The era of overseas operations

Operation Licorne. Equipment being delivered to the FANCI (National Armed Forces of Côte d’Ivoire), October to December 2002. ECPAD/Sébastien Malherbe

Following the end of the Algerian War, a new period began for the French armed forces: the era of overseas operations. These interventions, which have cost the lives of 630 soldiers in 50 years, have been characterised by a high degree of fragmentation - close to 400 operations have taken place during this period, most of them on a very small scale - and blurred boundaries between war and peace.

Corps 1

Following the end of the Algerian War, a new period began for the French armed forces: the era of overseas operations. These interventions, which have cost the lives of 630 soldiers in 50 years, have been characterised by a high degree of fragmentation - close to 400 operations have taken place during this period, most of them on a very small scale - and blurred boundaries between war and peace.

Up until 1977, the priority was clearly to defend metropolitan France as part of a policy of nuclear deterrence. Overseas interventions in the period were nevertheless numerous and varied. Among them were many operations involving no use of force, being either purely humanitarian - the first, in 1963, involved providing aid to Yugoslavia following an earthquake - or in ”support” of a wide range of non-military actions, such as airdrops of equipment for a polar mission by Paul-Emile Victor in 1967. Half of the interventions did involve the use of force, although always in a very measured way. In the 1960s, the main emphasis was on helping stabilise postcolonial sub-Saharan Africa and maintaining French influence there. The military aid provided to President Senghor of Senegal, in December 1962, against his prime minister and rival, Mamadou Dia, was the first of its kind since the Algerian War. It was followed, in February 1965, by an intervention in Gabon to restore President M'ba to power after a coup. But the ”big issue” in Africa was to provide support to successive presidents of Chad against rebel groups, some of which had the backing of neighbouring countries. The first intervention, in 1968, was succeeded by several others of growing magnitude, and these were the only genuine counter-insurgency operations prior to the involvement in Afghanistan.

As part of Operation Manta, members of the Operational Assistance Detachment (DAO) train Chadian soldiers in how to use a 20mm cannon, Chad, September to October 1983. ECPAD/Benoît Dufeutrelle

1977 saw a marked increase in the number of operations on the African continent, where it was no longer simply a case of maintaining stability or defending French interests, but also of combating Communist expansion, in a context of deteriorating international relations. Not including humanitarian missions, in the four years from 1977 to 1980, French forces intervened 14 times in Africa, and on a tougher footing than before. In May and June 1978, 33 French soldiers and several hundred of their adversaries were killed in Operation Tacaud in Chad and Operation Bonite in Zaire.

These purely military, national operations in cooperation with African states - numbering more than 50 to date, the largest of which have been Manta (1983), Oryx (1992-93), Turquoise (1994) and Licorne (since 2002) - have involved the deployment of an army brigade of 2 000 to 3 000 troops and a dozen combat aircraft. From a tactical point of view, these operations have been undeniably successful and are a testament to French expertise. Their success is based on a rapid chain of command, general agreement over the ”discretionary” use of force, pre-positioned forces, elements on stand-by and a good medium-range projection capability, as well as the huge qualitative gap between the French soldiers and the poorly armed and ill-equipped bands that generally constitute our adversaries. This system enables our forces to deal swiftly with the situation, limiting the resources that are deployed and requiring them to stay no longer than is strictly necessary.

Operation Oryx in Somalia (December 1992 - April 1993) and the French forces of UNOSOM II (May to December 1993). Franco-American briefing before departure for Baidoa, 7-30 December 1992. ECPAD/Dominique Viola

The end of the 1970s also saw intervention in Lebanon, another former French possession. There, our forces participated in peacekeeping and peace-enforcement missions under the aegis of the UN (UNIFIL in 1978) and as part of the coalition force in Beirut, from August 1992 to April 1984. This intervention cost the lives of 158 French soldiers between 1978 and 2012 - 58 of them on a single day, 23 October 1983, the bloodiest for French forces since 1954 - yet it failed to prevent the Israelis from penetrating into Lebanon, in 1982 and 2006, or to stop fighting between local factions. The lesson would not be learned.

In 1991, the sudden collapse of the USSR came as a great surprise to France and soon undermined its military model. At the same time as it exposed hitherto suppressed trouble spots, in one fell swoop the end of bipolarity created room for manoeuvre for both the UN Security Council and the United States, the hyperpower by default. In this brand-new context of ”strategic insularity”, France could have chosen to isolate itself and maintain its influence in its own corner.

But it felt that its ”position” required it to play an active part in the general move towards a ”new world order”. The overseas operations were then stepped up considerably, requiring the complete professionalisation of French forces, so that conscripts could not be deployed in them without a parliamentary vote.

They were stepped up in terms of geographical scope, since, from now on, French forces were required to intervene in locations that would have been inconceivable a few years earlier, such as Saudi Arabia, Kurdistan and Cambodia. But also in terms of the size of the forces involved - peaking at over 20 000 troops in 1990-91 - and the range of missions undertaken, with an immediate and very unexpected return to interstate war (Operation Daguet against Iraq), followed by stabilisation operations in countries in crisis. With the earlier development of internal security missions (state of emergency in New Caledonia in 1985, border guard in 1986, Vigipirate in 1991), this signalled a resurgence of the traditional ”strategic triangle”: interstate war, external stabilisation and internal security.

Italian soldiers man a checkpoint on the road between Beirut and the airport, Lebanon, October 1982. ECPAD/François-Xavier Roch

The era of the Blue Helmets

From 1992 to 1996, France was heavily involved in UN operations, peaking in 1993 with 10 000 troops engaged simultaneously in Cambodia, Somalia and, in particular, the former Yugoslavia (the United Nations Protection Force, or UNPROFOR). While the Cambodian operation, which met with no opposition, was a success, the experiences of Somalia and, in particular, Bosnia gave the illusion that wars could be stopped without the use of force and highlighted the difficulty the Europeans had in agreeing on a common vision of the use of force. Unable to stand up to the massacres and instrumentalised by the belligerents, the UNPROFOR had to be bailed out by NATO, which was the only regional military organisation genuinely in a position to restore peace after a short period of coercion, followed by the implementation of measures sufficiently ”stifling” to keep the belligerents at bay. Between 1992 and 1995, 116 French soldiers were killed in Bosnia, 29 of them in Sarajevo.

With the exception of the UNIFIL, reinforced in 2006 with 2 000 well-equipped troops, before being reduced once more in 2012, France has since then opted out of major UN missions to give priority to operations under the auspices of organisations that are militarily more effective, like NATO and the EU.

A Cambodian soldier defuses a Soviet mine, assisted by a member of the 6th Foreign Engineers Regiment, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, December 1992. ECPAD/Michel Riehl

Multinational operations

The NATO missions, though few in number, were often violent and large in scale. This meant significant French involvement, with as many as 12 000 French troops deployed in Kosovo. As a promoter of European security and defence policy, France was equally heavily involved in all operations conducted by the EU, although these required smaller contingents; for instance, in Chad and the Central African Republic (EUFOR Tchad/RCA), from 2007 to 2009, it deployed only 1 700 troops. These mostly successful operations mainly consisted of peacekeeping missions at critical times such as elections. Without doubt the most effective of them, essentially led by France, was Operation Artemis, which restored security to the Ituri province of the Democratic Republic of Congo in summer 2003

However, these multinational operations quickly revealed new issues beyond mere interoperability. The main one was the schizophrenia of members of a coalition simultaneously in pursuit of their own national goals and common goals, the former tending to take priority when the latter are certain to be achieved. If you add to this what are often very different military cultures and a collective decision-making process, what you get are unwieldy, heterogeneous structures that are at odds with the criteria for successful overseas operations defined by General Servranckx in 1980: speed and surprise. The ”brush fire” that could have been put out with rapid intervention then becomes a ”blaze” requiring far greater resources to bring it under control.

It seems military effectiveness can only be achieved, therefore, if one of the members of a coalition commits sufficient military and financial resources from the outset to carry out an operation on a national scale. This makes that country the unquestionable leader of the operation, with a vested interest in its success. Around this central core, the Allies contribute legitimacy by the number of flags and, in some cases, specific capabilities. This immediate response capability is the measure of the engaged powers.

In Bunia (Democratic Republic of Congo), a section of the 3rd Marine Infantry Regiment, engaged in Operation Artemis, installs itself at the Mogador checkpoint to control access to the northeast of the city. Sappers of the Engineers Detachment, made up of troops of the 6th Angers Engineers Regiment, 2nd Metz Engineers Regiment and 17th Montauban Parachute Engineers Regiment, develop and fortify the area with bastion walls, 6 July 2003. ECPAD/Thomas Samson

A new counter-insurgency

This modus operandi, born out of the Balkan crisis of the 1990s, was finally called into question in Iraq and Afghanistan, from 2001 onwards. Not only was the initial phase of coercion not enough to neutralise all armed political opposition, as in Bosnia in 1995 or Kosovo in 1999, but the method of ”stifling”, which had worked for those small countries, required disproportionate resources in these countries of more than 30 million inhabitants, especially for professional armies of limited size. In Afghanistan, therefore, two parallel operations were conducted, one to pursue the phase of coercion against the groups that had taken refuge in Pakistan, the other to stabilise the country despite the continuing fighting. France contributed air detachments, special forces and instructors to the former (Operation Enduring Freedom), and participated in the latter (Operation Pamir) with a contingent long stationed in Kabul. It was not until its engagement in the province of Kapisa and the district of Surobi, in 2008, that France found itself properly engaged in a form of warfare - counter-insurgency (see Glossary) - the principles of which it had not put into practice since the intervention in Chad. A comparably sized French force lost 88 men, but succeeded in securing its sector of responsibility and handing over to the Afghan army. The demands of counter-insurgency warfare and the limitations of action as a coalition then forced France and its allies to seek other, apparently more efficient methods. Thus, the intervention in Libya against Colonel Gaddafi's regime was conducted in a very indirect way, by means of an air campaign and aid to the rebels, but with no planned land intervention. The operation began with three allies and ended as a coalition, with all the hold-ups which that entails, while it was revealed once more that strategic decisions can only be taken on the ground and that the local allies are rarely competent. In the end, Operation Harmattan, France's participation in the NATO operation, was a success, with no loss of life. Even so, it took ten months for an organisation set up to stop a large-scale Warsaw Pact offensive in a few days, to put a stop to a dictator and his militia.

A Franco-German patrol in the urban section of the Police District 11, Kabul, Afghanistan, April 2003. ECPAD/Johann Peschel

Return to sub-Saharan Africa

Acknowledgement that the methods employed thus far had failed came in April 2012, with the conquest of Northern Mali by separatists and jihadists, because it demonstrated both the failure of the USA's indirect approach - the Malian army crushed so swiftly had received all the attentions of the United States Africa Command - and the ineffectiveness of the alternatives to French direct intervention begun in the early 1990s. After 15 years of strengthening African peacekeeping capacity, if it hadn't been for the jihadist offensive, practically a whole year would have been needed to assemble, train, equip and motivate an inter-African force equivalent to a light brigade to hand over to. Most EU Member States remain unwilling to engage in coercive action, particularly in Africa. As for alternative methods of combat - such as Operation Licorne in Côte d'Ivoire, an intervention lasting nine years in which 27 French soldiers were killed - these have been shown to be ineffectual.

Thus it has been necessary to see the process through and witness it come to a grinding halt in order to stimulate the audacity of the jihadists and, ultimately, leave no choice other than to return to traditional French-style intervention, ushering in a new era for foreign operations.

Colonel Michel Goya - Strategy blog: La Voie de l'Épée

in Les Chemins de la Mémoire no 235/April 2013

See also on Educ@Def: Overseas operations


Insurgency means the activities of a non-State armed organisation seeking to bring about political change in the governing authority of a country or region by means of force.

Counter-insurgency, therefore, means all the activities of any kind, military or otherwise, needed to neutralise an insurgency. These generally consist of combating the adversary's armed forces while at the same time addressing the main causes of dissatisfaction of the population, whether they are social, political or security-related. In modern counter-insurgency, since the end of decolonisation, outside support is often needed by the local state that is being challenged.