By Marine Pennetier
PARIS (Reuters) - France must curb its reliance on Russian and Ukrainian firms for its military support fleet to move troops and hardware to war zones, a parliamentary report on Tuesday showed.
The French military has been increasingly stretched during President Francois Hollande's five years in office with thousands of troops based overseas after interventions in Mali, Central Africa and operations in the Middle East.
The report's author Francois Cornut-Gentille said the reliance on Russian and Ukrainian operators was a "veritable Damocles sword" hanging over French forces.
"These interventions were only made possible thanks to Russian and Ukrainian deployment capacities and in a legal and financial framework that was not a priority," Cornut-Gentille said.
"Naturally, the urgency explained this context. However, it would be extremely unwise to extend this in the long-term."
According to the bi-partisan report by parliament's finance committee, the military only has a quarter of what it needs in terms of strategic transport deployment capacity, which includes 19 planes ranging from between 22 to 50 years in age.
Twelve new Airbus A330 MRTT are set to replace them starting in 2018, but that will not fill the shortfall, the report showed.
Paris has been hamstrung too by delays in the A400M troop carrier, which also lacks the necessary capacity.
As a result, France has been forced to use Antonov 124 airlift planes sourced from Flight Unit FU-224, linked to Russia's defence ministry, Volga Dniepr, a Russian private company, and Ukraine's Antonov Airlines ADB.
French-Russian relations have been strained by Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea in 2014 and over Russia's role in the war in Syria. Outgoing President Hollande has played a key role in imposing sanctions on Russia over Ukraine.
Cornut-Gentille said the reliance on the Antonov 124 and the countries they came from meant Paris was at risk of deteriorating relations that "could totally paralyse its aerial deployment".
In 2015, FU-224 suspended its flights for France at the request of the Russian government as relations between the two countries cooled over the Ukrainian crisis.
"In reality, despite the big statements, the strategic autonomy is virtual," Cornut-Gentille said.
(Writing by John Irish, editing by Ed Osmond)