President Hollande’s Message on Nuclear Deterrence

President Hollande’s message on nuclear deterrence: in a dangerous world, France does not intend to lower its guard.

On February 20, 2015, French President François Hollande delivered his remarks on France’s nuclear deterrence seven years after President Sarkozy did in 2008. Since acquiring a nuclear capability in the early 1960s, every president has given a public address related to France’s nuclear deterrence policy. These speeches have all built in France’s long-standing doctrine on the rationale for and the possible use of her nuclear deterrent, the status and future of her nuclear forces and the strategic context in which these policies are conducted. In this regard, this presidential speech is close to the 2010 U.S. Department of Defense Nuclear Posture Review or the most recent December 2014 Russian Federation Military Doctrine.

While President Hollande’s recent speech has not been set in relation to a specific event, Hollande’s timely speech had even more political significance due to an increasingly uncertain strategic environment for France and Europe due the ongoing crisis with Russia over the annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of Eastern Ukraine as well as the upcoming conference review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in April. Unsurprisingly, President Hollande reaffirmed that France would not be “lowering our guard” on nuclear deterrence. Yet Hollande’s speech contained three important messages.

First, “the nuclear deterrent is not a thing of the past”. President Hollande drew a clear picture of the strategic environment and context in which France, and Europe, are facing today.  Noting that “the arms race has resumed in many world regions,” President Hollande did not mention any country in particular but when on to state that:

  • “some countries are investing in technologies that could undermine the strategic balances” (such as cyber and anti-space capabilities);
  • “countries that had, up to now, possessed nuclear weapons and talked of the urgency of disarming, have increased their capabilities by developing new nuclear components or continuing to produce fissile material for weapons”;
  • “tactical nuclear arsenals are growing, giving rise to fears of a reduction in the threshold for using nuclear weapons
  • nuclear proliferation crises in Iran and North Korea remain unresolved

Because the current strategic environment remains unstable and state-driven threats cannot be discounted, maintaining an up-to-date nuclear deterrent remains a top priority to prevent “any aggression by a state against France’s vital interests” and, in case deterrence were to fail, to use nuclear weapons “in extreme circumstances of self-defence”. Based on this assessment, France will retain both her sea-based and the airborne deterrent components at a level of “strict sufficiency” which means to maintain their capabilities and credibility over time, including their future modernization. President Hollande has required French nuclear warheads be extended “ahead of the end of their operational life”, in compliance with the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). Finally, he strongly reaffirmed that France would “not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon-States Parties to the NPT” in compliance with their “non-proliferation commitments”.
Second, the French nuclear deterrent is making an “essential contribution to Europe[an]” security. As the European security architecture has come under increasing strain, it is important to recall that Europe hosts two independent nuclear powers which contribute to NATO nuclear deterrence on one hand, and to a European defense policy on the other. Absent a French policy of extended nuclear deterrence to the rest of Europe, Hollande still notes that “French vital interests cannot be restricted to the national scale”. He advises potential adversaries not to believe that “an aggression threatening Europe’s survival would have no consequences” from a French standpoint. It is why French strategic forces, like those of the UK, have “a specific role to play in contribution to the overall deterrent” of NATO.  Altogether, President Hollande delivered a strong message of solidarity to Europeans, which is meaningful under current geopolitical tensions with Russia.

Nuclear deterrence has never been an easy subject to discuss among Europeans and it remains so today. Germany, for instance, has always been ambiguous, if not openly hostile about nuclear deterrence despite hosting U.S. tactical nuclear weapons on its territory. Non-NATO members Austria and Ireland advocate for the complete banning of nuclear weapons. However, Russian military doctrine continues to emphasize tactical and strategic nuclear forces by modernizing its nuclear forces, violating the INF Treaty and demonstrating the use of nuclear weapons in exercises and provocative maneuvers over European air space. Clearly, Europe must remain serious and determined about nuclear deterrence requiring European leaders to discuss more frequently Russia’s evolving nuclear posture within NATO with the understanding that NATO might need to adapt its nuclear posture in response to Russia’s military and nuclear postures.

Third, total elimination of nuclear weapons remains a “long-term goal, when the strategic context allows” while “nuclear disarmament cannot be wishful thinking”. President Hollande acknowledged France’s responsibility in regards to nuclear disarmament as a nuclear-armed state recognized by the NPT. It is underscored by France’s recent reduction of half her nuclear arsenal, the abandonment of ground-based missiles; the cessation of nuclear tests and the dismantlement of facilities used to produce weapons-grade nuclear material. In his landmark speech, President Hollande has announced greater transparency regarding the current size of its nuclear arsenal (300 weapons), specific information regarding its composition, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and air-launched cruise missiles, and visits to former national sites that contained weapons. Finally, President Hollande urged greater progress in multilateral disarmament initiatives by announcing that France will soon put forward a draft international treaty that seeks to cut-off the additional production of weapons-grade nuclear materials.

Frustrated by the slow pace of the step-by-step Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) disarmament effort to which all NPT state parties agreed to in the 2010 NPT Action Plan, critics may be disappointed by President Hollande’s speech and demand stronger disarmament measures. The reality is that France, as well as the United Kingdom and the United States, stands ready to take additional steps but expect that the same steps should be taken by the other nuclear-weapon states, ideally through multilateral instruments such as a treaty on the fissile material production cut-off.  Beyond that, France, while determined to keep defining the right level of its arsenal through an independent strategic assessment, would necessarily “respond accordingly” if “the level of the other arsenals, particularly those of Russia and the U.S., to fall one day to a few hundreds weapons”.  At the moment however, most non-Western nuclear states are increasing their reliance on nuclear weapons to defend their security. Therefore, it is important that Western countries continue to invest political capital on disarmament mechanisms while “leading by example” on their own disarmament if the security situation allows. But clearly, from political, security or even moral standpoints, unilateral disarmament would be at odds with today’s current strategic landscape.

President Hollande’s speech offered an interesting insight into the strategic thinking of the necessity to retain an up-to-date nuclear deterrent by one of the three Western nuclear-armed states. While U.S. policy, including the latest 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), has repeatedly committed to the modernization of U.S. air, sea and land-based nuclear capabilities, there remain concerns about the costs of an ambitious modernization program as near–term problems have been reported due to a lack of investment and support. The United Kingdom will also encounter a similar challenge as it completes its Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) in 2015 and identifies future funds to modernize its Trident nuclear forces. The future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent has been called into question as the evolution of Scotland’s independence movement may endanger its existing basing in Faslane.

As the United States and Europe – particularly its two military nuclear powers, France and the United Kingdom – face an increasingly unstable and unpredictable strategic environment, a continued commitment to nuclear deterrence needs to be maintained. Transatlantic debates about nuclear deterrence and the societal costs of its modernization should be encouraged with the understanding that other nuclear weapons-states — or states that may seek to become nuclear states — are increasingly relying upon, investing in, and modernizing on their nuclear deterrent.

Simond de Galbert is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

isproduced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2015 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.