Franco-British Combined Joint Expeditionary Force: structure, aims and pitfalls

Soldiers of the First Battalion the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment from 4th Mechanized Brigade, are pictured training with the 2nd Regiment the French Foreign Legion.

British and French soldiers line of attack training during exercise Border Storm, Otterburn ranges in Northumberland – photo:  © Crown Copyright 2014 / photographer: Sgt Brian Gamble

Nearly five years delayed France and the UK announced full operational capability of their Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF) of 10.000 soldiers. An aim which was originally foreseen for 2016 according to the CJEF user guide. The CJEF based on the Lancaster House agreements from 2010 between London and Paris for an enhanced defence cooperation between both countries. CJEFs defining characteristic is that of a first-entry force for a bilateral or multilateral coalition of the willing. A force which intervenes first into a theatre, dedicated to enable the secure in flow of other forces and logistics to continue an operation. The leitmotiv for its buildup was to create a tool for intervention in the European rimlands if the US doesn’t want to act. 

The CJEF: antithesis to French-German defence cooperation

CJEF is designed as an ad-hoc force on NATOs lead nation concept (70 % of staff, material etc. from the nation in lead, 30% from the partner) and works basically as follows: In case of an international crises the French (Conseil Restreint) and British (National Security Council) planning staffs on the political level will seek common ground. If they activated CJEF, the countries defence staffs will decide on the role of the lead nation (operation commander, C2 structure etc.). The army in lead will establish and host a „Crises Contingency Team“ which develops to an „Operations and Planning Group“ with ten to forty staffers, co-chaired by the commanders of the two national contingents. They consolidate and transform the political into operational aims for a Combined Joint Taskforce Headquarter in the theatre under the lead nation.

The different command and control systems are an ongoing problem for the CJEF partners. Alastair Veitch and Yann Gravêthe – two officers involved in CJEF planning in a common analysis: “Technical adaptions and ‘work arounds’ are developed by our specialists. Most systems operate satisfactorily but not optimally. E. g. the information systems.” The backbone of the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force is a network of 120 exchange officers on both sides of the channel. According to Alice Panniers recent study on French-British defence collabo “Rivals in Arms” the leading idea for many French and British officers during shaping the CJEF was to create an antithesis to the perceived inefficiency of Franco-German defence cooperation “which is heavy on institutions, ambitious in scale but limited in output”. E. g. the German-French Brigade.

photo: media info slide UK Ministry of Defence 2016

Core of the CJEF: paratropper units

The Combined Joint Expeditionary Force should mobilize one battlegroup from each partner army. This means up to 5.000 soldiers, capabilities/units tailored to mission on necessity. There are no regiments assigned to the Expeditionary Force. It’s about linking units to a project for a small and therefore cheap organisation, so the ambition. Because envisaged for first-entry operations units from British Army’s 16 Air Assault Brigade and Armée de Terre 11 Brigade Parachutists will be most likely the „spearhead“ of a CJEF first-entry operation. The base for CJEF in France is the Échelon National d’Urgence (2.300 soldiers), established from the force pool of the Corps Réaction Rapide which units assembles from the both “mixed” army divisions 1st and 3rd . In the UK it’s the “High Readiness Pool” of the Joint Force 25 structure (in development). Its units rotated in from the three brigades (planned four in 2025 – two armoured and two strike brigades) of the 3rd Division. Further on CJEF consists of “a maritime component of up to a task group based on one or more capital ships an expeditionary air wing and logistic component capable of supporting the totality of the deployment” according to the CJEF user guide.

The CJEF falls behind UK’s and France’s ambitions on rapid reaction forces

Started in 2011 the French and British armed forces shaped the CJEF over a framework of trainings and manoeuvres. The exercise which started the validation process to full operational capability was “Griffin Rise” in 2015. Its design was adapted from the NATO exercise “Trident Juncture” in the same year. The scenario: To intervene first-entry with the CJEF in a high-intensity conflict at the Horn of Africa for ninety days before NATO takes over. France and Britain sell the CJEF to the public as a powerful military tool of Western Europe’s two military main bodies, creating an “extra” of fighting power. But the CJEF falls behind the ambition of both countries to field a 15.000 soldiers strong rapid reaction force by themselves. That’s the official aim according to both countries white books and strategic reviews since the end of the 1990s.

In effect the CJEF is first and foremost the try of two central powers with shrinked military capabilities over the last decades to generate some fighting power by obtaining a maximum of sovereignty. The French example is especially impressive: Between 1984 and 1999 France had the Rapid Action Force – a 40.000 soldiers strong expeditionary corps. Later the ambition was scaled down to 30.000. Since the “livre blanc” 2013 the aim is 15.000 soldiers. According to House of Commons questionings of the general staff, the lead motivation for the UK to establish the CJEF was to compensate growing national capability shortages.  After the financial crises 2008 the British defence budget was massively trimmed and stays underfunded until today.

A limited scope for the CJEF

Also the calculus concerning the character of their new military tool is different in both partner forces. In the context of its view of the CJEF as a force amplifier the British command of the armed forces sees its allied Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) with North European countries in the NATO as a force source for the CJEF.  For the French general staff CJEF is focused on the Échelon National d’Urgence whose 2.3000 troops would be the French battle group within a CJEF deployment. For France this expeditionary force is an inclusive tool for fast and active military engagement to get a seat on the table within the concert of powers when crises occurred. 

Following Alice Panniers interviews with high-ranking French and British officers, the chances for “Suez-like bilateral expeditions” with the CJEF are unlikely. Because France and the UK are dependent from US/NATO communication an information systems, they need US approvement for CJEF undertakings. Also the application area is very narrow: In contrary to France, West Africa/the Sahel is not an area of strategic priority for the UK. The Balkans and the Middle East are the regions with the most congruent interests of both parties. But the war scenarios for the latter involved to growing peer competitors engagement like in Syria for what the CJEF would be a too weak tool for. In the outlook it will be interesting to see if the CJEF is an added value for the European states community decisive challenge: To generate and field serious armed capabilities for handling common security interests in its rimlands.