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France's enduring nuclear deterrent

Nuclear-capable Rafale M and Mirage 2000N strike planes
Image caption Versions of the Rafale and Mirage 2000 fighters carry the country's air-launched weapons

The Cold War may have long since ended, but France still maintains a fleet of nuclear-armed submarines and strike planes - and more than 300 warheads. Why? And are the French people still comfortable with being a nuclear power?

At the end of January Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party's candidate for the French presidency, visited the naval base at l'Isle Longue near Brest.

This is home to four nuclear-powered, ballistic missile-carrying submarines. While there, Mr Hollande went on board one of the boats - Le Triomphant - a visit he used to reaffirm his support for the country's independent nuclear deterrent.

In France there is an absence of any real political debate about the future of its nuclear arsenal.

Wide support

As Bruno Tertrais, a Senior Research Fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research (FSR) in Paris told the BBC, "the nuclear consensus has always been broader in France than in the UK. Few French politicians challenge the relevance of nuclear deterrence and even fewer would like Paris to unilaterally disarm."

Mr Hollande, he says, "has taken a very conservative stance on nuclear deterrence early in the campaign, and this did not create any major debate."

Francois Heisbourg, a special adviser at the FSR, agrees. "In the presidential election," he says, opinion polls show "the candidate of the sole party opposed to the nuclear force, the Greens, is credited with only between 1% and 3% of the vote".

Image caption France may have got rid of ground-launched missiles, but has bases for air and sea-launched forces

Support for the deterrent is deeply rooted in French society and history, ever since it became a nuclear power in the 1960s. Jean Dominique Merchet, a French defence specialist, says: "The national consensus remains very strong - it's a heritage not only of the Gaullist-era (the 1950s and 1960s) but most deeply of the national catastrophe of May-June 1940. The nuclear deterrence is a sort of guarantee of 'never again!'"

The French nuclear deterrent has two basic elements; a sea-launched and an air-launched component. The Force Oceanique Strategique (FOST) rests upon four missile-carrying Triomphant-class submarines. This is considered the minimum needed to keep one vessel at sea at all times. These submarines are gradually being adapted to carry a new ballistic missile - the M51 - and between now and 2015 a new nuclear warhead will also be deployed.

The French Navy's attack submarines also play a part in defending its nuclear missile boats and a third element - a highly secure communications network - ensures the effectiveness of the FOST as a whole.

The air-launched component of the deterrent force is also being modernised. This rests upon an air-delivered cruise missile - the ASMP-A or Air-Sol Moyenne Portee Ameliore (improved air-to-ground medium range missile), with a relatively new warhead introduced in October 2009.

The missile has a range of some 500km and is carried by the French-built Mirage 2000N - a squadron of which are based at Istres in the Bouches-du-Rhone, southern France. In July 2010 a squadron of new Rafale jets stationed at Saint-Dizier, north-eastern France, took on part of the nuclear role. But air-to-air tankers, crucial to the strike force, may need to be replaced soon.

Overall though, France's nuclear deterrent has benefited from a steady process of improvement. Mr Heisbourg says limited decisions, like an upgrade of the M51 submarine-launched ballistic missile, or possible successors to the Triomphant class itself, will presumably come up for consideration towards the end of the next presidential term. "But," he argues, "the big decisions can wait for some 10 years or so."

Shared fleets?

In 2010, France and Britain agreed to pursue closer cooperation in nuclear matters, establishing for the first time a joint simulation centre to for their nuclear arsenals.

Image caption France has four nuclear-armed submarines, with one always on patrol

"The London treaties," Mr Tertrais says, "build on two decades of in-depth conversations about nuclear deterrence. They're pragmatic, reflecting a bottom-up, cost-cutting approach by two countries which have similar requirements. They have a very symbolic value: for the first time, the two European nuclear powers embark in a close technical cooperation on sensitive nuclear matters."

The Anglo-French treaties make it clear that other areas of nuclear cooperation could be considered in the future. The idea of combined patrols has cropped up regularly in both the French and the UK debates over the past two decades. In effect it would mean pooling the two countries' nuclear ballistic missile-carrying submarines.

Mr Heisbourg suggests that any idea of joint patrols would be a non-starter. "I am not sure what is meant by joint patrols," he told the BBC. "Is this one country delegating the possibility to launch a nuclear war on its behalf? When stated thus the idea sounds, and is, barmy. If it is not that, what is it supposed to mean ?"

David Yost, a professor at the US Naval Postgraduate School, at Monterey in California, has watched the evolution of French nuclear thinking for decades. He sees the Anglo-French cooperation as, paradoxically, a means of reaffirming the independence of the two countries' deterrent forces.

"France and the United Kingdom intend to save money by pooling certain support activities for their nuclear forces. An additional motivation may be sending a signal of mutual political backing for each country's long-term commitment to war-prevention through nuclear deterrence."

"'Joint or shared deterrence with alternating patrols' implies that the French government would be willing to rely on London to protect France and that the British government would be prepared to count on Paris to protect the United Kingdom in circumstances in which national forces were not available," he adds.

"This prospect appears remote at present and inconsistent with one of the declared goals of the cooperation - to make it possible for both countries to maintain their national security and autonomy in grave international crises."

Reducing warheads

Mr Tertrais argues that with Britain and France determined to maintain their nuclear deterrents there are other avenues for 'Europeanisation'. "The two countries could state together, more clearly than they have in the past, that their deterrents protect the whole of Europe and that they would consult their partners, time and circumstances permitting, if they ever were to consider using nuclear weapons."

Image caption France no longer tests nuclear weapons in the South Pacific, which caused mounting criticism

Mr Heisbourg is sceptical such an idea would work in practice. "The war in Libya," he says, "was a small, UN-mandated and winnable operation, but only half of the EU's and Nato's members actually supported it." This, he adds, showed the limits of - and the lack of support for - the notion of the Europeanisation of defence.

But what about disarmament? France, along with other nuclear powers - the US, Russia, China and the UK - is committed, at least on paper, to pursuing negotiations to scrap nuclear weapons altogether.

"Since the late 1980s France has eliminated approximately half its nuclear warheads and all of its ground-based delivery systems," Professor Yost says. "In 2008 President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that France's entire arsenal amounted to 'fewer than 300 warheads'.

"France ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1998 and dismantled its nuclear test site in the South Pacific. France also stopped producing plutonium and enriched uranium for weapons and dismantled the production facilities for these materials."

Professor Yost says French officials do not rule out participating someday in negotiations to limit France's nuclear forces.

This may, however, be a long way off, he says. "French policy on nuclear disarmament has explicitly stressed the idea that the goal should not be simply the abolition of nuclear weapons but the achievement of increased security for all."

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