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Sarkozy overhauls military

President Nicolas Sarkozy announced an overhaul of France's military on Tuesday to create a smaller and more mobile army.

world Updated: Jun 17, 2008 23:26 IST

President Nicolas Sarkozy announced an overhaul of France's military on Tuesday to create a smaller and more mobile army, committing Paris to closer ties with NATO and a stronger European defence policy.

Outlining France's strategic defence priorities for the next 15 years, Sarkozy said the military must put a new emphasis on security within France's borders and adapt to modern challenges from terrorism to computer attacks.

He urged a strong European defence policy and said France would revamp ties with NATO, with which it has had an ambivalent relationship since former President Charles de Gaulle pulled out of the alliance's military command structure in 1966.

But he insisted that France would always retain control of its own forces and keep independent control of its nuclear deterrent, which would remain the cornerstone of its defence structure.

To free up funds to modernise its ranks, France would slash 54,000 mostly administrative and support posts over the coming seven years, leaving a force of 225,000 including civilians.

Acknowledging that budgetary constraints had forced France to make tough choices, Sarkozy pledged to push contested reforms through to the end as France maintained its status as a major military and diplomatic power.

"We have to make choices and we need to look at the situation as it is," Sarkozy told an audience of officers and senior security officials.

"The truth is that we must stop trying to maintain certain equipment that you use every day on a shoe string: supply planes which are 45 years old, light armoured tanks which are 28 years old and Puma helicopters which are 30 years old," he said.

Defence spending would rise in line with inflation in the near-term and grow above it from 2012, with 377 billion euros ($584.8 billion) earmarked for the military between now and 2020, of which 200 billion would go to equipment, he said.

France would keep a sizeable deployable troop capacity for operations abroad, albeit reduced to 30,000 from 50,000.

LOOKING TO EUROPE

France has 12,000 troops on foreign missions from Afghanistan to the Balkans but they have been hampered by poor equipment and a chronic shortage of helicopters.

More than half the military's personnel perform administrative and support functions, with just 40 percent in operational and combat roles.

Former NATO head and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana welcomed the reforms.

"I think the armed forces of several countries are very big on paper. But what is needed are forces that are available, even if there's no need for millions of soldiers, forces that are available in a real way, with proper equipment," he said.

As France downsized its military, Sarkozy looked to Europe.

"Working together means building European defence (capabilities) above all. This is my priority," Sarkozy said.

Europe should be able to deploy 60,000 soldiers abroad and should cooperate in the defence industry, he said, adding he would push the defence agenda when France takes over the EU presidency next month.

In terms of equipment, France would look towards cooperation deals and move away from the once-prized independence that saw it back Dassault Aviation's all-French Rafale combat jet against the European Eurofighter programme.

Sarkozy noted that the commission charged with carrying out France's defence review found that nothing stood in the way of rejoining NATO's military command structure.

But he stopped short of making a formal pledge, insisting that France would retain control of its own forces and maintain an independent hand on its nuclear deterrent.

"On the basis of these principles which everyone in the Alliance respects, understands and recognises, we will be able to renew our relations with NATO without fear for our independence," he said.

Sarkozy's comments were welcomed by NATO spokesman James Appathurai but he said further clarity was needed.

(Additional reporting by Tim Hepher, Brian Rohan and Mark John in Brussels)