Sarkozy unveils major defence overhaul

PARIS Tue Jun 17, 2008 7:33pm BST

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy gestures as he makes his speech during the Visegrad 4+1 Summit in Prague, June 16, 2008. REUTERS/David W Cerny

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy gestures as he makes his speech during the Visegrad 4+1 Summit in Prague, June 16, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/David W Cerny

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PARIS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed on Tuesday to create a smaller, more mobile and better equipped army able to respond to modern day threats ranging from terrorism to computer attacks.

Launching a new defence policy document, Sarkozy said the military needed to direct more resources to help soldiers in the field and put new emphasis on security within France's borders.

France is expected to cut more than 50,000 military posts, affecting the army, navy and airforce. When the restructuring is complete, the military should have 225,000 personnel.

The number of troops who can be sent abroad will fall to 30,000 from their current level of around 50,000, with a 5,000-strong rapid intervention reserve.

"For 15 years, France has not been threatened by invasion. The threats have changed in nature, they are diverse and shifting," he said.

"From now on, France's defence is as much at stake within France as thousands of kilometres away," he said.

In terms of military strategy in general, Sarkozy alluded to an already expressed desire to participate more fully in NATO structures. Analysts say that his aim is to win support for deeper EU defence cooperation.

Savings will free up money to invest in cutting-edge equipment such as satellites and to improve a fleet of ageing helicopters.

Addressing critics who have accused the government of downgrading France's military prowess, Sarkozy said he aimed to make France even more of a military power than it was today.

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

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

France's status as a nuclear power with a strong military is a cornerstone of policy and Sarkozy has pledged to keep defence spending steady at around 2 percent of gross domestic product.

But Sarkozy acknowledged the country's strained public finances had forced it to cut costs and seek more value for money.

Sarkozy said France would spend 3 billion euros (2.4 billion pounds) more per year than it did previously to equip its forces.

The commission charged with carrying out the defence review saw no reason to oppose France's return to NATO military command, he said.

But in order to do so, Sarkozy said France, which withdrew its forces from NATO command in 1966, must keep control of its nuclear arsenal and would not relinquish command of its own forces.

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