New HQ proof French fighting the last war?

Part of the Maginot Line

The French Defense Minister recently revealed plans for a new defense headquarters, some have called the ‘French pentagon’, to unite several command and staff functions in and around Paris:

Defense officials hope the new site will encourage a joint approach in military affairs by bringing together at the Balard site, located in east Paris, the headquarter staff of the services, which are dispersed around the capital. The Direction Générale de l’Armement procurement office will also join the defense staff.

The building’s architect noted that he “designed the main building as an environmentally friendly system inspired by the lines of stealthy military aircraft.”

You’ve got to love the French, stylishly combining the latest political fads with the sleek, killer lines of a system capable of inflicting massive environmental damage to the planet.

This new headquarters, along with support for the new, multi-billion Euro NATO headquarters in Brussels, confirm the French belief they will find EUness, jointness and synergy in centralization and brick and mortar. If anything, the information age tends to the de-centralization of command and control and the proliferation of low cost, distributed platforms that, operating at the edges, are capable of strategic effect without top down direction. And some would argue that the very concept of command and control is outdated, a direct casualty of almost limitless global collaboration, system complexity and highly adaptable, technology adopting threats.

Besides, there’s an old rule about not putting all your eggs in one basket:  which is precisely what the French did after the carnage of World War I. Designed as a buffer against German expansionism, the Maginot Line reflected the terrible lessons learned of years of bloody trench warfare. But war is the history of measure and countermeasure, and the Germans learned different lessons. They simply bypassed the Maginot Line, employing their new style of war, the ‘Blitzkreig‘.

What accounted for the differences in approach? Using today’s terms, we might relate the evolutionary capacities of French and German staffs to closed and open networks. While the French hunkered down in static positions, officers like Heinz Guderian wondered how improvements in wireless communications could coordinate the actions of wide-ranging armored columns and close air support.

Some officers, like Gen. Stanley McChrystal, are thinking about 21st Century warfare. But for most, business at the Pentagon continues as usual. The very idea of such a large, centrally located facility as the Pentagon, seems out of touch with emerging realities.

And considering future threats, we need constantly ask ourselves, are we fighting the last war?


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