France's defense attache met with defense reporters this morning and said his country hopes to buy 14 to 15 airborne tankers. No date is set for a Request for Information yet, but France does plan to buy tankers, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Gratien Maire.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Maire said that France would place a premium on interoperability with allies and noted that Britain is buying the EADS tanker" "It is important for us that the equipment is completely interoperable."
I asked the general, who was attending a Defense Writers Group breakfast, how the French military had reacted to Gates' decision to kill the VH-71 presidential helicopter and the long slow madness of the tanker competition. After all, France has been one of America's staunchest allies, especially since 9-11. They have shared a great deal of intelligence, provided fly-over rights, helped the US make excellent use of Djibouti, and most important, they have consistently provided large numbers of highly capable troops in Afghanistan and other theaters. I pressed him, asking if he felt that France had gone unrewarded on the industrial side after contributing so much treasure and blood.
Maire said simply that France did not "expect something back." Being plain spoken did not stop him from playing a diplomatic card, however. He referred to the industrial balance between Europe and the United States. "This is not a good balance. The US buys equipment from Europe about Euros 880 million and Europe buys about 3.3 billion from the US," he said, adding that it is of course "a competition."
The top French officer in America also made a point that caught most of the reporters -- including myself -- by surprise. France has roughly 1,600 troops in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). There have been persistent reports that French and other NATO troops operate under fairly restrictive rules of engagement designed to lower casualties. This, Maire insisted, is simply not true for french troops. Several of us made sure there was no linguistic barrier and asked the question several different ways, and we checked with his press aide. French troops can operate and engage the enemy as needed -- end of story.