Chirac vows higher arms spending

Noah Barkin, PARIS, Reuters

French President Jacques Chirac affirmed on Sunday his determination to boost military spending and urged his European partners to do the same or risk compromising their ability to influence world affairs.

In an annual Bastille Day presidential interview, Chirac said France had trailed behind Britain in military outlays for some time and needed to reverse that situation in order to ensure its political power was not compromised.

“We need to boost our military might,” Chirac said on French television. “For a while now we have been falling behind Britain and that has serious consequences for our political power and our capacity to defend our interests in the world and our nationals.”

“Our European partners would be well advised to have the same concern because if we want a powerful Europe … we need the military means and we no longer have them,” Chirac said.

The French president, who was re-elected on a platform which included pledges to boost defense spending, said he hoped to build a second French aircraft carrier — a project he had proposed before his re-election in May.

France’s current carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, had to undergo lengthy repairs before it could sail for the Indian Ocean in December as part of the U.S.-led war against terrorism.

That sparked criticism in France and abroad that Paris no longer had the resources to play a major role in international operations.

In the interview, Chirac echoed comments by Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, who told the weekly Journal du Dimanche that French military equipment was in an appalling state of disrepair.

“Half of our tanks and planes today are immobilized because of a lack of spare parts,” Alliot-Marie told the Sunday paper.

France’s new center-right government boosted military spending in an emergency supplementary budget for this year, adding 903 million euros (US$893.2 million) for new equipment. It also plans to introduce a new four-year military spending bill later this year.

But France and other mainland European countries were playing catch-up to Britain and, to a much greater extent, the United States.

The United States spends close to twice what European NATO countries do on defense. But a more telling statistic shows that Americans outspend Europeans by a three-to-one rate on equipment per soldier.

That gap promises to grow in the coming years as the United States gears up for its “war on terrorism.”

U.S. President George Bush has submitted to Congress a US$379 billion defence budget, a $48 billion increase over the current one, including some US$7.6 billion for the development of a controversial missile defense system.

Defense spending rarely exceeds 1.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in any European country and in some is lower than one percent. The United States is set to spend around 3.7 percent of GDP on defense this year.

A top-level panel that includes five EU commissioners, top aerospace executives and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana is expected to issue a report this week which urges EU governments to move towards “harmonization of defense requirements” to close the yawning gap with the United States.