European Affairs

French Nuclear Deterrence Doctrine: An Aggiornamento     Print Email
Olivier Debouzy

Nuclear deterrence is the core of France’s defense strategy and, along with its permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council, a principal element of France’s stature and influence on the international scene. But for the last 25 years, French strategic nuclear doctrine has been largely in hibernation. That official silence has been broken twice now by President Jacques Chirac, the first time in a barely-noticed speech in 2001 and then again this year in a January 19 speech at L’Ile-Longue, a strategic-missile submarine base near Brest, to confirm the doctrinal aggiornamento.*


Mr. Chirac used his January speech to solemnly spell out the modernization and new tenets of the French position. It was long overdue. In the presidency of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, France moved to acquire a second-strike capability based on invulnerable strategic-missile submarines, but the ensuring two decades after the 1981 election of François Mitterrand proved to be a doctrinal and budgetary ice-age. An upgrade of French submarines and missiles was completed in 1995, but the last years of the Mitterrand presidency and the rapidly alternating parliamentary majorities that followed were ill-suited for in-depth reflection about a subject in which Mr. Mitterrand and other Socialists took scant interest.

In contrast, Mr. Chirac, who has a longstanding interest in defense matters, has shown himself capable of searching reflection and real innovation on nuclear issues. As prime minister in 1986, he was instrumental in adapting the employment doctrine of French tactical nuclear weapons. This called for these intermediate- range arms to deliver the “ultimate warning” (in the form of a limited nuclear strike) to an aggressor, presumably from the East. Mr. Chirac specified that this “warning” would no longer be delivered on the territory of France’s neighboring ally (Germany) but “in the depth of the theatre” – meaning on Warsaw Pact territory, most likely the western Soviet Union. This departure from the old French orthodoxy spelled out in a 1972 White Paper removed a bone of contention with (the then West) Germany. It also ended a controversial situation in which, as summarized by François de Rose, the former French ambassador to NATO, France appeared to be “threatening to nuclearize France’s allies to sanctuarize France’s territory.”

No further progress was made once Mr. Mitterrand was re-elected in 1988. The end of the cold war saw France frozen in a deterrent position that had become obsolete. In 1994, a new Defense White Paper said that "the Cold War is over, but the nuclear era goes on." The policy review explained that "the scenarios in which [nuclear deterrence] may possibly be exercised are diversifying [to include] dealings with existing or new major powers, [and] dealings with regional powers that would threaten our vital interests."1 But nothing significant was done to implement these changed orientations as defense budgets shrank. It was not until Mr. Chirac was elected president that France could undertake its nuclear aggiornamento, as unveiled in a June 8, 2001, speech to the Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale (IHEDN), France’s defense academy. The President stated:

Nuclear deterrence is the most important of the means that allow France to affirm the principle of strategic autonomy upon which our defense policy is based... Our deterrence guarantees, first, that France’s survival can never be put at stake by a major military power with hostile intentions and ready to use any means to realize them… Our deterrence must also allow us to confront the threat that regional powers equipped with weapons of mass destruction might bring to bear on our vital interests. I mentioned a moment ago the development by certain States of ballistic capabilities that could make them able, one day, to threaten the European territory with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. Should they have hostile intentions toward us, the leaders of these States must know that they would expose themselves to a retribution that would be absolutely unacceptable for them. In such a case, the choice would not be between the complete annihilation of a country or inaction. The damage that an aggressor would incur would affect in priority its political, economic and military power centers. Naturally, by essence, nuclear weapons are different, and the world knows that… In any event, it is incumbent on the President of the Republic to assess, in any given situation, the attack that would be brought against our vital interests. This assessment would naturally take into account the growing solidarity between the countries of the European Union.2

This 2001 speech foreshadowed the one this year in spelling out several innovations in French nuclear doctrine. For the first time, the concept of “national independence” was officially replaced with that of “strategic autonomy.” This subtle semantic difference revealed a considerable change in French conceptions: the French President, who has ultimate responsibility for the application of deterrence, acknowledged that independence per se was worthless if it did not provide for such strategic autonomy of action – without, however, necessarily implying that France would act autonomously in carrying out its deterrent threat.

The second innovation (already implicit in the 1994 White Paper) was a clear assertion that deterrence was also aimed at confronting regional powers possessing weapons of mass destruction. In other words, the earlier cold war French conception of deterrence “by the weak against the strong” (dissuasion du faible au fort) faded.Without disappearing, it was now accompanied by the emergence of deterrence “by the strong against the mad” (dissuasion du fort au fou, to quote François de Rose again).

Nuclear deterrence "by the strong against the mad" is emerging doctrinally

A third innovation was that, for the first time, a French head of state declared that French vital interests (i) include Europe and (ii) are not limited to a geographic definition. This was a considerable change, marking much greater flexibility in the terms and conditions of France’s conception about how it might use its nuclear force. Operationalb flexibility, as announced by Chirac in 1986, was henceforth coupled with political flexibility.

A fourth innovation was strategic. Since their inception, French nuclear forces had been designed to pose a credible threat of a massive blow at an aggressor nation, including population centers. Now they were explicitly assigned a mission of threatening so-called “countereconomic” and “counter-force” targets. Since these include well-defended military nodes and even political and military decision-making elites, counter-force targets require much higher degrees of accuracy. In practice, Chirac’s speech in 2001 showed a convergence of French nuclear doctrine with those of its main allies in adapting to the realities of the post-cold war world.

President Chirac’s new speech this year took the process of reflection further. In citing the emergence of threats and risks related to proliferating weapons of mass destruction and the growing threat of terrorism, the president used some language that was new in the French strategic discourse. He said that “the role assigned to nuclear deterrence…directly stems from our prevention strategy and constitutes its ultimate expression.” The concept of “preventive strategy,” albeit quite different from the “pre-emptive strategy” displayed by the United States, nonetheless refocuses French deterrence policy on a continuum of escalation that could eventually involve nuclear weapons – a threat which heretofore had received little emphasis in the French doctrine, which maintained that nuclear war would be so devastating that governments would never cross the threshold. Should this adjusted approach be construed as a sign of increasing convergence between the U.S. and French conceptions of the need for an open-ended Western military response to be posited as a response to new, more diversified threats? Nothing suggests it should not, especially since Mr. Chirac went on to say:

The integrity of our territory, the protection of our population, the free exercise of our sovereignty will always be the core of our vital interests. But they are not limited to these. The perception of these interests is changing with the pace of our world, marked by the growing interdependence of European countries and by globalization. For example, safeguarding our strategic supplies and the defense of allied countries are, among others, interests that must be protected. Assessing the scale and potential consequences of an unbearable act of aggression, threat or blackmail perpetrated against these interests would be the responsibility of the President of the Republic. This analysis could, if necessary, lead to consider that these situations fall within the scope of our vital interests.

The reference to “strategic supplies” marks the first time a French president has publicly spelled out France’s “vital economic interests.” In the context of current tensions in the Middle East, particularly the rise of Iran and possible developments concerning its nuclear program and its oil power, Mr. Chirac’s reference to possible actions in which France might participate implies that such actions could be carried out under the umbrella of France’s nuclear capabilities (and presumably those of the United Kingdom and the United States) as part of the deterrence “of the mad by the strong.” In any such scenario of “nuclear compellence,” the operational implications are so momentous that they have probably entailed (or will soon) in-depth consultations with France’s nuclear allies.

Mr. Chirac pointed out, however, that this expanded scope of nuclear deterrence does not cover terrorism because nuclear weapons are not a credible or effective response to this threat. “As I emphasized immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001, nuclear deterrence is not intended to deter fanatical terrorists,” he said. But he added:

Leaders of states who would 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. This response could be a conventional one. It could also be of a different kind.

The reference to "strategic supplies" spells out France's "vital economic interests"

In this discussion of new contingencies, the 2006 speech repeatedly hints at the question of consultation on nuclear issues that could occur between France and its main allies. Even after France’s 1966 withdrawal from NATO’s military structure, informal consultation mechanisms remained between France, the United States and the United Kingdom, with informal disclosure about their tenor to the main allied governments. Still-classified accords between French chiefs of staff and their counterparts at NATO presumably contained nuclearrelated provisions (although nothing on any French decision to use nuclear weapons, which remains the exclusive prerogative of the French president). So in this context, which might be called “NATO-in-a-wide-sense,” it was possible to combine the two dimensions of the Western nuclear doctrine: deterrence of antagonists and reassurance of allies (as canonized by Michael Howard in 1982)3.

Closer coordination is needed between Western nuclear powers in thinking about how to deal with crises outside Europe

What is the situation today? On the strategic horizon looms the possibility of crises outside Europe whose consequences might directly affect the security of Western nations, especially of Europe, and whose dimensions might be global in scale despite their local or regional origins. Until now, Europeans (except the British and more rarely the French) have been inclined to ignore such crises. There were exceptions such as the Middle East, former Yugoslavia and post-9/11 Afghanistan. But the general European attitude can be described as strategic kibitzing4– a stand-aside posture apparently stemming from a combination of factors including post-colonial guilt and the need to finance the European- model welfare state, especially at a time of aging populations in Europe.

In this respect, Mr. Chirac’s recent speech, echoing that of 2001, called on Europeans to step beyond the comfortable logic of “soft power” and make a return to the international stage. In contemplating any step in this direction, France has to deal with the unresolved contradiction of wanting to work via the European Union while having to recognize that any strategically meaningful action would have to be carefully coordinated with U.S. policy and probably carried out via NATO as the only foreseeably effective multilateral defense organization. In practice, it is hard to imagine a crisis justifying major commitments of French and British military resources (especially their nuclear assets) that would not directly involve the United States. In that sense, the Chirac speech may be interpreted as implicit recognition of the need for closer coordination between Western nuclear powers in thinking about how to deal with crises outside Europe which threaten the vital security interests of France and of other European nations.

Beyond its doctrinal content, however, the speech did not confront the realworld fact that current French nuclear weapons technology and weapons programs are ill-adapted to the challenges delineated by Mr. Chirac. Prospects for their modernization are constrained by tightening budgetary limitations.

What is the status of France’s nuclear deterrent? France currently has 348 nuclear warheads, 288 of which are aboard strategic ballistic-missile submarines and 60 are air-delivered warheads carried by Mirage-2000N fighterbombers (to be replaced by the Rafale before 2010). Based on public descriptions, these weapons could probably fulfill only part of the missions described in Mr. Chirac’s speeches: for the counter-force missions that he seemed to say France should envisage, the warheads in France’s current nuclear arsenal are too big in their yield, too inaccurate and lacking penetration capabilities.

While the most powerful nuclear charges can be downgraded to some degree, this will not provide an appropriate (and therefore credible) arsenal for the new missions assigned to French nuclear weapons in the Chirac speeches. As outlined by the president, these increasingly involve “safeguarding our strategic supplies or the defense of allied countries” by the threat of strikes targeting a regional opponent’s “political, economic and military power centers.” For such missions, France needs new “more usable” weapons with high accuracy, low yield and penetration capabilities.

Getting such weapons poses budgetary and scientific problems. Currently, the nuclear deterrent takes ten percent of the French defense budget and approximately 25 percent of the defense-investment budget. France has been efficient in using these funds, which represent a relatively modest percentage of the defense budget. But investments are overdue for French conventional forces. In recent operations, France has had to rent aircraft from Ukraine due to its lack of long-range transport aircraft. Even though the navy has shrunk in size, the average age of French surface warships rises every year.

French ground forces have aging communications, and their outdated logistical infrastructure impairs their readiness and imposes a poor “tail-to-tooth” ratio. France has an army of 185,000 but can deploy only 15,000 at any given time beyond its territory. In contrast, Britain, with an army of 150,000, can deploy approximately 45,000 abroad. These competing priorities will tend to keep budgets for French nuclear deterrence forces at their current minimum level. But without modernization, they cannot fulfill the missions implied in the presidential speeches.

There is a technical and scientific challenge, too. France currently has no nuclear weapons test site: in 1996, it closed its facilities in the atolls of Mururoa, Fangataufa and Hao in French Polynesia in the South Pacific. Russia and the United States also closed their test sites (effectively closing those of the United Kingdom, which had been using U.S. facilities). Unlike France, the United States and Russia did not dismantle their sites; so the United States reportedly could restore its test sites to operational status in less than a year if need be. But the former French sites are not in any condition to resume testing, and it would be politically difficult to reopen them in the light of attitudes in French Polynesia.

Modernization will involve budgetary, technical and scientific challenges

The last tests conducted in Mururoa provided progress on the current and next generation of warheads (known as TNO and TNA), but a successor generation – with adjustable yields and high penetration capacities – would require new engineering and a process of testing and simulation. (The United States reportedly tested warheads in the 1980s designed to reach exceptionally deep hard targets, but France apparently has little experience in this area.) Nuclear warheads with reduced yields have never been a priority in the French research programs because French nuclear doctrine put a taboo on “usable” nuclear weapons – precisely the type that would be needed to provide deterrent credibility for the new doctrine outlined by Mr. Chirac. France has simulation facilities for warhead-design under construction in Le Barp, near Bordeaux, but this installation will not be operational before 2014 and needs to start with validated data from actual nuclear tests, now discontinued.

These budgetary and scientific considerations bear crucially on the deployment dates for a credible new French nuclear policy. Unless it has recourse to asking for U.S. assistance – an unpalatable option for France with its Gaullist heritage – French deterrence policy is set to be “out of sync” with the reduced and perhaps unsuitable resources available for the new missions. This situation could increase the French preference for diplomacy as an alternative to force or even the credible threat of force. Such a situation presents dangers because it can encourage troublemakers to test the determination of France and the West (as Iran has done for the past two years).

What is to be done? Debate must focus on defense-budget priorities and nuclear deterrence obviously will have to be one of them if Chirac’s doctrinal aggiornamento is to materialize in concrete form. Questions must be addressed about which nuclear components need urgent modernization. If it is new warheads, France will need to explore possibilities of reopening a South Pacific test site, accelerating simulation programs or increasing cooperation with the United States on testing and simulation. It also seems time to think again about rejoining NATO’s integrated military structure so that France can take part in formulating an allied approach to “outof- area” threats where nowadays there is an emerging new nuclear dimension.

Nuclear challenges are likely to become as important in these new areas as they were in Europe in the cold war – and potentially even more difficult to manage. In practice, a NATO approach might involve special consultative mechanisms such as the High-Level Group set up in the alliance to handle the challenge of intermediate- range nuclear missiles when the Soviet Union started deployment of SS-20s in Europe in the 1980s. But any such debate about French relations with its allies can only start in France after the presidential election in 2007.

There is no time to lose in starting to ponder these challenges. Chirac’s strategic sense of new nuclear realities implies a re-orientation of French deterrence and military policy. If it materializes, it would signal that concrete solidarity is back at the heart of France’s defense and security policy.

Olivier Debouzy is a partner in the law firm of August & Debouzy. He has been diplomatic advisor (for military affairs) in the French Atomic Energy Commission and a member of the nuclear-experts working-group in the Ministry of Defense.

* "Aggiornamento" was used during the Second Vatican Council by bishops and clergy attending the sessions, and by the media covering it, to mean a spirit of change, openness, open-mindedness and modernity.
1 Livre Blanc sur la Défense, 1994.
2 Présidence de la République, service de presse, Discours de M. Jacques Chirac, Président de la République, devant l’Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale, June 8, 2001.
3 Michael Howard, "Reassurance and deterrence:Western defence in the 1980s", Foreign Affairs,Winter 1982-1983.
4 This Yiddish term refers to the attitude of spectators of chess matches or card games who offer the players, out loud, all sorts of comments on how they could play, or how they could have played to win the game or the point, etc., without ever actively participating in the game or match themselves.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 7, Issue number 1-2 in the Spring/Summer of 2006.