By Hu Gaochen
French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly recently announced the launch of the full-scale development phase of the SNLE 3G program, which calls for the building of France's third generation nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines (SSBN). The project aims to build four submarines to be commissioned starting from the 2030s.
Paris’ announcement to upgrade its nuclear arsenal at such a moment is driven by two considerations. First, it’s time to replace France’s current nuclear combat weaponry. The Triomphant class nuclear-powered strategic missile submarine that’s still serving started R&D and design in 1981, so the submarine is 40 years old counting in the time for R&D. Therefore, it’s not surprising to establish a replacement program now if the country plans to commission a new generation of submarines while having another generation in the pipeline.
Second, other nuclear states have taken turns to upgrade their nuclear arsenal in recent years, which has in a way spurred France to speed up. The US and Russia, the two countries with the most nuclear weapons, have been upgrading their stockpile in recent years, while the UK’s nuclear weaponry modernization is in steady progress. In comparison, France is falling behind other nuclear states in Europe and America on this front, and getting the SSBN program rolling as soon as possible is of important political and military significance for the country.
From a security perspective, it has been a rooted conception at the Elysée Palace after WWII that nuclear weaponry is the cornerstone of France’s national security. In contemporary history, Paris was invaded three times, which made the French believe that only nuclear weapons, not conventional military forces, are able to ensure absolute national security. Besides, Paris has been a consistent proponent of independent defense. Unlike UK, an obedient ally to US, France as a NATO member has maintained a steady relationship with the US that’s nevertheless subtle and complex. Doubting the possibility of America risking its own security to defend Europe at times of crisis, Paris wants to develop its own nuclear deterrence.
France’s all-out efforts to develop nuclear weapons independently also have something to do with its major-country ambition. In the past 300 years, France was a great influence in Europe and the world at large, a glory still felt in the political, economic, social and cultural sectors of its society today. Seeking leadership as a major power, particularly in Europe, is a main consideration behind Paris’ determination to develop independent nuclear capabilities.
The then French president Jacques Chirac proposed in 2006 to apply nuclear deterrence to Europe’s common defense, saying that France had extended its nuclear umbrella to its allies. Today Macron further stressed France’s nuclear deterrence and its important role in European defense. He has given equal importance to France’s own security and Europe’s common security on several public occasions, stressingthat nuclear deterrence is essential for regional security and stability, especially for Europe. France’s nuclear forces will play a bigger role in protecting Europe, and Europe’s interests are closely linked with France’s interests, Macron believed.
The current situation in Europe provides a good opportunity for France to demonstrate its regional leadership. On the one hand, Brexit leaves France the only nuclear state in the EU, which makes it the backbone of European defense and the shield of the continent’s security, particularly strategic security. With the aggravating confrontation between the US and Russia and Europe being at the forefront of NATO’s anti-Russia campaign, nuclear-armed France will take a more dominant position in regional security.
On the other hand, Trump’s “America first” policy has taken a serious toll on America’s relationship with its allies. The series of moves taken during Trump’s term, including economic policy, trade tariff, and withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal, have widened the US-Europe rift, which will further set off France’s regional leadership.
With the UK exiting the EU and Trump leaving the White House, France, as a recognized nuclear state, seems to have everything in its favor to cement its leadership on the European continent. But the fact is that the country is not considered sufficiently capable to lead.
As Europe’s economic powerhouse, Germany, unlike France, insists that European defense should be framed in the NATO architecture, and it doesn’t want to see an overly powerful France in Europe either. Therefore, France taking the lead in the region is far from a unanimous agreement.
(The author is a post-doctoral candidate at the School of Social Sciences, Tsinghua University, specializing in arms control and national security)
Editor's note: This article is originally published on www.thepaper.cn, and is translated from Chinese into English and edited by the China Military Online. The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of eng.chinamil.com.cn.