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I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them. -

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
France Upgrades, Trims Nuclear Arsenal
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Wade Boese

Showcasing France’s newest nuclear-armed submarine March 21, French President Nicolas Sarkozy extolled the enduring value of nuclear weapons to his country’s security while he also vowed to reduce their numbers. The French president further called on other states to dismantle their nuclear weapons testing facilities and forswear certain missiles.

Sarkozy, elected last May, delivered his first major speech on France’s nuclear weapons and nuclear policy at the Cherbourg shipyard where the country’s newest ballistic missile submarine, Le Terrible, was on display. That vessel is the fourth of the Le Triomphant-class and is scheduled to be commissioned in 2010 and armed with France’s newest ballistic missile, the M51.1. The submarine will carry 16 of the missiles, which have an estimated range of at least 6,000 kilometers and are capable of carrying six nuclear warheads.

Sarkozy noted that the addition of Le Terrible and the M51.1 ballistic missile, which will be retrofitted on the other three Le Triomphant­-class submarines, is only part of France’s effort to modernize its nuclear forces. He also said that the Rafale combat aircraft this year will start carrying the upgraded, nuclear-armed ASMP-A cruise missile. The Rafale is replacing the Mirage 2000N and Super Étendard as France’s nuclear delivery aircraft. France previously eliminated all of its ground-launched nuclear-weapon systems.

Nonetheless, Sarkozy announced that France would reduce its force of air-delivered nuclear warheads by one-third. He said the move would lower the overall French stockpile to less than 300 warheads, a total that Sarkozy said was “half of the maximum number of warheads we had during the Cold War.” Although nuclear-armed states jealously guard details about their arsenals, public estimates suggest France would still field the third-largest nuclear arsenal behind Russia and the United States, which both possess several thousand nuclear warheads.

Although declining in numbers, Sarkozy emphasized that French nuclear weapons were not diminishing in importance. He described the weapons as the “ultimate guarantee” of France’s independence and “decision-making autonomy.”

After singling out Iran as a growing threat, Sarkozy warned that “all those who would threaten our vital interests would expose themselves to severe retaliation.” He also claimed a European role for France’s nuclear weapons, declaring, “By their very existence, French nuclear forces are a key element in Europe’s security. Any aggressor who might consider challenging it must be mindful of this.” Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, in a similar 2006 address had invited other European states to discuss a “common [European] defense that would take into account…existing deterrent forces.” (See ACT, March 2006 .) There was little response.

Sarkozy indicated a decision to use nuclear weapons would not be taken lightly. He argued French nuclear weapons were “strictly defensive” and that their use “would clearly be conceivable only in extreme circumstances of legitimate defense.”

Turning to other nuclear-armed powers, Sarkozy urged them to follow France’s lead by dismantling their nuclear weapons testing facilities. He also specifically called on China and the United States to ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the two countries have signed. France in April 1998 ratified that accord, which outlaws nuclear explosions, and three months later completed dismantlement of its nuclear testing center.

Sarkozy also asked China, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States to join France in “transparency measures.” He did not specify what those measures were, but he invited foreign experts to verify the dismantlement of France’s two military fissile material production plants, Pierrelatte and Marcoule. In 1996, France announced it had ceased producing fissile material, plutonium and highly enriched uranium, for weapons purposes. In his Cherbourg speech, Sarkozy reiterated French support for starting long-stalled talks on a global fissile material production ban for arms.

In addition, Sarkozy endorsed negotiations to ban short- and intermediate-range surface-to-surface missiles. Such a prohibition would not affect the M51.1, which is a long-range missile, or the air-launched ASMP-A cruise missile. Sarkozy’s call follows a February Russian proposal to institute a global ban on ground-launched short- to intermediate-range missiles, which the United States and Russia have already forsworn through the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. (See ACT, March 2008 .)

Sarkozy’s nuclear agenda resembles that enunciated over the past year by the United Kingdom. The British government decided early last year to explore developing a new generation of nuclear-armed submarines while it touted a decision to cut its operational nuclear forces to fewer than 160 warheads. (See ACT, January/February 2007 .) Des Browne, the British defense minister, also recently invited American, Chinese, French, and Russian nuclear weapons scientists to participate in a future conference on verifying nuclear disarmament. (See ACT, March 2008 .)