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The French Nuclear Deterrent (498 KB , PDF)
France first tested a nuclear weapon in 1960, eight years after the UK and four years before China. In doing so it became the fourth nuclear weapon state after the US, Russia (formerly the Soviet Union) and the UK. It is one of the five recognised nuclear states under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty 1968 (NPT).
France has a policy of “strict sufficiency”, whereby France maintains its nuclear arsenal at the lowest possible level compatible with the strategic context; while the use of nuclear weapons is strictly limited to extreme circumstances of self-defence.
France is one of the five recognised nuclear weapon states under the NPT and as such has an obligation to pursue effective disarmament under article VI of that treaty.
France signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996 and ratified it in 1998. Although the treaty is yet to enter force, France has maintained its moratorium on testing. In February 1996 France also announced that it had halted the production of fissile material for weapons purposes and that it would dismantle the production facilities dedicated to its weapons programme. The French Government advocates an immediate moratorium on the production of fissile materials by all states, and immediate negotiation of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT).
France does not participate in NATO’s nuclear planning mechanisms and its nuclear forces are not formally assigned to NATO.
By the end of the Cold War France had approximately 540 nuclear warheads in its stockpile. Since 1991, however, France has scaled back its nuclear arsenal by almost 50 per cent, with a reduction in both its overall holdings and also the withdrawal of several weapons systems. Significantly, in 1996 France announced its intention to withdraw its remaining strategic land-based ballistic missile capability at Plateau d’Albion, making it the only nuclear weapon state to have dismantled, in its entirety, a ground-launched nuclear capability.
France has reduced its alert levels twice since the end of the Cold War and in 1997 announced that it had de-targeted all of its nuclear forces.
In 2008 then President Sarkozy announced a further one-third reduction in its airborne component with the withdrawal of one nuclear squadron. He also stated that France’s nuclear stockpile would be reduced to fewer than 300 warheads, a position that still stands today.
While France supports the long term goal of disarmament, it believes that disarmament must be tied to improvements in international security first. As such President Macron has ruled out unilateral disarmament by French forces.
Force structure and modernisation
France now has fewer than 300 nuclear warheads, all of which are deployed and operational. France’s nuclear deterrent comprises a submarine-launched and air-launched component, providing it with both strategic and tactical nuclear capabilities.
Over the last few years, France has been modernising its nuclear arsenal, through the deployment of a new Triomphant class of ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), the replacement of it combat aircraft in a nuclear role, the upgrade of both its submarine and air-launched nuclear-armed missile capabilities and the deployment of new nuclear warheads.
The bulk of the French deterrent is maritime based, with the Navy having responsibility for around 80 per cent of the nuclear arsenal. The majority of that capability is delivered through its fleet of four Triomphant class SSBN, each of which is capable of deploying up to 16 M-51/ M-51.2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Like the UK, France’s SSBN maintain a continuous at-sea deterrent (CASD) posture.
The French Navy also operates a single squadron of Rafale MF3 aircraft equipped with nuclear-armed ASMP-A cruise missiles. Those aircraft are capable of being deployed aboard its aircraft carrier the Charles de Gaulle.
The French Air Force has two squadrons assigned to the nuclear role, comprising 40 Rafale F3 aircraft, equipped with 54 nuclear-armed medium-range ASMP-A cruise missiles.
Modernisation of the French nuclear deterrent is ongoing. Preliminary design work has begun on a next generation SSBN to replace the Triomphant class. Design work has also commenced on a new M-51.3 SLBM. Research on a next generation missile to replace the ASMP-A air-launched cruise missile from 2035, has also begun.
Procurement and support
A two-way technical cooperation channel exists with the United States on nuclear safety and security and since 1992, with the establishment of the Anglo-French Joint Nuclear Commission, there has been collaboration with the UK in the coordination of nuclear policy and doctrine. In 2010 Anglo-French co-operation went one step further following the signing of a nuclear treaty outlining co-operative measures governing the stewardship of existing nuclear stockpiles. The treaty was labelled as “historic” and “unprecedented” in the level of military co-operation that it envisaged. At the UK-France summit in 2014 both countries agreed to expand their technical cooperation under the treaty.
In all other respects, however, France has sought to independently build and maintain all the necessary components of its nuclear arsenal. The aircraft and submarine platforms for the French nuclear deterrent are all designed and built by French companies. France also has its own facilities for maintenance and support.
French insistence of independence in all aspects of design and acquisition has meant significantly higher costs for its deterrent programme. However, that trade-off has received significant domestic support in France, which historically has associated the possession of nuclear weapons with national independence. All of the main political parties’ support retention of the nuclear deterrent, and domestic public support is also high.
Historically France’s nuclear weapons programme has taken up approximately 10-11 per cent of the total French defence budget annually. In 2020 it is estimated to be 12.5 per cent, approximately €6 billion (£5.3 billion).
In comparison the UK’s nuclear deterrent costs 6 per cent of the annual defence budget (£2.3 billion, based on current defence expenditure).
In 2018 funding was approved for France’s ongoing nuclear modernisation programme up to 2025. €37 billion was assigned to maintain and modernise France’s nuclear forces and infrastructure, a significant increase from the €23 billion assigned for 2014-2019.
Documents to download
The French Nuclear Deterrent (498 KB , PDF)
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