Jeffrey LewisFrench Nuclear Reductions

Click on the image for the AFP story, which has the best images, including Sarko talking and, my favorite, Sarko climbing down into a hatch.

Launching Le Terrible, France’s new SSBN, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced reductions in France’s arsenal.

The recommendations were more adventurous than press reporting on the Livre Blanc had suggested.

Here is the text of the speech (in French; you can also watch it, though again en français). The important part is:

Ceci m’a conduit à décider une nouvelle mesure de désarmement : pour la composante aéroportée, le nombre d’armes nucléaires, de missiles, et d’avions sera réduit d’un tiers.

J’ai également décidé que la France pouvait et devait être transparente sur son arsenal nucléaire, comme personne au monde ne l’a encore fait.

Après cette réduction, notre arsenal comprendra moins de 300 têtes nucléaires. C’est la moitié du nombre maximum de têtes que nous ayons eu pendant la guerre froide.

En donnant cette information, la France est pleinement transparente car elle n’a aucune autre arme que celles de ses stocks opérationnels.

In case you don’t speak French (or date a French speaker or know how to use GoogleTranslate), Sarkozy will cut the air-delivered leg by 1/3, bringing the total force below 300 warheads or half the number during the Cold War (aka la guerre froide). France keeps no warheads in reserve.

This is a significant step in transparency for the French, who have been cagey about the size of their force.

Sarkozy’s announcement also calls into question existing estimates of the size of the French force — others have asserted 60 aircraft delivered warheads and 288 warheads (6 × 16) for three of four SSBNs for a total of 348. One cannot cut the aircraft delivered warheads by 1/3 and end up with less than 300 warheads. So, presumably, French SSBNs are either loaded with less than 6 warheads per missile or less than 16 missiles per submarine.

The French could, for example, load four warheads on 16 missiles across four boats for a total of 256. Cut the aircraft delivered warheads from 60 to 40, and one goes from 316 to 296.

Your guess is as good as mine.


  1. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Do the math: the French SSBNs are just too big and concentrate too many missiles on one boat. (See previous comment on Chinese SSBNs)

    That is what happens when military bureaucracies keep churning out the same stuff as they had during the cold war even as the strategic environment changed. The French would be better off with more smaller boats with a smaller missile loadout per boat.

    I always thought that Le Terrible refers to the violence it does to the French defense budget rather than to the damage it is likely to cause any enemy.

    These SSBN are the modern version of the Maginot Line.

  2. Bruno Tertrais (History)

    In January 2006, Chirac announced that some of the M45 SLBMs now carried a smaller number than the maximum of 6 TN75 warheads, allowing for more flexibility in targeting.

    The number of 60 air-delivered weapons is a assumption that was made by open sources but not confirmed publicly. The last detailed official description of the French nuclear arsenal was by Mitterrand in May 1994.

  3. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Oh… news on the Asia front.

    Ma YingJeou has won a convincing victory (58/42) in Taiwan’s Presidential elections.

    The question now is whether Beijing will seize the opportunity to lower tensions across the Taiwan Strait by, for example, unilaterally announcing a freeze on the numbers of MRBMs within range of Taiwan.

    Let’s see if there is mutual interest in Arms Control there.

  4. Kerbihan

    Lao Tao Ren,

    This means of course that the United States, according to your logic, are even more foolish than the French, since they have 24 missiles per boat.

    More important, this is a logic that is hard to understand. The ASW threat to modern SSBNs (especially US and French ones) is close to zero. These are the quietest subs ever built.

  5. James (History)

    I think the French declaration should be a challenge to the newly announced Strategic Posture Commission. In what scenario the US would need more than 300 nuclear weapons? Assuming land- and sea-based ICBMs can reach pretty much any corner of the globe, what enemy could survive as a centralized state after enduring even fifty or sixty nuclear strikes on population centers?

    Lao: I find myself totally in agreement with you on the issue of the submarines. Yet I doubt very much the US Navy’s follow-on to the Ohio-class will be much smaller. I did propose in another forum that they return to a missile of the Trident C4 size, which would enable them to build an SSBN of Virginia dimensions (or even a variant of that class, which would save a hell of a lot of money), but I will not hold my breath.

  6. Lao Tao Ren (History)


    Thanks for your views. I do not disagree that the US may find this force structure (big SSBNs with lots of missiles) suitable given how large the American arsenal is and how many boats they operate.

    The question is what about smaller middle powers with a much smaller arsenal and a smaller fleet?

    By having more boats that carry fewer missiles, the risk of losing any single individual boat is lessened and you simply give a potential hunter much more headaches trying to track more boats.

    I certainly concur that by the standard of radiated noise, these boats are super quiet.

    My concern is will the battlefield trade-offs change if the primary enemy is not passive, but loads of active pingers and other forms of detection that mean larger hulls / mass producing proportionately larger signatures.

    Look at the ramification of these points (which are further discussed in a much earlier posting on the Chinese boomers – you can find it by searching on my name): The French can, at best, keep 2 boats ‘on patrol’ at any given time.

    Wouldn’t it be a much more sure deterrent if the same number of warheads were distributed on twice the number of subs that are smaller? Don’t forget, another risk is loss of a sub from accidents / breakdown that is not caused by enemy action. Having more boats mean you limit the loss of any one incident.

    The most likely way these subs would be tracked by a first rate adversary would be from the moment they leave port. Chances are, rather than tracking them with a regular SSN (that is itself large and detectable), in the future, the tracking can and will be done by much smaller robotic subs. If you run into a boomer early enough in the patrol (before they have a chance to get to their patrol area and hide), and you can keep your sensors based on small robotic subs that are hard to detect hidden from them, you got them. At the right moment, the data can be relayed to either another robot ‘killer’ or any other weapons platform to take out the SSBN.

    James: If the US were to go real radical, they would build a very small boat that have as few as 4 or 6 missiles with the missile tubes laid out horizontally to give the smallest possible size.

    But that would be a radical departure from the existing ‘solution’ of big boats with lots of missiles —- which is still a viable for the US as I noted earlier. BTW, saving money is a secondary goal for me —- the goal is dispersal to more platforms to ensure the highest level of survivability.

    I originally made my case for small boats for the Chinese fleet —- which given the small number of warheads they have and their strategy of minimal means of retaliation, ought to be dispersed on many more platforms rather than concentrated in a few relatively noisy and vulnerable subs.

    The same logic would work for middle powers like France and the UK.

  7. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Look in the comment here for my objections to big SSBNs with lots of missiles:

  8. Daryl Kimball (History)

    Here is the official English translation of the key part of his remarks… Daryl Kimball.


    I would now like to address disarmament. It is a subject I would like to discuss with realism and clear-sightedness. When international security improves, France draws the consequences. It did so with the end of the Cold War.

    Rather than making speeches and promises that are not translated into deeds, France acts. We respect our international commitments, and notably the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. France has an exemplary record, unique in the world, with respect to nuclear disarmament. France was the first State, with the United Kingdom, to sign and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; the first State to decide to shut down and dismantle its facilities for the production of fissile materials for explosive purposes; the only State to have transparently dismantled its nuclear testing facility in the Pacific; the only State to have dismantled its ground-launched nuclear missiles; the only State to have voluntarily reduced the number of its nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines by a third.

    France has never engaged in the arms race. France never manufactured all the types of weapons that it was technologically capable of designing. France applies a principle of strict sufficiency: It maintains its arsenal at the lowest possible level compatible with the strategic context. I am dedicated to this principle. As soon as I assumed my duties, I asked for this strict sufficiency to be reassessed.

    This has led me to decide on a new measure of disarmament. With respect to the airborne component, the number of nuclear weapons, missiles and aircraft will be reduced by one-third.

    I have also decided that France could and should be more transparent with respect to its nuclear arsenal than anyone ever has been.

    After this reduction, I can tell you that our arsenal will include fewer than 300 nuclear warheads. That is half of the maximum number of warheads we had during the Cold War.

    In giving this information, France is completely transparent because it has no other weapons beside those in its operational stockpile.

    Furthermore, I can confirm that none of our weapons are targeted against anyone.

    Finally, I have decided to invite international experts to observe the dismantlement of our Pierrelatte and Marcoule military fissile material production facilities.

    But let us not be naïve; the very basis of collective security and disarmament is reciprocity.

    Today, eight nations in the world have declared they have conducted nuclear tests. I am proposing to the international community an action plan to which I call on the nuclear powers to resolutely commit by the 2010 NPT Conference.

    Thus I invite all countries to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, beginning with China and the United States, who signed it in 1996. It is time for it to be ratified.

    I urge the nuclear powers to dismantle all their nuclear testing sites in a manner that is transparent and open to the international community;

    I call for the immediate launching of negotiations on a treaty to ban the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons purposes, and to establish without delay a moratorium on the production of such materials;

    I invite the five nuclear weapon States recognized by the NPT to agree on transparency measures;

    I propose opening negotiations on a treaty banning short- and intermediate-range surface-to-surface missiles;

    I ask all nations to accede to and implement the Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, as France has done.

    At the same time, the entire international community must mobilize in all other fields of disarmament. Here too, France will make its contribution.

  9. anon (History)

    James, there are two logical fallicies in your assertion that the United States should not need more than 300 warheads. First 300 warheads, even if they are all operational as the French have them, does not mean 300 warheads either at sea, or, even if they are at sea, on station. Its more likely that a total of around 100 (or fewer) would be in the right location and tehnical configuration to shoot. That may still be “enough” according to your measure of shooting 50-60 warheads at major cities. Except the United States does not maintain a posture that assumes it will shoot at cities with an eye towards maximum destruction. It plans to shoot at particular weapons formations, military installations, industrial facilities, or leadership positions. 50-60 warheads may still be “enough” to serve as a credible deterrent, but you can’t sell that number to the people who really make these decisions by claiming they’d still be able to destroy lots of cities. They don’t measure capabilities or requirements that way.

  10. Kerbihan

    Lao Tao Ren,
    The trade-off betweenn numbers of platforms and number of missiles is indeed an important issue, especially in the nuclear field. However, for smaller powers such as France and the UK, it would be much more difficult to have and manage, say, a force of 8 boats with 8 missiles each – for reasons that involve operational, training and costs issues. My understanding is that the French Navy considers that the chances of a simultaneous discovery and neutralization of two SSBNs are virtually nil. You are right to point out that SSBNs are easier to discover during their the exit from port and transit to patrol areas. The key for the French Navy is to operate the SSBN force in a way that ensures that at least one boat is in a patrol area at all times (the word the French use is “dilution”, and their concept of operations is slightly different from the US, UK and Russian ones).

  11. Alex W. (History)

    Somewhat related: I don’t recall seeing it mentioned on here, but the latest issue of BAS has new estimates of the US stockpile by Norris and Kristensen. They claim that the US has basically cut its nuclear forces down to 5,400 total, 4,075 deployed, much closer to the 2012 goals but a good four year early. I thought that was pretty interesting news, and I wonder what the driving force behind this is, if true, and why it wasn’t more widely publicized, if true. Obviously the overall strategic situation is more complicated than just numbers but I found it somewhat encouraging. Link here.

  12. Vladimir

    I agree with Kerbihan, the real question is not the number of warheads but the noise maded by the subs !

  13. markus baur (History)

    Could it be that the french are also considering adding penetration aids to their missiles, thus reducing their loadout (Chevaline redux)?

  14. Lao Tao Ren (History)


    Part of the problem for the French is defining “who” is the enemy they are trying to deter / intimidate. Is it Russia/CIS? Germany? Turkey? Britain? Japan? India? China? USA? Iran? Israel? Egypt?

    If they are up against a first rate superpower, then the issue of tracking / discovery is a big deal. Against tin pot dictators, it is a non issue. Another issue is whether they want to be able to launch from different directions at one target, thus making it harder for a ABM equipped adversary to shoot down their missiles. If they are truly trying to deter multiple enemies and / or different theaters at once, one boat is a tad limited.

    As for the cost issue. Building a smaller SSBN based on the existing methods and means are not necessarily cheaper since so much of the stuff on the boat is a ‘fixed’ cost.

    I agree with you in terms of the fixed operational / training issues — especially the concern with one or more madman or defectors taking over a boat with a smaller crew. Some of these issues can be dealt with via sophisticated software / automation, but not all.

    Unless the dominant SSBN design is radically altered from the current state of the art, the cost equation can’t change.

    With new concepts, the variable costs per boat (not the development costs) can be drastically lowered, for example, by building a boat that has a hybrid diesel / electric / nuclear plant, using composite materials for parts of the hull, etc.

    One major area of savings is to explore whether fresh water and oxygen can be made more economically than the currently deployed methods that use a lot of electric power. Cut the hotel load of the sub, and you cut the power plant needs drastically. More broadly speaking, how much of the science behind closed ecosystems can be applied to make a SSBN more self-sufficient on lower levels of energy and food consumption?

    Want to think real radical? How about a ballistic missile that is powered by a scramjet for part of the way or at least to the upper atmosphere? Such a hybrid cruise/ballistic missile would be smaller and more can be carried on a smaller boat.

    A new entrant to the SSBN club with strong technical capabilities and a bit of imagination could build such an SSBN and missiles that is smaller, cheaper, and more potent.

    If I were the UK and France, I would get together and start thinking of what sort of a sea based nuclear deterrent they can afford, and what is suitable for their strategic needs when the current generation of SSBNs retire. Probably the only way Europe can afford a strong and survivable deterrent 25 years hence is if they got together and built a shared one Eurofighter style.

  15. James (History)

    Anon wrote: “Except the United States does not maintain a posture that assumes it will shoot at cities with an eye towards maximum destruction.”

    Well…if you’re not going to question your current posture, then why have a Strategic Posture Commission at all?

    I think my point what that other countries are aiming towards a minimum means of reprisal posture while the US is stuck on “counterforce” planning. But having a weapons for every enemy silo will naturally lead him to build more weapons to stay ahead of your counterforce, spurring an arms race.

    I don’t think it unreasonable to ask the Strategic Posture Commission to describe the scenario in which more than a hundred weapons are actually used. I think that a critical analysis of such a scenario would reveal it to be pretty unlikely. If the Strategic Posture Commission’s only job is to spruce up the same old Cold War plans that other nations are stepping away from, then they really are wasting their time and the US defense establishment really is stuck in 1980, much to the detriment of US security.

  16. James (History)

    Lao: I don’t think the Europeans are anxious to repeat their Eurofighter experience any time soon. I believe you are right, however, in that the future of regional nuclear powers lies in cruise missiles, not SLBMs.

  17. Lao Tao Ren (History)


    Just to clarify, I did not advocate for cruise missiles (including hypersonic varieties).

    What I am doing is to ask some basic, fundamental questions about how nuclear weapons are delivered: Missiles, aircraft (manned or unmanned), etc. and looking at how these options are now blurring with new technologies.

    The old argument for ballistic missiles is that once launched, they are virtually unstoppable. If they are solid fueled, they can be launched quickly (within minutes).

    With the deployment of ABM systems, this advantage is gradually being whittled away.

    At the same time, developments in smart, unmanned weapons platforms mean that a highly capable, fast, maneuverable, super or hyper sonic cruise missile can be nearly as difficult to stop as a ballistic missile.

    The advantage of a cruise missile lays in its small form factor, which makes it very easy to conceal and disperse. The problem, from an arms control perspective, is that it is virtually impossible to distinguish a nuclear from a conventional cruise missile without a close-up inspection.

    The more the categories blur, the harder it becomes to count, control, and gasp, limit arms.

  18. James (History)

    Lao: I agree to all of that. Your last point, about the difficulty in distinguishing between a nuclear cruise missile and a conventional one, is the reason I have long opposed using ICBMs to deliver conventional payloads.

    But the fact is that, your indifference to saving money notwithstanding, financial considerations do play an enormous role in strategic thinking. The cruise missile is a neat, mature technology with plenty of room for further development. It carries low technological risks and, as you say, it mates well to a lot of small, stealthy, and ultimately expendable platforms. It also has a lot of useful non-nuclear tasks that will amortize development costs.

    It seems harder and harder for smaller navies to justify spending money on developing a new ballistic missile and a vessel dedicated solely to carrying them. I agree that there are significant arms control ramifications associated with commingling nuclear and conventional versions of the same weapon on a general-purpose submarine, but that might be something the world has to deal with.

    Unless we want to give up nuclear weapons entirely, of course. I’m open to that solution.

  19. Lao Tao Ren (History)


    I am not totally indifferent to costs (not a defense contractor on a cost plus contract).

    For second rate powers like the UK and France, nukes on cruise missiles launched via conventional torpedo tubes is a real economic way to go.

    However, there is still a need for the dedicated SSBN that I feel can be met by a much smaller (4 to 6 ICBM) boat.

    ICBMs have the range to greatly expand the patrol area they can hide and still be able to deliver. Doing so also makes it harder for ABM systems to cover the approaches.

    Work out the cubic volume of solid fuel needed for an ICBM and warhead(s) / penetration aid system with say, 10,000km range, and you can see there is no way a regular SSN can carry them. Particularly because existing SLBMs missiles are made short and squat to fit upright.

    That equation changes with a hybrid cruise/ballistic design. But that means developing a new launch system and SSBN from scratch…. $$$$$

    So what we have is a great advantage for a new power that do not have a whole existing fleet of SSBNs and missiles to develop a ‘clean sheet’ solution.

    It was very hard for admirals to scrap their battleships and to see the glory go to pilots on carriers. The same goes for this.

    In a way, I am sort of amazed that the Indians, Chinese, and other rising NWS haven’t figured this out.

  20. James (History)

    Lao: ah, but the heart of my proposal is that the D5 is replaced with the C4 with its 4600 mile range. The C4 served aboard the Benjamin Franklin class, which was about the same size as the Virginias.

    However, as you say, the Navy simply doesn’t believe that “less is more.” A 4600 mile range is less than the 9000 miles of the D5 and this would mean the submarine would have to be that much closer to the target nation. Certainly it is possible to imagine scenarios where this is a disadvantage, but if the missiles were distributed among a larger number of dual-use platforms I think it most likely that a submarine would be within range of the target.

    And if the US Navy is hidebound, the same goes for up-and-coming navies, which historically have imitated the design programs of the established ones, even if they don’t suffer from the political circumstances and bureaucratic inertia that make those programs inevitable. I think it was Alfred Vagts that pointed out that if Tirpitz had been obsessed with submarines instead of battleships, the Germans might have won WW1.

  21. Mars Invader (History)

    I noticed that Daryl Kimball of ACA posted an exert from the official translation of Sarko’s speech. Does any know where the full version can be found?

  22. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Completely agree with James.

    The only thing that is going to push a rethink of the present SSBN model is if some bright eyed Rear Admiral on the make finally figured out that a major competing power, maybe Russia, China, or India, have a proven and deployed capability to take out their big boats.

    In the case of the US fleet, even a partial implementation of your ideas (nukes on dual use boats) would lead to a much harder to eliminate deterrent.

    A even better idea —- stick the nukes on hypersonic cruise missiles perhaps in specially lengthened torpedo tubes (that can revert to shooting regular fish), and you might have a capability for very little incremental money.

    Don’t feel too bad, James. The Dreadnought class battleship was invented by an Italian, who published the concept because he couldn’t convince his own country to build it.

  23. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    From CBO Report

    “In addition to the attack submarine forces, the new 30-year shipbuilding plan
    would maintain a force of 14 ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) through 2035.
    Consequently, beginning in 2022, the Navy would need to buy replacement
    SSBNs at a rate of one per year. The design, cost, and capabilities of that replace-
    ment vessel are one of the most significant uncertainties in the Navy’s and CBO’s
    analyses. The Navy’s plan assumes that the first ship of a new class of ballistic
    Page 13
    missile submarines—an SSBN—would cost $3.8 billion and that subsequent
    ships would cost about $3.0 billion. The average cost for 14 SSBNs would be
    about $3.1 billion.
    Some Navy officials believe that meeting the cost target for a new ballistic missile
    submarine will probably require a modified and enlarged Virginia class submarine
    to replace the Ohio class.
    Such an approach, however, raises several issues. The
    D-5 Trident missile used on the Ohio class SSBNs could not be accommodated on
    a modified Virginia class submarine unless the missile tubes were installed at an
    angle. Because all previous ballistic missile submarines have had their missile
    tubes installed in a vertical position in the hull, the Navy is not certain whether the
    D-5 missiles could be successfully launched from angled tubes. Alternatively, the
    Navy could build an SSBN based on the Virginia class but then design and build a
    new set of missiles—at a significant cost—to fit within the shorter missile tubes
    that the new class would carry.
    Adopting an approach consistent with the Navy’s plan, CBO assumed that the
    Navy would buy 14 new SSBNs and that those submarines would be smaller than
    today’s Ohio class SSBNs. CBO assumed a new design displacing around 15,000
    tons submerged—making the submarine roughly twice the size of a Virginia but
    nearly 4,000 tons less than an Ohio. Such a submarine could be equipped with 16
    tubes for launching Trident missiles, rather than the 24 tubes in the Ohio class. On
    the basis of what the Navy is paying today for a Virginia class submarine, CBO es-
    timates that the average cost of the new SSBN would be about $6 billion each. A
    smaller new design with only 12 or eight missile tubes could cost $700 million to
    $1.4 billion less, respectively.”

  24. James (History)

    Lao: so it seems we aren’t just tilting at windmills. I think if the Navy gives up the 9000-mile range D5 for a shorter missile on a smaller sub it will be economics, not strategy, that drives the decision.

    But a single, common submarine design with as few as six shorter-range missiles (possibly with three warheads instead of the eight on the C4, to recover some of the lost range) will disperse the deterrent and make it that much safer.

    Incidentally, the proliferation of wake-detecting radars and improvements in magnetic detection argue against large submarines. Smaller is the next fashion in submarine design, in my view.

  25. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Geeze, James, have you been reading my posts on this blog?

    I would be for a wholly new encapsulated missile (thin, long, intended to be stowed horizontally) that is “pushed out” of the sub, whereupon it surfaces and launches itself.

    By doing so, we also remove the need for aerodynamic tricks like the needle which is needed for the short, squat, big diameter things because we launch vertically from a hull that is limited in circumference.

    Another thing I have been advocating is the adoption of composites for an outer hull that can be made slab sided to increase stealthiness.

    Smaller, stealthier, longer endurance is what it is all about.

    The future enemy of the big boats will be highly capable robotic subs and sensors that don’t have much to lose from giving away their position in a hunt.

  26. Vladimir (History)

    “Part of the problem for the French is defining “who” is the enemy they are trying to deter / intimidate. Is it Russia/CIS? Germany? Turkey? Britain? Japan? India? China? USA? Iran? Israel? Egypt?

    If they are up against a first rate superpower, then the issue of tracking / discovery is a big deal. Against tin pot dictators, it is a non issue. Another issue is whether they want to be able to launch from different directions at one target, thus making it harder for a ABM equipped adversary to shoot down their missiles. If they are truly trying to deter multiple enemies and / or different theaters at once, one boat is a tad limited. “

    Are you naïve Lao Tao Ren or are you kidding ?

  27. Vladimir (History)

    French work hard on the drone subs, Drone subs are the future.

  28. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Yup, I am Vlad…

    Explain to me what threat Russia / CIS really pose to France.

    The way the world is evolving, it is a even bet whether Russia needs to join NATO to deter the Chinese, or alternatively, join with the Chinese to deter NATO.

  29. Vladimir

    Sorry Lao,
    But for the french the problem is more complex. Russia, China, Nato but where is the Europe ?
    French are europeans !

  30. Lao Tao Ren (History)


    I can see Russia is still a ‘threat’ though I can think of relatively few scenarios that will result in a clash between France and Russia (notwithstanding the rise of another Napoleon who want to conquer Russia, which is, hopefully, remote).

    China? I am kind of scratching my head. Yes, the possibility of conflict with Europe exist, but that is pretty low. Perhaps if France recognized an independent Taiwan or Tibet or annexed Taiwan.

    If we take out NATO which are ‘Europeans’ which might include the ‘near abroad’ CIS states, the most likely enemy is going to be Islam.

    For this, I can see any number of scenarios leading France into conflict with Muslim states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, etc. which are all in its back yard.

    If I am French, I would worry about this the most.

  31. Vladimir

    A clash between France and Russia is absolutly stupid. And fight the Saudi Arabia is fight America ok ? it’s not the way we walk ! WE ARE EUROPEANS !