French President Nicolas Sarkozy affirmed his country's commitment to a nuclear deterrent March 21. Sarkozy's statement occurred before he heads to London the week of March 23 to discuss a French bid for full membership and participation in NATO. While neither step will alter Europe's military balance significantly, the second move will alter the political balance at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy expressed his country's continued commitment to maintaining a nuclear arsenal today at the inauguration of the country's fourth and final ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) of the Triumphant class, known as the Terrible. Separately, France is making preparations to rejoin NATO. FREE PODCASTMEMBERS-ONLY PODCAST While neither represents a meaningful shift in the global military balance, the latter holds very real consequences for the political balance in Brussels. Sarkozy's presidency already has clearly marked the end of Gaullism. In terms of the country's strategic deterrent, things have changed little. France sought nuclear weapons to ensure its military independence, and the decision to sustain what has become a legacy arsenal was made long ago. Sarkozy affirmed Paris' commitment to possessing a nuclear deterrent at his country's nuclear submarine yard in Cherbourg, where he was present for the inauguration of the country's newest SSBN. But while he celebrated a submarine that displaces some 14,000 tons and will carry one of the world's newest submarine-launched ballistic missiles, the news that carried the day was his announcement of a small reduction in the French air force and navy's air-launched nuclear arsenal — a nod to his domestic audience. That reduction is a military move to streamline France's nuclear arsenal. Unlike London, Paris intends to maintain both an air-launched and a submarine-based component to its strategic deterrent. The two countries otherwise largely have come to the same conclusion about the structure of their nuclear arsenals. France relies very heavily — and Britain completely — on a small SSBN fleet, just barely large enough to sustain a continually patrolling presence of one boat. Both have long chosen to maintain legacy nuclear arsenals (despite the substantial cost): the Terrible's launch and Sarkozy's announced reduction are the product of long-standing force structure decisions and procurement choices. Meanwhile, plans are under way in Paris to return to full membership in NATO. Sarkozy will travel to London the week of March 23 to discuss the reintegration. Here again, militarily, the change is largely cosmetic. An inaugural member of the alliance, France withdrew from the integrated military command structure in 1966 when Charles de Gaulle was president, though France remained an alliance member. Throughout the Cold War, the French military continued to cooperate and coordinate with NATO militarily. Especially in recent years, it has chosen to participate in new structures within the alliance such as the Rapid Reaction Force and the Allied Command Transformation. At present, 1,500 French troops are deployed in Afghanistan and participating with NATO reconstruction efforts there. (France is also one of the global leaders in deploying to such places as Chad, where NATO has declined to get involved.) But while no tectonic shift is under way in the military balance in Europe, such a shift looms at NATO headquarters in Brussels. Though France cannot just flip a switch and participate on equal footing with long-standing members of NATO, the country brings a great deal of political, economic and military heft to the table. Once reintegrated, Paris will be a powerful new ally to be courted in Brussels.