In a recent study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, it was found that all 5 members of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, and the 3 other nuclear states, are all either planning on expanding their nuclear arsenals, as in the case of China and Pakistan, or spending a great deal of money on replacing and maintaining weapons systems indefinitely. France and the UK, Europe’s only independent nuclear powers, are both planning on renewing their existing submarine systems, but in a time when defence budgets are being squeezed and economies falter, can these two military powers afford to maintain their nuclear deterrent as well as maintain their conventional commitments?

The UK’s trident submarine based system as recently been the topic of much debate. With its ties to a split in coalition government and implication in Scottish independence, there have been a growing number of opposing voices being heard. However, as it stands the government has made very strong hints that it will be pushing forward with the £100 billion rearmament, which consists of 4 new Submarines, as well as new infrastructure and missiles. The Continuous At Sea Deterrence (CASD) model has been branded “outdated and ludicrous” by former defence minister Nick Harvey, and even Michael Portillo, the defence secretary in the latter stages of John Major’s government, has voiced his total opposition to a system he feels offers no deterrence to Britain’s security threats, a view shared by many both within the political and civilian sphere, but also in some parts of the military establishment, specifically the Army.

The French Force de Frappe is made up of both a CASD submarine system as well as an air delivery system. Both these delivery systems have been scheduled for replacement, with the current Mirage 2000N jets to be replaced in the role by Dassault Rafale F3. The submarine system replacement is still being discussed, it could simply be a case of redesigning the missiles and warheads, to a complete new set of submarines complete with infrastructure. Many in France have been dismayed by the lack or any real debate from the political establishment regarding nuclear weapons, both Hollande and Sarkozy had an identical policy towards the deterrent, and many in French ministries have complained of Frances nuclear spending being ring fenced, and there are worried both in the French and US armies that the French conventional forces could be reduced to an army of badly trained “gendarmerie,”

The logic behind the rearmament from both governments has been inconsistent and often vague. The need for a deterrence is highlighted, but deterrence from what exactly? The major security threats to the UK, France, and the whole of Europe for that matter is terrorism, cyber-warfare, and instability in the middle-east, all threats that nuclear weapons, designed for levelling Eastern Bloc cities are completely ineffective at deterring.

The threat of states such as Iran and North Korea, which both Hollande and Cameron have reference in justifying a continuous nuclear deterrence is simply not credible. Both France and the UK are not so strategically significant to the point they would present the obvious choices for these countries to attack, such as Israel for Iran and the US or South Korea for North Korea. These two states attempting to hit the UK or France is as ridiculous as Mexico needing nuclear weapons to defend itself from Vietnamese aggression. It lacks any credibility and would be an act of unbelievable stupidity from their part, when strategic objectives demand the destruction of much closer states.

There is also the mentioned threat that nuclear weapons pose to both the UK and France’s own military force. With huge sums of money set aside for these rearmament projects, conventional forces are being decimated. Equipment expenditure is failing to keep up with the needs of a modern military force, and both are shedding personnel from all three military services. This has reached such a point, that there are many in the US government and military command who feel that the USA’s biggest military partners in Europe, are no longer capable of maintaining a supportive role to US foreign policy, having had their operation capabilities so drastically reduced.


What is the solution then? There are calls for complete disarmament, but there are very few in government that are willing to support this, though some, such as Vince Cable talk of it as being a way to make substantial long term savings, what will be playing on politicians both sides of the channel, is the idea of being the President or Prime Minister who, in a future nuclear crisis, was responsible for giving up the independent nuclear deterrence. Thus it seems it is not a credible option for now.

Another option could simply be to scale back the basis of the deterrence, instead of having four submarines (the minimum needed to ensure that there is always at least one submarine on patrol) the forces could be reduced to three or two with significant savings, France could decommission its air delivery system, much like it cancelled its land based deterrent in the mid 1990s. There are quite literally dozens of ways to reduce the costs of the systems, but these have simply been disregarded as either unworkable, or in the long run, more expensive than the current system.

There is one more option then to reducing the costs of the systems, whilst maintaining the CASD dimension to the deterrence, and that is spreading the cost of these system, either between the French and British as an act of bi-state agreement, or through the EU, effectively passing the nuclear weapons over to a body funded and accountable to the EU political and military structures.

The bi-state sharing model has been considered. There have been tentative talks for some years between heads of state from both countries in regards to this. Though no real plans have ever been publicly admitted, sharing the rearmament and operational costs between them, and co-ordinating patrols so that there is at least one submarine from either country out on duty could save both countries billions in savings in design, manufacture, operation and maintenance. Both countries now posses foreign policies that align on nearly every occasion, not only in recent engagements and crises such as Syria, Mali and Libya, but in older conflicts such as the civil conflicts that erupted as a result of Yugoslavia descending into ethanol-nationalist brutality. With greater co-ordination between both countries’ command structures and various agreements that provide military support to operations, sharing the nuclear deterrent seems an obvious avenue for further military co-ordination.

The EU model presents a more problematic issue. Though in theory the UK and France, due to membership of various organizations such as NATO, WEU and the EU, do provide some level of nuclear security to the continent, and it is difficult to imagine a scenario where, for instance, Germany or Italy were threatened with Nuclear attack, and the UK or France just sat idly by. If this is the case then it makes sense to spread the cost of the systems to all members of the EU, who gain some benefit from it. This is where the more serious difficulties would present themselves. National governments of France and the UK would be very unwilling to hand over control of the nuclear deterrent over to a EU body, well out of their direct control, and similarly, in light of the recent fall out between France and the Uk and much of neutral north and central Europe over arm sales to Syria, it is hard to imagine states such as the Czech Republic or Austria being willing to fork over money to system designed specifically for the large scale flattening of civilian centres.

Thus the need for nuclear weapons in the UK and France remains contentious, there are certainly stronger voices emerging from those that no longer see the benefits or logic behind maintaining an expensive relic from a different age, but as we can see there are options. At this time however it seems that rearmament is inevitable in both countries, and what has been lost is not only an opportunity to reduce to number of nuclear weapons in the world, but also a chance to have Europe’s two largest military powers integrate their forces for the continents and both countries combined benefit.

BY: Jack Briggs