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France resists American hegemony

The cancellation of the “contract of the century” on Australian submarines for the benefit of the United States and Great Britain caused the amazement and anger of the rulers in France. Some observers have not hesitated to denounce a deliberate desire by the Anglo-Saxons to weaken the French naval defense industry.

Read also: Why Australia’s breach of the “contract of the century” was predictable

While these arguments may be admissible (the economic war between competing defense industries obviously leads to all eventualities), it remains important not to lose sight of the fact that the United States acts above all in order to maximize its national interests, but with technical (such as the ECHELON network) and financial resources far superior to those of other States.

The structuring of the international arms trade clearly points to US dominance, confirmed by the fact that the five defense companies generating the most revenue are all American.

The military-industrial complex as a lever of economic and political power

While many works have been published on the role of the American military-industrial complex and its growing influence at the political level, its economic weight should not be overlooked.

Already, during his farewell speech to the nation in 1961, President Eisenhower warned against the dangers of this military-industrial complex which, in his view, had become too deeply rooted in the American economy and society. The end of the Cold War did not mark its end: it was able, through great waves of mergers and acquisitions, to find a new lease of life.

According to’US Aerospace & Defense Industry, this sector employs 2.1 million people in indirect jobs and 880,000 in direct jobs. Its turnover is around $ 875 billion in 2020 and export revenues are close to $ 91 billion. The American domestic market is the world’s largest defense market (38% of the world market). This greatly benefits its major defense groups, international leaders around which the American Industrial and Technological Base (BITD) is structured.

Representing more than 100,000 direct jobs alone, Lockheed Martin is the world’s leading defense company and plays an important role in US arms policies. Here, then-president Donald Trump shakes hands with Marillyn Hewson, the company’s CEO, outside the White House on July 23, 2018.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP

Less dependent on exports because of this sizeable domestic market, the United States is anxious to avoid the diffusion of military technologies likely to modify the balance of power at the international level and has often been less inclined to export its military technologies from before. -keeps that their competitors.

Read also: Australian submarines: the French arms export model in question

Thus, the United States has put in place a set of binding measures in the field of defense exports, demonstrating that politico-strategic considerations are a priority for them. The American legislation (on the transfer of weapons) is indeed very strict.

However, due to a constrained budgetary context, the US government has relaxed controls on arms exports in recent years in order to support its defense industry.

Beyond the security assistance granted to a large number of States in the world, via FMS or EDAs, the United States encourages its defense companies to reinvest part of their profits from exports in the development of new technologies. .

On the other hand, by forging important industrial defense partnerships with countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Poland, Washington is consolidating its defense relations with traditional allies.

Two imperatives of their foreign policy thus appear in the background: the fight against terrorism and the repercussions of the defense industries for their national economy, notably via the annihilation of the most dangerous direct competitors.

France, the most formidable competitor of the American defense industry?

It is an axiom well known in the arms market: “to buy, it is necessary to sell”.

France is no exception to this rule and the room for maneuver available to it is much less than that of the United States. If France wants to maintain its autonomy in the field of defense, exports are necessary to perpetuate its BITD, which represents 80,000 direct jobs and 120,000 indirect jobs.

4 questions on arms exports from France, Brut, June 4, 2021.

About 40% of the turnover recorded by the French BITD comes from exports: the size of the French market is insufficient to allow a massive reduction in costs and, therefore, significant economies of scale.

With a unique industry in Europe, France is the only country in the region to be autonomous in yet a number of critical weapon systems (combat aircraft, heavy tanks, high tonnage ships, missiles, radars, etc.) while still being dependent for a certain number of other systems (long endurance drones, ISR, on-board electronic components, etc.). Nevertheless, the accumulated know-how made Paris a real and serious alternative to the United States in a number of highly strategic arms sectors.

This state of affairs is not new: in the 1960s already, the French defense industry greatly hampered the United States in the context of international competition.

At the time, in the aeronautical field for example, the Mirage was one of the rare alternatives to American and Soviet fighter jets and particularly attracted the attention of countries which, like France, wanted to mitigate the hegemonic influence of the two superpowers.

Since then, if Paris has drawn very close to the United States, the latter’s behavior has not been less offensive. Washington has, in recent years, systematically tried to derail agreements that are well advanced in a large number of arms contracts:

  • 1992: setting up of monitoring of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil (SIVAM project) via the supply of a satellite and surveillance radar. This call for tenders for an amount of 1.4 billion dollars will see the French Thomson-CSF (which became Thales in 2000) confront the American firm Raytheon. The latter will obtain this contract on July 18, 1994 after interceptions made by the CIA on alleged bribes and interceptions of NSA communications between French and Brazilians were exploited. Later revelations will demonstrate that the United States had acted in the same way.

  • 2002: renewal of South Korea’s combat aircraft. The Rafale was opposed to Boeing’s F-15K fighter. At the end of the technical and operational evaluation campaigns, the Rafale was ranked first in terms of performance, but many twists and turns during this affair (search, rumors of corruption, intimidation, espionage, etc.) led to Dassault’s defeat. The F-15K was chosen by Seoul for national security considerations, because the United States remains the true guarantor of its security against North Korea.

  • 2002 again: the Rafale competed with the F-16 in Poland. The French aircraft impressed the pilots of the Air Force, but the compensation offered by the Americans tipped their choice. Washington undertook to include in the contract a transfer of technology relating to the encrypted telecommunications system Tetra (with Motorala), as well as the creation of a computer research center coupled with a substantial R&D plan.

  • 2007: In Morocco, the United States accepted a significant discount to once again prevent Dassault from selling its Rafale. They offered 36 F-16 fighters for an amount of 2 billion dollars, against 2.3 billion euros for 18 Rafale, accompanied by an American guarantee to make Rabat benefit from all the technological resources of the F-16. Under these conditions, the Rafale had no chance of winning.

One of the Moroccan F-16s, bought at an unbeatable price (French). Here during the “African Lion 2021” exercises in southwestern Morocco, June 18, 2021.
Fadel Senna/AFP

It sometimes happens that the United States blocks, for reasons of “national security and foreign policy”, the sale of certain American electronic components which equip certain French weapons systems. US ITAR regulations thus pushed Washington to block the sale of two French spy satellites (Airbus and Thalès) to the United Arab Emirates in 2014 as well as the sale of Scalp cruise missiles (MBDA) to Egypt and Qatar.

A direct intervention of the former president François Hollande was necessary to unblock the sale of the satellites in February 2014. The contract for the Scalp missile could not be released and Paris committed itself to Cairo to manufacture a similar component escaping the ITAR device.

In these specific cases, Israel’s security through maintaining a military advantage over its potential Arab adversaries, the Qualitative Military Edge, served as a pretext to counter the political effects of the Rafale’s commercial export successes.

More recently, many markets have pitted French and American manufacturers against each other (Caracal helicopters vs. UH-60 in Poland, Rafale fighters and SAMP-T anti-aircraft systems vs. F-35 fighters and Patriot anti-aircraft systems in Switzerland, etc.), with the key many French defeats, in particular because of political pressure in the direction of allies strongly dependent on the United States.

A Polish soldier in front of an Airbus Caracal helicopter during the country’s tests to replace its aging aircraft. Following disagreements over the industrial compensation offered by Airbus, Poland chose American equipment. Powidz, May 14, 2015.
Janek Skarzynski/AFP

Resist the hegemonic ambitions of the United States

What emerges from American behavior is the manifest desire to maintain its economic and industrial hegemony in the field of armaments, especially in the West.

France is the main target here, because it has precisely the strengths that make it a real rival in many key technological areas.

By seeking to maintain its hegemony by all means, Washington is also trying to limit the leeway of certain influential regional actors (India, South Korea, Egypt, Indonesia, etc.) by impacting their degrees of strategic and decision-making autonomy on the international scene.

By thus limiting the possibility for these states to acquire non-American technologies, the United States is strengthening its influence. Indeed, we must not forget the fact that the country selling arms has, in addition to sensitive information, means of pressure as regards their maintenance, their modernization and… their use.

France, with a constrained defense budget and strong dependence on exports, has little support within a European Union already partly dependent on American defense industries.

It is therefore up to it to be able to continue to establish with certain States, European or extra-European, partnerships likely to last over time, without unnecessarily exposing its BITD, in order to ensure that the Gallic village continues to resist. still and always…

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