France Changes its Nuclear Policy; Not Very Much

Nicolas Sarkozy was in Cherbourg to name the latest French SSBN, the appropriately named Le Terrible, this week; and he had a few things to say about the circumstances under which she might be called on to fire her M51 SLBMs. The headline grabber, which everyone picked up on, was that France is going to reduce the number of operational nuclear weapons it declares to the world; specifically, the airborne component of the French deterrent is being cut by one-third in terms of warheads.

France, until not long ago, operated a nuclear triad; as well as the first class of submarines, there were also four air force squadrons assigned to the nuclear mission, originally with the Mirage IV-A bomber and then with the Mirage 2000-N, and a force of intermediate-range ballistic missiles based in southern France. These weapons were withdrawn at the end of the cold war; they were always slightly odd with regard to France’s overall policy, as due to their range their only credible target was Russia. Officially, of course, the French nuclear force has always been “tous azimuts” or omni-directional (i.e. could point west, or maybe even north:-)).

The reduction, however, is entirely in keeping with the long-term principles of French nuclear strategy; France, like Israel and the UK (although the UK doesn’t have a published doctrine), has a traditional policy of minimal deterrence. This argues that nuclear weapons are subject to diminishing returns; the consequences of having all your cities nuked once are not noticeably better than twice, three times, or more, so the certainty of retaliation is much more important than its scale. “Superiority” is probably meaningless, and anyway uneconomic if not actively dangerous. This was also the doctrine associated with the US Navy in the 1950s, as opposed to the US Air Force; it was much more important to have a very secure retaliation force than a massive first-strike force, which was certain to be perceived as aggressive and threatening, and by happy accident this policy would involve heavy investment in the Navy’s submarines and carriers.

Despite this, Sarko is trying to frame the change in opposition to Jacques Chirac’s speech in 2006 in which he suggested that deterrence extended beyond a direct nuclear threat to the Republic; his press-cat describes this as a return to the fundamentals of deterrence. Beyond that, he also suggested a “dialogue” on the role of nuclear weapons in European security; well, I suppose he had to say something more, as this is an idea that gets taken out for a stroll every 20-30 years without effect. The speech is here; as far as detail goes, he sticks closely to tradition in refusing to define “vital interests” precisely (so not so much difference from Chirac, then) and stating that the force is targeted on a counter-value policy, i.e. against cities rather than against nuclear weapons systems.

As far as the practicals go, France has some 60 airborne nuclear weapons, of which 50 are ASMP(A) cruise missiles and 10 freefall bombs; this happens to match the number of Mirage 2000N aircraft on line precisely, mirroring the original and highly aggressive concept of operations from the 1960s, which foresaw launching the whole bomber force, if necessary on one-way missions to reach more distant targets. The mathematical geniuses this blog is known for will no doubt spot that this will fall to 40; the French Air Force and Naval Aviation have currently got 120 Rafales on order out of 294 planned, all of which are capable.

The reduction doesn’t go quite as far as the UK’s decision to withdraw all the WE177 nuclear bombs from the RAF in 1998, which accounted for all the UK’s airborne and tactical nuclear weapons. However, it’s worth pointing out that the British and French jointly developed an air-launched missile recently; in British service it’s called a Storm Shadow. Some voices in the UK have suggested acquiring a supply of these with nuclear warheads as a substitute for the Trident missile submarines that would be cheaper and less dependent on the US; the argument is based on experience since 1991 that surface-to-air missile defences are considerably less fearsome than was thought in the 1960s.

However, the UK government has been notably unwilling to engage with the idea. Its recent white paper on the deterrent cited only two alternatives to Trident (or disarmament), one of which was to independently develop an ICBM and find bases inside the UK, and one was to procure very long range nuclear cruise missiles (which would need developing) and base them on large airliner-type planes (the range because these could not go in reach of enemy air defences). This can only realistically be seen as an exercise in closing down the debate.

Finally, on page one:

Il a fallu des decennies d’apprentissage pour maitriser de tels savoir-faire, que certains de nos partenaires ont eu bien du mal a reconstituer apres les avoir negliges…

I wonder who he might possibly mean?

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