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French Cuts Spur Debate on Nuke Deterrence Budget

Jan. 8, 2013 - 08:05AM   |  
By PIERRE TRAN   |   Comments
A Rafale fighter jet takes off in 2007. India is mulling a large increase in the number of Rafale jets it will order, sources told AFP.
A Rafale fighter jet takes off in 2007. India is mulling a large increase in the number of Rafale jets it will order, sources told AFP. (Dassault Aviation)
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PARIS — An impending wave of cuts in public spending in France calls for a debate on the elements that make up the country’s nuclear deterrent, with a big question mark over whether to maintain the carrier-borne air wing, a report from influential think tank Centre d’Etude et de Prospective Stratégique (CEPS) said.

The report, “Defense Without the Cosmetics: A Platform of Proposals for Defense and National Security,” seeks to open public debate on the traditionally sacred and unquestioned realm of nuclear deterrence ahead of the publication of the official white paper on defense and national security, due in a few weeks.

The CEPS report is due to be published at the end of this month.

The call to update nuclear doctrine comes as concern rises in some quarters over what is seen as an attempt by a military pro-nuclear lobby to impose an artificial “consensus,” two civilian sources said.

“It’s locked down,” a defense expert said. Anyone who questions the deterrent doctrine is subject to “eviction or ridicule.”

Short-Circuiting the Minister

In what is described as a “short circuiting” of the defense minister, officers from the Chief of the Defense Staff pushed to block any policy changes in the deterrent force at a restricted council meeting at the Elysée presidential office, a political source said.

The meeting, held in the second half of December, was an attempt by the military to persuade the president, the political authority on the nuclear deterrent, to “change nothing,” the source said.

The defense minister and his private office realize the budgetary weight of the nuclear force and the decisions needed for future-generation programs, but there is little room for discussion as the concept of operations has been frozen for decades, the source said.

A spokesman for the Chief of the Defense Staff declined to comment.

Critics argue it is not a case of giving up the nuclear deterrent, but of taking a hard look at the cost and benefits of the components. Spending on the deterrent consumes about a third of the 10 billion euro ($13 billion) annual equipment budget.

Around 130 million euros of the annual 750 million euro research and technology budget is spent on studies for the deterrent, and the amount is expected to double by 2016, then decrease while the development money will rise, a July French Senate report said.

“At a time when political debate focuses on getting out of civil nuclear power and the urgent need to reduce public spending, the relevance of military nuclear policy has to be proven, explained — because the citizen pays,” the CEPS report said.

Given the budgetary constraints, a review is needed of the three components, the report said.

The naval element consists of a fleet of four nuclear ballistic-missile submarines, escorted by nuclear-powered attack submarines, and an airborne component with the land-based and carrier-borne Rafale fighter jet.

Cuts to Carrier Fighters

The CEPS report sees the carrier-based fighter as a possible place to cut.

“The fleet air arm nuclear force, which is only operational when our sole aircraft carrier is available, is this as indispensable as in the past? In view of cost/benefit, should this be maintained?” the report asks.

“What’s the use of having a deterrent for six months at a time?” Loïc Tribot La Spière, chief executive of CEPS, said in a telephone interview, referring to the Charles de Gaulle carrier’s six months at sea.

Military spending will fall in the coming years, and the proportion in deterrence will climb, the political source said.

There needs to be debate on topics such as the range of ballistic missiles, the number of submarines and possible cooperation with Britain beyond research on warheads, the source said.

Britain, for example, is due to decide in 2016 whether to maintain four missile submarines or cut to three when it signs construction contracts for the Successor next-generation fleet.

The French Navy’s M51.1 ballistic missile, which entered service in 2010 and will replace the M45 weapon, has a range beyond 6,000 kilometers. The M51.2 version, due to enter service in 2015, will have a reach “well beyond that,” the French Navy said on its website.

A decision is due by the middle of this year on a development contract for the M51.3 upgrade, aimed at fitting a third stage to the missile, for entry into service in 2020.

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