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France's Silent Strategic Revolution

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France has always maintained that the possession of nuclear weapons first and foremost provides a deterrent to aggressive acts against its interests. However, it retains the policy option of using nuclear weapons in a further first strike capacity. The French strategic doctrine has always been and remains one of crushing retaliation, in contrast to the US and UK strategy of allowing for more flexible responses such as a gradual, "pre-strategic" use of nuclear weapons.

In the light of this policy divide, the negative French reaction to the 1999 US National Missile Defence Act was entirely consistent . Paris considered anti-missile defence unnecessary and destabilizing. Since the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the doctrine of Mutually Assured destruction remained the foundations of French strategic thinking, missile defence appeared to jeopardize the status quo and risk starting a new arms race with Russia.

Even more fundamentally, however, Paris feared that missile defense would undermine its nuclear posture. The French position was clear. Nuclear capabilities, it insisted, must remain the sole strategic system protecting the country. Any missile shield was useless at best and damaging at worst to its principle of independent deterrence based on reciprocated nuclear response to any form of aggression against its vital interests. This doctrine effectively ruled out French participation in a new defence strategic system from the outset.

During the recent Lisbon Summit NATO's member states -- including France -- agreed to a new Strategic Concept that included a missile defence system. President Sarkozy's approval constituted a rupture in France's long-standing opposition to strategic missile defence. Recognizing options other than "all or nothing," France no longer blocked NATO's use of new defensive weapons.

On closer inspection, however, this shift was anticipated by a series of gradual steps. In a speech in 2006 in l'Ile Longue, President Chirac went some way towards revising policy: a missile shield, he announced, was not -- as some had feared before -- detrimental to nuclear deterrence; indeed, it could complete the deterrence policy by reducing "France's vulnerabilities" even if it was no substitute for nuclear deterrence. In 2008, President Sarkozy repeated in a speech in Cherbourg that a missile shield capable of offering protection against "a limited strike could be a useful complement to nuclear deterrence, without being a substitute for it." Equally, the Defence and Security White Book of 2008 called for an autonomous ballistic missile early warning system by 2020.

What caused this shift? Expert analysis concluded that missile defense would become a reality to be deployed with or without Paris. Policy makers realized that adjusting to, rather than resisting, new realities offered the best means of preserving the credibility of its nuclear deterrence. In concrete terms, its nuclear doctrine needed to be adapted to the likely deployment of a missile defense system covering Europe.

Hitherto, French anti-missile doctrine was limited to protecting military forces deployed abroad. Under NATO's new Strategic Concept, this theatre missile defence should be replaced by more comprehensive missile protection that would protect the civilian populations of the territories of the member states. This marks another strategic rupture in French defence doctrine.

"If, some day, a missile strike occurs, it would be desirable if we could intercept it" President Sarkozy stated in Lisbon. His seemingly banal comment in fact gets to the heart of the dilemma for France because it accepts that deterrence can fail to prevent the initial strike. An effective deterrent should forestall any country from firing a missile against NATO's members because they would be too aware of the high-cost of nuclear retaliation -- war would thus be avoided because a disproportional and powerful threat is made apparent from the outset.

If France fully accepts the principle of missile defense, then details of the plan remain to be seen. It remains unclear whose terms it will be on, who will pay, and who will benefit from manufacturing it. If a ballistic missile is launched, how NATO should react as it would be impossible to know at the time of the alert whether the warhead is nuclear or conventional? More pertinently, enemies remain unidentified. Since Russia is now officially a partner rather than a foe, the only potential threat seems from Iran or North Korea. It will prove difficult to win public support in France until satisfactory answers are provided. Despite such ruptures, French officials have not yet admitted the strategy change.