The French nuclear deterrent is the one that is most often compared to the UK’s nuclear forces. While there are similarities in terms of policy, posture and size, there are also significant differences in terms of industrial support and cost. All of the major political parties in France also support an independent nuclear deterrent, in contrast to the UK; while domestic support is also high. This paper examines the French nuclear deterrent in greater detail. It is also part of a wider Library briefing series on nuclear weapons.Jump to full report >>
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 maintains 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.
This has been France’s position for several years and was reiterated in the French White Paper on Defence and National Security, published in 2013. That document stated the French view that “Nuclear deterrence is the ultimate guarantee of our sovereignty” and “protects France from any State-led aggression against its vital interests, of whatever origin and in whatever form. It rules out any threat of blackmail that might paralyse its freedom of decision and action”.
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 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%, with a reduction in both its overall holdings but 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. It also reduced its ballistic missile submarine fleet from five to four vessels, marking a one-third reduction in the size of its submarine-based nuclear deterrent since 1991.
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.
In a speech in February 2015 President Hollande ruled out any further reductions in France’s nuclear stockpile outside of any drastic reductions in other countries’ nuclear arsenals that would dramatically improve the global security environment. He also committed France to not building any new types of weapon but stated that it would modernise its existing forces, while remaining within the boundaries of existing agreements.
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 SSBN, the replacement of it combat aircraft in a nuclear role, and the upgrade of both its submarine and air-launched nuclear-armed missile capabilities.
The bulk of the French deterrent is maritime-based, with the Navy having responsibility for around 80% of the nuclear arsenal. The majority of that capability is delivered through its fleet of four Triomphant class ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), each of which is capable of deploying up to 16 M-51 submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The Navy retains a total of 48 SLBM in its inventory. 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, capable of being deployed aboard its aircraft carrier the Charles de Gaulle.
The airborne component of the nuclear deterrent comprises approximately 20% of total nuclear forces. The French Air Force has two squadrons assigned to the nuclear role, comprising approximately 20 Mirage 2000N/ Rafale F3 aircraft apiece, equipped with 54 nuclear-armed ASMP and the newer ASMP-A cruise missile, respectively.
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 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. 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, in contrast to the UK; while domestic public support is also high.
Historically France’s nuclear weapons programme has taken up approximately 10% of the total French defence budget annually. In 2015 the International Institute for Strategic Studies estimated that the French nuclear deterrent costs, on average, €3.5 billion per year, or 11% of the current defence budget.
In comparison the UK’s nuclear deterrent costs between 5% and 6% of the annual defence budget (£2 - £2.1 billion, based on current defence expenditure).
Commons Briefing papers SN04079
Author: Claire Mills