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France in Libya: A Strategic Perspective on Opération Harmattan

France in Libya: A Strategic Perspective on Opération Harmattan France in Libya: A Strategic Perspective on Opération Harmattan
To cite this article: Schmitt, Olivier, “France in Libya: a strategic perspective on Opération Harmattan”, Infinity Journal, IJ Exclusive, 25 July 2011.

France, alongside the United Kingdom (UK), has been at the forefront of NATO’s military action in Libya, both pushing for a United Nations (UN) resolution and undertaking the lion’s share of the military engagement and airstrikes since the United States (U.S.) withdrew their offensive capabilities in April. However, a campaign originally conceived as involving few risks in exchange for great potential political pay-offs is lasting longer than expected and, in a time of budgetary constraints and at the beginning of an electoral year, has created doubts among the French public and policy-making community. This article argues that French military actions are based on a flawed strategy, namely an unclear definition of the goals of the campaign, which prevents more efficient use of limited military means. While the military action is collective in nature, this article focuses on France’s behaviour and the challenges she faces.

The political goals of the campaign have been unclear since the outset. UN Resolution 1973 authorizes states to “take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country”, legitimizing the use of force to protect cities such as Misrata or Benghazi. The million-dollar question, however, is what to do with Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi. Legally speaking, it might be argued that considering the nature of the Libyan regime and the character of its leader, the only way to effectively protect civilians would be to aim for regime change. Of course this interpretation (favoured by the intervening countries) is challenged by Russia, China and African countries, which consider it as neo-colonialist. An interpretation of international law is always subject to international politics and power relations — competing viewpoints are hardly surprising. The main point here is that regime change (i.e. forcing Gadhafi to relinquish power) can be legally grounded in the intervening countries’ interpretation of UN resolution 1973, and it seemed to be the ultimate political objective at the beginning of the campaign. On the 15 April of this year, U.S. President Obama, French President Sarkozy, and UK Prime Minister Cameron co-signed an op-ed article that appeared in five major newspapers (Le Figaro, the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Washington Post, and al-Hayat), arguing that “there is a pathway to peace that promises new hope for the people of Libya: a future without Gadhafi”.

When hopes for a short campaign were still high, French political leaders repeatedly argued that Gadhafi could not stay in power. The resilience of the Libyan regime, however, has created doubts among politicians and the population. While 66% of the French population was in favour of the intervention in March[i], by July 76% did not think that war was the only means of forcing Gadhafi to leave[ii]. Interestingly, this seemingly indicates that the French population still thinks that the Libyan Leader has to leave power but is now massively opposed to the military action, exactly at a time of doubt about the place of the military in French society[iii]. Unsurprisingly, French political leaders have also begun to publicly express diverging views of their desired political objective. The French Minister of Defence, Gérard Longuet, said that he could accept Gaddafi’s internal exile — in “another room of his palace with another title” — a possibility that was rebuffed by the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Alain Juppé. Senior political leaders in charge of the operation are not on the same page, which is clearly not the optimal way to exercise clear strategic leadership.

This problem is reinforced by the troubles of coalition warfare, which implies finding common ground and shared political objectives with allies. Coalition warfare, a major characteristic of western warfare since the Second World War, is rendered difficult by the necessity of finding agreements with other sovereign nations. The U.S. learned this the hard way, notably in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan (France typically being the critical partner). However, while the U.S. was able — thanks to its overwhelming military power — to exercise clear leadership throughout the operations, Operation Unified Protector lacks this authority. It is much more difficult for France and the UK to claim leadership over relatively comparable countries such as Spain or Italy. This leads to conflicting behaviours, such as the ceasefire unilaterally proposed by Italy on the 21 June — an option quickly dismissed by NATO and France. As is being witnessed, internal politics and diplomatic factors make it difficult for French leaders to formulate a clear strategic goal — clearly far from ideal in the midst of warfare.

Balancing and linking ends and means are already a difficult undertaking even when the ends are clear and means are available. Yet, when ends are varying and means are restricted, real challenges rush to the forefront. European armies have all assumed that they would serve as back-ups in a US-led operation. This strategic assessment is contradicted by the Libya campaign, where the U.S. clearly prefers not to take any political leadership role and eventually withdrew its offensive means in April. This left the Europeans with primary responsibility. The wake-up call has been painful. The long-recognized gaps in European capabilities in areas such as Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), Close Air Support (CAS) and strategic air refuelling have once again been exposed. Currently, American assets conduct two-thirds of air refuelling and 80% of ISR missions, which means that the operation could not be conducted without America’s blessing. European capabilities are shrinking. The most recent British Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) left France the only relatively credible military actor in Europe. Granted, French forces have demonstrated excellent tactical behaviour. The jetfighter Rafale is able to conduct a wide range of missions and proves its superiority over its competitor, the Eurofighter. The capabilities of the frigate Forbin, for example, in air defence and the command and control of air operations have been much appreciated. The capabilities and the usefulness of the BPC Tonnerre and Mistral as helicopter and command platforms have also been demonstrated. In the last few weeks, French assets have been conducting 25% of air missions and 35% of strikes.

But there is a real problem in terms of capabilities that will not be overcome. Materials are suffering despite the excellent availability rate of the French airplanes. Due to an insufficient number of planes, existing materials are overused. A Rafale is reported to have flown 140 hours in a month. The only French aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, has been at sea for 220 days over nine months, or 31 out of 39 weeks. The French Chief of the Navy has already warned that an overuse of the carrier means that due to maintenance needs it will be unavailable during 2012 for a much longer period of time than had been previously expected. Further, the costs of the operation make the public and politicians wonder whether military action will be sustainable. The costs are estimated at one million Euros per day, and 87 million Euros for the first three months. With important budgetary constraints and an electoral year ahead, budgetary issues are likely to be Gaddafi’s best allies.

French political leaders face a difficult strategic decision. Although they do not recognize it as such within their political discourse[iv], France is at war and it is time to match ambitions with means. Yet Gaddafi is not a formidable opponent, and the limited means at France’s disposal would probably be more effective if employed in another manner.

Three main problems constrain French forces, two of which are shared by other European forces. The first difficulty is caused by self-imposed rules on the use of force. Western forces fight with their hands tied, as they are fearful of the disastrous image that would be created by civilian deaths. Obviously, the alternative is not to wipe out Tripoli, but rather to at least acknowledge that there is no such thing as a clean war. While European populations forget the obvious, their armies lose their comparative advantage: overwhelming firepower.

Second, and linked to the above, European forces always lose the communication game with regard to their own populations, arguably one of their most important centres of gravity. Western forces are often suspected of misbehaviour, and they must always carry the burden of proof. For example, on 8 May, the Guardian ran a story according to which Libyan migrants had been left to die by an aircraft carrier[v]. The only aircraft in the area of operations being French, the target of the communication campaign was obvious. By the time NATO investigated and offered proof that the claims were completely false, the damage had been done. On the other hand, western journalists seemingly take anything said by random Libyans prima facie, labelling these statements “authentic”. It seems that there is little consideration that political agendas may be behind such statements or that individuals may be compelled to repeat discourse chosen by their authorities, which is nothing but another form of “Orientalism”.[vi]

Finally, French forces are constrained by the above-mentioned domestic political agenda. The time of military action is neither electoral nor media time, something still not understood by political leaders. According to rumours, Nicolas Sarkozy would have liked to declare victory on Bastille Day, and imposed a “surge” in air strikes for the first two weeks of July.[vii] This is a typically damaging understanding of the conduct of military operations: it is a political task to determine the ultimate political and strategic objectives, but not to micro-manage military operations on the tactical and operational levels

Ultimately, French behaviour in the Libyan crisis reveals a lack of strategic thinking in the definition of political goals and in the formulation of appropriate means of achieving them. It reminds one of the famous saying by Napoleon, “First we go in, and then we will figure it out”. But, it takes more than good will to act like one of the greatest military leaders in history.


[i] “Deux-tiers des Français favorables à l’intervention militaire en Libye”, L’, 2 April 2012,
[ii] “Libye : la guerre est-elle l’unique solution pour faire partir le colonel Khadafi?”, Le, 11 July 2012,
[iii] The services have been shocked by the media publicity around the freedom of the two French journalists held hostage in Afghanistan (although they had been warned of the dangers of travelling alone in an uncontrolled valley) while almost no mention is made of the soldiers who lost their lives in duty. Just before Bastille Day, France lost seven soldiers in several attacks in Afghanistan, which led to great emotion amongst the French public. In the meantime, the ecologist candidate to the presidential race, Eva Joly, proposed to suppress the military parade on Bastille Day and to replace it by a “citizens” parade where elders and students could walk down the Champs Elysées. This proposal led to an acrimonious and still unfinished controversy within the French political class.
[iv] The French political class calls military interventions “operations extérieures” (external operations), and avoid using the word “war”.
[v] Jack Shencker, “Aircraft carrier left us to die, say migrants”, The Guardian, 8 May 2012,
[vi] Patrick Porter, Military Orientalism: Eastern War through Western Eyes (Columbia University Press/Hurst, 2009).
[vii] “La Libye, objectif politique devenu incertain pour l’Elysée”, Le Monde, 12 July 2012,