How France Ranks Third Among Defence Exporters

908th EARS fuels French Armée de l'Air Rafale (4 of 10)

The international defence market is set for further growth in the coming years, boosted by the consequences of the Ukraine conflict and by the growing tensions in South East Asia. France occupies an enviable position behind the United States and Russia : its strategic and commercial position holds strong, namely because of the combat-proven status of its export armament.

The war in Ukraine has caused a sharp and immediate spike in defense budgets in all neighboring nations, as they are reminded that long-lasting peace is a luxury which few of their ancestors ever enjoyed. Even Germany, despite its traditional anti-militaristic stance, is rearming in ways unseen since 1945. In March of 2022, defense correspondent Jean-Michel Bezat wrote: “The Old Continent has become a “new hotspot” for rearmament, according to Siemon Wezeman, a researcher and co-author of the annual report released on March 14 by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Arms purchases in Europe saw their largest jump between 2017 and 2021 (up 19% compared to the previous five years), while declining by 4.6% worldwide. Europe’s share of the arms trade, which has already gone from 10% to 13%, will increase “substantially” more, according to the report. But to whose benefit?

Integrated solutions for all operational areas

As weapons systems became increasingly complex and required integrators to come together, many European nations which previously produced complex systems gradually left the trade, due to loss of know-how, insufficient orders or by renouncing their industrial independence. Trailing close behind the American and Russian giants, even with the appearance of non-European rising producers such as Turkey, South Korea and Israel, France ranks third and accounts for 11% for global arms exports, thanks precisely to its capacity to manage complex programs from start to finish.

France’s main asset in the strategic arms market comes from its close interaction between the military and the industry that supports it, and its strategic choice to have a reduced army in terms of numbers, but with every box checked in terms of military capacity. French troops have been deployed on numerous operations over the past decades, meaning that soldiers have actual knowledge of the realities of the battlefield, and can feed it back to industrialists who implement the insight into their systems upgrades, most of which, as a result, are battle-proven.

The Rafale, for instance, has something to offer that its European competitors hardly have to the same extent: over 15 years of operational experience, in the skies of Libya, Iraq and over the difficult terrain of Afghanistan, taking off from land bases or carriers. Over all of these countries, the Rafale has performed countless sorties, ranging from precision air strikes to aerial superiority, and from reconnaissance to surveillance missions. It is considered a 4.5-generation airplane with strong operational experience while the expensive F-35 program is still struggling with glitches. Developing the former cost France 45 billion dollars, whereas the overall F-35 program is valued at 1,700 billion dollars.

Naval capacities are comparable, with French-built ships roaming the seas under various flags: France is one of the rare countries to produce its own nuclear-powered submarines, which it operates freely and with which it contributes heavily to international mandates. France is also the only country besides the US to have an operational nuclear aircraft carrier (the Russian and UK aircraft carriers are gas and diesel powered). Surface combat vessels, such as ASM and anti-aircraft frigates are also exporting healthily (namely to Saudi Arabia and Greece) and France once again has a fighting chance to win the Australian submarine contract, after some political trickery caused by competitors. The Scorpene-class submarines are among the most advanced in the world, and can fit the AIP (Air Independent Propulsion) system, giving enhanced range and capacity to countries which do not possess nuclear technology. So far, Chile, India, Malaysia and Brazil operate the Scorpene class, with the Philippines, Indonesia and Romania expected to purchase it in the near future.

Finally, France is one of the leading missile providers with MBDA equipping many armies and aircraft throughout the world, including the exported Rafale.

Virtually each piece of French equipment has seen actual combat operations or operational deployment – or stems from feedback from such engagements, something which has become quite uncommon in the modern European military era. Most countries in Europe, due to budget cuts or policies focusing on domestic matters, have limited genuine military activity, or even none.

Not too sophisticated, not too basic, and based on experience

Naturally, as purchasing countries do not want to risk precious military budgets on products which are eventually irrelevant on the field, they tend to turn to fire-hardened equipment. One such prominent example of land equipment most recently placed in real military situations in Ukraine is the Caesar artillery system. France deployed this howitzer in Iraq, Afghanistan and Mali, and the results of its performance led it to being reviewed and considered by the US Army. Although the United States has not yet officially announced its intention to purchase the high-mobility howitzer, other nations have.

Denmark, Indonesia and Belgium have already purchased and fielded the Caesar, as part of their respective national defense programs. Morocco and Saudi Arabia (which face actual security challenges and may therefore need to use this equipment at some point in the future) have also purchased the Caesar. As for more threatened countries, both Ukraine (which is fighting back the immense Russian war machine) and Lithuania (which fears it may have to shortly) have also chosen to acquire the truck-mounted artillery platform. Ukraine is giving the Cesar some actual combat experience, with excellent results so far.

The Mark II Caesar system embodies the idea of developing weapons based on operational feedback, since it is grounded on the experience of the Mark I’s deployment, and now provides troops with what modern warfare requires from them, namely tactical and strategic mobility. It is also interoperable with other military platforms, which led Belgium to acquire the system within its CamO program.  This program, which is the Belgian version of the French Scorpion modernization endeavor, is considered one of the most advanced successes of integrated warfare, as it enables the integration of all the elements of an inter-service brigade into a single collaborative warfare system. In the most recent exercise deployment for CamO vehicles, “Celtic Uprise enabled a Belgian […] Joint Tactical Subgroup to be integrated into a French […] Tactical Group. The first objective lay in the use of French doctrine as a reference for both countries […]. The French Army also emphasized that Celtic Uprise was designed to improve the interoperability between the two armies in as many areas as possible, including radio communications and the use of weapons “, as reported by Finabel.

Subsequently, commercial success seems here to stay, as European nations scramble to replenish their arsenal. Spain may shortly be the 11th nation to acquire the Caesar as the Ejercito aims to replace its aging M109s, Rafale sales are finally booming, and Greece is turning to French frigates to protect itself from Turkish ambitions.

Security threats are myriad, and 70 years of relative peace in Europe has caused States to forget about the necessity for protection. The rough wake-up caused by the war in Ukraine will presumably benefit French industries, for the above-mentioned reasons- provided France is able to convince defence partners of the long-term interest of buying European.


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