The history of the overseas operations of the French armed forces since 1963
OPEX means ‘overseas operation’ in French military jargon. Each OPEX is given a name based on the place and type of action. From 1963 to the present, over 130 overseas operations have been carried out, involving military personnel from across all the armed forces, directorates and services: army, navy, air force, joint armed forces directorates and services, and Gendarmerie Nationale.
As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, France also contributes military personnel to UN peacekeeping missions. As a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), France also takes part in military operations carried out by NATO, alongside its allies. In addition, France is one of the founding Member States of the European Union, which today carries out peacekeeping operations and humanitarian missions. Since 1963, 600 French military personnel have lost their lives while taking part in these missions.
In the early 1960s, with African decolonisation and the end of the wars of independence, France’s armed forces had to turn their attention to defending French territory, while also being prepared to fulfil the defence agreements signed between France and its new partners. The concept of “foreign intervention” came to the fore, to respond to the threats hanging over these countries. In this postcolonial setting, then, France’s first overseas operations were in response to national mandates from friendly countries. They involved only those units that were able to be deployed overseas. Operation Limousin, conducted in Chad from 1969 to 1971, is regarded as the first major OPEX to be carried out by the French armed forces.
From the 1970s to the 1990s, overseas operations became more frequent and more varied in nature. Growing numbers of crisis situations in Africa required new methods to be deployed, such as air support alone to counter guerrilla forces (Mauritania, 1978) or the use of force in Kolwezi (Zaire, 1978) to protect and evacuate French and foreign nationals whose lives were directly at risk from armed factions. In Chad, France intervened several times to contain rebels supported by Libya (1978, 1984, 1986). In the context of its foreign policy, France also took part in UN peacekeeping operations, such as UNIFIL in Lebanon, launched in 1978. Finally, the surveillance of maritime routes, in particular those for oil supplies, became the priority of the French navy, which increased its naval diplomacy operations on the Mediterranean-Red Sea-Indian Ocean axis. During this period, French overseas interventions nevertheless remained limited in terms of the size of the forces deployed.
Diversification of peacekeeping and peace-support operations
The end of the Cold War gave rise to new strategic challenges. The Gulf War, in 1990-91, marked the beginning of a new phase of commitments. The number of overseas operations under the aegis of the UN, EU and NATO grew. These reflected France’s desire to act within the context of international security policy. Peacekeeping missions (Yugoslavia, 1992-95) alternated with peace-support (Cambodia, 1992) and humanitarian missions (Somalia, 1993).
The beginning of the 21st century has seen increasingly widespread use of overseas operations, in which the French armed forces, now fully professional and capable of immediate deployment overseas, ensure “pre-emptive defence” aimed at protecting France, French interests and French nationals.
Professionalisation of the armed forces and tougher engagements
Overseas operations have succeeded or overlapped one another, adding new theatres of operation (Afghanistan, 2002-13) to existing ones (Chad, 2008). They have been marked by tougher combat operations (Libya in 2011, Mali in 2013, Iraq-Syria in 2014-2017) and the appearance of new missions (e.g. combating piracy in the Indian Ocean in 2008). In this way, over the past 50 years, overseas operations have played a major role in the life of the armed forces. So much so that this period of French military history could be nicknamed the “OPEX era”.
A new chapter in that history is beginning. From now on, military engagements will be situated on a continuum between domestic security and pre-emptive defence. In the face of a terrorist threat that makes light of borders, the armed forces must act further afield, against centres of terrorist activity liable to pose a threat to our citizens, while at the same time actively contributing to the protection of French territory. The need for overseas operations is therefore coordinated with permanent air and maritime security strategies aimed at protecting day and night the approaches to the country, and also Operation Sentinelle, which sees the armed forces work alongside the security forces in France.
Source : Délégation à l’information et à la communication de la Défense