An Update on the French Nuclear Deterrent: The 2021 Budget


By Pierre Tran

Paris – France recently published its 2021 draft defense budget, which set aside €5 billion ($5.9 billion) for the nuclear deterrent, taking a chunk out of a total budget of €39.2 billion.

Hitting that nice round number showed the significance of nuclear weapons, on which France relies for its seat at the top table reserved for world military powers.

The draft budget includes €1 billion of studies to develop the nuclear ballistic missile submarine, and a fourth generation nuclear-tipped, air-to-ground missile, the air-sol nucléaire 4ème génération (ASN4G) to replace the present nuclear-armed cruise missile, dubbed air-sol moyenne portée amélioré (ASMPA).

France is proud of ownership of such weapons and its permanent seat on the UN security council, two possessions perhaps not unrelated. The five holders of that prized placement on the council are Britain, France, China, Russia and the US, all holders of thermonuclear arms.

There are other members on that UN council but they hold rotating posts.

Other nations are developing nuclear weapons, with India and Pakistan perhaps joining China, France and the UK in the ranks of “second order nuclear powers” by 2030, said an Oct. 2 report from the Fondation de Recherche Stratégique, a think tank.

The spread of Covid 19, however, has sown seeds of doubt, as there may be a “significant drop in investment” on the modernization of nuclear weapons if the crisis extends in time and depth, wrote the authors, Emmanuelle Maitre and Bruno Tertrais.

Why nuclear counts for France

The French nuclear spending reflects political importance as each president will make a keynote speech which seeks to set out a new view on atomic weapons. President Emmanuel Macron sought Feb. 7 to make a moral evaluation of weapons of mass destruction, while calling for stronger world government.

Meanwhile, even when the economy suffers from chronic weak growth, heavy national debt, or a pandemic, there will be a ballistic missile submarine out at sea, ready to take orders from the president, whose aide de camp carries a black briefcase which holds launch commands.

Perhaps ownership of that lightning bolt of the Elysée presidential office shows a determination never to repeat a history of setbacks. Germany defeated France in 1870, almost overwhelmed the French forces in 1914, and occupied the country in 1940.

A then little known army general, Charles de Gaulle, made June 18 1940 from London a rallying call on the BBC for France to fight back against the Nazis.

De Gaulle who went on as president to field in 1964 an independent capability with a 50-strong fleet of Dassault Mirage IV nuclear bombers. France left Nato in 1966, backed by that strategic airborne weapon. There may well be a Cold War, but France sought its own nuclear umbrella, free from the call of Washington or London.

The navy sailed its first nuclear ballistic missile submarine, the Redoutable, in 1972, boosting the French force de frappe.

France rejoined Nato in 2009, but stayed out of the nuclear planning group, which sets policy on the use of weapons. That empty chair approach reflects the French pursuit of strategic autonomy, a concept often to be found in ministerial speeches.

Submarines and airborne weapons

The nuclear weapon shapes French defense policy, with the ballistic missile submarines and missiles on fighter bombers taking the pole position in the race for funding.

Warheads must be maintained and developed, communication links boosted, and inflight refuelling from tanker aircraft upgraded. There are nuclear engines for six attack and four ballistic missile submarines, and atomic power plant for the sole aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, with the fleet air arm flying Rafale fighter bombers with nuclear-tipped missiles.

Two land-based squadrons fly the airborne nuclear weapon, and France recently speeded up  acquisition of A330 multirole tanker and transport jets to refuel those fighter bombers.

That makes the navy and air force winners in the budget, with the army relegated to poor bloody infantry, after cancellation of the Pluton tactical nuclear missile in 1993.

The army’s fight back for funding called for a brand name, Scorpion, seen as needed to sell its modernization drive.

Such a budgetary commitment to the nuclear weapon squeezes resources for other projects, such as a planned European medium-altitude, low-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle, which must lobby for scarce funds. A limited budget allows little room for compromise.

The French version of the next generation fighter in the planned Future Combat Air System will carry an airborne nuclear missile, which will help drive the design of the aircraft, along with requirements for stealth, speed and artificial intelligence.

That nuclear armed fighter will also be deployed on the next generation aircraft carrier, playing a key role in the architecture of that capital vessel. There has been lobbying the future carrier will be nuclear powered, a decision to be made by Macron.

There is some expectation there may be an announcement on the future carrier at the Euronaval virtual trade show, which opens Oct. 19. Naval Group, the shipbuilder, hopes the Elysée will pick the nuclear powered option.

Nuclear budget for 2021

The €5 billion in 2021 shows a steady climb in spending on nuclear deterrent, up from €4.7 billion in 2020 and €3.6 billion in 2019, with the latter accounting for the largest single item for that year and a 10 percent increase from the previous year.

In the 2021 budget, the funds for payment on nuclear work rise to €4.1 billion, up seven percent from the previous year, said parliamentarian Jean-Charles Larsonneur, who sits on the defense committee of the lower house National Assembly.

However, authorized commitment to fund work fell 59 percent to €3.5 billion, signalling a sharp drop in future spending.

The €5 billion of nuclear work is drawn from a number of programs, including programs

144 and 178 for strategic research, 146 for equipment, and 212 for infrastructure.

Under program 146, which covers procurement and the deterrent, the largest single payment next year will be €1 billion of studies for “technological credibility,” namely upgrade of the ballistic missile submarines and the fourth generation air-to-ground nuclear missile, ASN4G.

Some €788 million has been earmarked for the M51.3 version of the M51 three-stage submarine ballistic missile. Work on the upgrade started in 2014, seeking to boost range.

Service support for deterrence will draw €700 million, while nuclear simulation will receive €650 million, with backing for the Mégajoule laser-based system and research on next generation computers.

Studies on engineering and de-risking technology on the third generation nuclear ballistic missile submarine will receive €365 million.

Some €112 million will be spent on a mid-life upgrade of the ASMPA air-to-ground missile.

The 2019-2023 military budget law has sent aside €25 billion for nuclear weapons, out of a total €198 billion in the multi-year program.

Tertrais and journalist Jean Guisnel forecast the modernization work would drive the annual nuclear budget to a peak of €6 billion some 10 years after their account of the French deterrent, Le President et La Bombe (Odile Jacob), was published in 2016.

The overall 2021 defense budget, announced on Sept. 28, rose to €39.2 billion, up 4.5 percent from the previous year, with €22.3 billion for equipment, according to the armed forces ministry. No details were available on that spending strand.

There will be an overall 2021 authorized commitment of spending of €15 billion, while payment will be €7.6 billion, up 11 percent from the previous year.

It remains to be seen whether the 2022 budget will be maintained according to the multi-year military budget law, as the national purse will be severely depleted by the pandemic.

But it is likely work on nuclear arms will hold privileged position, even in straitened times.

For a look at the French QRA approach shaped for nuclear strike but in terms of its broader operational impact, see the following: