Army recruitment tactics in France, Djibouti’s new friendship with China, Israel’s tank innovation and North Korea’s escalating missile tests.
The arrival of the first Chinese troops to set up a new home for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (Plan) in Djibouti this July marked an unprecedented move in the African country’s geopolitical game. Djibouti has a history of mortgaging its sovereignty for economic gain and already hosts a major US military presence at Camp Lemonnier, as well as one of France’s largest military bases in Africa. Even peace-loving Japan has carved out a military toehold here (its first foreign base in recent times), housing warships and patrol aircraft from a military station established in 2011. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is finalising a deal for its own base.
However, all these countries are nominally US allies – except China, a tacitly acknowledged competitor. It should be interesting, then, when they all end up with bases a few kilometres apart.
China has been donating aid to Djibouti since 1979 but the current developments are of a different order of magnitude, agreed in 2016 as part of China’s One Belt, One Road plan. Beyond the naval base, the agreement included construction of the Doraleh Multi-Purpose Port and a 48 sq km free-trade zone that connects China to Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and beyond. Other works will see China fund and build the Arta hospital complex, a major railway line to Addis Ababa and a water supply project for Ethiopia.
The US currently pays about $65m (€55m) a year to lease its facility and is scheduled to be there until at least 2024. But while all of the international bases are valuable for Djibouti, they don’t represent quite the same regional development and business opportunities as China’s support.
In the wake of Paris’s 2015 terrorist attacks, France’s then president François Hollande launched Opération Sentinelle, involving military patrols of sensitive public areas. In doing so he also generated an immediate need for 15,000 new soldiers. “We didn’t want to lie about life in the army,” says Franck Luminier, creative director of Insign, the design agency tasked with creating the recruitment campaign. “We’re asking people to put their lives on the line.”
So Luminier got in touch with Thomas Goisque, a French photojournalist who has documented army manoeuvres in Afghanistan, Mali and Central Africa; his portraits of soldiers were then plastered on posters on France’s metros, trams and buses. Says Goisque: “There was no casting, posing or special-effect lighting; the realism is effective.” So effective, in fact, that 15,000 eligible soldiers were found in record time.
Israeli company Elbit Systems is addressing the tank’s crucial weakness: human crews are obliged to poke their heads out. The Israeli Defence Force is conducting trials of Elbit’s Iron Vision smart helmet, which uses external cameras to let soldiers see outside without breaking cover.
If it sounds like a step towards remote-controlled tanks, it isn’t. “Unmanned vehicles can’t stay on station permanently,” says Peter Quentin, research fellow at the Royal United Services Insitute. “The ability to sustain a human presence is what makes a tank unique.”
North Korea has escalated missile testing in 2017 and a new intercontinental missile has raised the stakes in the face of tough rhetoric from President Trump.
How do recent missile tests compare to what North Korea has carried out in the past?
The past three years have seen an enormous increase in the number of missile launches. And in 2017 we’ve seen an incredible array of new missiles – that’s what’s really getting our attention.
Where is the North Korean nuclear programme presently?
The purpose is to develop a compact warhead that is capable of fitting on a ballistic missile. The big question is what comes next. My guess is that they’re probably going to start testing thermonuclear weapons soon.
What can other countries do about it?
My recommendation is to think about ways that we can reduce tension and get a timeout, whereby the North Koreans stop testing in exchange for a reduction in military exercises done by South Korea and the US.