French Nuclear Weapons and Deterrence in Post-Brexit Europe


The Cold War has not returned; but the Russians have.

And the nature of the Russian challenge has changed along with it.

With the gaping holes in European defense capabilities and the with the United States working to repair the focus on the land wars, there clearly is a major gap in a credible continental deterrent force.

In this sense the ability to combine hybrid warfare means, significant offensive strike missiles, and an ability to blend in low-yield nuclear weapons in the mix are designed to give the Russians flexibility in coercing European states.

With such an approach, how can European states, European NATO and the United States enhanced a credible warfighting approach which can deter the Russians?

Unfortunately the current state of much thinking in Europe is that the challenge is to keep legacy arms control in place and to have a slow roll approach to conventional deterrence.

Such an environment is an ideal one for the Russian approach to using military power for political gain.

But what might a credible US and European offensive-defensive capability which could leverage nuclear weapons in a crisis look like?

We recently posed this question in a look at the role of nuclear weapons in the return of direct defense in Europe.

Clearly, the Brexit dynamic has exposed, triggered or opened up disaggregation dynamics within Europe as a whole.

For the Brits, their independent nuclear deterrent is perhaps enhanced in its importance for the direct defense of Britain although what its future will be within the evolving defense force and strategy remains to be seen.

The aspiring Franco-German defense initiative naturally raises the question of what role French nuclear weapons could play in a broader European role.

The French nuclear doctrine has always been centered on a national deterrent and the force structure in both numbers and kind have reflected this last resort approach if somehow the Soviets and now the Russians would confront Europe without a credible American nuclear deterrent.

A recent article in DW has asked the question “Could France Take the Lead in Europe’s Nuclear Security?”

We are in the midst of a new nuclear arms race — that much is clear from this year’s Munich Security Conference.

There is also growing doubt over whether the US can guarantee Europe’s security.

Who will fill the gap?

Behind closed doors, down a long, winding hallway at the Bayerische Hof hotel — home to the Munich Security Conference (MSC) — conversations are taking place that are too complex for the public stage. Or perhaps too delicate. One such conversation is “the future of nuclear deterrence in Europe.”

Those present for the talks said they focused on the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and Russia’s announced intention to restart the development of medium-range rockets.

“Things could get worse than they already are,” one participant in the closed-door meeting told DW, referring to the New START treaty between the US and Russia which covers strategic nuclear weapons and is set to expire in 2021.

On the main stage, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reminded attendees that the New START treaty had its beginnings at the MSC in 2009.

The world has changed quite a bit since then.

“With our elementary interests, we will try everything to take steps towards disarmament,” she said.

“Because the answer cannot now be to blindly [build more arms].”

Merkel’s view that a new nuclear arms race between the United States, Russia and China must be stopped is shared by many Europeans.

It’s within this geopolitical context that talks about France’s nuclear arsenal are taking place — behind closed doors, of course.

The chairman of the MSC, former German Ambassador to the US Wolfgang Ischinger, called for France’s nuclear deployment capabilities to “cover not just its own territory, but the terrority of its EU partners as well.”

In addition, the six European NATO members that have the capable aircraft could join together to form a “European nuclear force,” wrote Klaus Naumann, a retired four-star general in Germany’s military, the Bundeswehr, in an article for the Security Times.

However, Naumann himself acknowledged that France would “never share” its nuclear weapons with the European Union.

And in a recent IFRI report, Emmanuelle Maitre focused on The Franco-German Tandem: Bridging the Gap on Nuclear Issues.

The report focuses on how French and German views on the nuclear dynamic are attenuating and boils down to ways to avoid an out of control nuclear arms escalation process. The concern is clearly with the Trump Administration and perceived responses to or interactions with Russian actions and behavior.

The paper concludes that “in the absence of American leadership, there is an opportunity for the French-German tandem to fill the gap and, through coordinated action and with the EU, advance their priorities in terms of dealing with proliferation crises, revive the non-proliferation regime, and promote the survival of credible arms-control measure.

“On proliferation, the two countries have followed very similar trajectories, and have a history of successful endeavors in advancing their agenda both with the EU and outside it. Given the current crises, their cooperation is all the more needed to help the European Union take a stand on this issue and promote well-crafted diplomatic solutions to proliferation concerns.”

The agenda implied by this paper is that of preserving the historical agenda and “achievements,” yet how does France and Germany even if they cooperate more closely together actually influence Russian behavior or lead in some way to the reshaping of Trump Administration nuclear policies?

Even more challenging is how does France’s nuclear deterrent help in such an effort?

From a deterrent perspective we are left with the challenge which Putin’s Russia poses to Europe which is why direct defense of Europe is back on the table.

If neither Germany have credible conventional forces to shape a defense in depth in conventional terms, and with the leadership of France and Germany directly playing off of some of Trump’s words to suggest the US is no longer reliable as a partner in European defense, it is difficult to see how coming up with “well-crafted” diplomatic solutions will look anything less than providing reassurance when none can be delivered alone by the diplomatic process.