Si vis pacem, para bellum. France's nuclear arsenal could benefit European security

 15. 03. 2024      Category: Defense & Security

The security context has been turned upside down by the war in Ukraine and the recurrent hints from the head of the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin, about the possible use of nuclear weapons. The idea that France's nuclear arsenal could benefit European security goes back to 1972. It resurrests with Putin’s Medvedev regularly threatening Ukraine and NATO with a nuclear attack and with Putin saying Russia was "technically ready for nuclear war".

It is estimated that the French Army currently has a stockpile of 290 operational nuclear warheads, making it the third largest in the world, in terms of warheads rather than megatons. These weapons are part of the "Force de frappe nationale" (National strike force), developed in the late 1950s and 1960s to enable France to distance itself from NATO while still having a means of nuclear deterrence under sovereign control. France's deterrent system, which has an annual budget of just over three billion euros, is designed to protect the country's vital interests against any serious threat from a state, whatever the means employed.

Picture: A French Air Force Rafale B during Operation Serval in Mali, 2013 | Capt. Jason Smith
Picture: A French Air Force Rafale B during Operation Serval in Mali, 2013 | Capt. Jason Smith

France now has two components: one naval and one air. The four new-generation SNLE (nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines) – or at least one of which is on permanent patrol – are equipped with M51 ballistic missiles. These entered service in 2010 and have an intercontinental range, and are fitted with the oceanic thermonuclear warhead (TNO).

These nuclear submarines are complemented by fighter-bombers. The nuclear air force comprises two squadrons of Rafales, as well as the air group of the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. They carry ASMP (air-to-ground medium-range) missiles equipped with the TN83 weapon, which have been gradually replaced since 2010 by ASMPA (improved) missiles equipped with the airborne nuclear warhead (TNA). The TNA and TNO are robust weapons from the last nuclear test campaign (1995–1996): they are no more "modern", but they do not need to be tested.

France's nuclear deterrent has an exclusively defensive purpose. It aims to prevent any ambition by a State leader to attack France's vital interests, by ensuring that nuclear forces are capable of inflicting absolutely unacceptable damage on its centres of power. France also refuses to allow nuclear weapons to be considered as battlefield weapons, they are meant to remain an instrument of deterrence designed to prevent war. Although the French nuclear deterrent is characterised by its sovereign and independent nature, it has a unique place within NATO, since it contributes to the Alliance's deterrent and has a genuinely European dimension, the French doctrine says. "The existence of France's nuclear deterrent therefore makes a strong and essential contribution to European security."

German political scientist Christian Hacke, a specialist in international relations and former professor at the Bundeswehr University, wrote in the weekly Welt am Sonntag in 2018 that Berlin should develop its own nuclear arsenal, given the new transatlantic uncertainties and potential confrontations. He feared a possible American withdrawal from NATO and thus the end of the nuclear sharing in which the Bundeswehr participates. The idea was quickly criticised and swept aside in Germany, as both unrealistic and impractical. It was unrealistic because Germany had ratified the Non-Proliferation Treaty and had undertaken not to go down this road as part of the "Two plus Four" agreement signed in 1990 to enable reunification. This is unfeasible, given the investment involved and the opposition of a large part of German public opinion.

Professor Hacke's proposal opened up a debate. Some, such as Wolfgang Ischinger, then chairman of the Munich Security Conference, suggested that Germany might participate in "France's nuclear arsenal, as part of an extended European deterrence strategy, under the banner of a European Defence Union". Moreover, the Bundestag had just carried out a study to assess the legal implications. But that was as far as the debate went.

That said, the idea that France's nuclear arsenal could benefit European security goes back a long way. It was suggested in the White Paper on Defence published in 1972: "If deterrence is reserved for the protection of our vital interests, the limits of those interests are necessarily blurred. France is part of a web of interests that extends beyond its borders. It is not isolated. Western Europe as a whole cannot therefore fail to benefit indirectly from the strategy", it stated at the time.

Alain Juppé, then Prime Minister, evoked the notion of concerted deterrence in order to guarantee Germany's security in 1995. This was taken up by President Jacques Chirac in 2006: "My conviction remains that, when the time comes, we will have to ask ourselves the question of a common defence, which would take account of existing deterrent forces, with a view to a strong Europe, responsible for its own security", he declared. But it was not until February 2020 that President Macron confirmed the European dimension of France's vital interests: "Our decision-making independence is fully compatible with unwavering solidarity with our European partners. Our commitment to their security and defence is the natural expression of our ever-closer solidarity", he explained.

However, there was no question of pooling the strike force, and Emmanuel Macron had proposed to France's European partners a strategic dialogue on the role of the French deterrent in collective security, or even to be involved in exercises by French strategic forces. This proposal was greeted with scepticism in Europe, particularly in Germany.

"We need to know exactly what we're talking about. For the moment, the only certainty is that the French have no intention of placing their nuclear arsenal under a European command", argued Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the German Defence Minister at the time. Johann Wadepul, a close associate of Chancellor Merkel and at the time Vice-Chairman of the Christian Democrats in the Bundestag, was clearer: "Macron has always invited us to think European. But we can't just Europeanise what is dear to the Germans such as setting up a eurozone budget. We must also Europeanise what is dear to the French, and that is the French strike force", he said.

Since then, the security context has been turned upside down by the war in Ukraine and the recurrent hints from the head of the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin, about the possible use of nuclear weapons. And on several occasions, France has made it clear that the French proposal for a strategic dialogue is still on the table: "For us, some of our vital interests have a European dimension, which gives us a particular responsibility, precisely in view of what we have and our deterrent capability. We have to say things clearly", Macron reiterated during his recent official visit to Sweden.

In addition to the Russian threat, the prospect of Donald Trump's return to the White House has clearly shaken things up. Particularly in Poland, which has made it known in the past that it would like to take part in NATO's nuclear pool and therefore welcome American B-61 bombs on its soil. During a visit to Berlin on 12 February, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said: "It would be very good to take seriously all ideas and projects on nuclear deterrence that would strengthen our security," in order to respond to Russia's threats in this area. He added, according to the Polish press, that he was taking seriously President Macron's proposal that France would be ready to make its nuclear capabilities and potential available to Europe so that they can form part of a pan-European security plan.

In any case, Macron's proposal has finally found an echo in Germany. Katarina Barley, leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in next June's European elections and currently Vice-President of the European Parliament, said that the EU's need for nuclear capabilities could become an issue in the perspective of a European defence. She added: "At present, the policy of nuclear deterrence in Europe is in the hands of NATO, which means that the EU depends on the protection of the American nuclear arsenal. Protection that we can no longer count on in the light of Donald Trump's latest statements."

Manfred Weber of the Christian Democratic Party (CDU/CSU), chairman of the EPP group in the European Parliament, takes the same line: "Europe's greatest promise is to live together in peace.  We must renew this promise in these historic times. More specifically, Europe must become so strong militarily that no one wants to compete with us. That means we need deterrence. Deterrence includes nuclear weapons", he told the daily Bild.

Such statements provoked mixed reactions. The Green chairman of the Bundestag's European Affairs Committee made no secret of his scepticism about a possible European nuclear arsenal: "What should its command structure look like and who would decide on its implementation?" For his counterpart on the Defence Committee, Marie-Agnès Strack-Zimmermann (Liberal Democrat), this debate is "inappropriate". On the other hand, Christian Lindner, a member of the same political grouping and Minister for the Budget, came out in favour of greater cooperation with France and with the United Kingdom on nuclear deterrence.

 Author: Peter Bass