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Interview | Commander of French forces in Estonia on the NATO battlegroup and winter training

The French Army contribute to the NATO battlegroup at Tapa.
The French Army contribute to the NATO battlegroup at Tapa. Source: Ardi Hallismaa

At ERR News we have covered plenty of aspects of the British and American NATO deployments to Estonia, on land, sea, and air, but what about the third major contributing nation and arguably the military with the best ration packs, France?

We caught up with Colonel Patrick Ponzoni of the French Army, to put this oversight right.

How long have you been in the French army, which branch are you in and what motivated you to join?

I'm in the infantry, and I'm coming up to 39 years of service in the French army. When I first joined it was just a case of trying to find some adventure, something different from the norm.

Col. Patrick Ponzoni is commander of the French Forces in Estonia. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

I joined as an NCO, and after that it was great for me to pass through different grades and becoming an officer, serving in theaters such as Bosnia, Kosovo, various African countries and, of course, Afghanistan.

So Estonia must be a big change?

This time around, I've been in Estonia since last September, for a six-month tour.

But these multi-national set-ups are not such a recent thing – I did experience things like this in Bosnia 30 years ago, we were already working with the British, the Americans, and some other countries.

One of the most striking things about serving in Estonia, Col. Ponzoni says, has been working alongside Kaitseliit, the Estonian Defense League, a wholly volunteer organization.

This was really the thing we discovered here which impressed us, it's something which is not really being thought about in many countries including France or the U.K. but this kind of patriotism, and willingness of all Estonians to defend their country is highly impressive.

We have nothing like that in France. There's a reserve of course but not this kind of volunteer unit, and we've seen them working, as soldiers, and it was really amazing to see.

An Estonian Defense League member taking part in 2022's Exercise Okas. Source: Sergei Stepanov/ERR

The close ties between our last paratroop deployment here last December, and the Defense League, as well as the regular EDF, changed their whole perspective on being in the army and what it means to serve, and it will have enriched their minds and helped them grow so this mission is really important in these respects too.

It's a partnership, we're not here as trainers or advisers.

What about the rumor that French soldiers have red wine issued to them, as part of their ration packs?

That's an urban myth I'm afraid, and neither do we have frogs legs or snails issued! Just imagine the picture of soldiers with weapons but who are completely drunk, that would not be possible in a normal army. Sorry to say, but that's the truth!

Actually, we are publishing, next week, a video about which nation's army (from all those making up the battlegroup) issues the tastiest rations.

But ultimately the needs are the same: To eat, sleep and fight, with the same level of comfort, and of food, wherever you are and wherever you are from; you need 5,000 calories per soldier, per day.

And just where are the French soldiers from? Just metropolitan France?

They come from everywhere, from Polynesia, New Caledonia, Guadeloupe etc.

What advice, if any, would you give to any of our more intrepid readers, who might be thinking about exchanging their daily life for one in the far-famed Légion étrangère, the French Foreign Legion?

Well, if you want to, just do it. But first of all, you need to think just why you are not joining your own country's army instead, but beyond that. if you want to join the Legion, and if you are at that level, you would be welcome.

Col. Patrick Ponzoni. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Have any legionnaires been here in Estonia, at Tapa?

Yes they have, for instance we have a Legion platoon of engineers at Tapa, and a paratrooper company coming in March, again to work with the Defense League.

They are a great unit, but in many respects just like every other unit in the French Army. An equivalent when speaking about the U.K. might be The Gurkhas.

At the end of the day, they are soldiers like the others. They have the legend and mystique of course, from history, when it was often a refuge for bandits and criminals, but it is not like that nowadays.

They are just ordinary people coming from another country, who want to join the Legion. Later on, they can become a French citizen after some years, if they want. Or they can go back to their home country, too.

Here's a fun question: Of the four allied main battle tanks which have been used in Estonia in recent years, which one is the best?

You're talking about Leclerc (France), M1 Abrams (U.S.), Leopard 2 (Germany) and Challenger 2 (U.K.)?

Well, first of all, I am not a cavalry guy I am in the infantry, so I even have some difficulties getting into tanks, they can be quite claustrophobic.

Right now, I would say the most recent one, the Abrams, should be the most advanced at this point in time, with Leclerc in second place.

Leclerc had some great tech when it was new, and we are adapting new tech to it again, for the fifth series.

But really it depends on the scenario. Each of them are good, for different scenarios.

Leclerc MBT in action at the EDF's central polygon during a previous deployment. Source: NATO Battlegroup Estonia

Plus each soldier is accustomed to their own vehicle, and will always say the best one is mine, the one that they know, that they have trained with.

What were the biggest surprise, on coming to Estonia?

The weather conditions! Really, I think it's the first time in my career that I have been in conditions of -24 or -25 Celsius.

So that has been the most surprising thing. Of course we have all the necessary equipment, what we call arctic equipment, but really once you're in -24 degrees, this comes as both a shock and something which is very interesting for us.

I'm from Marseille, in the South of France, so for me it was a surprise as a result of that, too. Sometimes in the northernmost parts of France it gets down to -10, but not lower.

These temperatures call for a completely different approach to working. The newer vehicles require a different type of fuel, and a different way of using them all round.

But it's great experience; we refer to it as a technical lab for our assets and our new vehicles in particular, as we put them in extreme weather – mostly they had been put to the test in much hotter conditions, such as those in Africa.

Col. Patrick Ponzoni. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Getting all the materiel and personnel here must be a challenge. How is that done?

By train, by road, by sea and sometimes by air. We use all the means, which we call strategic means, to transport personnel and materiel here including all our vehicles and equipment.

Coming by boat takes longer, or it can be quicker too – by train takes more time, what with all the bureaucracy and authorization in crossing different countries, but it is cheaper.

Arrival of Leclerc tanks by sea to Paldiski in 2021. Source: Ardi Hallismaa/Mil.ee

On the other hand, the cost aspect is not my concern; but much also depends on which kind of assets are available at that time, and the level of urgency.

In a rapid situation of course it will be different and mostly travel will be by air.

Sometimes travel by road can be faster too – it's 3,000km from France to the Estonian border, a distance which could be covered in around three or four days on the roads between here and there.

What about more day-to-day challenges? Unlike the Brits or the Americans, you, and the Estonians, are having to speak in foreign language for instance.

Yes that's the hardest part for us!

French is still an official language in NATO/OTAN, but in practice only we and the Belgians are speaking it, and even when we are carrying a purely French exercise, in France itself, we often continue to train in English just to maintain these skills.

We are trained in the English language; we don't claim to be the best in Europe in this, but in fact we're talking about command level only.

Commanders all speak to each other in English as the working language, but lower down the command chain they don't need to speak English, as we then use our own procedures and language to transmit orders.

So only at company commander level or above, to understand orders from the British eFP commander, is English required; and after that, we just dispatch that order directly in French, to the platoons, so it's quite easy.

In fact, most of the military the terminology in orders and on the mission are precisely the same in English as they are in French, for example making a recce.

So the NATO eFP and Mission Lynx. Will it grow, or stay as it is?

It could grow to brigade size, but still British-led as the framework nation in Estonia. So France would make up a "company plus," within the group.

French troops from the 7th Alpine Rangers battalion were awarded medals on October 26, 2022. Source: Ministry of Defense

A company means around 360 people, mostly infantry, but we call it a joint combat company, so included are recce tanks, engineers and Joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) personnel.*

How well known is the presence in Estonia, at home, in France?

It's more a case of a global picture, so France is in the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) Battlegroup in a broader sense in Romania, here in Estonia, with the Canadian-led battlegroup in Latvia, and the German-led eFP battlegroup in Lithuania.

If you spoke to the average person in France, I'm not sure they would necessarily know that we are in Estonia specifically, but they will be aware there's a global enhanced forward presence in the eastern part of Europe.

But we are working on that, with our social media presence and in other areas of communication.

What are some of the new pieces of equipment you are using here?

Griffon (an armored personnel carrier – ed.) is one of them, there is also Jaguar, a new cavalry recce tank, which will be coming for Exercise Spring Storm in May, plus Serval, a light armored vehicle for paratroopers, which is coming at the end of August.

French Army Griffons arriving in Estonian in 2023. Source: French Forces

Just to get a picture for civilian readers what it is like being on exercise, they should forget what they may have seen in World War II-era movies, infantry walking, or crawling, along behind tanks, and things like that?

No it's not like that. We use anti-tank missiles a lot, and their tactics are one of the main focuses.

When on exercise in conjunction with artillery, it's just a question of knowing where the friendly troops are in relation to each other, and we have tech for that, so we know where artillery should be ranged, without it firing on us.

How will you know that Mission Lynx has been a success?

In fact, the main aspect for us here is the training, within a coalition setting.

That's the main goal for us, and for the Estonians, the British and the Americans who are here. Training together is the way you will be able to be sure of success. It's the sole measure. Carrying out a huge exercise, training, and at the end saying okay, this works, or if this does not work, then why, and carrying out later exercises with that in mind.

I think that's the only way you can be sure. At the end of that four months we will evaluate the personnel, too, and say okay, what level are you at now.

The experimentation with our vehicles I mentioned before does not apply solely to winter conditions, either. The terrain is radically different from what we are used to; for instance the boggy terrain in the region around Narva, and there's a lot of forest here, so this is all new for us and makes for an interesting and challenging way to see how we and our vehicles cope with these environments.

Will tech developments ever advance so much that no human being needs to be anywhere near the front line?

No. You will always need a human presence, and particularly the infantry – maybe I say that because I am in the infantry myself – but to check and monitor and control things and to do things robots and tech cannot do.

Even just to be close to and to liaise with the local populace. Robots are just a tool, you don't give a mission to a tool of course, you use it.

I don't know if you have been in one of the newer military vehicles, of any country's militaries, but if you do, you will see banks of computers everywhere and a lot of things which require smartness on the part of the solider.

So for this reason you will always need human soldiers, and the robots will never take over.

The same goes for AI (or in French, IA). As in civilian life, this can help you, but you won't, for instance, be a great writer that way. It's the same for the soldiers too.

Are there enough women serving in the French military nowadays

(Capt. Laure, also present, fields this question): I wouldn't say there are "enough" women, but if you want to join the army, there will always be a place for you and you can do whatever job you would like.

I'm in the reserve forces, but what I like about the French army is that it's the only place in the French workforce where we are paid at the exact same rate as the men, so we have the same qualification, we can evolve in the same way as men, there's no difference there.

For men and for women. It's a great experience and I don't think there's another area of French society where you can get paid the same, do the same things, go on maternity leave and still have the same job awaiting you afterwards.

(Col. Ponzoni): Our company commander right now is a woman, an infantry officer, commanding men.

(Capt. Laure): Things will still take time and the distribution probably won't be 50-50, but it's a great way to demonstrate there are no fundamental differences any more.

The French Army contributes to the NATO eFP Battlegroup at Tapa. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

But what about the current distribution, in France?

(Capt. Laure) In the French army worldwide, it's probably about 25 percent and in some units of course there are actually more women, for instance the medical regiment, and others where there will be more men.

In my regiment, which is logistics and there is a lot of heavy loading, but even then there are still plenty of women doing that. I think in the British army it's a bit less, so from a European point of view France is in the forefront.

And at Tapa?

(Col. Ponzoni): In general at Tapa, it's irrelevant and not an issue in the sense that it is not an issue we're all soldiers doing a job. But of course it has changed a lot in my career, whereas early in my career there were only some openings, for instance in logistics.

It has changed at about the same pace as society has as a whole.

What makes a good soldier, what are the main qualities here?

Intelligence and discipline. That era when you put people into battle without knowing what they are doing is long gone. We can't develop the new tech without such people, either.

Finding a group's level refers to the "weakest" person in that group. If you take the first one, who is always faster and goes rushing off, if they are not able to help the weaker ones then it's not a good unit.

What piece of equipment would you never be without?

My helmet, and my frag (flak jacket or body armor – ed.), and the weapon of course. Well, that's the essential thing for a solider of course.

How do you deal with boredom while on base?

In fact I'm not sure people ever even get time to get bored. They are working every day, training every day, not a day goes by without a firing or other exercise. We can give them one or two days off sometimes, but in that time they are just resting and sleeping.

French soldiers in Estonia. Source: mil.ee

The company is here for four months and during that time, they have to reach a standard level of combat effectiveness.

(Capt. Laure): We try to have inter-national sports events, for instance on Sundays, there's always something going on with the allies and you can never get bored; there's always a way to learn from each other.

Is being part of a NATO mission very different from being in a French-led, or EU, or UN mission?

Of course there are always differences because, in the UN for instance, we are with countries which are not in NATO so we don't have the same procedures

But at the end of the day, a recce is a recce, and attack is an attack defending is defending, and so on.

Even in Bosnia, if it was primarily the UN, though NATO was there too; while the mentality, perhaps, within the UN is more peacekeeping-oriented, but the terms of a mission are exactly the same, it's not so different.

Will there ever be a unified EU army?

I really can't say what will happen with a unified EU army, it's well outside of my scope. I don't know if we'll be able to do it or not.

With the current security situation being as it is, will the French military continue to grow, and defense spending in France continue to rise?

I'm not sure that the size of the army will increase but the last budget law boosted the budget, and by a lot.

So we will be boosting our tech but staying at the same personnel level.

It would be impossible to continue with a mission of this kind, without that. We can see the problem that for instance Britain is having with recruiting; at the moment in France we are staying at the same level.

That is why our president had been very strong on that in his pronouncement, recently.

That's a good point – President Macron recently told Le Monde that "Notre devoir est de rendre la victoire russe impossible." But how do we achieve that?

As we are not at war, for this reason we have made this enhanced forward presence here, and in all the Baltic states and in Romania and other places.

In this way we demonstrate our presence and solidarity with the alliance, with NATO.

That could in fact head off Russia doing anything with the Baltic states. It's quite an insurance for the Baltic states to have Brits and French here, we have a powerful army and we are ready in fact to fight, so making this kind of eFP, creating inter-operability with all the allies, with the Estonians, that shows that we are ready in cases where needed: That's the way we show that, and that there will be no escalation with Russia.

Aid in weaponry, artillery, ammunition, funding etc. This is what the EU is doing as well, and many countries, including of course the US.

(Capt. Laure): We are also training the Ukrainians also to use French weaponry, as is happening everywhere. There is a European mission in Poland for instance, training, and that is a way we can help them, rather then directly being in conflict with Russia.

Helping Ukraine to do that, and heading off Russia from invading elsewhere.

So to close out, how can our readers find out more about what you are doing in Estonia?

We are opening our Facebook and Instagram account for Winter Camp so while we only have a Twitter account so far, we're building the brand so people can see more of what we do, and we will be doing schools outreach too. So just follow French forces in Estonia, and by the first week of February you will be able to do just that!

Something which will be of interest to the readers is February 24 we have the French Chief of Defense Gen. Thierry Burkhard, who has been invited. We will be on parade, and there will be static display too, so readers will be able to see vehicles and equipment, and speak to our soldiers as well.

This year is the 75th anniversary of NATO and the 20th anniversary of Estonia joining NATO, so this will be a great way to discover our soldiers, and what they are doing.

* A JTAC directs the action of military aircraft engaged in close air support and other offensive air operations from a forward position.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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