the Army has usually done things. Traditionally, units deployed from the U.S. to Asia, Europe or the Middle East pretty much randomly. Brigades were all the same.

The French, by contrast, have long assigned particular units to fight in specific parts of the world—matching soldiers and regions according to language, terrain, equipment and tactics.

So it makes sense for American troops to be more like the French, right?

RAND stops short of saying the U.S. Army should be just like the FrenchArmée de Terre. Instead, the think tank wants to “provoke such a debate” in order to “inform discussions regarding how to fulfill Odierno’s vision.”

France went to war in Mali in January 2013 to expel the Islamic Ansar Dine militant group and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa. Across the border in Libya, the dictator Muammar Gaddafi was dead. Guns and ammunition poured into Mali from Libya’s civil war, which allowed the militant groups to carve out a fiefdom in the country’s northeast.

French armored vehicles in Mali on Feb. 17, 2013 (Pascal Gyot/AP photo)

The rebels rode in technicals—speedy Toyota pick-up trucks with machine guns bolted on the beds. The French feared the Malian capital of Bamako would fall to the Islamists, possibly stranding the 6,000 French nationals in the country.

For French troops deployed to Mali, the goal “was simply to move as fast as possible,” the RAND report states. Within a day of the Islamist offensive, 200 French soldiers were on the ground organized as a sous-groupement tactique interarmes—a combined arms tactical subgroup.

This battalion-size unit came from other French bases in Chad, Côte d’Ivoire and Gabon.

Meanwhile, Paris rushed in wheeled armored trucks known as Cheetahs, plus AMX-10 light tanks. In subsequent weeks, French troops grew to number 4,000, supported by Malian Tuareg scouts and 6,400 African troops, including 2,300 Chadians.

The sous-groupment served as the basic building block of the French force in Mali. Each group included three infantry platoons, an engineering platoon, a light tank platoon and a command platoon. Each group also had a detachment of artillery and air-strike spotters.

The soldiers that made up a single sous-groupment also came from very different units previously deployed to different African countries. Some soldiers came from one battalion, another soldiers from another battalion, with tanks pulled from a company in a third battalion—all of them now mixed up and thrown into battle within a few hours.

The U.S. Army organizes fighting groups like that, too—when it has to. But the difference is that “the French army does it as a matter of doctrine, practice and habit,” the report explains.

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The French also train to disintegrate and reorganize their sous-groupmentson the spot, in case a different mission calls for a different organization. Finally, the report argues, French captains have more flexibility.

By the end of January, French forces had seized northern Mali’s two largest cities and pushed the Islamists into the Amettetai Valley. The French often fought without their vehicles, moving over craggy rocks and battling the Islamist fighters at close range.

They also fought under the assumption “that unless the enemy is already exposed, standoff weapons have to be used in conjunction with ‘old-fashioned’ dismounted infantry,” according to RAND.

But there are a lot of reasons why the U.S. won’t be like France.

One is that all the French fight the way they do because of their own constraints. The Ministère de la Défense has far less money to spend policing the world. This means a force tailor-made for fighting in very specific regions, pretty much all of them former French colonies.

The RAND report also notes that the French are trying to un-learn lessons they picked up from American troops in the Afghanistan war. Namely, the French military is training to rely less on warplanes for close-in air strikes, and less on drones and satellites for intelligence—all tools the U.S. shared until French forces withdrew from Afghanistan in November 2012.

On their own, the French have fewer of these high-tech systems.

Liberation in Mali on Feb. 17, 2013 (Pascal Gyot/AP photo)

The French also think Americans are, well, kind of wimpy. One of the traits that stands out about French troops is “a particular culture that, among other things, makes a virtue of roughing it and empowers risk taking,” the report argues.

Really, that’s more about making the best out of a bad situation. But there’s an older, aristocratic impulse at work—something akin to a Napoleonic cavalry officer.

In an interview with l’Opinion, Brig. Gen. Bernard Barreera—Operation Serval’s land force commander—flamboyantly praised France’s political leaders for giving his troops “a soul, a dynamic, a will to win!”

Audacity, the taking of the initiative, joint and combined arms maneuver, the integration of everything to attain ‘one sole goal, victory,’—as our motto and emblem say,” Barrera said, the emphasis ours.

That worked well enough in Mali. But even there, France pushed its troops to the breaking point. Soldiers reported their boots came unglued due to the desert heat, and their combat vehicles often outran the supply convoys.

Ultimately, the French sustained few casualties. Only nine soldiers died in Operation Serval. But had things played out slightly differently—had the Islamists planned a better defense—the campaign could have turned into a disaster.

France is accustomed to fighting wars in its post-colonial sphere of influence. Were the French military to find itself fighting a large, conventional foe like Russia or China, its highly-specialized experience in Mali wouldn’t go as far.

Robert Beckhusen & Matthew Gault
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