This article is the English version of : Corentin Brustlein, « Forces nucléaires françaises : quel renouvellement ? », published in Politique étrangère, Vol. 82, Issue 3, 2017.

Under Emmanuel Macron’s presidency, a series of major milestones needs to be passed to ensure the sustainability of France’s nuclear arsenal in its current form. The cycle of renewal that was initiated during François Hollande’s term in office is set to be accelerated over the course of the coming years. In principle, the President’s intentions for the future of the French nuclear deterrent leave little room for doubt. During the election campaign, Mr. Macron stated his desire to maintain both its submarine-based and airborne components. Since his election to the Élysée Palace, the President has reaffirmed the importance of deterrence as part of French strategy.  If the drive for renewal does become firmly established as a feature of French defense posture, this will have come at a critical juncture.

Since 2011, the French and European strategic environment has become profoundly and enduringly destabilized. The succession of Arab revolts and the outbreak of civil wars around the Mediterranean and the Levant, the growing power of jihadist groups in the Sahel-Saharan strip, and of course the terrorist campaign waged in France, all present distinct yet interconnected security challenges. In response, Paris has stepped up its overseas operations, as well as domestic ones since 2015, to the extent of permanently matching if not surpassing the levels of operational commitment that the 2013 Livre blanc set for the armed forces. In parallel, the annexation of the Crimea and the destabilization of Ukraine’s east by Russia have, since 2014, served as a reminder that terrorism, even when backed by a proto-state, has not represented anything like the full spectrum of threats facing France and Europe. This has reaffirmed the necessity of maintaining an ambitious but balanced defense posture.

The continuity of France’s nuclear arsenal should therefore be settled in what is a difficult context, with the aggravation of threats adding stress to a defense posture that has been weakened by chronic underfunding for nearly two decades. If it is to stay faithful to the principle of strict sufficiency that has influenced decisions on nuclear armament from the beginning, the French deterrent must reconcile its structural and financial constraints with the imperative of adaptation.

The French Nuclear Deterrent: Symbiosis and Strict Sufficiency

France’s deterrence posture and its defense policy have developed a symbiotic relationship over time. The policy originates in the shared basis of the national strategic culture, which is profoundly marked by the experience of the two world wars, the fall of the Fourth Republic and the beginning of the Cold War, and is characterized by a mutual dependence—political, cultural, operational and industrial—between the defense posture and nuclear deterrence. On the one hand, the former gives direction to the latter and complements it through conventional means. On the other hand, possessing a nuclear deterrent allows France to cover the whole spectrum of conflicts independently, and boosts its military and industrial capacity as a whole.

At the heart of National Strategic Culture

Since becoming a nuclear power in 1960, France has maintained a consistent deterrence posture, with an arsenal that is small in scale but sufficiently sophisticated to be credible in the eyes of potential enemies, developed and controlled on a strict national basis. The French decision to arm itself with nuclear weapons and to maintain them beyond the end of the Cold War reflects a number of specifics in its national strategic culture. This has been marked by several traumatic historical experiences (including the Franco-Prussian war, the two world wars and the breakup of its colonial empire), and encompasses the twin ambition of protecting the country against a major risk of aggression and doing so independently.

Although France benefited from the support of its allies during the two world wars, the half-hearted, belated nature of this help left the political leaders of the day with bitter memories. The risk of annihilation posed by nuclear weapons from 1945 onward renewed and exacerbated this skepticism about the value of alliances in ensuring the safety of France. The security guarantees that allies, in particular the United States, offer against the threat of aggression have seen their credibility greatly diminished by the enormity of the risks incurred in the nuclear age. From the mid-1950s, the French nuclear program, launched at the end of the Second World War, reinforced what had hitherto been a merely latent military dimension.  France thus developed a diversified nuclear arsenal, and although the number of warheads surpassed the level of 500 by the end of the Cold War, these quantitative and qualitative developments occurred within the framework of so-called “strict sufficiency,” whereby France’s posture may be distinguished from those of the two “major” powers, the United States and the Soviet Union.

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a qualitative and quantitative competition involving both the weapons themselves and the means of delivering them—including multiple types of ballistic and cruise missiles, strategic bombers, nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and several variants of tactical systems. By contrast, a nuclear force structure based on the principle of strict sufficiency is sized not on the basis of opposing arsenals but instead according to an essential criterion: an assessment of what would constitute intolerable damage to a potential enemy. On the basis of this core assessment, compounded by financial, geographical and technological factors, a credible operational deterrent force is developed and built—capable of conducting retaliatory missions that inflict the desired degree of destruction, whatever the circumstances (including following a surprise attack) and the capabilities of the targeted country (missile defense, hardened or protected targets, etc.). For a medium-sized power such as France, it is not a matter of systematically attempting to rival the USSR; the aim instead is to develop an arsenal whose size and whose technical and operational capacity would be sufficient to deter even one of the superpowers from directly striking against its vital interests.

This definition of needs has resulted in the development of a Cold War posture that relied on a strategic triad of bombers, SSBNs and land-based ballistic missiles, complemented by land-based and airborne tactical (or “pre-strategic”) components, which, in the event of an invasion of Europe or imminent threat to French vital interests, would be used to carry out a final warning through a tactical nuclear strike—the last signal to be sent to an adversary before strategic nuclear retaliation.

Nuclear weapons became central to French defense policy in the 1960s, as they appeared to be a credible means of protection in the face of major threats. They compensated for an excessive power imbalance in the conventional sphere, and they did much to reinforce the country’s independence. Hence, France embraced the “nuclear revolution,”  which granted political independence, diplomatic standing, and the ability to protect territory that its conventional forces had been unable to keep safe in previous wars.

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