France’s Nuclear Dilemmas

David S Yost. Foreign Affairs. Volume 75, Issue 1. January/February 1996.

France conducted an underground nuclear test in French Polynesia last September, breaking a three-year-old moratorium on nuclear weapons testing that had been observed by the other recognized nuclear powers with the exception of China. The test, one of a series France plans to complete before it signs a comprehensive test ban treaty (CTBT) later this year, sparked protests worldwide. Unfortunately, the controversy over the tests has overshadowed France’s more fundamental and long-term nuclear dilemmas. The challenges facing France are threefold: maintaining the deterrent under a test ban, giving form to the government’s vague proposals for “Europeanization,” and forging agreement on the extent to which nuclear weapons could be used to deal with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

President Jacques Chirac remains determined to complete this final test series, contending that it is needed to obtain additional data for the development of simulation capabilities, intended to enable France to do without future tests. By validating design adjustments to give the weapons greater “robustness,” it can help ensure that no safety, security, or reliability problems arise as weapons age under a no-test regime. The tests also aim to qualify the new TN-75 warhead for submarine launched missiles, expected to be in service for at least two decades.

The French government acknowledges that it, together with the other recognized nuclear powers, agreed in May 1995 at the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) extension conference in New York to “exercise utmost restraint” pending a CTBT. From France’s perspective, however, a final series of between six and eight tests demonstrates such restraint. French officials dismiss as ludicrous the argument that these tests will jeopardize the prospects for concluding a CTBT because their purpose is to enable France to observe the ban and because Paris has worked to promote the successful and timely completion of the negotiations. They consider ill-founded and uninformed the contention that these tests will incite nuclear proliferation, for the series is unlikely to have any notable impact on the choices of countries that may aspire to nuclear status, such as North Korea, Pakistan, India, Iran, or Iraq. Countering claims that the tests might cause environmental damage and pollution, the French government has adopted a policy of transparency—unmatched by any other nuclear power—on the history of its nuclear testing, the purposes of the tests, and the state of the test site. The Gaullists and other center-right politicians, supported by some Socialists, have responded to the protests abroad by alleging that critics are either naive and misguided or opposed to France’s economic and security interests, including its presence in the Pacific.

International protests were apparently partly responsible for the French government’s August announcement that it would endorse a “zero yield” test ban, making it the first government to articulate support for a truly comprehensive CTBT, in contrast to proposals that would have allowed small-scale tests. Chirac apparently decided to adopt the zero-yield position despite reported arguments from the French military-technical establishment for permitting nuclear explosions equivalent to between loo and 300 tons of TNT. A limit of this magnitude might have implied continued use of the Pacific test facility or the construction of another site, perhaps in France itself. The adoption of the zero-yield principle and the decision to convert the Pacific test facility to other purposes after the completion of the test series furnished the backdrop to the announcement, in October 1995, that the United States, Britain, and France will sign the 1985 South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, also known as the Rarotonga Treaty, this year.

Even though French officials profess to foresee no fundamental problems in maintaining the credibility of the deterrent forces under a no-test regime, a CTBT may lead France into a situation of significant uncertainty, increased costs, and potential dependence on the United States. The chief uncertainties are associated with maintaining the safety, security, reliability, and technical credibility of France’s nuclear forces under a CTBT. Since its first nuclear test in 1960, France has tested relatively frequently. According to some analyses, France has conducted more extensive testing per warhead type than the other four acknowledged nuclear powers. Not surprisingly, then, the French appear to have greater reservations about a no-test regime than do the British and the Americans.

The final test series notwithstanding, under a CTBT the cost of precautionary measures is likely to increase, together with doubts about the safety and reliability of France’s nuclear stocks. To compensate for these doubts, Paris may adopt a more cautious approach in manufacturing weapons of tested designs. They would not necessarily have higher yields, but they might be physically heavier and larger, with more safety features and other “margins of security” and could, therefore, result in greater costs. For instance, the submarine-launched missiles of the next generation might have to be larger to provide for greater throw weight, or carrying capacity, as well as increased range.

French authorities maintain that the no-test regime will rule out the acquisition of low-yield or special-effects weapons, such as the enhanced radiation or “neutron” warheads that France reportedly tested in the late 1970s, despite the options of using only the fission primary (or first stage) of a thermonuclear weapon or relying on a previously tested design. In fact, French practices and safety and reliability standards suggest that no new warhead types will be developed under a no-test regime.

If France sought closer cooperation with the United States for test simulations, the implied reliance on America might be distasteful to the French, who ardently protect their self-image of independence. Although cooperation might prove productive in areas such as high-energy lasers and advanced computers, it could be of only limited value in others. Moreover, U.S. simulations data might not be readily useful because of differences in weapon designs and manufacturing processes. Even if such cooperation could be beneficial, a substantial part of the French elite appears to fear that it could ultimately draw France, much like Britain, into a condition of technical dependence on the United States.

In contrast to the United States and other Western countries, the French political and military-technical elites seem to have little faith that a CTBT will help curtail nuclear proliferation. French strategic analysts underscore the limitations of a CTBT, noting the ease with which radiological dispersal devices or first-generation explosive weapons, the most feasible and perhaps the most likely forms of proliferation, could be built without tests; the minimal role of testing, compared to regional ambitions or perceived security requirements, as a provocation spurring nonnuclear states to seek the weapons; the possibility that the ban will not be universal; and the risk of cheating with low-yield tests that might be undetectable.

French officials nonetheless support a CTBT for two reasons. First, they hope that the treaty, despite its limitations, will reduce the proliferation of nuclear weapons, especially by upholding a strong NPT regime. Second, they adjudge the accord politically unavoidable in light of the international context created by the end of the Cold War, the NPT extension conference, the CTBT negotiations, and the widespread antipathy to testing, notably in the United States, Japan, the South Pacific countries, and the nonnuclear countries of the European Union (Eu).

A Nuclear European Union?

Since De Gaulle, France has regarded its nuclear weapons as central to its autonomy in relation to its allies, including its partners in the EU. In recent debates, however, the French have expressed a new openness to a dialogue with their European allies about nuclear deterrence.

This past August and September, amid protests over its tests in the Pacific, France became embroiled in a related controversy over what seemed to many to be new proposals, advanced by Chirac and Prime Minister Alain Juppe, for the “Europeanization” of France’s deterrent. In justifying the tests, Chirac referred to the French deterrent possibly “playing a role” in the defense of the EU. Juppe called for carrying forward the work of the Franco-British Joint Commission on Nuclear Policy and Doctrine, permanently established in July 1993, and emphasized that he wanted to include Germany, “our closest ally,” in a dialogue with the nonnuclear EU members. He said that the EU must aim to forge “a common vision of our values, our interests, and our role in the world,” but he acknowledged that it would require “a difficult debate.”

How difficult it would be quickly became apparent. Because of the testing uproar, Juppe’s statement that by ensuring its deterrent capabilities, France is performing a service for peace and Europe” was widely construed throughout Europe as an effort by the French government to dampen the complaints over the tests, shift attention from them, and even make others share responsibility for them. The suggestion that France was testing for the EU’s security as much as its own was rejected in several quarters with disdain and disbelief. Skepticism about the credibility and utility of the French proposal marked German media commentary from Der Spiegel to the Suddeutsche Zeitung. The Swedish foreign minister, Lena Hjelm-Wallen, said that her country favored a world without nuclear weapons and had no interest in nuclear deterrence or an EU common defense. Several members of the European Parliament, particularly from the Socialist and Social Democratic Parties (except for the French Socialists), expressed doubt that with the Cold War over, the EU still needs nuclear deterrence arrangements. Some European critics of the tests declared that France’s unilateral decision was inconsistent with the mutual-consultation obligations that should apply within the EU’S effort to devise a common foreign and security policy.

French officials were perplexed by the virulent reactions, for both Chirac and Juppe had simply repeated proposals they had made at the beginning of 1995—Juppe in speeches in January and February and Chirac in his major foreign policy address as a presidential candidate in March. Chirac had made similar statements in 1987, and de Gaulle had at times voiced such ideas in the 1960s. Perhaps for domestic political reasons, however, neither mentioned President Francois Mitterrand’s January 1992 call for discussion of a “European doctrine” for the French and British nuclear forces or the several statements on the subject by Socialist government officials that year.

While frustrated at the reproaches about testing from long-established EU countries such as Denmark and Italy as well as newer EU members with neutralist traditions such as Sweden, French officials expressed gratitude for the restraint of the British and German governments, particularly that shown by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Germans who have supported the French initiatives have nonetheless been careful to add that the French deterrent must complement U.S. nuclear commitments. The most practical solution to the problem of retaining U.S. nuclear guarantees while making explicit France’s commitment to its European allies would be for France to join NATO’S Nuclear Planning Group, the body responsible for the formulation of nuclear policy.

French politicians and commentators have, however, argued since the late 1960s that participation in the NPG would entail strategic subordination to the United States. While reinforcing France’s sense of independence, this myth has hindered the country’s flexibility. Mitterrand’s experience in 1992 is relevant to the current situation. His proposal went nowhere when Britain and NATO’S nonnuclear members made clear their lack of interest in any arrangement that might deprive Western Europe of U.S. nuclear protection and place the NPG in jeopardy. Although its forces operate independently of the United States, Britain has long been committed through the NPG to the security of its nonnuclear allies. High-level French officials have recently hinted that Paris might consider a formula whereby France would participate in an Atlantic alliance framework for nuclear consultations, perhaps involving links with the NPG. Juppe has pointed out that France’s longstanding doctrine was devised to deal with the “strategic equation” of France versus the Soviet Union and did not take into account France’s alliances; he has acknowledged that France “must learn how to introduce the collective dimension as a constituent factor in our doctrine.”

French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette has suggested that France’s national deterrent could gain such a dimension through an arrangement in which several powers would jointly deliberate but Paris would make the final decision on employment. De Charette noted that this is how the NPG works: the American president and the British prime minister make the final decisions about the use of their nations’ nuclear forces. He concluded that although the solution in the French case will “not necessarily” be the same, the difficulty has been encountered before in the Atlantic alliance and is “not insurmountable.” Some French experts and journalists have suggested steps short of French membership in the NPG: for instance, opening the French-British dialogue to Germany and then extending a tripartite arrangement to other European countries or establishing a Western European Union group to discuss nuclear weapons matters. The significant and unprecedented development is France’s new flexibility regarding a consultative process that could lead to greater transatlantic consensus on principles of nuclear deterrence and employment, with the door apparently left open to previously unthinkable links to the NPG and perhaps to other adjustments in France’s relationship with NATO.

When to Use the Bomb

The final French nuclear dilemma concerns the most fundamental of nuclear doctrine questions: under what conditions should France threaten to use nuclear weapons? During the Gulf War, Mitterrand ruled out nuclear retaliation against Iraq for the use of chemical or biological weapons. His policy was sharply criticized at the time by centrist and right-wing political leaders—including Chirac—as likely to undermine nuclear deterrence. Since he took office in May, Chirac has blurred Mitterrand’s distinctions about the circumstances in which nuclear deterrence might apply. In August 1995, for example, he stressed the importance of nuclear weapons in deterring attack by all nonconventional arms, saying, “Only the [nuclear] deterrent force guarantees France against the possible use of weapons of mass destruction, of whatever type they may be.”

The French government seems to prefer vague nuclear threats to help deter the use of nonconventional weapons because it fears that more precise language might provoke proliferation. This concern applies to both declaratory doctrine and the weapons procured. In September 1995 Juppe stated, “Our nuclear doctrine must be concerned with being compatible with the objective of nonproliferation. That is why it seems right to me to underline once again that France has ruled out the development of miniaturized weapons for employment, which would furnish a pretext for clandestine nuclear programs.”

In principle, declarations of voluntary restraint might pose problems for this policy of vague nuclear threats, for Paris has promised not to use nuclear weapons against states that are party to the NPT and do not possess nuclear weapons. In April 1995, however, Juppe, then foreign minister, declared that if France decides its vital interests have been threatened, such assurances will not hold. It is nonetheless difficult to know how to apply nuclear threats. Indeed, vague threats of nuclear retaliation may fail. If, despite France’s warnings, an adversary appeared intent on using its weapons of mass destruction, France might choose to make explicit nuclear threats. If its bluff was called, France would have to take action of some kind, possibly involving nuclear arms.

French policymakers and analysts divide into two main schools of thought on effective deterrence: the “more operational” and “less operational” approaches. Broadly speaking, the more operational approach emphasizes deterrence through robust and flexible military capabilities, including nuclear forces capable of being used, if necessary, with control and discrimination. Supporters of the less operational approach have more confidence in traditional French nuclear deterrence policies, which call for responding with massive strikes, and maintain a principled opposition to limited nuclear options. Those in the more operational school have argued for low-yield and special-effects nuclear weapons, as well as tacit threats to use them, while the less operational school has opposed developing such weapons.

For some of the proponents of a more operational approach, the rationale resides in France’s relatively limited conventional military forces, at least compared with those of the United States. Except in a rather restricted set of cases, a strategy less reliant on the nuclear option would imply greater dependence on coalition action, particularly with the United States. Many in France would prefer that it have the option of acting unilaterally because of the risk of American unreliability and because of the political disadvantages of being perceived as, in the words of some French observers, “merely a lieutenant to Uncle Sam.” Some advocates of a more operational approach have fallen silent of late, apparently dismayed to discover how easily their motives could be misrepresented as favoring the operational use of nuclear weapons, as opposed to the deterrent use of nuclear threats. Some now contend that long-range nonnuclear precision-strike weapons might be a wiser alternative than lowyield nuclear weapons. Chirac and other high-level officials have reaffirmed the traditional French doctrine that nuclear weapons must remain instruments of deterrence rather than combat arms. Chirac has even cited the impossibility of developing new low-yield weapons under a test ban as one of the advantages of such an agreement. In his view, low-yield weapons would be “dangerous because one may be tempted to use them more easily” than more powerful weapons.

For both schools a number of key questions remain unresolved. Can deterrent threats be effective without mutual understanding between the adversaries? For deterrence to work, is it essential for France to understand the strategic doctrines and decision-making structures of countries such as Algeria, Libya, Iran, and Iraq? Does France’s lack of meaningful dialogue with the strategic elites of such countries place Paris in a difficult situation?

Most published analyses in France agree on the imperative of avoiding the use of nuclear weapons if deterrent threats should fail. Thus conventional capabilities would be preferred, even in the view of many people in the more operational camp in terms of declared doctrine. The dilemma can be summed up as follows: unless the nation’s vital interests are endangered, France cannot explicitly threaten nuclear attack to deal with proliferation challenges, yet it cannot afford the conventional capabilities that would allow it to face such challenges on its own and forgo nuclear threats. France may find that it must work much more closely with the United States and NATO as a practical matter, even though such collaboration may prove damaging to the self-image of autonomy the French political class has cultivated. France has already taken a significant step in this direction. In implementing the decision of the January 1994 NATO summit “to intensify and expand” the alliance’s efforts against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, NATO established the Senior Defense Group on Proliferation, and in 1994-95 France served as cochair of this body with the United States.

Bedrock Rationales

Some U.S. and European defense analysts have argued that France’s nuclear forces have imposed disproportionate opportunity costs. The expense of maintaining the nuclear deterrent may hinder France in its pursuit of the conventional military technologies of the future, such as nonnuclear precision-strike systems, intelligence and communications capabilities, and long-range power projection. Given other national budget priorities such as cutting the deficit, the nuclear weapons policy review under way in the French government’s recently established Strategic Committee may result in further cutbacks to the nuclear forces.

The nuclear deterrent will nonetheless retain bedrock justification as a prudent backstop for France’s security. Chirac drew attention to one such rationale in September when he raised the possibility of political setbacks in Russia that could place a hostile, extremist government in power, with thousands of nuclear warheads at its disposal. Although many Socialists have been critical of the recent tests, they do not challenge the principle that France should maintain a credible independent nuclear deterrent. Indeed, some prominent Socialists, such as former Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson and former Defense Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement, have defended the tests.

Since the late l950s, when France first began openly pursuing nuclear weapons, certain ideas and convictions regarding the nuclear deterrent have become closely interwoven in France, and recent opinion polls show them holding strong, despite the public’s misgivings about the final test series. Nuclear weapons have become associated with national independence and security against another world war and, more broadly, with de Gaulle’s successful efforts to restore France’s honor and international status. Nuclear weapons are deemed an insurance policy in an uncertain and unstable world and a guarantee of France’s political and strategic autonomy. Despite intermittent and apparently growing concerns about nuclear reactor safety and nuclear waste disposal problems, and aside from dissent in some ofthe minor political parties, the consensus behind nuclear deterrence in France seems remarkably robust, particularly in a comparative perspective.

The consensus may nonetheless be superficial and fragile, partly because it is based on ambiguity as to France’s alliance obligations and intentions. It should be recalled that the consensus about defense among France’s main political parties since the late 1970s, when the Socialists dropped their opposition to nuclear deterrence, is a historical anomaly and based on constant reaffirmation of the assumption that nuclear deterrence shelters France from vulnerability in a major war. What could truly undermine the French defense consensus, therefore, would be evidence of the irrelevance of nuclear deterrence capabilities in dealing with substantial conflicts. Overriding political obstacles could prevent France from explicitly threatening—or carrying out—any operational use of nuclear weapons in conflicts in or beyond Europe. French participation in a conventional military conflict with large numbers of casualties could rapidly break the defense consensus, especially if France’s nuclear forces had no role in forestalling or limiting the hostilities.

Greater recognition of the limits of nuclear deterrence in certain contingencies may therefore offer Paris incentives to increase its investment in complementary means of ensuring national security. In the long term, increasing uncertainty about weapons reliability and performance under a no-test regime could raise further fundamental questions about the extent to which it is prudent to rely on nuclear deterrence.