- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 16, 2001

PARIS France's armed forces are in such a state of disarray that the country could barely defend itself if it were attacked, according to a series of alarming reports by defense experts.
A decade of budget cuts, reorganization and mismanagement has, it is claimed, rendered all three branches of the country's military powerless to react rapidly and efficiently at home or abroad.
Despite the billions spent on the latest equipment, much of it cannot be used. Half of France's fleet of helicopters is grounded, and a third of its tanks are out of action, according to a confidential Ministry of Defense report leaked to newspapers.
The conflict in Afghanistan has highlighted the crisis and generated widespread public criticism about the country's lack of involvement in the international war against terror.
Political leaders have attempted to restore national self-respect by dispatching the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle to join U.S. forces in the Arabian Sea.
It is hoped that the 40,000-ton accident-prone vessel, which cost $3 billion to build, should be en route by today and will complete its mission without the accidents that have led its crew to nickname it "le bateau maudit" the damned ship.
French defense spending, around $27 billion a year, has fallen from 15 percent of the state budget to 11 percent since the end of the Cold War in the 1990s.
The ending of national service and the creation of a professional army, announced by President Jacques Chirac in 1996 and intended to save $300 million a year, has drained the defense budget of at least another $150 million this year.
Lack of money, however, is not the only problem. While enormous sums have been spent on such prestigious and high-profile projects as the carrier Charles de Gaulle, the Leclerc tank and the Rafale fighter plane, the armed forces lack the resources to maintain and repair their equipment.
A confidential report by the general armed forces board, leaked to the economic magazine Capital, concluded that more than a third of Leclerc tanks which at a cost of $15 million each were intended to be the pride of France's ground forces are out of use. A shortage of spare parts meant that the army was having to cannibalize part of its fleet to keep the rest in action.
Around half of France's Puma, Cougar and Gazelle helicopters are grounded and are awaiting repairs, and only a fraction of the air force's planes are fit to fly, defense experts say.
"While the air force has 517 fighter planes, only 12 aircraft are ready to take off within two minutes in order to defend our country in the event of an attack," wrote Thierry Fabre, Capital's defense correspondent.
The French Ministry of Defense contended that "reports of a crisis are exaggerated." "Of course only 12 planes are on standby to fly as part of the air defense mission. No country has all its entire air force on red alert 24 hours a day, 365 days a year," a spokesman said.
The navy is faring a little better, with 32 of its 76 ships reported to be in a state of seaworthiness.
The most expensive folly in French military history remains the Charles de Gaulle, commissioned for the French navy in 1986.
The aircraft carrier was intended to be a potent symbol of military might but was so riddled with faults it proved to be more of a humiliating French farce.
When it finally took to the sea last November on its first long-distance trial, part of one propeller broke off somewhere in the western Atlantic and the vessel was forced to limp home. For every year in operation, the ship has to spend four months in dock undergoing maintenance and repairs.

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