Why does France play "nuclear card"?


China Military Online
Li Jiayao
2024-04-06 23:24:26

By Shi Wen


Recently, French President Emmanuel Macron publicly disclosed the construction trend of France's new generation of nuclear arsenal and flaunted the country's nuclear strength. This is another instance of the attention-grabbing move by the head of state of France that has been quite in the spotlight in recent times. As the only country possessing nuclear weapons in the EU, France is flexing its "nuclear muscles" in the context of rising global arms races and protracted warfare in Eastern Europe, which has provoked numerous speculations from the international community.


Macron announced that France will complete the modernization and renewal of its nuclear arsenal and sustain a nuclear warhead stockpile that is quantitatively stable, operationally reliable, and technologically advanced by 2025. The country will also conclude the deployment of the new generation of strategic nuclear submarines and plans to build four new-type strategic nuclear submarines by 2035. French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu said that the country reserves the right to prioritize the employment of nuclear weapons for limited strikes.


Data shows that France currently holds 290 nuclear warheads, all of which have designated carriers. Four active Le Triomphant class strategic nuclear submarines serve as the prime representation of its sea-based nuclear strike forces, and three of them are currently capable of carrying M51.2 ballistic missiles with upgraded launch systems. The M51.3 ballistic missiles will complete relevant tests this year and be installed on the Le Triomphant class submarines by 2028. New-type strike weapons will be put into service in tandem with the commissioning of the new generation of strategic nuclear submarines. The active aircraft carriers of France can be equipped with nuclear-capable carrier-based aircraft, and the new generation of carriers is set to join the fleet in 2037. According to the design scheme, the new carriers will also be outfitted with the same capability.


The French air nuclear strike forces are composed of two air force squadrons and a naval aviation fighter bomber unit fulfilling nuclear strike missions with Rafale jets. The fighters' related payloads are undergoing iterative upgrades, among which the ASMP-A air-launched cruise missiles have been upgraded, and the new generation of ASN4G hypersonic missiles has entered the test phase. The French Air Force plans to equip the above missiles in the sixth-generation aircraft project Future Combat Air System (FCAS) to accomplish the modernization and upgrade of the air-based nuclear platforms.


In terms of the capital chain, France invested EUR 5.6 billion (about USD 6.06 billion) for nuclear forces upgrade in 2023, while the budget for this field in 2024 is edging towards EUR 6 billion, and Macron has stated to continue to increase the investment in 2025.


In the past two years, due to influences of local conflicts in Europe, European countries have shown an inclination to align with NATO, while the latter has also demonstrated its so-called strength to protect Europe through actions such as the "Steadfast Noon" nuclear exercise. The recent construction of NATO's largest military base in Europe by Romania and the embrace of NATO military deployment by Poland and the Baltic coastal countries have dampened the European defense autonomy concept to some extent.


Being the only country in the EU possessing nuclear weapons and also the advocate of European defense autonomy, France's overt demonstration of nuclear strength targets conveys the notion of nuclear-extended deterrence to other European countries and denotes its nuclear protection major power status. In addition, since the Olaf Scholz administration came to power, Germany has slavishly followed the US and seen consistent record-breaking weaponry construction and a tendency to surpass France in the military budget allocation and evolving military strength. Macron's unveiling of the nuclear trump card this time aims at proclaiming the country's leadership in Europe.


Some foreign media remarked that Macron's direct endorsement of the nuclear arsenal is also relevant to economic factors. Previously, a submarine order contract worth tens of billions of US dollars between France and Australia was spoiled by the US and the UK with huge economic losses as a consequence. The UK and Australia recently re-collaborated to sign a contract worth up to GBP 2.4 billion (about USD 3.03 billion) for the construction of nuclear reactor facilities, and France hopes to retake its standing through the nuclear arsenal upgrade. Moreover, as France is bidding for a carrier aircraft project of India with its Rafale jets, it emphasizes the tactical nuclear attack performance of the fighters in a bid to promote their export.


Besides, for some time, in the game with major powers outside the region, France is witnessing a waning of its influence over Africa, one of its traditional spheres of influence, and has been utterly humiliated by being consistently excluded in the enterprise investment and compelled to withdraw troops in the region. France frequently demonstrates its determination for overseas military deployment and its strategic strike capabilities in the superpower games in Europe, a manifestation of the overflow of its dissatisfactions in the diplomatic field into the defense realm. It should be pointed out that should France expand the nuclear weapon deployment scale or deploy nuclear strike platforms in sensitive maritime and airspace domains, it could potentially lead to an escalation of the global nuclear posture.


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