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Author : Tertrais Bruno

1 article - Page 1/1


N° 688 July 2006

French Senate debate on nuclear deterrence (extracts) - Serge Vinçon, Henri Bentégeat, Michael Quinlan, Bruno Tertrais, Daniel Verwaerde

The Senate committee on foreign affairs, defence and the Armed Forces met at a round table session on 14 June 2006 to discuss French nuclear deterrence. Serge Vinçon presided the discussion, which covered three aspects of the subject: first, an analysis of the current and medium-term future strategic contexts and their consequences for the role of deterrence, and thus whether or not current doctrine is matched to current and future threats; second, the assets dedicated to deterrence, how well they reflect doctrine and how they fit in with other defence priorities; and finally an examination of Britain’s position within NATO along with future possibilities arising from closer European defence cooperation.

  The strategic context

Introducing the first debate on developments in the strategic context and the role which nuclear deterrence can play in it, M. Serge Vinçon dwelt on the identifiable threats over the next twenty to thirty years, and on the changes brought about by the appearance of new threats, notably those which derive from non-state entities. Would the role of nuclear weapons diminish or would they remain relevant? He wondered about the reconciliation of deterrence with efforts to counter nuclear proliferation, and whether the responses given by the President on 19 January marked a change in direction, or rather a confirmation of French doctrine.

            General Henri Bentegeat [Chief of Defence Staff] first noted that many questions had arisen after the President’s speech on 19 January 2006. The public debate had begun even before it had started among the officials responsible for implementation of the policy. He emphasised that efforts to predict the future could be perilous in strategic terms. The result of the Iran-Iraq war or the future of the Warsaw Pact, for instance, had given rise to predictions in the period 1983-85 which turned out to be fallacious. Having said that, the exercise was worthwhile.

            At first glance, few major changes seem likely over the next twenty to thirty years in either the strategic or the technological situation. The United States will probably remain the dominant power, which will limit the risk of a major conflict. However, a retreat into an isolationist posture by that country could cause this risk to re-emerge. International terrorism will constitute the main backdrop to the threat, while the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction will become no longer a risk but a real threat. Local conflicts, fuelled notably by tensions over raw materials linked to the growth of China and India, will probably increase.

             Three types of threat can be identified. Blackmail or aggression on the part of a nuclear power cannot be totally excluded and, in such an event, deterrence remains the only sure guarantee. More likely, the threat posed by blackmail or aggression by a regional power equipped with ballistic missiles with biological or chemical warheads could be countered by credible nuclear deterrence or an effective anti-missile defence, the latter still in the realms of hypothesis. Finally, the terrorist threat requires multiple responses but these do not include nuclear deterrence, except in the case of the demonstrable complicity of a state.

            Considerable numbers of nuclear weapons are currently in service and in the course of modernisation in the United States, Russia, China and the United Kingdom. Some states, such as Iran and North Korea, are seeking to equip themselves with nuclear weapons, and others, such as Pakistan and India, have already reached this goal. Those who consider that this weapon is no longer relevant outside the context of the Cold War should ponder on the attraction it clearly has for these countries. The nuclear weapon confers status on those who possess it, undeniably for the [permanent] members of the Security Council, and it protects territory from attack. Some believe, probably correctly, that if Iraq had possessed nuclear weapons, it would not have been invaded. The nuclear weapon is still linked to security and power issues, and to reduce it or to let it become out of date would be to take a very great risk.

        M. Bruno Tertrais introduced his remarks by saying that abrupt strategic changes were difficult to predict by their very nature but that it was reasonable to suppose that they would occur. Deterrence remained a fixed point for any sovereign defence policy.

        Faced with the threats foreseeable out to twenty or thirty years, one cannot be sufficiently confident about developments in Russia not to consider the possibility that it could become a potential adversary in that timeframe. Fifteen years after the defeat of the Nazi dictatorship, Germany was able to become a democratic ally of France, but fifteen years after the fall of the Soviet regime one could not say the same thing about Russia. It is a friendly power today but it is also a nuclear power situated close to the frontiers of Europe.

            In some scenarios, Europe could also find itself in strategic opposition to China. Using a little imagination, a more open future with major threats different to those of the Cold War must be taken into account, involving countries such as Iran, and even extreme scenarios where currently friendly powers, such as India or Japan, might become subject to an exaggerated  nationalism.

            As far as regional threats are concerned, nuclear proliferation should remain limited, unless the collapse of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is considered as a possibility. On the other hand, ballistic missile proliferation continues, not so much by the number of countries equipped with this type of weapon as by the increase in range of their missiles.

            The nature of the threats should be linked to strategies of regional zone control, resources and trade routes, as well as nationalist expansionism, with scenarios of blackmail or direct attack.

            French deterrence preserves our country’s freedom of action, both in respect of a potential adversary and a protective ally, in that the ultimate defence of France, in the last resort, can depend on no one else. Regarding adversaries, the scenario differs from the Cold War, deterrence now constituting a kind of counter-deterrence in respect of states wanting to prevent France from intervening under a mandate or by virtue of a defence agreement.

            Two unfair criticisms of French nuclear doctrine are made—that of ‘fossilisation’ or, on the contrary, of its shift towards a doctrine of use. The fundamentals of French doctrine have not changed but the conditions of its application have.

            As far as terrorism is concerned, resort to nuclear deterrence is an extreme scenario which perhaps does not deserve as much comment as has been evoked by the President’s speech, without being totally out of the question. To take the case of Iran, which uses certain terrorist groups to defend its interests, the availability of a nuclear weapon could encourage it to take even greater risks. State terrorism is therefore an extreme hypothesis but one which is not entirely without foundation.

            Concerning the compatibility of maintaining a nuclear deterrent with France’s engagements in the field of nuclear disarmament, French nuclear policy is compatible both with its engagements under Article 6 of the NPT and with the negative security guarantees accorded to Non-Nuclear Weapon States party to the NPT. This commitment not to use nuclear weapons against countries that do not have them was, in fact, hedged with reservations.

            The notion that proliferation is encouraged by the nuclear powers which are said to fail to set an example by dismantling their arsenals is not admissible. The most auspicious period for nuclear disarmament, from 1987 to 1996, coincided with the pursuit, indeed the acceleration, of the North Korean, Indian, Iraqi, Israeli, Libyan and Pakistani nuclear programmes.




M. Xavier Pintat asked if France’s analysis of the strategic context was shared by the other nuclear powers, and if these drew the same conclusions for the development of their nuclear weapons. He also questioned the reality of China’s modernisation of its nuclear arsenal and the consequences concerning the strategic balance. Finally, he sought more detail on the role of nuclear weapons in relation to regional powers which might be a source of threats.

M. Josselin de Rohan asked M. Bruno Tertrais if, in his opinion, the international community would ultimately succeed in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

M. Jean-François Poncet raised a question on miniaturised nuclear weapons concerning their ability to destroy heavily defended and deeply buried caches, and on the collateral damage that the use of such weapons could cause. He wanted to know if France already had these weapons or intended to acquire them. He then wondered about so-called ‘dirty’ bombs and the possibility of terrorist groups constructing them. Finally, raising the matter of anti-missile defences, he wanted to know if these would one day be effective, particularly in the case of strikes involving a reduced number of warheads.

M. Michel Guerry raised the point that China and Russia, both nuclear powers, had a common frontier in Siberia, a region characterised by its small population and great potential in energy resources, of which China had great need. Was there not a possible source of conflict there?

Mme Dominique Voynet brought up the possibility of regional conflicts generated by tensions over natural resources such as water or oil and the possible use of nuclear weapons in such a context. These tensions could lead a producer country which possessed nuclear weapons to raise the prospect of a shortage, so that consumer countries would be in competition for the use of its resources. Would it not be difficult to imagine a recourse to nuclear weapons in such a conflict?

M. Jean-Pierre Masseret, returning to the ‘nomenclature’ of risks developed by General Bentegeat, questioned whether the problem of managing raw materials could engender a risk of conflict. He then wondered about the possibility of distinguishing readily between blackmail and aggression, and at what point blackmail could justify resort to the ultimate response represented by nuclear weapons. Turing to the risk of the collapse of the NPT raised by M. Bruno Tertrais, he asked about the procedures for intervention which the international community could use against a country such as Iran which, once it had a nuclear weapon, could adopt a strategy of helping other states to acquire them.


In reply, General Bentegeat offered the following comments:

The other nuclear states have carried out substantially the same analysis as France of the threats which certain regional powers could present, although the responses and the strategies to respond to them could differ. In this respect, many countries, especially those without nuclear weapons, judge that a system of anti-ballistic missile defence is a better countermeasure than nuclear weapons themselves.

            However, not only is the technology of anti-missile defence not yet fully developed, its efficacy against cruise missiles will never be total. For France, the installation of an anti-missile defence system to ensure defence of its territory would be extremely expensive and would be equivalent to the cost of the nuclear deterrent itself. Moreover, the fielding of an American anti-missile shield to protect European countries would deprive them of their sovereignty and autonomy of decision which, for France, constitutes an essential principle. Finally, the interception of a chemical or biological missile over European territory would not be without risk of fallout for the population. 

            China is modernising its nuclear weapons but, given their state of obsolescence, this process does not really constitute a destabilisation of the existing balance. The worrying factor is rather the development of anti-missile defences, notably by the United States, which encourages the Chinese leadership to improve the performance of their intercontinental missiles.

            A deterrent doctrine based only on the ability to wipe out the entire territory of a regional power, in the case of a threat or non-nuclear attack, was not durably credible, especially for France. Hence, the concept as well as the means of French deterrence have developed in order to threaten credibly any aggressor with the destruction of his centres of power, without incinerating the whole country.

            In fact, only miniaturised nuclear weapons enable deeply buried or well-protected targets to be reached. That being so, the majority of targets in a conflict can these days be destroyed by very powerful conventional bombs.

            A ‘dirty’ bomb is composed of an explosive which disperses radioactive fissile material; this type of bomb can be constructed without much difficulty and some terrorist groups have attempted to acquire one.

            It is difficult to imagine an automatic link between, on the one hand, a conflict over energy resources or raw materials and, on the other hand, direct recourse to nuclear weapons. However, these tensions can lead to a conventional conflict which, in some sensitive regions, could degenerate. Such escalation could then lead to the threat of a ballistic missile attack on countries such as France.

            In this respect, the possession of nuclear weapons by France enables it to use ‘counter-blackmail’ in threatening the destruction of the centres of power of the potential aggressor state. It is this ability to exercise ‘counter-blackmail’ without actually resorting to a nuclear weapon, which remains a weapon of non-use, which makes possible credible nuclear deterrence.


M. Bruno Tertrais offered the following supplementary responses:

The French and the Americans very often arrive at the same evaluation of the threat, even if their conclusions are sometimes different. A certain American ‘doom-mongering’ can nevertheless be discerned, especially where the perception of the risk of terrorist nuclear activity is concerned, and also regarding the ‘threat’ represented by China, in particular in the conclusions which the Pentagon draws from the modernisation of China’s capability.

            The modernisation of China’s nuclear capabilities is real, but particularly slow. The development of China’s nuclear weapons rests fundamentally on its desire no longer to be deprived of the ability to respond to any American nuclear ‘blackmail’ over Taiwan, as was the case in the past.

            It is possible to slow Iran’s progress towards the possession of a nuclear weapon, subject to two conditions. These are that the international community is able to combine attractive proposals with firm measures, and that the Iranian leadership is able to evaluate realistically the costs and benefits of pursuing its military nuclear ambitions. This realistic approach is not being taken today.

            The United States has made no plans for a nuclear attack on sensitive sites in Iran. In addition, the Iranian installations identified by the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) are not buried or protected to an extent that would justify recourse to a nuclear strike.

            The term ‘penetration’ weapons is more appropriate than that of ‘miniaturised’ weapons, the former term not including the latter. For the United States, a ‘penetration’ weapon is not necessarily a low-yield weapon. 

            The real question on anti-missile systems is not so much their effectiveness as the perception which possible adversaries have of them. Even if imperfect, an anti-missile defence has the advantage of having an impact on the strategic calculation of the potential adversary and, by virtue of this fact, assuming a deterrent character.

            Russia no doubt envisages the eventual possibility of a conflict with China in 20-25 years, in the event that depopulation in Siberia, combined with Chinese economic encroachment in eastern Siberia, could cause tensions.

            Deterrence does not have a direct role in the question of energy resources or raw materials. But if a country monopolised, for example, deposits of resources by depending on its nuclear power, the possession of a nuclear capability by other countries would put them in a position to respond to such a threat.

            The only ‘terrorist’ scenario taken into account by France is that of state terrorism and, in this respect, it does not differ from the analysis of any other threat posed by a state. Only the means used are different: military in the one case and terrorist in the other. Blackmail comes under a political approach and aggression under military action. Nuclear deterrence puts France in a position to neutralise serious blackmail involving its vital interests.

            In several developing countries there exists a readiness to accept the Iranian line that presents uranium enrichment as a symbol of sovereignty and an ability to master technologies that were hitherto the preserve of rich countries. In this area, the international community has not managed to correct the fallacious interpretation of the NPT according to which the Treaty confers a ‘right to enrichment’ of uranium.



The resources for deterrence


M. Serge Vinçon next opened the debate on the second theme—the resources devoted to French nuclear deterrence and their appropriateness to the current threats. He said that the question of the place of nuclear weapons in the defence budget was regularly posed and he would like some detail on the respective roles of their two components, on the need for the improvements to be made to the weapons in order to respond to French doctrine, which no longer favoured massive strikes, and finally, on the role of simulation in the development of nuclear weapons.

            General Bentegeat first stated that, to confront present and future threats, the  2015 concept of forces was regularly updated. This model was based on a balance between four functions—prevention, deterrence, projection-action and protection—and the President’s speech of 19 January had provided an important clarification by qualifying the deterrent effect of the French strategy of prevention, which rested equally on an independent intelligence capability and pre-positioned forces. The nuclear component represents 20 % of the military equipment budget, as against 50 % forty years ago, and less than 10 % of the total defence budget. It was therefore wrong to claim that the financial effort devoted to deterrence was at the expense of the conventional forces. France has tailored its nuclear forces to a level of strict sufficiency, notably with the abandonment of the surface-to-surface component on the Plateau d’Albion and the sub-strategic Hades missiles, as well as the closure of the experimentation centre in the Pacific.

            The maintenance of two components is indispensable for the permanence and the credibility of French nuclear deterrence. The ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) guarantee the permanence of as well as the capability of a second strike, thanks to the invulnerability conferred by their invisibility. In addition, only ballistic missiles of intercontinental range with which the SSBNs will be equipped have the reach necessary to provide credibility for the deterrent no matter where the threat comes from. The airborne component, for its part, allows precision strikes on the power centres of regional powers with hostile intent. It offers a capability termed ‘gesticulation’, consisting of giving an adversary visible indications of a possible riposte by means of preparations for combat missions at air bases or on aircraft carriers.

            The abandonment of an airborne component by the United Kingdom is often evoked in support of questioning of the need for its maintenance within the French nuclear forces. The Trident II D5 ballistic missile in service with the Royal Navy is much more accurate than those embarked in the French SSBNs.

            The role entrusted to nuclear deterrence in the case of regional powers constituted a major change of direction in French doctrine, formulated at the time of a Presidential speech on 8 June 2001 and confirmed on 19 January 2006. It was apparent that the credibility of deterrence in respect of these powers implied the ability to target decision centres, or those of military or economic activity, with precision and limited collateral effects, which was not the case during the era of the anti-city strategy. The desire to be able to vary the power of a nuclear strike does not, however, signify a shift towards a doctrine of use. All things considered, a lower limit was imposed voluntarily on French nuclear weapons in order to show clearly that, for France, the nuclear weapon remains, by its very nature, completely different. Designed to inflict unacceptable damage, there is no question of it being used on the battlefield.



M. Josselin de Rohan asked if the financial means currently devoted to the military nuclear area were adequate to guarantee the credibility of French deterrence.

M. Xavier Pintat requested more detail on the possibility of improving the electromagnetic effect of nuclear weapons, at the expense of blast or radiation, to seek to neutralise the electronic systems of a potential adversary. He wanted to know if this hypothesis would fit into a scenario of ‘final warning’. He also asked for more information on the respective roles of the air and airborne components, particularly in the case of a final warning strike.

General Bentegeat replied that the equipment credits devoted to deterrence averaged t3 billion per year, which represented an adequate level to modernise the SSBNs completely over ten years, to introduce the improved medium-range air-to-ground ASMP-A missile into service in 2008 and the M51 ballistic missile in 2010. This level should not be considered excessive in the context of the needs of the conventional forces and the overall level of financial resources allocated to defence. However, if the defence effort were to be reduced below its current level, the question of the maintenance of an adequate level of nuclear forces would inevitably arise. This would be to take a major risk for the future rather than reducing the current effort devoted to nuclear forces.

            The electromagnetic pulse effect would result from the explosion of a nuclear weapon at very high altitude, of the order of several tens of kilometres, and would cause the destruction of electronic and data system components within a given range, without any noticeable thermal or blast effect on the ground. The threat of using this effect could fit into a final warning strategy and would represent the least damaging scenario for an adversary, compared with the various other possibilities. The final warning concept, which goes back a long way, remains essential, since it avoids placing the President in an all-or-nothing dilemma. As far as regional powers are concerned, this concept enables deterrence to be restored by offering the possibility of clearly indicating that France’s vital interests are involved.

            As for the two components, they participate, in a complementary way, in the same missions. The airborne component lends itself to the deterrence of a regional power, thanks to its precision and the possibility of limiting collateral damage during a strike on power centres. Ballistic missiles are less accurate but can target the economic centres of a regional power, and can be used in a final warning strike, since the number of their warheads can be varied. So, each of the two components can be used simultaneously in a range of scenarios.

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