French President Jacques Chirac Jan. 19 outlined changes to his country’s strategic policy, providing unprecedented detail about the circumstances under which France might be prepared to use nuclear weapons. The speech at the nuclear headquarters of the Strategic Air and Maritime Forces in Brittany represented the first major speech by Chirac on the subject since 2001.
Chirac emphasized that France’s nuclear arsenal continues to defend the country’s vital interests. But he broadened the definition of those interests beyond traditional concerns such as the protection of territory and population as well as the “free exercise of sovereignty.” According to Chirac, France’s vital interests now include “strategic supplies and the defense of allied countries.” Even threats or blackmail against these interests could require a nuclear response from Paris, he said.
Chirac also expanded the list of countries to be deterred by the French nuclear arsenal to include states that support terrorists. “The 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,” Chirac warned. “This response could be a conventional one. It could also be of a different kind.” Following a traditional line of French strategic thinking, Chirac maintained that terrorists themselves cannot be deterred by nuclear weapons.
Chirac’s speech was mainly directed at new regional powers, such as Iran, that possess weapons of mass destruction or ballistic missiles or are threatening to do so. Chirac insisted that France “under no circumstances” would use a nuclear weapon for purely military, as opposed to broader “strategic,” purposes. However, the president also cautioned that France could inflict “damage of any kind on a major power that would want to attack interests we would regard as vital.”
To make nuclear threats against regional powers more credible, Chirac said, French strategic nuclear weapons have been recon figured to be more flexible and reactive, enabling Paris to respond directly against such states. French Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie explained to the Munich Conference on Security Policy Feb. 4 that this means that French nuclear strategy is now designed to have the added ability to hold at risk those who are directly threatening French interests, such as a country’s leadership.
France does not disclose details about its nuclear arsenal, but outside experts such as Bruno Tertrais of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research have estimated that it possesses 348 nuclear warheads, based on four strategic submarines and 84 nuclear bombers. Some 288 of the warheads are said to have been deployed on M45 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). M45 missiles are believed to carry up to six warheads with a yield of 100 kilotons each. The remaining 60 warheads, with a yield of 300 kilotons, are be lieved deployed on ASMP air-to-surface cruise missiles aboard navy and air force bombers.
France is modernizing all components of its nuclear force. A new M51.1 SLBM is expected to enter service by 2010 and will have an extended range of 6,000 kilometers compared to the 4,000-kilometer range of the M45 it will replace. A new supersonic ASMP- Amélioré missile with an extended range of 400-500 kilometers is expected to enter service by 2007. By 2008, Rafale bombers will carry French ASMPs, replacing the nuclear-armed Mirage 2000N and Super Étendard. New nuclear warheads are under development for the navy as well as the air force and are expected to become operational in 2015 and 2007, respectively. These efforts, Chirac argued, give France “the means to cover threats wherever they arise and whatever their nature.”
The Feb. 9 edition of the French daily Libération claimed to pro vide further classified details, saying that French policy now aims to make firing a nuclear “last warning” more credible. According to the report, France has modified some of its nuclear weapons so that they can be detonated at high altitudes. This would create an electromagnetic pulse and damage an enemy’s electronic systems. France could also detonate a single nuclear weapon at an uninhabited area, for example a desert, in order to demonstrate its resolve to use nuclear weapons more widely. According to the article, the number of warheads on some French SLBMs has been reduced, and these weapons can now be retargeted while submarines are at sea.
Context and Audience
The timing of Chirac’s speech suggests a connection to the escalat ing crisis on Iran’s nuclear program. A French diplomat told Arms Control Today Feb. 9 that preparation of the statement took place in the context of the crisis around Iran’s nuclear program. However, the official pointed out that “the speech was not directed at one particular country; rather, it was aimed at new regional powers” more generally.
Addressing domestic critics of nuclear weapons spending, Chirac said it would be “irresponsible” not to devote about 10 percent of French defense spending (roughly $3.75 billion) to such weapons each year.
Invoking the term “concerted deterrence,” which he had first used in 1995, Chirac also tried to place French nuclear forces in the context of European defense. He renewed an invitation to EU partners to debate “together, the question of a common [European] defense that would take into account of existing deterrent forces, with a view to a strong Europe responsible for its security.”
This overture fell on deaf ears, however, at least in Germany, France ’s closest ally in the European Union. While a government spokesperson in Berlin played down the speech as not indicating a change of French policy, others criticized its timing, content, and style. Andreas Schockenhoff, defense and foreign policy expert for the co-governing Christian Democratic Party, told Reuters Jan. 20 that “[w]e have to convince these countries [like Iran] that their situation isn’t going to get any better if they possess nuclear weapons. I don’t think Chirac’s approach is really the best way to lead this debate and to increase pressure on Iran.”
Gert Weisskirchen, foreign policy spokesperson for the Social Democrats, the other half of the governing coalition, told Spiegel Online the same day that he saw Chirac’s speech “as a unilateral declaration on the part of the French president, and it’s something he ought to have discussed with his European partners first.”Chirac’s statement contained no news on French arms control policies. France, which is the only nuclear-weapon state to have dismantled its facilities for the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons, continues to support negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty, he said. But Paris otherwise conditions progress in nuclear disarmament on global security and on other nuclear-weapon states’ policies, Chirac asserted.