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The Professionalisation of French Armed Forces

The Professionalisation of French Armed Forces

Statement by President Jacques Chirac (Part 1)

In order to prepare for the construction of a credible European defence, Jacques Chirac, President of the French Republic, announces major reforms in the national defence.

Paris, Institut des Hautes Etudes de Défense Nationale, Ecole Militaire, 23rd February 1996.

The Minister of Defence,

Chiefs of Staff,


Ladies and gentlemen,

The Military Academy in which I have called you together today has, for over a century, been the supreme venue for forging our country's military ideology. All our great military leaders have studied within these walls, have voiced their convictions in our War Academies or in the Institute for Advanced National Defence Studies

As we near the end of this century, our country is in an unprecedented strategic situation and we need to redefine the conditions and terms of our Defence. It seemed only natural to choose this establishment to explain, as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, my reasons for proposing the reform which I presented to the Nation at large last night.

Officers of the Armed Forces, the importance of the moment in no way diminishes my pleasure in speaking to you today. A lasting bond has been woven by my poignant memories of the time when, as a young officer in Algeria amidst your elders, I commanded both a platoon and a squadron.

As I have said in the past, the depth of the ties binding a lieutenant to his men at the time of battle have afforded me with the greatest human experience in my life. Ever since, I have always held those who dedicate their life to the defence of their country in high esteem.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Armed Forces are a living body which moves in accordance with the tempo of the missions entrusted by the Nation, adapting to security requirements, to the ambitions of its people and to environmental constraints.

Compulsory conscription was rendered universal in 1905 as an answer to the disaster of 1870. At that time, levy in mass was the only way to compensate the demographic power and the technical superiority of our enemies. The Great war was tragically to confirm this option. The glorious victory of 1918 left France united by the fraternal experiences of the trenches, yet shattered and ravaged by the death of a large part of its youth.

In spite of Colonel de Gaulle's premonitory warnings, the Marne and Verdun armies, rooted to their ideas and sheltered by an imaginary wall, were wiped out within one month by the former enemy which had learned from its defeat and which had made the necessary reforms. Our poorly trained and poorly armed troops discovered in stupefaction, the alliance of movement and gunfire, the concentration of tanks and aircraft, in fact what is called the professionalism of a determined and united army. We now know what the future held.

Some twenty years later, in Strasbourg on 18th November 1962, ending the painful digressions of colonial wars, General de Gaulle decided to engage the French Armed Forces in a huge reform which modernised and renewed our country's abilities to exercise its responsibilities on a world-wide scale.

Such were the circumstances for the construction of the Armed Forces as known to most of you here today. Based on the double requirement of deterrence and action along our frontiers, the Armed Forces were to combine both mobility and defensive abilities aimed at containing the enemy to the point where either reason or the salutary fear of a nuclear conflict would engender a cease-fire.

Time has passed, the Soviet Empire has collapsed. The European nations have recovered their identity and have renewed with their past. Peace spreads throughout Western Europe where European construction has enabled it to take root within a new, deep and irreversible community spirit.

However, on our very continent, peace remains fragile.

Our frontiers are at peace but the world close by is not yet at peace. An old and great Nation such as ours cannot be neglectful and must be on its guard. It must be able to depend on its Armed Forces to carry out its engagements and also to play the part bequeathed by History.

Today, we must, once again, adapt to the world such as it really is and not such as we would have it, such as it was when we began our lives as men.

Ladies and Gentlemen, France expects its Armed Forces, as in the past, to guarantee the protection of our vital interests, to respect our international engagements and to allow the Nation to responsibly perform the duties which are ours.

Without entering into the international and diplomatic details of our Defence policy, I would just like to remind you briefly of the Nation's engagements and of their effect on our Armed Forces.

In the new world engendered by the collapse of the ideological blocs, the United Nations have recovered the role of keeping the law and preventing or containing crises and conflicts. Our country, as a permanent member of the Security Council, plays an active part and ensures that the United Nations Organisation disposes of the means required to accomplish its mission. We are all aware of the essential role played by our soldiers, to whom I pay a well-deserved and warm tribute, in Bosnia and elsewhere.

Furthermore, long-standing solidarity unites us with our allies in NATO, with our European partners and with several nations all over the world, in particular our African friends.

The choice of a new type of Armed Forces must particularly take into account our ambition to build a credible European Defence, capable of becoming both the armed lever of the European Union and the European pillar of the Atlantic Alliance.

This choice is therefore indissociable from the strong initiatives France has taken in this field and from those that will be announced in the months to come.

It is therefore in this context of demanding solidarity and responsibility with regard to the international community that we are to rethink the Organisation and the structures of our Armed Forces.

The first lesson is to be taken from the Gulf War. France is to be capable of projecting within a very short lapse of time, anywhere in the world where the situation requires our presence, a significant force ensuring that our opinions and interests are taken into account both in the way of handling the crisis and in all the aspects of its final settlement.

It is also necessary for France to be capable of leading a coalition, to have combined headquarters and projectable means of transmission for their command.

Furthermore, we must take into account the evolution of the international situation and the reduction of threats hanging over our country. This is not a question of inconsiderately collecting "dividends of peace", but is a manner of making the most of the strategic pause underway in order to limit to a reasonable level the sums allocated by the State to our Defence, thereby enabling the State to concentrate on those sectors requiring urgent attention.

What would be the use of an oversized military tool if social division and public deficits lead our country down the path to decline ?

In this light, the evolution in our armaments, which prove to be more and more costly and sophisticated, requires them to be used by specialists who are assigned to their posts for a sufficiently long period of time in order to optimise their use, whilst reducing the cost of training and maintenance.

Ladies and Gentlemen, as General de Gaulle wrote in 1932, "we are not to keep the Armed Forces which suit our habits, we are to build the Armed Forces which will meet our needs".

Since last July, the Strategic Committee, chaired by the Minister of Defence, has devoted its energy to this task. It has presented me with its conclusions, which are the fruit of considerable labour, for which I thank them most sincerely here before you today.

What other institution in France has been capable of questioning its position to the same extent as the Armed Forces ? I feel this should be underlined. Courage and abnegation are required in order to leave habits, ways of thinking and traditions behind and to adhere, with an open mind and without regret, to the implementation of new-style Armed Forces conformable with the present requirements of National Defence.

It is in accordance with the proposals made by the Minister of Defence, which were prepared in close collaboration with the Commanders-in-Chief of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force and with the General Director of the National Military Police Force that I made, in the Defence Council, the decisions I would like to put across to you today.

These decisions will be implemented within the framework of a military programming bill to be presented before Parliament next May and which will cover the period from 1997 to 2002.

At the end of these six years, France will dispose of professional Armed Forces well adapted to our needs in terms of security and to our international responsibilities.

Nuclear deterrence remains the fundamental principle behind our strategy.

It is true to say that it will no longer be, as in the past, the mainspring of a system of defence organised essentially to counter a permanent, identified threat. It will, however, remain the ultimate guarantee against any threat to our vital interests whatever the origin or form may be.

Some do not hesitate questioning the suitability of deterrence on the grounds that the threat has disappeared,

First, it is to be remembered that for many years to come, thousands of nuclear arms will continue to exist in the arsenals bequeathed by the Cold War and the arms race. It is our wish that these arsenals should be reduced to the lowest level possible, however we are perfectly aware that this process will take time.

Secondly, the clearly identified, massive, permanent nuclear threat which prevailed at the time when the East and West were in opposition is now more remote. However, at the same time, other types of danger susceptible of placing our vital interests at risk are being brought to light. Incertitude hovers over the balances to be reached in Eastern Europe and therefore on the risks to our own security. Other continents already possess nuclear and non-nuclear massive destruction weapons and we cannot exclude the fact that they may one day also affect our vital interests.

In these conditions, nuclear deterrence remains an imperious necessity. It is the only solution to avoid the worst. Today, it is still a determinant factor in maintaining peace within and for Europe.

As I am responsible for the security of our country and the guarantor of our independence, my prime duty was to ensure the perenniality of our force of deterrence.

Today, this has been accomplished

The results of the last, short test campaign will enable France to have at its disposal, for as long as required, a reliable force of deterrence capable of guaranteeing both our independence and our security.

France will sign, without reserve, the treaty presently under negotiation which will definitely put a term to all nuclear tests, in which we have played and will continue to play an active and determined role.

Once more, I would like to take this opportunity to express my esteem and gratitude to the military staff and the scientists who contributed to the success of this enterprise. We now have at our disposal all the elements required to take up the great technological challenge of simulation. We shall ensure the success of this challenge. I know I can count on the dynamism and competency of our engineers and technicians in order to reach this goal.

With great confidence in the future, France also needed to ensure the modernisation and suitability of its deterrence with regard to the realities of today and to take further into account the European dimension of our Defence.

We must make the most of the respite offered by the present strategic situation in order to rethink our nuclear stand. The choice of our means is to be based on the principles of self-sufficiency and credibility which have always been ours.

In consideration of the proposals made by the Defence Council I have decided that, henceforth, our force of deterrence is to be made up of two complementary, modernised components :

  • on one hand, the Strategic Oceanic Force, capable of ensuring the permanence of deterrence. It will be doted with a fleet of 4 nuclear-powered ballistic-missile-armed submarines (SNLE), enabling 2 to be maintained at sea if necessary and will be progressively equipped with a new generation (NG) of submarines. The order for the fourth SNLE/NG will be placed at the end of the programming bill.
  • on the other hand, an airborne component, built around aerobic missiles which are also to be modernised. This component will confer versatility, visibility and diversification of penetration methods to our force of deterrence.

I have therefore decided to withdraw the Plateau d'Albion surface weapon system from service as its missions are no longer justified in the present context. In all events the modernisation of this system would have been highly expensive. I would like to express my gratitude to the staff of the Air Force, who for the last 25 years, have worked this weapon system vigilantly, competently and safely. Today, we can reap the benefit of their devoted services. They may be legitimately proud of their contribution.

The missiles equipping the two components of our nuclear force will be renewed in the normal fashion once the equipment in service has reached the end of its service life. Whilst taking care that no interruption takes place, I shall also avoid any premature and uselessly costly renewal.

A new ballistic M 51 missile, intended to replace the M 45 missile is to be developed during the coming programme in order to enable us, within the next fifteen years, to meet all situations.

In the same light, I have decided to equip the air component with the improved Air to Surface Medium Range Ballistic Missile (ASMP). This missile represents the best possible compromise between operational requirements, industrial constraints and the necessity to control public expenditure.

Finally, the time has come to decide on the future of the HADES surface to surface missile system; designed during the Cold War to participate in deterrent manoeuvres, this weapon system no longer corresponds to current requirements and its field of application unnecessarily arouses a feeling of concern among certain neighbouring countries and allies.

Following a discussion with Chancellor Kohl, I have decided its complete and final withdrawal . The weapons presently in store will be dismantled and the two regiments in charge of their implementation will be reallocated to other tasks.

This ambitious programme aimed at adapting and modernising our force of deterrence is the proof of France's determination to continue to ensure our ultimate security in all circumstances. France's nuclear strategy is both deterrent and defensive. Any assailant that may want to affect our vital interests is to remain certain of our ability and our determination to protect them.

We are to give ourselves the means to do so in the decades to come 5 whilst reducing the share allocated to nuclear weapons in the budget of our Armed Forces during the Cold War period. The savings made will contribute to financing the modernisation of our classical forces.

In the context which I have just described, the ultimate protection of our territory being guaranteed by deterrence, the future structural mainspring of our forces is to be priority operational functions such as the prevention of crises and conflicts and the projection of power.

Prevention is, first and foremost, down to intelligence and I confirm that the acquisition of spatial techniques and the reinforcement of the specialised services are to be a priority. Intelligence as to situations and the control of information are the conditions for independence of decision. The construction, in collaboration with our allies, of these highly expensive techniques contributes to the progressive emergence of a Europe capable of controlling its information, its engagements and ultimately its destiny.

Prevention also depends on our forces prepositioned in Africa and elsewhere. These forces provide both means of immediate reaction and reception facilities for reinforcements when required, they are also a proof of our solidarity with the countries in which they are stationed.

Projection is the priority for classical forces. We are to be able to deploy and relieve, in lands far from home, up to 30 000 men whilst simultaneously engaging a brigade in another sector. The Air Force is to be able to deploy about one hundred combat aircraft on projectable bases. Finally, the Navy is to be able to engage a naval air group along with a significant submarine force.

These priority functions require immediately available, highly trained, specialised forces. They also require the professionalisation of all our Armed Forces, which will be globally reduced by a third.

Our Army is to be reorganised around an armoured force, a mechanised force, a rapid intervention mobile armoured force and a storming infantry force. These four forces are to replace the nine present divisions. We shall thereby have at our disposal a well-balanced, middle- and light-weight armoured force, implementing several hundred Leclerc tanks associated with the new Tigre helicopters and supported by a powerful and precise artillery.

The Navy is to dispose of a naval air group, which in the first instance, will not be permanent. However, the construction of a second aircraft carrier is an objective to be included on our schedule. The Navy shall also maintain a submarine assault force, which although reduced, will constitute a coherent and modernised complex. Finally of course, it will continue to arm the submarine weapon of deterrence.

The Air Force is to implement a smaller, modernised fleet of combat aircraft centred on the projection of power. The Rafale is to progressively be the backbone of this fleet. The Force's air transport capacities are to be comparable with present capacities.

The National Military Police Force is to ensure its traditional domestic security missions but will also be further involved in territorial protection.

Finally a certain number of support missions are to be delegated or confided to civil members of staff, the number of which will naturally be increased.

The programming bill prepared by the Government and presented to Parliament is to determine staff numbers along with the sums allocated to operational costs and equipment. I have set the envelope at 185 thousand million FRF (constant 1995 FRF) for the annual flow over the whole period. The 15% reduction in sums allocated to equipment along with the reduction in the size of the Armed Forces, should be greatly compensated by the high availability of means, the high level of training of the Forces and by the research for technological superiority. A number of programmes are already underway but the future equipment of our Armed Forces can only be ensured at the price of an adaptation of our industrial armament policy.

Of course, in order to take up this challenge, we must launch an ambitious plan aimed at modernising and restructuring our Defence industry. This plan is to allow us to reduce our production costs and to improve the competitiveness of our companies. If not, we shall be incapable of meeting the needs of our Armed Forces.

We can be legitimately proud of the remarkable realisations, the know-how and the mastery of high technologies reached by our armament industries. Under the momentum of General de Gaulle, the pioneering spirit of the General Armament Delegation (DGA) along with the talent and dynamism of our engineers and work-force gave France the means to affirm its sovereignty and independence.

Today, our Defence industry excels in many fields. However the reduction in domestic markets, the intense competition at export level, in certain cases the oversizing of our industrial tool, its division, the ever increasing cost of leading technology, demand a thorough auditing of the debts accumulated in the past and the rationalisation and modernisation of a great industrial ambition.

It is in this spirit that the Government has decided to constitute two major industrial poles in the electronic and aeronautic fields. The aim is to give the companies concerned a new magnitude in order to be better placed for international competition.

Our national industry is to be united and centred around the poles of excellence and the technologies which are essential for our security. It is obvious that, because of the necessary reduction in public expenditure, to which Defence must naturally contribute, it is impossible to maintain all projects and programmes. Finally the adequacy of our industrial and technological potential is, from now onwards, to be considered in a European context.

The State undertakes to improve the visibility of the choices it makes by long-term planning, clearly established priorities, the restoration of a true military programming bill built on the bases of constant and realistic resources.

We are to end the uninterrupted flow of programmes and to contain the uncontrolled race in technical perfectionism. Our equipment policy is to be based on the systematic search for the best cost-efficiency ratio.

This modernisation is to be carried out jointly by the Armed Forces, the DGA and the companies involved. I am perfectly aware that I can count on their sense of responsibility and their innovative spirit.

Of course, the restructuration of the armament industry and the reduction in the size of the Armed Forces will bring about the closure of certain establishments and the disbandment of certain units.

The Minister of Defence, under the authority of the Prime Minister, is presently drawing up, in collaboration with the ministers concerned, the measures for economic reconversion and social support which are to guarantee the future of the workers, the population and the sites concerned.

National development measures and arrangements suited to each site are to be drawn up in close collaboration with national and local representatives, trade unions, administrative authorities and economic representatives.

At all events, these restructurations are to be progressive, staggered over six years and as far as our garrisons stationed in Germany are concerned, to be studied in detail with our counterparts across the Rhine. Obviously, France will respect its engagements and will maintain its position within the European corps.

As the needs of France's Armed Forces and Defence are henceforth to be ensured by men and women for whom it is both their vocation and their profession, should National Service be abolished ?

This is to be the object of a broad social debate.

Military service, which for many years has been the only form of National Service, has played an important part in our Nation's history. None are better placed than you to appreciate this.

From the Third Republic onwards, Military Service was to be a special vector for the expression of citizenship and patriotism in the hearts and spirits of young Frenchmen. Nobody questions the disciplinary spirit and the generosity of the conscripts present in our regiments, on our ships and on our air bases.

However, over the last few years, the changes that have taken place in the world along with the reductions in military staff have progressively distorted the meaning and conditions of National Service. Its founder principles of universality and equality are less and less respected.

If Military Service for conscripts is no longer necessary, what should its future be ?

I am in favour of a vast national debate on the subject and for Parliament to reach a decision by the Summer.

We are all aware of our needs in the fields of security, education, health, environmental protection and many others too.

Our young men and women often lack references. They could encounter, in the accomplishment of useful and generous tasks, both impetus and cohesion which would confer them with the feeling of a common destiny. A renovated national service, should it be the desire of the people of France, could be centred around three poles : prevention and security, solidarity and humanitarian assistance.

At all events, if this new type of National Service is decided upon, it would be introduced progressively over the six years required to professionalise the Armed Forces.

However, on the other hand, if we decide to make a clean break and to end compulsory, universal conscription, there would still be room for a voluntary service which would enable motivated young men and women to consecrate a few months of their lives to the national community and to reap the benefit of their experience when they embark upon their professional lives.

Finally, I would like to answer your concerns of which I am quite aware. They are perfectly legitimate in this time of change and I would like to explain what I expect of you.

Up until now, you have spent your professional life within the framework of Armed Forces based on conscription of which the main aim has been the defence of our frontiers. You have competently devoted your energy to your conscripts of whom you are fond and who in turn respect you.

I understand your anxiety at the approach of the upheaval entailed by the transition to professionalised Armed Forces.

I can feel the emotion of the commanding officers who will be confronted with disbanding their regiments. I know how difficult it is to change habits and opinions which have been the very backbone of a whole way of life. Those who choose to embrace careers in the Armed Forces do so both with heart and soul.

However you must understand that there is not and that there never has been a hard-and-fast method for the defence of France. Military Service has been compulsory for less than a century. Realism dictates the professionalisation of our Armed Forces.

Please remain confident. Those here among you who have served or who are still serving in our professional units can bear witness as to the exceptional, operational and humane quality of their soldiers. They are fully aware that we will encounter no difficulties in recruiting able, young men and women in search of the warm, demanding and enthusiastic framework reserved for them in the Armed Forces.

No doubt, what is worrying many of you today is not so much the future type of Armed Forces as the transition period ahead.

I solemnly affirm that there will not be a bill cutting down the number of officers. There will, of course be a reduction in the number of commissioned and non-commissioned officers, limited by the increase in the officering ratio and any departures will be voluntary and will be facilitated by appropriate financial and administrative measures.

There is one final question that I would like to answer. Will this programming bill, which is the most important since the end of the Algerian War and which conditions the success of the transition from one type of Armed Forces to another, be respected ? I personally undertake to ensure that it will. I have asked for the costs engendered by restructuration, which are not imputable to Defence, to be excluded from the overall sums allocated to the Armed Forces and I shall also ensure that this project, which has met my approval, will be questioned no further.

An immense task lies before us, a true challenge. Our Armed Forces have undergone several reforms over the past ten years, however none have been so ambitious. It is essential to continue the reorganisation of the high command which has been underway now for four years and which has improved the range of intelligence and action at the disposal of the Chief-of-Staff of the Armed Forces. However it will be necessary to rethink, for each of the Armed Forces, the Organisation of the support forces. Organic structures in charge of training and everyday life are to be developed. Modular, divisible units are to know how to unite rapidly and flexibly, when necessary, with trained staff.

We shall permanently have at our disposal a suitable intervention force which, according to circumstances, will be able to act alone or within the framework of an alliance or a coalition, in order to fulfil the missions confided by the Nation.

My friends, in the midst of this upheaval, although temptation may be great to privilege technical options, please do not let us forget the human aspects. We do not only fight with arms and we do not risk our lives without strong reasons for doing so.

The essntial role of each of the Chiefs-of-Staff will be to preserve the spirit of their units by strongly ensuring, throughout the restructurations to take place, that legitimate sensitivity is respected and that true traditions are preserved.

As responsible military chiefs I expect of you unconditional adhesion to the reconstruction of our Armed Forces. I expect commanding officers, captains and squadron leaders to explain to their men the meaning behind these reforms and to encourage them to share our determination in bringing this difficult transition phase to a successful outcome.

I expect our young officers and petty officers, who are the backbone of our Armed Forces and whose qualities have often been brought to light in recent operations, to support this task with enthusiasm and generosity.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have just spoken to you as soldiers and as responsible citizens. I underline that this reform is essential.

The time for asking questions is over. We must all act together so that France enters the XXIst century both a stronger and more respected nation.

Thank you.

Sources: French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defence

French Embassies in London and Washington.


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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).