National DefenseReport

In the tank…

(BRUSSELS2 to Paris) “Anticipate, Plan, Drive“, the motto of the Operational Planning and Control Center (CPCO) is not an empty word. I was thus able to enter this place, located very discreetly in the basement of the Ministry of Defense, bd Saint Germain in Paris.

The “marine” atmosphere

In the “tank”, below the level of the Seine, with its somewhat narrow passageways and staircases, the atmosphere strangely resembles that of a submarine (but a little larger all the same). Sometimes when it's humid and the water in the Seine rises, reality meets the impression. This can leak and basins are required. If there are soldiers who are eager and happy to join the new ministry headquarters in Balard, it is the CPCO permanent staff.

In the operational room, the holy of holies, a few tables, positions by geographical area: Africa, Indian Ocean, Europe, Middle East... Behind the computers, at the back of the space, hang on the wall the antique paper maps which bear witness to the transition to the digital age. Upstairs, behind bay windows, are the “shift” managers. Still the “marine” atmosphere.

From Tampa to Kabul via Paris

In the meeting room, several lines display the times of the different theaters or places where the French and Allies are located: from Tampa to Kabul via Abidjan, N'Djamena, Pristina and Beirut... without forgetting Bamako which was added previously .

Nearly 24.000 soldiers are currently prepositioned in sovereignty bases or presence zones, or in external operations (OPEX). With the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the operation in Mali, the majority (around 3/4) of the troops now operate in Africa. The CPCO also tracks forces deployed at the national level. They are not negligible: 2600 soldiers deployed in May 2013 (from around 1800 in 2008), mainly for Vigipirate or in support of civilian forces.

A French specificity: a direct line between the Head of State and the control of the forces

French specificity has noequivalent elsewhere » indicates an officer. Germany and the United Kingdom, for example, do not have this type of organization where the Chief of Staff is both the military advisor to the President and the head of operations.

The Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces (CEMA) always maintains control of his forces. Operational command (OpCon) is effectively entrusted to the EU or NATO operation or force commander. But he is only a “delegate”. CEMA always gives national guidelines. It defines the rules of employment and operational engagement.

A distribution of tasks

The men and women of the CPCO are distributed according to missions (combat, military contribution to State actions and permanent postures) and according to geographical sectors (National, Europe, Africa, World). Classically, the organization of the CPCO reproduces the distribution of tasks according to the NATO “standard”: from J1 in charge of personnel to J9 in charge of Cimic via J2 (Intelligence), J3 (conduct), J4 (logistics ), J5 (Planning), J6 (systems information and communication or SIC), J7 (training) and J8 (finance). A little less than 200 people work at the CPCO to which must be added around fifty soldiers from the DRM (the directorate of military intelligence) responsible for Intelligence (Rens' for short) who have a double hat (DRM and CPCO). “ This saves money and avoids duplication.

Driving hot!

What planners hate, but what operational people love, is “hot driving”, when a crisis arrives and nothing is planned. This was the case for the hostage-taking in Le Ponant, for example. “ We set up the crisis unit, in a few hours, by putting all the skills into interdepartmental » says an officer. It was indeed necessary to combine the resources of the armies, the Interior and Foreign Affairs... But, after the first hours, the imperative very quickly became " have water under the keel » as the sailors say about the operation. It’s the fear of planning: "to be able to anticipate events, to take a step back". The planners move into another room, with the objective of “ save time "and power" plan for a few hours first, a few days later » the rest of the operations.

Operation Serval in command

In a way, Operation Serval – in Mali – took place according to this principle. “ We didn't have time to plan everything. The original concept “Africans on their own and training by the European Union” was no longer relevant. et playable. Given the rapid ramp-up of the operation, the CPCO also ensured the "operational and strategic level" during the first month of the operation, until February 10 and the establishment of an operation HQ on place (in Senegal first). Which is rather exceptional. The CPCO received reinforcements. The “operational staff” took refuge in one of the rooms in the basement of the CPCO. A very small room to hold up to 20 or 25 people – not counting the “Rens” placed in a side room. Assignment : " receive political directives and transform them into order for the theater » and pass on to the political channel what is happening on the ground, by proposing solutions. They thus ensured the command and control, in particular for the determination of the targets. A sensitive issue that was followed in high places. " Several times we have gone to the President of the Republic to clarify or explain the issue of targeting. »

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).