France Isn't Aiming for Nuclear Zero

France Isn't Aiming for Nuclear Zero

Despite broad cuts elsewhere, a new French defense white paper affirms the role of a modernized deterrent force.

The French government finally unveiled its long-awaited livre blanc on defense and national security last week. As expected, the white paper contains grim news for the French military, capping spending at current levels and calling for substantial personnel reductions over the next five years. But one aspect of the French defense posture emerged virtually unscathed. Despite earlier reports about possible cuts in order to save money, the white paper reaffirms long-standing policies on the fundamental purpose and composition of French nuclear forces. While many officials and observers in the West discount the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategy now that the Cold War is over, the French government clearly takes a different view.

It’s been nearly a year since Francois Hollande assumed the French presidency with promises of change in both substance and style from that of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. Two months after assuming office, Hollande personally commissioned the writing of a new defense white paper to account for changes in the strategic and economic landscape that had occurred since the previous report was published in 2008. He also wanted no doubt to put his own stamp on defense spending, which commands nearly ten percent of the national budget.

The new white paper was originally due to hit the streets earlier this year. The context for the entire exercise, however, kept shifting. Across the Atlantic, U.S. officials continued to tout the so-called “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region in response to a rising China and a recalcitrant North Korea. Following Pyongyang’s third nuclear test in February, Washington took steps to ratchet up U.S. military presence in the region even further. The new American strategic priority left the European NATO allies, including France, to ponder anew the task of providing for their collective self-defense. That of course has not precluded many NATO countries from continuing to reduce defense expenditures in the face of mounting budget pressures.

As the United States was turning its focus toward the east, France was at the same time demonstrating its continued willingness to use military force in support of its foreign policy objectives. A year earlier, it had fired the opening shots of the military intervention in Libya that ultimately toppled Muammar Gaddafi. In January 2013, France launched Operation Serval in its former African colony of Mali to counter the threat posed by Islamic rebels to the central government in Bamako. With nearly 4,000 soldiers still on the ground, the French could be involved in this endeavor for some time to come, even as more responsibility is transferred to a United Nations peacekeeping force this summer.

Observers have noted that these recent and unexpected developments moderated the temptation to dramatically cut French defense spending in order to meet the government’s goal of reducing the deficit to 3 percent of gross domestic product. The projected reductions are nevertheless substantial. According to press reports, the military is set to lose as many as twenty-four thousand more employees between 2016 and 2019, on top of cuts initially set in motion by the previous president. The new white paper also confirms that France will not acquire a second aircraft carrier to complement the existing Charles de Gaulle. On the other hand, greater emphasis will be accorded to intelligence and cyber-security.

Despite the desire to find savings in the defense budget, French nuclear forces were left untouched. In a sense, this result was pre-determined. In his initial instructions to the white-paper commission, Hollande confirmed that he intended for France to maintain a strategic nuclear deterrent. The only question was how best to coordinate with other aspects of French defense and national-security policy.

The new white paper closely adheres to traditional French thinking on nuclear matters—views shared in the past by conservative and socialist governments alike. It asserts that nuclear forces are “the ultimate guarantee of our sovereignty.” Along with protection and intervention, dissuasion is identified as one of the three priorities of French defense strategy. Its purpose is to protect against all aggression by other states against French vital interests, wherever it comes from and in whatever the form. The white paper adds almost parenthetically that French nuclear forces also contribute to the security of the Atlantic alliance and Europe.

The white paper says very little about the actual composition of the French nuclear deterrent force other than to note that it comprises both naval and air components. It reveals that the France’s nuclear arsenal has less than three hundred warheads, which is substantially below the five hundred it reportedly held in the 1990s. The overall size of the nuclear force is purportedly based on the rather ambiguous criterion of “strict sufficiency,” which the French have said cannot be measured against the yardstick of what other nations might possess.

Even though France has reduced the overall numbers of its nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War, it has nevertheless undertaken major programs to update those that remain. It has replaced its fleet of five ballistic-missile submarines with four Le Triomphant-class boats, with the last of the new series being commissioned in late 2010. The new submarines are in turn being outfitted with new missiles, a process that should be completed by 2018. Like its predecessor, the 2013 white paper affirms that France will retain the practice of continuous at-sea deterrence patrols with its submarines, though it does not specify how many will normally be under way at any given time.

The French air force has also upgraded its nuclear-capable aircraft. For several years, this force consisted of Mirage 2000N fighters. In 2010, a squadron of new Rafale fighters was also certified to perform nuclear-attack missions. (The French Navy also operates nuclear-capable Rafale fighters that can be deployed aboard its sole aircraft carrier.) The French have also developed a more capable air-to-surface missile—the advanced version of the Air-Sol Moyenne Portée (ASMP-A)—to deliver nuclear weapons by aircraft.

Finally, the French have reportedly developed new nuclear warheads for both new sea-launched and air-launched missiles. Starting in 2015, the new sea-launched missiles will be outfitted with a new nuclear warhead, the Tête Nucléaire Océanique, a process expected to be completed on all four boats by 2018. The new warhead for the air-to-surface missile, called the Tête Nucléaire Aeroportée, began production in 2007. Both warheads are said to be based on design concepts tested in France’s last nuclear tests in 1996.

The white paper says nothing about changing or reducing French nuclear forces. In fact, if the primary objective is to save money, there actually may be little to be gained at the moment by doing so. The most recent French nuclear-modernization cycle is now over the hump in fielding new ballistic-missile submarines and nuclear-capable fighters, as well as the weapons they carry. Having already made this enormous investment, the only savings that can now be achieved are those associated with operations, maintenance and personnel. Given the prominent and continued role that nuclear forces play in the overall French strategy, the government is apparently not willing to go after them.

Arms control and disarmament likewise carry little weight as an argument within the French government for reducing nuclear forces right now. The white paper claims that France is actively working in favor of “general and complete disarmament.” It points out that it has engaged in unilateral reductions since the 1990s. It also expresses support for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (which France has already ratified, while the United States has not), as well as starting negotiations to ban the production of fissile materials for use in nuclear weapons. None of these initiatives would impact France’s currently deployed nuclear forces.

The white paper is, however, totally silent on whether France might become involved in multilateral arms-control efforts to reduce existing nuclear arsenals. The United States and Russia have engaged in negotiations to limit and reduce their respective nuclear forces for over forty years. The successful conclusion of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 2010 marked the latest step in this process and, in the words of senior U.S. officials, set the stage for even further cuts. The other nuclear weapon states have so far not played a direct role in these negotiations. Though they disagree on timing, both U.S. and Russian officials have said that if their nation’s respective numbers continue to come down, the capabilities of the other nuclear-weapons states will need to be addressed in some form or fashion in the future.

Based on what is said—or left unsaid—in the latest white paper, the French are not yet ready to oblige. Instead, the government fully intends to maintain nuclear forces at levels needed to protect French national-security interests as it defines them. For the moment, that means maintaining the nuclear status quo. It also means that the France is unlikely to join the other nuclear powers in negotiations to reduce nuclear forces anytime soon.

Lt Gen Frank G. Klotz, USAF (Ret.) is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC, and the former commander of Air Force Global Strike Command.