France’s Nuclear Command and Implications for the Indo Pacific: An Indian Perspective

By Debalina Ghoshal

Amid the ongoing Ukrainian conflict, France’s then Foreign Minister in 2022, Jean-Yves Le Drian  mentioned that NATO is also a nuclear alliance.

The French President expressed concerns too that France would use nuclear weapons to protect its “vital interests” and that France’s current nuclear doctrine did not cater to the security imperatives caused by Russian tactical nuclear attack against Ukraine.

France is a member of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, collective security is mutual responsibility of all NATO members.

However, Ukraine is not a member of the NATO and hence, France may not feel the need to use nuclear weapons under such scenarios.

To fathom this complexity, it becomes necessary to understand France’s nuclear command in NATO’s architecture and whether it is bound to exert its nuclear deterrence strategy during times of crisis if it does not feel to do so.

Other than France, Britain and the United States also possess nuclear weapons in NATO countries.

However, all the three nuclear weapon states possess their independent nuclear command: the United States’ tactical nuclear weapons in Germany, Turkey, Belgium, Italy and Netherlands under the U.S. President’s command, the French Forces de dissuasion is under the French President’s command while Britain’s nuclear force is under the Prime Minister’s command.

As noted, “[t]he three decision-making centers for nuclear weapons are considered an element of deterrence, as they make it difficult for an opponent to calculate how NATO would react in the event of an attack.”

This command is responsible for strategic sea-based nuclear leg as France lacks battlefield nuclear weapons and also land-based nuclear weapons.

France has possesses air launched cruise missiles that are nuclear capable but they are also launched from sea-based platforms.

This is also probably one of the reasons why France’s individual nuclear forces are also outside the periphery of NATO command structure.

In fact, in 2015, the then President François Hollande, clarified, “our deterrence goes hand in hand with the constant strengthening of the Europe of Defense. But our deterrence is our own; it is we who decide, we who evaluate our vital interests.”

This command structure can be well fathomed from PROF. BENOÎT PELOPIDAS’s analysis, “Contrary to the assumption that the President makes the decision on his own and, as a result, possesses the codes which are necessary to authorize it, former Presidents and their private chiefs of staff have testified that the President only has one half of the nuclear code and the [Chef d’Etat-major Particulier] CEMP the other. Then, the [Chef d’Etat-major des Armées] CEMA authenticates the Presidential order and passes it on to nuclear forces.”

Another expert, Bruno Tertrais explains President’s role in nuclear command is due to the role of President in French constitution under Article 5 that establishes him/her as the guarantor of sovereignty and under Article 15, establishes him/her as the Supreme Commander of Chief of the Armed Forces.

Even though the defence minister is not in the chain of nuclear command unless the President is incapitated and the Prime Minister who is next in the command chain (if President is incapitated) fails to perform the role of a nuclear command, he is a crucial part of the nuclear control mechanisms and is responsible for the “organization, the management and the conditioning of nuclear forces and their necessary infrastructure.”

Nevertheless, in normal circumstance, the President is the decision-maker. Since France is not a part of the High Level Group (HLG) chaired by the United States that runs parallel to the Nuclear Planning Group (NPG), and in which the decisions are directly distributed to defence ministers, the French defence minister’s role in nuclear decision making remains limited. This means, there is limited civilian authority in nuclear command and decision making while military planners include only CEMP and CEMA, leading to lesser stress on nuclear command to follow NATO’s footsteps and making nuclear command in France more ‘monarchic.’

The nuclear decision-making process in France in independent and it “does not take part in NATO’s mechanisms of nuclear planning, and will not take part in them.”

Hence, France is not an official member of the NPG, though it is believed that Paris joins NATO nuclear discussions on policy and not on posture.

Thus, during a crisis situation, France could pursue its own nuclear planning strategy distinct from that of the NATO nuclear planning.

However, it would be interesting to note that following the positive vote of the National Assembly, France in April 2009, officially announced its full participation in NATO military command structures. This would broaden the understanding of how France draws a distinction in nuclear command and conventional command in NATO.

France’s threat environment at the moment is not just Russian expansion in Eastern European regions, but also the Iranian nuclear and ballistic missile threat and North Korea’s nuclear program and its recalcitrant behaviour about its nuclear and missile program.

The collapse of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is also another concern for France as it gives Russia the leverage to develop those missiles that were banned under the INF Treaty.

In 2019, the French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly clearly mentioned, “we Europeans cannot remain spectators of our own security.”

France under President Macron has also expressed an interest in establishing European “strategic autonomy” though he assures France’s commitment to NATO.

It must be noted that following Brexit, France is the only state in the European Union (EU) possessing nuclear weapons. Hence, France probably has bigger vision of becoming a nuclear security guarantor for EU countries and sees beyond NATO.

In 2020, Macron even invited EU states to participate in a dialogue about the role of nuclear weapons in EU security and offered participation in French nuclear exercises. He stated, European partners who want to do so will be able to be associated to French deterrence forces’ wargames.”

France is keen on reducing dependency on U.S. nuclear umbrella and NATO in the European security realm for EU countries. In 2024 also Macron asserted for more integrated European defence raising concerns that “Europe could die.”

From this statement, it can be assumed that France under Macron does not mind providing extended nuclear deterrence assurances to its EU members, though French officials clarified that the aim is to “talking about it and deepening Europeans’ joint strategic culture” and not on “sharing” of French nuclear deterrent.

However, such intentions are not dearth of criticisms from France’s own opposition leaders.

Owing to the Ukrainian crisis, in the recent past, the Macron government has urged Ukraine to launch attacks inside Russia to destroy the platforms from where the missiles are being fired.

This invited concerns in Moscow that suggested for organising drills with tactical nuclear weapons.

In 2024, it is reported that Moscow has commenced nuclear drills in Southern military district which stretches from Russia into occupied Ukrainian territory.

Paris with its alienation from NATO nuclear planning makes its command structure far more complex to fathom and assess.

It is however, clear that France’s nuclear decision making would be an independent one rather than an act of coercion by allies.

Implications for the Indo-Pacific

France is directly affected by growing military capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region.

A report claims, “Of the 13 French overseas territories, three are located in the Indian Ocean (Réunion, Mayotte, and the Southern and Antarctic Territories) and four in the Pacific (New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna Islands, and Clipperton Island). Between them, these seven territories amount to about 90 percent of France’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), covering 10.2 million square kilometers, the second largest in the world after the United States. Within the Indo-Pacific region, 1.6 million French citizens live on French national territory, as well as 400,000 more who are resident in other countries in the region.

“There are already major geo-economic interests associated with these French overseas territories, which look set to become even more important in the future. On its own, the uninhabited Clipperton Island – located in the North Pacific, far off the Mexican coast – provides an EEZ the same size as that of Sweden. This zone is now the site of intensive fishing activity, and could also see the future development of resources on the seabed.”

According to a French goverment report published in 2019 regarding their Indo-Pacific policy:

“France is a nation of the Indo-Pacific. For the French Ministry for the Armed Forces, the Indo-Pacific is an area of operational responsibilities, which encompasses three military commands and two presence forces, and covers five maritime areas, of which two are ocean areas. Our main security interests in this wide and fragmented region are to protect our sovereign territories, secure our strategic supplies, ensure our freedom of action in the commons, and foster stable regional environments.”

China’s close ties with Russia became a growing concern amid the Ukrainian War. China’s assertive postures in the East China and South China Seas are also worrisome. China’s support for North Korea makes nuclear deterrence in the Korean Peninsula and also in the Indo-Pacific destabilsing. In addition, the Sino-U.S. rivalry in the region, and other NATO countries’ China concerns in the region like Australia would determine France’s actions and policies in the Indo-Pacific.

Despite France’s apprehensions in the past regarding the AUKUS deal, France in December 2023, came into an agreement with Australia whereby both the countries decided to grant each other increased access to military and training facilities.

But such developments are too early to predict whether France would express interest to join the AUKUS deal given its growing interests in the region.

France’s military presence in the South China Sea is well known.

It is the only European Union nation that conducts navigation in the region but also assures that such actions are non provocative.

In 2021, France also conducted patrolling through the South China Sea with nuclear attack submarine SNA Emeraude. Attack submarines that are nuclear capable could be at sea for long enabling protection and defence of other sea-based assets, thus, strengthening deployment capacity.

If France has to actively fit into the Indo Pacific quotient in order to strengthen its deterrence capability as Australia, Japan and the United States, such posturing would be conducive.

In April 2024, France has also sailed alongside U.S. and Philippine counterparts under Balikatan Exercises 2024 and expressed keenness to regularize and expand joint drills in future. France has also sent warships to the region in June 2024.

Thus nuclear submarines would add to strength for strengthening France’s conventional sea-based deterrence.

However, if France aspires to provide nuclear security guarantees to EU countries, to replace U.S .nuclear security guarantees, there could be a tussle for France to gain prominence in Indo-Pacific region specifically in the South China Sea region.

Should China’s assertiveness increase in the Indo-Pacific region, France too could deploy its nuclear capabilities in the region making its nuclear command come into functional capability even in the Indo-Pacific region.

Featured Photo: The SSBN Le Redoutable, Cherbourg, France