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Commentary | 15 June 2020

The flawed logic of the French “nuclear warning”

Image of Jean-Marie Collin

Jean-Marie Collin |Nuclear Disarmament Expert, Associate Researcher at the GRIP, Spokesmen of ICAN France

Arms Control France Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Disarmament Nuclear Security Nuclear Weapons Risk Reduction Global Security

On 16 March 2020, the French people went into lockdown to fight the coronavirus pandemic. According to President Macron, “we are at war”. And yet during these unprecedented times, French nuclear policy continues to apply. Triomphant class submarines are on patrol to maintain a permanent deterrence posture and on the night of 31 March, the French Strategic Air Forces conducted exercise Poker, a nuclear strike simulation. This is a strange signal to send to the international community at this time. While the whole planet is suffering from a catastrophic health disaster, the French Strategic Air Force (FAS) are training to deliver the nuclear cruise missile, the ASMP-A, normally loaded with a 300 kiloton nuclear warhead. If used, this could create an even bigger health and environmental disaster.

Every year, the FAS conducts two Banco exercises where a nuclear warhead is fixed on the ASMP-A under the Rafale fighter jet as a pilot waits to carry out a presidential order. Four Poker exercises simulating a nuclear raid with a fake ASMP-A are also conducted yearly.  Another exercise, Excalibur, is conducted every eighteen months, where a 10-12 hour mission takes place with a strike of a real ASMP-A without the nuclear warhead. The last Poker exercise took place on 29-30 January. The one before was held on 10-12 December 2019. A further exercise was conducted just two months later on 31 March 2020. When the lack of facemasks, sanitizers and artificial respiratory systems is killing countless French citizens, flexing France’s military muscle seems to be a high priority for some generals and politicians.

The objective of these exercises is to impress potential adversaries with France’s nuclear deterrence prowess. That is the reason why President Macron in his speech of 7 February 2020 on the defence and deterrence strategy said, “our nuclear forces are capable of inflicting absolutely unacceptable damage upon that state’s centres of power: its political, economic and military nerve centres“. By creating fear, France hopes to prevent any attack. This is why for President Macron deterrence as practised by France “effectively limits violence”. The moment a strike is launched however it undeniably means deterrence has failed.

The FAS and the Nuclear Naval-Air Force (Force Aéronavale Nucléaire, FANu) are the forces that would implement a “nuclear warning”, a non-repeatable strike intended to restore deterrence in case an adversary miscalculates. This was first proposed by Prime Minister Raymond Barre in June 1977. General Bentégeat, Chief of the Military Staff under President Chirac, allowed for this concept to regain “glory” to give a third option to the President instead of the binary choice of “doing nothing” or “trigger unacceptable damage”. It means using a nuclear weapon to prevent the use of a nuclear weapon. This is flawed logic. Resorting to carrying out a “nuclear warning” means the failure of deterrence. This was also the understanding of Patrick Charaix, General of the French Strategic Air Forces, “If I do a final warning, it’s because the deterrent didn’t work.” Since this option is to be exercised to deter an adversary which has been thus far undeterred, it is impossible to imagine a strike without colossal damage. To believe that the adversary, before or after the strike, would not react, is fanciful. The very real consequence is escalation to a nuclear exchange. This is surreal: Akin to conducting a nuclear exercise during a global pandemic which every country is struggling to contain.

This “nuclear warning” military option will apparently soon be on the table of future strategic dialogue with European partners. On 26 September 2017, President Macron launched his European intervention initiative aimed at developing a shared “strategic culture”. After months of talks with some EU partners, he formalised this “strategic culture” in his deterrence speech: “I would like strategic dialogue to develop with our European partners, which are ready for it, on the role played by France’s nuclear deterrence in our collective security. European partners who are willing to walk that road can be associated with the exercises of French deterrence forces.” If these exercises take place, they will be carried out with the FAS.

Political leaders change their views when they are confronted with a catastrophe. The coronavirus pandemic is the perfect example. Macron has said on this war against the virus, “many certainties and strong beliefs are being swept away and will be called into question. Many things we thought impossible are happening”. We will not have the chance to hear this kind of statement after a “nuclear warning” strike. The day after won’t be a return to the day before. It is time, as the NPT and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons both state, to act in good faith and determination with a view to achieving effective progress towards general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.

Europeans must understand that President Macron’s call to participate in future Poker exercises is aimed at implementing this “nuclear warning” concept. This invitation undermines the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and could be perceived as a violation, if not of the letter at least of the spirit, of the treaty. Indeed, how could this be interpreted as anything other than a call in favour of nuclear weapons? Due to the global pandemic, the 10th NPT Review Conference has been postponed until early 2021. When the conference does take place, it will then be time for Europeans to issue a joint document stating that they are bound by the NPT and that they cannot take part in these nuclear exercises because this would mean giving up their commitment to uphold and strengthen the integrity of the NPT and enhance its implementation. At this conference, France will have to submit its national report. It would then be helpful for them to explain how this “call“ (which is none other than a willingness for a Europeanisation of nuclear deterrence) does not further weaken the NPT.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

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