BASIC-BITS Research Report 98.5
ISBN: 1 874533 35 0

Nuclear Futures

Western European options for nuclear risk reduction

Martin Butscher, Otfried Nassauer & Stephen Young



3. France

French nuclear weapons policy and doctrine have remained remarkably stable and consistent throughout the past 30 years, through periods of government under right wing, centrist and socialist parties. The end of the Cold War has seen no great change in policy or doctrine. However, the position has not been completely static during the 1990s. France ended its international isolation on nuclear weapons questions: joining the Non-Proliferation Treaty; recently ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; reducing its deployed nuclear forces and greatly scaling down plans for future forces. France has also begun to co-operate on a more formal level on both technical and doctrinal nuclear issues, particularly with the UK, but with the United States as well. There have also been French initiatives for the Europeanisation of French and British nuclear forces - most notably in the concept of 'concerted deterrence'.


3.1. French Nuclear Weapons Doctrine

Since the 1970s, French nuclear doctrine has remained almost immutable. Even now, under a Gaullist President with a Socialist-led coalition government that includes Greens and Communists, nuclear weapons continue to play a central role in French defence policy. French strategists and analysts have continued to support the consensus on French nuclear doctrine even following the end of the Cold War.

The Cold War doctrine talked of deterrence 'du faible au fort', from the weak to the strong. This consisted essentially of being able to inflict enough damage on any potential aggressor - for all practical purposes the Soviet Union - to mean that an attack on France would not be worthwhile.

In the early 1990s, the Gulf War highlighted the need to deter potential nuclear threats from Third World proliferators. This led to an active debate on the concept of deterrence 'du faible au fou' - from the weak to the mad. Disguised behind this amusing play on words was a serious debate which followed closely the US debate on counter-proliferation and the use of nuclear weapons in the Third World. Many political figures, military, and academic experts advocated this major shift in policy. However, President Fran‡ois Mitterrand refused to accept their arguments and in the publication of the 1994 White Paper on Defence (the first such paper since 1972) the more traditional doctrine was reconfirmed.

It is interesting to note that the 1994 White Paper confirms the traditional doctrine while acknowledging that the international situation has changed fundamentally:

For the first time in its history, France does not face a direct military threat near its borders. However new risks can affect its security and its defence... No one denies that the main and global threat - direct, concrete and measurable - that threatened our vital interest, has vanished today and probably for a long time.1

Thus admitting that a strategic reassessment is needed, the White Paper delivers the following threat assessment:

1) The global Soviet threat has disappeared. Nevertheless, in Europe, Russia will remain a strong military power, which must be taken as such in our strategic evaluation. Moreover, local or regional crises, which might degenerate into conventional wars, may challenge the shift of the continent toward a new equilibrium.

More broadly, the main risk on security lies now in regional conflicts which could challenge the research of international stability.

2) The level of military equipment of a number of regional powers should rise not only in the field of conventional weapons, but also, given proliferation, in the field of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, by the beginning of the next century.2

Chapter Four of the White Paper discusses the developing role of nuclear deterrence in French security policy. The introduction makes it clear that the "future of deterrence" is at the heart of the rethinking of French strategy after the Cold War. The White Paper states later that the French choice to become a nuclear power had two motivations: "the wish to preserve our vital interests against threats from the strongest countries; the desire to assure in all circumstances our independence and freedom of political action."3

The first of these reasons is then stated to have become much less important, while the second has increased in importance. Independence of action is centrally linked to the possession of nuclear weapons:

The possession of independent nuclear weapons, adapted as necessary to the strategic risks that may appear in the years to come, will remain an essential means for France to provide the margin of freedom of action which she needs to defend her interests. National independence, in future European independence, will without doubt be attached to the possession of such arms.4

The White Paper acknowledges that the role of conventional forces will be much more important in the future, and that there needs to be a new balance in French strategic thinking between nuclear and conventional forces. However, the introduction to the section on nuclear deterrence states the role of nuclear weapons in traditional terms:

Nuclear deterrence rests on the perception by any adversary of the unacceptable risks they run in an aggression against our country, out of all proportion to what might be gained by conflict.5

Nuclear weapons are "reserved for the protection of our vital interests, whatever the origin or form of the threat to them."6 The final warning - France's sub-strategic nuclear forces - can be used to "mark, at the appropriate time, in diverse situations, the limits of our vital interests and to recall without ambiguity our determination".7

Finally, to achieve these objectives the White Paper states that French nuclear forces have to be able to "strike, inflicting unacceptable damage" and make a limited strike against military objectives as a final warning.8 Furthermore, to be credible these forces must be mixed and flexible, and technically must keep pace with any potential adversary.

The White Paper then goes on to list scenarios for these threats to France. Two of these involve a response with nuclear forces and a third mentions deterrence. They include:

Scenario No. 2

This scenario looks at the possibility of a regional crisis threatening Europe at some point over the twenty years from 1994 and involving a nuclear power that could draw in France through a threat to vital interests. Such a situation could arise in Europe or "in a longer time-frame, in the Mediterranean, the Near and Middle East."

The White Paper states, "A deterrent manoeuvre, adapted to this particular context, might be necessary to accompany our decision to intervene". However, it rejects any idea of fighting a nuclear battle, stating that the threat of use of nuclear weapons would be used purely to deter such threats as potential ballistic missile attacks, nuclear blackmail, air attacks, and others.

Scenario No. 3

Scenario 3 covers the possibility of attack on France's overseas territories. It states that these territories are covered by nuclear deterrence without giving any details.

It is clear from this description of French nuclear doctrine that nuclear weapons remain at the heart of French defence policy. While nuclear doctrine was modified to reflect changing strategic circumstances, it remains a defensive concept. For France, nuclear weapons are not a tool for power projection, but for the defence of the nation and of vital interests.

Scenario No. 6

Again over a twenty-year timescale, this scenario looks at the risk of the re-emergence of a major threat in Europe. While admitting that this scenario looks very unlikely, the White Paper states that such a risk cannot be completely dismissed. The likelihood of the resurgence of such a threat is said to be linked to developments in European security structures.

Such resurgence would mean the use of France's nuclear deterrent to prevent the use of nuclear forces. If that failed, then France would have to be prepared to use nuclear forces - potentially even far from French soil - alongside its allies.


3.2. Shifting Defence Priorities and Resources

While France did not undergo any major shift in nuclear doctrine, there has been a substantial reallocation of procurement resources during the 1990s. Accompanying the downsizing in nuclear forces, the delays in procurement programmes, and weapons cancellations, there has been a conscious effort to boost capabilities in other areas, most particularly in space based intelligence gathering. The aim of this effort is to provide full independence of action, in Europe or further afield. This is to be achieved at three levels: the strategic, or the national defence level; the operational, or at the theatre level; and the tactical, or the level of troops on the ground.

While dating from earlier in the decade, the White Paper laid out perspectives for this development in capability. In a section entitled "Priorities in New Capabilities", intelligence gathering is identified as especially vital in a newly uncertain strategic environment. It is identified as a strategic asset and an essential part of French defence strategy. The White Paper identifies a series of procurement objectives that must be met in order to equip France with the necessary intelligence gathering capability:

As concerns investment in technical and equipment resources, the main orientations are the following:

- support the development of space assets with the HELIOS family of optical observation satellites, as well as associated electronic systems;
- engage in programmes of radar and listening observation satellites;
- renew electronic warfare assets at three levels [listed above];
- follow through the modernisation and development of intelligence organisations.9

The role of the new intelligence capabilities is to provide early warning of crises and intelligence during crises to allow France to act independently. Further, they will be used to allow France to verify implementation of arms control and disarmament treaties.

For the twenty-year perspective of the White Paper, the intelligence effort will be a national one. There is no merging of European capabilities foreseen. However, as in all else in the White Paper, there is a European perspective, which would see

the development of co-operation already underway such as common construction and use of space, aerial, sea and terrestrial assets in the fields of electromagnetic observation, transmission and, perhaps in the future, interception.10

These new priorities in defence policy have led to a shift in budgetary priorities. In short, although the French defence budget has remained roughly stable, money allocated to the procurement of nuclear weapons has declined, while that allocated to the research, development, and procurement of space-based intelligence assets has dramatically increased. For example, the budget for Research, Development and Studies for Space increased by more than 60% between 1991 and 1996 to 3.9 billion francs (US$624 million). Similarly, the procurement budget increased in leaps and bounds - by 17.5% in 1992, by 13.3% in 1993, by 13.8% in 1994, and by 11.7% in 1995-96.11 Having fallen during 1997 because of general defence cuts, the budget is growing in 1998 by 10%.

France recently deployed HELIOS I, a visual observation satellite, and will soon launch HELIOS II, an infrared observation satellite, and then the HORUS radar observation satellite. These are all co-operative programmes, notably with Italy, Spain, and Germany. Staff at the Western European Satellite Centre at Torrejon have said that the HELIOS satellite greatly increased their capabilities.

Since 1989, this decline in the procurement budget for nuclear weapons has been of the order of 56.6% in constant 1997 francs. The reorientation to increases in the space budget began in 1992. It should be noted that this is not a straight swap of money. The nuclear budget remains much larger than the space budget, at some 11 billion francs (US$1.76 billion).


3.3 French nuclear forces

France is downsizing and modernising its nuclear forces, both to allow it to match the doctrine and posture requirements described above, and to provide a nuclear force that France can afford. Programmes are constantly being delayed and procurement numbers reduced. It is likely, for budgetary reasons, that this trend will continue. It is worth noting that since France entered the nuclear arena, no projected five-year military procurement plan has been fulfilled. Even at the height of the Cold War, spending was below projections. However, this does not mean that France will abandon nuclear weapons in the near future. In a 1997 defence budget report, Jean Michel Boucheron (the rapporteur and a member of the majority Socialist Party) explained why:

Since it is impossible to foresee the evolution of the geostrategic situation in Europe over the next fifteen or twenty years with sufficient reliability, it is therefore necessary to preserve the credibility of our deterrence for this period and beyond. It is therefore essential to preserve our capability to develop and maintain a credible deterrent in the very long term, including warheads, vehicles (missiles), and launch platforms (nuclear powered submarines).12 [Author's original emphasis.]

Strategic Missile Submarines

France is currently deploying a new submarine-launched ballistic missile system, Sous-marins Lanceurs d'Engins de la Nouvelle G‚n‚ration (SNLE/NG) as part of its Strategic Ocean Force (la FOST). The first submarine, Le Triomphant, entered service in 1997. Le T‚m‚raire and Le Vigilant are scheduled to enter service in 1999 and 2003 respectively, with the fourth and final submarine entering service in 2007.13

The first three submarines will be equipped initially with the M45 missile, armed with up to six TN75 warheads. It is believed that the submarines carry fewer nuclear warheads than their maximum potential load, and instead may carry electronic counter-measure packages and dummy warheads. The fourth submarine will be the first to be equipped with the M51 missile, with a range of 6,000 kilometres (compared with the M45's 4,000 kilometre range), and armed with a new nuclear warhead, the TNN (Tˆte Nucl‚aire Nouvelle). 14 This warhead, also referred to as the Tˆte Nucl‚aire Oc‚anique (TNO), will be the first warhead to be developed entirely from scratch without the aid of a testing programme, and its deployment will be vital to the French ability to maintain a nuclear force in the long term.15 Each submarine can carry up to 16 missiles.

Three of France's older Le Redoutable class submarines, each armed with 16 M4 missiles, remain in service. These will be retired as the SNLE/NG are brought into service. France intends to retain four SNLEs in its Strategic Ocean Force, enabling two to be maintained at sea if necessary.16

Airborne Nuclear Forces

France also currently deploys an aircraft carrier, equipped with 24 Super-Etendard aircraft armed with the Air-Sol Moyenne Portee (ASMP) missile. The ASMP has a range of between 80 and 300km, depending on launch altitude. In addition, France has three squadrons of Mirage 2000N aircraft also armed with the ASMP. From around 2008, France intends to replace the ASMP with a longer-range version of the missile - ASMP-1, which will have a range of 100 to 500km depending on launch altitude. The ASMP-1 (or am‚lior‚ - improved) will carry a new warhead, as yet unnumbered. The ASMP was to have been replaced by the ASLP - Air-Sol Longue Port‚e - but after the UK refused to share in the œ3 billion estimated cost for this missile, the project had to be shelved. The ASLP was to have a range of up to 1300km, so the ASMP-1 is much less capable than ASLP would have been.

France intends to replace the Mirage 2000N and the Super-tendard with Rafale aircraft by 2015.17 The aircraft carriers deployed in 2002 will carry Rafale. There is currently some doubt as to whether by 2015, France will deploy one or two aircraft carriers, and therefore as to the number of nuclear armed Navy Rafales that will be deployed. The air force will deploy 45 Rafale aircraft in three squadrons, a direct replacement for the Mirage 2000Ns currently in service.

Force Reductions

While France continues to modernise actively its nuclear forces, it took some significant decisions concerning reductions of force levels during the 1990s. France constructed a small triad of air-, sea-, and ground-based forces, mirroring the force structures of the nuclear superpowers. However, with the decision in 1993 not to deploy the Hades missile to replace the retiring Pluton, and the 1996 decision to retire the ICBMs of the Plateau d'Albion without replacement, France abandoned the land-based leg of the triad.

France destroyed the Hades surface-to-surface missiles, and is dismantling their warheads. The retrieved fissile material is being added to the military stock to be used for future warheads for the M51 and the ASMP-1 missiles. The S-3D inter-continental ballistic missiles, formerly based at the Plateau d'Albion, were taken out of service in September 1996, and their destruction and the dismantlement of their warheads will be complete in 1998.


3.4 A European Nuclear Deterrent?

The brief flurry of interest in the 'Eurobomb' in the mid-1980s soon died down, perhaps indicating that the idea was not viable during the Cold War. French ideas for European co-operation in the nuclear weapons field were never accepted by its neighbours. Typical was the suggestion in 1986, by President Mitterrand, that France was ready to consult with the Chancellor of Germany on the use of tactical nuclear weapons by France on German soil, and even to cover Germany officially with the nuclear umbrella. Such suggestions were rebuffed by the German government.

As the European Union (EU) was created and its member states began to look at closer co-operation in the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), the possibility of a Common European Defence Policy was also raised. Clearly, French and British nuclear weapons are central to such a debate, viewed as an asset by some, by others a liability preventing closer co-operation. In January 1992, President Mitterrand asked, "Only two of the twelve have nuclear forces. For their national policies they have a clear doctrine. Is it possible to conceive a European one?"18

In 1993, UK Secretary of State for Defence Malcolm Rifkind spoke of the need to improve UK-French co-operation. However, he placed it firmly in a context of strengthening NATO and "the specific European contribution to the deterrence which underpins the collective security of the whole Alliance".19 He listed deterrence, nuclear doctrines, anti-missile defences, arms control and non-proliferation as essential areas for this co-operation.

During 1994, the Assembly of the Western European Union (WEU), the body nominated in the Treaty on European Union to implement decisions of the European Council with defence implications, produced a report by Mr. De Decker of the Defence Committee on The Role and Future of Nuclear Weapons. The report notes, inter alia, that it would be "totally illogical to start implementation of the CFSP without examining the role of the French and British nuclear forces in the definition of a common defence policy of the EU".20

The French 1994 White Paper on Defence was quite explicit on the potential European role of French and British nuclear forces. In a section entitled "European Construction and Contributing to International Stability", the paper puts French defence policy "in the new perspective of the 'common defence' of the future, affirmed in the Treaty on European Union."21 Further, the paper states that "this European choice is made necessary for economic and strategic reasons... this progressive construction is leading to the affirmation of a political identity which will be incomplete if it is not expressed in the area of defence as in other areas."22


3.5. Concerted Deterrence

During 1995, officials began a new debate on the European contribution to nuclear deterrence in Europe. There was a desire to avoid the ideas that France could provide an alternative nuclear umbrella to the NATO one, or somehow make all the strategic choices, but consult with allies at the moment of use. These ideas were seen as being unrealistic. Equally, if a common European force was the aim, then a method for co-operation had to be found that did not violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This led to the suggestion by Prime Minister Alain Jupp‚ in January 1995 of the concept of Concerted Deterrence.

This concept was built on foundations such as those laid down by Bruno Tertrais, a French Defence Ministry official, in L'Arme Nucl‚aire aprŠs La Guerre Froide. In a chapter on European deterrence, he examines the possibilities for a common European policy, should the US withdraw its nuclear forces from Europe. Tertrais outlines options which include the possibility that the vital interests of France, the UK, and other members of the European Union could become so intertwined that the deterrence policy of the two nuclear powers would be widened to include their neighbours, without any declaration or participation of other European states. A second suggestion is that there could be a declaration that a widened deterrence covered some or all of the European partners of France and the UK, and that those who wished could participate in some nuclear programmes, while France and the UK retained the right to act independently.23

Juppe described concerted deterrence as going beyond the "paternalism" of widened deterrence, where France would simply guarantee the security of, for example, Germany. In a speech in January 1995 he mooted the idea of concerted deterrence for the first time:

In the long term we need to think about the stages of development of a defence Europe, including the mission - a sensitive subject - of national nuclear forces. Paradoxically, the end of the Cold War seems to make the nuclear question less urgent, while on the other hand, it has removed sources of tension between Europeans particularly on the question of tactical weapons. Therefore, a European consensus can and must be maintained on the basis of a reaffirmed doctrine of deterrence. Following the elaboration of a common doctrine by France and the United Kingdom, should our generation fear thoughts of, not shared deterrence, but at least a concerted deterrence with our principal partners? I ask the question: Can the Single Currency and the adoption of a new Franco-German contact have no effect on French perceptions of our vital interests?24

In September 1995, Juppe made another speech on the same topic, putting his thoughts on concerted deterrence in greater detail. He presented concerted deterrence as,

necessitating a dialogue between equal partners, on a subject which concerns their common future. ... In a world where nuclear weapons will continue to play a necessary role, even if only because of already existing arsenals, this engagement [that Germany will remain non-nuclear] makes the need to guarantee German security even more important.25

Juppé goes on to state that,

French vital interests have been defined more politically than geographically for several years. This is one of the principal results of fifty years of reconciliation and mutual dialogue. It is also the result of European construction... The future European defence will not be built without, in one way or another, the French - and British - deterrents playing a role.26

In this model therefore, concerted deterrence would have the UK and France working together with countries such as Germany or Spain to construct a model of deterrence for the European Union. The nuclear weapons would remain under national control, but doctrines for their use would become European. The definition of 'vital interests' would also be European.

Coming as it did at the height of the furore about the new series of French nuclear tests, this speech and the concept of concerted deterrence were not welcomed. Most observers saw the speech as an attempt to deflect European opposition to the tests. It was not until two months later that the UK even made an official declaration of support for the French tests. The speech was generally judged to be ill-timed, not least because it went together with statements that the French testing programme was being carried out in the European interest. Many European politicians questioned this, noting that if this was the case then European nations should have been given a say before the tests started.

However, a renewed debate about a future European deterrent is now launched, even if it remains extremely controversial. Some influential figures on the European scene, such as former Belgian Prime Minister Leo Tindemans, have strongly supported the concept. Despite this, no parliament or parliamentary assembly has formally supported concerted deterrence. Moreover, the Amsterdam Treaty revising the Treaty on European Union places the future of European defence very firmly in a NATO context. As long as France chooses to remain outside the integrated military structure of the Alliance, and most particularly outside the Nuclear Planning Group, concerted deterrence is likely to remain little more than a concept.


3.6. Involving the Germans

Attempts at nuclear weapons co-operation between France and Germany have a long history. During the 1950s the two countries drafted an agreement on "Common Research and Utilisation of Nuclear Energy for Military Purposes", but progress in this direction was firmly blocked by Chancellor Adenauer and President De Gaulle in 1958. In more recent years France increased its efforts to involve Germany in discussion of nuclear policy. There were press reports during 1995 that some talks of the Franco-British Joint Nuclear Commission have involved German officials. These were neither confirmed nor denied.

There have also been moves by France to involve the Germans in bilateral dialogue on nuclear weapons. France wished to include nuclear forces and co-operation as a subject for the Franco-German Summit in the autumn of 1995, but Germany refused. However, at their December 1996 Nuremberg Summit the matter was raised. In the "Franco-German Common Security and Defence Concept" the two countries expressed their readiness to "start a dialogue on the role of nuclear deterrence in European defence policy."27 However, in mid-1998, the German government stated that neither the details nor the participants for the dialogue had yet been decided. Indeed, the German government argued that this dialogue should be held in the NATO context, to allow participation of the UK.28 Any movement would be hampered by the French insistence on remaining outside the NATO framework as Germany wishes any nuclear weapons policy to be co-ordinated through NATO with the sanction of the US, not by European nations alone acting through the WEU.


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