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 These weapons were withdrawn at the end of the cold war; they were always slightly odd with regard to France’s overall policy, as due to their range their only credible target was Russia.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?

Chirac has a transient dishonesty malfunction

Everyone’s now blogged about Jacques Chirac’s unexpected remarks about Iranian nuclear weapons.

But I think there may still be some angular momentum to be had. Chirac stated that, should a hypothetically nuclear Iran launch a nuclear weapon, Tehran would be destroyed before it had gone 200 metres. This is a pretty basic statement of nuclear deterrence, with the further point that in a sense, having one or two nuclear bombs makes you weaker than having zero nuclear bombs but the capacity to make them. Once you fire the one bomb, you have no further deterrent, and you’re definitely going to be nuked.

Quite a range of powers have credible deterrence against Iran – there’s the US, obviously, Israel, obviously, but less obviously France, Britain, Russia, India, China, and Pakistan. So, Chirac argued, the real danger wasn’t so much from a North Korean-style couple of bombs, but that this would lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia and possibly Egypt also rushing to obtain nukes as a counterdeterrent. (In yesterday’s Libération, Francois Heisbourg, the director of the IISS, restates this point adding Jordan to the list of presumed possible proliferators.)

He was of course right. Saudi Arabia has been quietly and consistently making noises about nuclear bombs for years, and it has close military-to-military ties with Pakistan. Some say Saudi money financed the Pakistani bomb project, and alone among nations they are in a position to actually buy the bomb. Egypt would probably see a Saudi bomb as unacceptable, and start using its own considerable scientific-technical establishment to work on going nuclear. (Chirac saw this differently – he suggested rather that the Saudis would finance Egyptian efforts – but I doubt this due to the historic competition for Arab leadership between the two states, and the Pakistani option.) Gah.
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Glowing Georgians and Radioactive Russians

No, this is not a Litvinenko post…or at least not primarily. Recently, the Georgian ex-KGB said it had caught a Russian smuggling highly-enriched uranium into Georgia, who was nailed in a sting operation where Georgian agents posed as representatives of an Islamist terrorist group that wanted to buy fissile material. He handed over a sample, claiming to have several kilos back at home in Vladikavkaz, and they put the handcuffs on him. Good work, fellas, you might say, and you’d be right – both the US National Nuclear Security Administration and the Russian Atomic Energy Authority analysed the stuff, and it turned out to be 90 per cent enriched.

On the downside, it turns out that this happened in November, 2005, and he’s been sentenced to eight years in a secret trial. One wonders what kind of a trial, and also why the Georgians took so long to mention it. Being a small state next to Russia with ambitions of NATO and EU membership, and an existing counter-terrorist alliance with the US, you’d think they’d trumpet it from the rooftops. They claim it was in order not to compromise continuing inquiries, which may be true or may not.

Siberian Andy asks, in the light of this, if Russia has lost control of its nuclear weapons. He thinks it’s plausible. I disagree, slightly. Russia is clearly far more stable than it was in the Yeltsin years, what with the restoration of the FSB security state, and nuclear custodianship, command, and control is obviously a priority. Perhaps more importantly, surging oil and commodity prices have made a big difference to the state budget – Putin is in a position to hold a dramatically bigger share of the market for corruption than Yeltsin ever could, and it would make sense to direct it at the academic/industrial nuclear community and the roketchiki who actually look after the things.

But there’s obviously a problem.
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Power failure

In more ways than one. On Saturday night, between 2230 and 2300 local time, a huge chunk of the European power grid fell over, affecting supply from northwest Germany, through Holland and Belgium, and mostly in France. Further afield, small areas of Austria and Italy lost power, and the Spain-Morocco interconnection was shut off to prevent the trouble spreading. Fortunately, power was restored speedily.

At the heart of the whole thing, meet the cruise liner Norwegian Pearl. This floating gin palace was recently completed by the Meyer Werft shipyard on the river Ems in northwestern Germany. Now, Meyer’s shipyard is a long way up the river. To get a ship the size of the Pearl out, you have to wait for a spring tide. But there’s a catch – just downstream of the yard, a 400 kilovolt transmission line belonging to the German utility company E.ON crosses the river. And the more water there is in the river, the less clearance there is under the wires. So, on Saturday night, when the weather and the tide were perfect for Captain Thomas Teitge to take the ship down the river, E.ON switched the wires off. And then the troubles began.

Update: She sailed today without further trouble.
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Radioactive Bloggy Goodness

If you want news about nuclear tests, nonproliferation and other arms control topics from people who actually know their throw weights from a hole in the ground, go and visit the Arms Control Wonk blog. They’re low on heh-indeed, and high on things like “Cooperative Monitoring in Outer Space to Manage Crowding and Build Confidence,” (pdf) so be prepared for plenty of facts and genuine know-how.

At the moment, they’re full of North Korea news, spiced with things like nuclear forensics, which will come in handy if a nuclear bomb ever goes off somewhere it shouldn’t, and retaliation has to answer questions like whether it originated in Iran, Pakistan, North Korea or somewhere else.

Chirac goes nuclear: addendum

This post serves as a small addendum to Edward’s post Not Amused about Chirac’s threat to use nuclear weapons if necessary. This addendum will hopefully broaden and continue the discussion his statements generated. I won’t be talking about the possibility of nuking Iran or other rogue states here, that element has been covered extensively by Edward’s post, especially in the comments section.

As to Chirac’s nuclear threat, yesterday’s Ouest France suggested Chirac made the statement to reaffirm France’s position as a serious player after having lost credibility with the EU constitution referendum. After the non-vote several commentators suggested that France had been demoted to a second-degree country. From Ouest France:

Jacques Chirac entend ainsi montrer qu’il dispose encore d’un atout européen, alors que la France est l’un des deux pays membres responsables de la panne actuelle de l’Union. Au demeurant, plus que par des nécessités stratégiques, le discours de l’île Longue est dicté par la volonté d’un président affaibli d’exercer son autorité jusqu’au terme du quinquennat. En réaffirmant le seul pouvoir que personne ne peut lui ravir : la maîtrise du feu nucléaire.

Short summary/interpretation: Politically weakened Chirac is reminding himself and the French that they still have balls. He is also repositioning France as a first rate power in Europe.

Furthermore, he also used the threat to justify the costly maintenance of France’s nuclear arsenal. By stressing the overhaul of the arsenal, focussing on smaller weapons, he did away with the WMD threat as its sole raison d’être. Smaller nukes on submarines can target terrorists instead of complete nations, hence: ”We still need nukes, but different ones. We are adapting to new circumstances.” Or, if you will: “We can turn Tora Bora into a nuclear wasteland if we want to.”

Another possibly very important thing about Chirac’s speech:

Par ailleurs, le chef de l’Etat élargit la notion d’intérêts vitaux aux « approvisionnements stratégiques » et à la défense des pays alliés. La dépendance énergétique de l’Europe, révélée par la crise gazière entre la Russie et l’Ukraine, explique, pour une part, cette évolution.

France’s vital interests are being extended to include « strategic reserves » and the defence of allied countries. Europe’s energy dependency, as exemplified by the gas crisis between Russia and Ukraine can explain, at least partly, this development. Dear commenters, fire away!

Not Amused

The Financial Times reports this morning that:

Jacques Chirac, France’s president, has threatened to use nuclear weapons against any state that supported terrorism against his country or considered using weapons of mass destruction.“.

According to the FT Chirac’s actually words were:

“The leaders of states who use terrorist means against us, as well as those who would consider using, in one way or another, weapons of mass destruction, must understand that they would lay themselves open to a firm and adapted response on our part,” he said. “This response could be a conventional one. It could also be of a different kind.”

Now these words were not just any words, and the speech was not just any speech, since as the New York Times indicates, the Élysée Palace explanation is that M. Chirac’s speech reflected changes that had been adopted as part of a routine review of nuclear doctrine, a review which is carried out every five years. So not only is this a policy statement, it was also

the first time that a French president had publicly spelled out the possibility of nuclear retaliation for state-backed terrorism. In the past, France has said nuclear weapons could be used if its “vital interests” were at risk, while deliberately refraining from identifying those interests.

“In French doctrine, nuclear weapons are meant to deter attacks against ‘vital interests,’ to create uncertainty among potential attackers about what these interests could be,” said François Heisbourg, special adviser at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “But here, things get defined. That’s a change.”

Not only could this change of policy not have come at a more sensitive time in view of what is currently taking place in Iran, it could not, in my opinion have been more barbaric, since (and surely M Chirac must know this) the victims of nuclear attacks are not states, but people, normally innocent ones, and if he doesn’t know this he should try asking the relatives of the former inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Hopefully such threats will never be acted on (which doesn’t do anything to rescue the ethical standing of those who issue them), but the more immediate potential economic consequences that upping-the-anti with Iran in this crude fashion could have are outlined both here and here.

Breaking The Seals

Leafing through the comments on Brussels Gonzo’s last post, I can’t help getting the feeling that this news about Iran’s decision to resume its nuclear programme may well serve to focus our energy debate a little.

Britain yesterday vowed to report Iran to the United Nations Security Council, intensifying diplomatic pressure over Tehran’s nuclear programme.

Responding to Iran’s decision to resume limited uranium enrichment research, Tony Blair, the UK prime minister, told parliament: “I think the first thing to do is to secure agreement for a reference to the Security Council, [if] that is indeed what the allies jointly decide, as I think seems likely.”

British, French and German foreign ministers meeting in Berlin on Thursday are expected to call for an emergency session this month of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’s nuclear watchdog, which would then discuss a referral of the dispute to the Security Council.

Towards a European strategy for the security of energy supply

Here’s the link to the EU Energy green paper I mentioned yesterday. As is to be expected, the report is ‘fair and balanced’. The section on nuclear energy focuses mainly on the sovereign decision making process as to its adoption and emphasises the role of Brussels in ensuring environmental safety. It does, however, contain this intriguing paragraph:
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Not Everything It Seems To Be?

It was the late AJP Taylor who suggested that the efficient (or proximate) cause of the first world war was to be found in the the way the national railway timetables had been drawn up. Without wishing to take issue with Taylor (either for or against), it does occur to me that a certain amount of light may be thrown on the otherwise puzzling decision of Gazprom to throw the tap by taking a quick look through looking the election timetables of all the key players (in both Eastern and Western Europe). I was put in mind of this point by the following opening gambit in what is in fact a very interesting and to the point article in today’s FT:

Russia’s row with Ukraine has triggered fresh concern over the security of Europe’s energy supplies and some see nuclear power as the biggest beneficiary.”

Nuclear power, hmmmm. I hadn’t thought enough about this point when I knee-jerked my response yesterday.
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