‘Orion’ military exercises: A fictitious war, but a real test for French troops

Last week France launched Orion 23, months-long military exercises involving thousands of troops, naval and land vehicles, aircraft and an aircraft carrier. The joint military exercise had been in the works since 2020, but as Western powers learned the lessons of the Ukraine war, Orion 23 grew bigger, more ambitious, multidimensional and has drawn in France’s main allies.

It was barely 5am on a Sunday morning when the southern French town of Frontignan was flooded with troops as amphibious military craft landed on its beaches, unleashing hundreds of soldiers and tonnes of heavy equipment. 

“It’s definitely a French military landing, which is reassuring right now,” said a resident on an early morning walk. “It creates a bit of a strange atmosphere, which we wouldn’t want on a regular basis,” said another with a nervous smile.

The residents of Frontignan had nothing to fear. The landing on the Mediterranean town was just one part of France’s biggest war games in decades, involving around 12,000 troops including those from NATO allies, being conducted across the country. 

The joint exercises, called Orion 23, comes as the Ukraine war enters its second year, with Western nations drawing sobering lessons on military preparedness after decades of defence cuts since the end of the Cold War.

The military exercises, which had been in the works since 2020, were expanded following the February 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine last year.

“The conflict in Ukraine has taught us about high-intensity warfare,” which is played out “on the entire spectrum of modern warfare”, explained General Nicolas Le Nen, commander of the joint exercises.

From anti-jihadist operations to full-scale combat 

After several months of reworking the original plan, Orion 23 launched in earnest over the weekend with a vast airborne operation on Saturday in France’s southern Tarn region, followed by Sunday’s amphibious landing of 700 soldiers and 150 vehicles at Frontignan.

“The last amphibious operations carried out by France were the evacuations of French nationals in Yemen in 2015, and before that, in Ivory Coast in 2012,” recalled Lieutenant Dewy, the officer in charge of the flotilla mobilised on Sunday.

After more than two decades of focusing on anti-jihadist operations, the French military has widened the scope of its exercises to include large-scale conflict. For the French soldiers, the last operation in a real theatre of war dates back to 2013’s Operation Serval, when French troops launched a mission to oust Islamist militants from northern Mali.

“Such preparation is absolutely essential, and I hope that it will be reproduced in the future so that we regain the know-how of managing large, joint forces that we lost because we have been focused on narrow operations in small spaces with relatively limited means for the past two decades,” explained General Vincent Desportes in an interview with FRANCE 24 sister station Radio France Internationale (RFI).

Multiple threats in fictional ‘Arnland’ and ‘Mercure’

For the purposes of the war games over the weekend, French troops were landing on “Arnland” – a fictitious allied nation – that was being attacked by its imaginary neighbour, “Mercure”.

Mercure, the hypothetical enemy, has military and geostrategic ambitions that may sound familiar to those who have followed the news over the past 12 months: Mercure is trying to establish its regional dominance by financing a separatist militia to destabilise southern Arnland. It has deployed conventional military forces to its neighbouring state, cut off communications and launched a disinformation campaign. 

Arnland, weakened and on the verge of collapse, has turned to its allies for help.

Over the course of the exercises, cyber attacks will also test the responses of the troops, explained Captain Olivier from cyber command. On a simulated social network, “we produce narratives so that we don’t let the adversary’s narrative hold sway”.

On land, at sea, in the air, and in space and cyberspace, the training scenarios are designed to address the multiple threat responses of what French President Emmanuel Macron has called a “new era” of increasingly hybrid warfare.

‘Challenges of the century’

Orion 23 comes weeks after Macron unveiled his vision for modernising France’s military with a defence spending boost to €413 billion ($446 billion) for the 2024-2030 period – up from €295 billion allocated in the previous budget. 

“France has and will have armies ready for the challenges of the century,” said Macron in his New Year’s address to the army at the Mont-de-Marsan air base in southwestern France.

The French government’s ambition is both to modernise the armed forces and to replenish its ammunition stocks, which have reached levels that would be “worrying” in the event of a high-intensity conflict, according to a parliamentary report released on February 17. 

The report, by the lower house National Assembly’s National Defence and Armed Forces Committee, issued a stark warning over a problem that has been highlighted by the Ukraine war. “The French army’s ammunition supply has been declining since the end of the Cold War and it seems to have become unsustainable, both in terms of the current strategy and France’s military ambitions,” wrote lawmakers Vincent Bru and Julien Rancoule.

But the latest military exercises are not lacking in either ambition or resources. With an estimated cost of €35 million, Orion 23 is being conducted on an unprecedented scale.

The exercises involve personnel from a range of European countries, including Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands – as well as the United States.

The war games are being conducted in four phases over the next few months. Following the weekend’s manoeuvres, which were part of phase two operations after the phase one planning stage, French troops will conduct war games in the Massif de la Gardiole region north of Frontignan until March 11. 

A civil-military phase three focusing on the civilian support operations backing the armed forces in the event of a major engagement (health, transport, etc.), the reserves and information warfare and will last through the end of March. 

The climax of the exercise is expected to come in the spring, from late April to early May, in northeastern France. Around 12,000 troops in total will be deployed on the ground and in the skies to repel a high-intensity air-land invasion of “Arnland” by “Mercure”. 

The exercise is scheduled to end in May and should eventually mobilise 2,300 vehicles, 40 helicopters, some 100 drones and 30 naval vessels, including the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier. 

(with AFP)

This article is a translation of the original in French.

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