• French Army heads east

    French Air Force C-160 Transall tactical transport aircraft on the Madama airstrip in Niger, 1 January 2015, one of the African countries where the French army is still involved. Photo: Philippe Chapleau.

    For French soldiers and officers, their deployment in Romania since 2022 has been a practical apprenticeship in NATO. This might be a surprise given that the French army is the third largest in NATO, but France has had a complicated relationship with the Alliance over the decades.

    In 1966 Charles de Gaulle withdrew the country from the integrated command, while more recently, Emmanuel Macron said the organisation was experiencing “brain death” in 2019. Since the early days of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Paris has become more involved, sending troops to Romania to “reinforce NATO’s defensive and deterrent posture” and “consolidate the protection of Europe’s eastern flank”, according to the ministry of defence.

    The Aigle mission, part of the Rapid Reaction Force, now includes around 1,000 French troops. They work with Belgian, Dutch, Romanian and US soldiers in Constanța, on the Romanian Black Sea coast. For the French army, more accustomed in recent years to operating in a desert environment and facing terrorist groups, this is a major change. In Romania, it is working in coalition to act as a deterrent against Russia. 

    For an incoming enemy missile, the Romanian airbase of Mihail Kogalniceanu is only seven minutes’ flight from occupied Crimea. If Moscow pushed its invasion further west, this Aigle Mission would form the first line of defence. Now French soldiers have to learn how to make different equipment work together, learn the doctrines and tactics of their allies and improve interoperability.

    The French army is also getting used to different deployment conditions. Its Leclerc tanks had to be brought in by rail, as Germany does not allow such huge tanks to cross its territory. This military hardware also needs warming up with hot air during the winter to protect its electronic systems. The Aigle mission is set to grow: it is expected to have 6,000 soldiers by 2025, making it France’s largest deployment abroad.

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