French Nuclear Deterrence Doctrine: An Aggiornamento

By Debouzy, Olivier | European Affairs, Spring-Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

French Nuclear Deterrence Doctrine: An Aggiornamento


Debouzy, Olivier, European Affairs


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 Valery 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 Francois 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. Spelled out in a 1972 Defense White Paper, this departure from the old French orthodoxy removed a bone of contention with (the then West) Germany. It also ended a controversial situation in which, as summarized by Francois 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 Defense 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. … 

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