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Alexander Yermakov

Research Fellow at the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations under the Russian Academy of Sciences, RIAC expert

Although the East-West confrontation in Europe appears to have subsided 25 years ago, nuclear weapons would not leave the region’s agenda for long. Special attention has traditionally been given to U.S. missiles, while the British and French arsenals do match the Chinese potential but are undeservedly neglected. Remember that European nuclear assets will not only remain in place but rather soon undergo a substantial upgrading.

Although the East-West confrontation in Europe appears to have subsided 25 years ago, nuclear weapons would not leave the region’s agenda for long. Special attention has traditionally been given to U.S. missiles, while the British and French arsenals do match the Chinese potential but are undeservedly neglected. Remember that European nuclear assets will not only remain in place but rather soon undergo a substantial upgrading.

Gentlemen Take Things on Trust

The discovery of the enormous energy concealed in the atomic nucleus is something one can hardly overestimate. We are used to ascribing the creation of nuclear weapons to the United States but it is European scientists who played a major role in the success of the Manhattan Project.

Prior to World War II, a French team led by Jean Frédéric Joliot-Curie was far ahead of everyone else engaged in research on chain reactions. In addition, France bought the reserves of heavy water needed for building a heavy water reactor via a special operation performed on the eve of Norway's occupation. After France’s defeat, some of the scientists and the heavy water stock were taken to Great Britain, which thus received an edge in the development of the A-bomb. In exchange for their patents, the French obtained guarantees for obtaining shared research results.
The first British nuclear tests, 1952

Unable to develop nuclear weapons on their own, the British soon transferred theirs plus the French achievements to the Americans which substantially helped them in the Manhattan Project. Some British scientists even temporarily moved to the U.S. and Canada, and in August 1943, London and Washington signed the Quebec Agreement, which obliged them to use the A-bomb only upon a joint decision [1] and refrain from communicating nuclear weapons data to any other party [2]. Proceeding from these accords, the British waived their commitments to the French, while after WWII, the Americans followed suit and refused to share anything related to the "common" nuclear weapons.

In the post-war period, Great Britain still hoped to retain its superpower status, and in 1947 its government decided to develop its own juggernaut, partly because of the optimism generated by the return of physicists who had been involved in the U.S. project. However, the British researchers turned to be insufficiently knowledgeable and British coffers happened to be scarce. As a result, London tested its first nuclear charge only on October 3, 1952 in offshore Australia. British nuclear weapons were made ready for action in 1955, when the first squadron of the Royal Air Force was equipped with the Vickers-made Valiant long-range jet bombers. However, by that time the Soviet Union was already an established nuclear power [4].

Both Britain and France expected to use the A-bomb for independent great-power play, but both of them flopped during the Suez crisis, receiving only national humiliation in the face of the direct military threat from the USSR and cast aside by the Americans who were uneager to provide assistance because the duo failed to harmonize their gamble with their Big Brother.

After the Suez affair, Europeans went on with their nuclear weapons tests, although in sync with the United States. In 1957, the first thermonuclear devices were tested, which lessened Washington's antipathy to transferring nuclear technologies. In 1958, the United States and Great Britain signed the Mutual Defense Agreement [5], which provided London with access to the state-of-the-art U.S. achievements [6]. Instead of completing the development of their own thermonuclear assets, the British copied the American Mk.82 warhead. U.S. bombs were also planned to be equipped on British bombers, should the need arise.

The Suez crisis also hit France. Its pre-war nuclear successes notwithstanding, Paris could hardly concentrate on advancing its nuclear potential because in the first post-war decade, the Fourth Republic was shattered by political crises. Practical work was resumed only in 1955 and was stepped up after the turmoil abated. When Charles de Gaulle came to power in 1958, the nuclear efforts received a fresh start because the general took up an independent defense policy, and having a national nuclear force became much more than a matter of prestige.

Mercury Press / Ian Proctor
Vulcan Bombers, Royal Air Force

The French held their maiden nuclear test on February 13, 1960 in the Algerian Sahara. In 1963 they launched series production of the AN-11 bomb and in 1964 delivered the Mirage IV long-range bomber. The aircraft was based on a heavy fighter design and was meant as an intermediary solution to be employed until the ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) were put into service.

Crash Diving

France began working on SSBNs, the most sophisticated carrier of strategic nuclear deterrence immediately after the Gaullists came to power, with the maiden submarine laid down in 1958, i.e. one year later than the Americans and at the same time as the Soviets [7]. Unable to build a sufficiently compact reactor, the French sufficed with adapting the experimental diesel electric submarine S655 Gymnote [8].

In turn, in the late 1950s the British failed in their attempt to create the Blue Streak ballistic missile, and in 1960 joined the American airborne ballistic missile project Skybolt. However, in 1962 the program was shut down as the U.S. chose the SSBN scenario with Polaris missiles. On December 22, 1962 the two sides met in the Bahamas to sign the Nassau Pact that prescribed the sale of Polaris missiles and assistance in the development of nuclear submarines and warheads to the British, while the Americans received a base for their missile carriers in Scotland [9] and the formal transfer of British submarines under NATO command. In order to fill the gap, the air-launched Blue Steel cruise missile was developed [10].

The SSBN Resolution, the first one in the Royal Navy, was laid in February 1964 and commissioned in October 1967. All in all, four such submarines were built, each carrying 16 Polaris A-3 missiles [11], the minimum quantity sufficient for combat patrol with at least one SSBN. As a result, Britain was able to give up their nuclear air component, with the Blue Steel decommissioned in 1970. Some of the aircraft were scrapped, some converted into tankers, and some retargeted to tactical missions. Britain discarded its remaining nuclear bombs in 1998, while after the 1980s, the Jaguar and Tornado strike aircraft have been used as the main carrier.

Paris received a similar offer but flatly refused [12]. The de Gaulle government found it proper to ensure national security by keeping the strategic arsenal away from NATO, and preferred to drop the fetters of the transatlantic bloc in March 1966.
The Royal Navy Resolution-class SSBNs

Paris insisted on maximum independence in providing defense proceeding from the logic that the U.S. could either keep out of a nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union in Europe if found it harmful to its national interests, or launch a nuclear war against the USSR voluntarily by neglecting their allies. In the latter case, U.S. military infrastructure in Europe would be the first on the Soviet attack list.

According to French strategists, the removal of NATO infrastructure by itself was hardly enough to make the country secure in the midst of the Cold War. Only possession of an effective nuclear deterrent would offer the chance to remain neutral (if necessary) if a European war broke out. The French developed the concept of containing the stronger by the weaker through dissuasion, which meant that France could evade an attack by threatening nuclear strikes against major Soviet cities [13]. Since the French arsenal was definitely smaller, no attacks against Soviet military and industrial infrastructure were planned, while tactical nuclear weapons were intended as the last French warning, i.e. their use against possibly a minor target was to demonstrate a readiness to resort to strategic nuclear assets. Conventional forces were to unveil the intentions of an attacking enemy.

However, it hardly implied that France would not join the Western alliance in a war against the Eastern bloc. The point was not to be drawn in automatically. Notably, London took a drastically different stand, having heightened great-power ambitions and eager to act as the American unsinkable aircraft carrier since the very beginning of the Cold War.

The French had to pay for their independence through the need to develop their own munitions and carriers. In 1964, they built the SSBN Redoutable that became operationally ready in 1971. Finally, six submarines of this class were built, each having 16 tubes for nationally developed missiles, from the M1 to M4 [14].
A French Air Force Mirage IV

France also completed its land-based nuclear assets in 1971 by putting on full combat alert S2 silo-launched ballistic missiles. They boasted a range of about 3,000 km that was sufficient for reaching the European part of the USSR. Eighteen silos for such missiles were built on the Albion Plateau in southeastern France, while in the 1980s these were replaced with thermonuclear S3 missiles.

Of course, small-scale nuclear programs also existed, both theater and intermediate-range weapons for handling diverse missions. Among them, one could mention the ASMP air-launched missile that entered service in the second half of the 1980s. The small-size cruise missile features a velocity of 3,600 km per hour and a range of about 400 km [15], and can be installed both on land-based Mirage IV bombers and their follow-up version Mirage 2000N and deck-based Super Etendard attack aircraft.

Modern Times

After the Cold War, Britain and France have considerably cut their nuclear arsenals, since in the 1970s the British cache reached 500 warheads [16], whereas the French stock peaked in the early 1990s to make as many as 540 warheads.

Today, the British strategic nuclear force includes four Vanguard-class SSBNs equipped with Trident-2 D5 missiles. The need to replace the Resolution-class SSBNs surfaced in late 1970 due to their wear and obsolescence. The first modern submarine was laid down on September 3, 1986 and took to sea in 1994 after the demise of the USSR.

In the post-Cold War period, London discarded all of its tactical assets, with the total number of warheads being reduced to 225 pieces. No more than 120 of them are operationally deployed, with each SSBN carrying a maximum of eight missiles out of 16 and 40 warheads [17], with a minimum of one of them rotated in and out of repairs. The intentional reduction of capabilities means a government's concession to the national anti-nuclear movement, which is exceptionally robust, as one can see from the fact that the global pacifist sign was invented in 1958 for one of the British marches. Hence, the SSBNs also seem preferable because citizens do not perceive them as targets placed near their homes.

BAe System
UK's successor submarine

The latest British Strategic Defense and Security Review announced plans for cutting the number of warheads to about 180 in the 2020s. In 2011, London began work on a future SSBN tentatively named Successor. Four such submarines are to successively replace the Vanguard-class ships in the 2030s. The program has been qualified as nationally significant and is worth 31 billion pounds. It also appears to be attached to a similar American program aimed at replacing the Ohio-class SSBNs. According to recent polls, the venture is supported by 51 percent of the UK population.

As before, the British nuclear force is part of the NATO strategic deterrence and is intended for joint operations with Americans to repel attacks against the alliance. The final decision on a launch is the prerogative of the prime minister.

With the Cold War over, the French rushed to cut their nuclear force, which now seems to stand at fewer than 300 warheads and above the Chinese level. Its core is the SSBN Triomphant that had been laid down on June 9, 1986 and was operationally ready in 1997. In late 1990s and 2000s, four such submarines replaced the Redoutables. The new ones were initially provided with 16 tubes for M45 missiles, while now the rearmament for M51s is underway [18]. In contrast to the British, the French do not have to voluntarily restrain their nuclear efforts because society is more favorably disposed to having the capability of nuclear deterrence.

In the second half of the 1990s, Paris decommissioned both land-based and short-range mobile systems, with the air-based component advancing to take up the tactical missions. Besides, air-launched munitions feature higher precision than SSBN-based missiles [19]. In the 2010s, the ASMP cruise missiles were replaced with the ASMP-A version [20], while the Rafale F3 aircraft are ousting the Mirages 2000N to carry the nuclear weapons. In fact, the Rafales are employed by the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, which seems unique in having no U.S. bombs after 1994 [21]. The French have also manufactured 54 ASMP-A missiles with probably 40 warheads and have launched a program to create a future ASN4G cruise missile that is likely to be hypersonic and should materialize in the 2030s.

Although in 2009 France returned to NATO military structures, its strategic nuclear policy remains pointedly sovereign. Judging by the White Paper on Defense and Security of 2013, it is the French president who shall order the use of nuclear weapons to repel threats to national interests and security, with the defense of allies barely mentioned. Interestingly, the French doctrine also allows a nuclear strike in a local conflict, although officially France, as well as other members of the traditional nuclear club, promises not to use nuclear weapons against countries that are committed to the NPT regime.
A French Rafale jet fighter takes off from
Charles- de-Gaulle aircraft carrier

Britain and France, the two nuclear states of the European Union, are also stepping up weapons cooperation in order to optimize their defense spending. Following their 2010 agreement, they are going to build joint centers for servicing their nuclear arsenals. The French bases were also seen as locations for the temporary basing of British SSBNs Vanguard if Scotland was to cede from the United Kingdom. However, both sides stress their intention to separately develop warheads and launchers.

The funniest episode in the French-British "cooperation" is known to have taken place late at night on February 3, 2009, when a Vanguard and a Triomphant collided in eastern Atlantic. The slightly damaged submarines returned to their bases without assistance but the investigation results were not reported and the governments did their best to have the affair forgotten. Their response seems hardly surprising, since either of the two submarines could have been hunting an ally for training purposes in the vast spaces of the Atlantic Ocean.

Seemingly modest against the Russian and American potentials, the British and French nuclear arsenals do exceed the spawning nuclear force of China that has only started to build its SSBN fleet and has few ICBMs. No country appears willing to give up its nuclear status, with the development of nuclear systems invariably given top priority.

Should the EU military structures advance, Britain and France are to acquire the nuclear umbrella mission, while Article 42 of the Lisbon Treaty obliges all EU states to respond to an aggression against any EU member with all assets available.

  1. Nuclear Policies of France. A.N.Zinchenko, URSS Publishers, 2010
  2. British Nuclear Weapons: the Historical-Political Aspect. V.G.Trukhanovsky, Mezhdunarodnye Otnoshenya Publishers, 1985
  3. The Nuclear Weapons Phenomenon in the Modern World. A.A.Malygina, St. Petersburg State University, 2009
  4. Defense Policy of the European Union. V.V.Zhurkin. Mezhdunarodnye Otnoshenya Publishers, 2014
  5. Replacing the UK's Nuclear Deterrent, Claire Mills, House of Commons Library, 2016

      1. During the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, Britain observed the formality by consenting to the attack against Japan on July 4, 1945. Royal Air Force Colonel Leonard Cheshire and physicist William Penny arrived to the island of Tinian and observed the Nagasaki bombing from an aircraft.

      2. The British forget to mention that the French knew quite a lot, which gave the Americans an unsavory surprise.

      3. The Manhattan Project is known for its high level internal secrecy, with all groups, first of all foreign specialists, working on a need-to-know basis.

      4. The USSR held its first nuclear test on August 29, 1949, with the first squadron of Tu-4 long-range bombers adapted for nuclear weapons formed in 1951.

      5. The Treaty was repeatedly extended, currently until 2024.

      6. The unfairness of cooperation notwithstanding, the Americans not only had the ally engaged but also received practical dividends in the form of five tons of plutonium used for commercial purposes.

      7. The George Washington submarine (SSBN-598) was laid down on October 1, 1957, and К-19 on October 17, 1958.

      8. The submarine was commissioned in 1964 and equipped with four missile tubes. The maiden launch of M-1 ballistic missile took place in 1968, with the ship used for testing various missiles until mid-1980s.

      9. In those days, SSBN missiles had no intercontinental capacity, so the patrol areas were kept relatively close to the enemy territory. Hence, the Americans benefitted much from a forward base in eastern Atlantic. Along with Scotland, they had a similar base in Spain.

      10. The Blue Steel missile had a range of only 240 km and impressive dimensions, so the aircraft could carry only one piece.

      11. Equipped with three 200-kg warheads with no individual guidance. Intended for attacks against one major target by exploding at a distance of 15 km from each other. Maximum range – 4,600 km. In the 1980s they were upgraded and equipped with false targets to evade missile defenses, with the number of warheads reduced to two, yield increased to 225 kg, and range reduced to 3,600 km.

      12. The French were willing to receive missiles but rejected commitments. Back in 1960 when the U.S. wanted to deploy 100 railway-based Polaris missiles in Europe, Paris offered a basic consent on the condition that it obtains at least one third of the quantity in its unlimited possession.

      13. The defense was declared along all azimuths but only the Soviet Union could serve as a practical enemy in a nuclear war.

      14. While the M1 was equipped with a 500-kg warhead and had a maximum range of 3000 km, the M4 (which entered service in 1985) had six individual guidance warheads 150 kg each with a maximum range of 4,000 km (5,000 km for the upgraded M4B).

      15. For the high-altitude trajectory. At low altitudes, the range drops to about 80 km and velocity to 2,800 km per hour.

      16. Hereinafter as per the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

      17. The 40/8 proportion does not mean that each missile is provided with five warheads. According to some data, certain missiles have one warhead for the "last warning" mission. In theory, Trident-2 D5 may carry up to 12 warheads. Britain possesses 58 missiles with maintenance provided by the U.S.

      18. The M45 is the upgraded version of the M4 (range up to 6,000 km, six warheads). The M51 was developed on the basis of the first stage of Ariane 5 launcher (range over 8,000 km, six to 10 warheads).

      19. One of innovative concepts for using the ASMP-A as "the last warning" implies a high-altitude explosion, with relatively low contamination of territory and major psychological effects.

      20. For a height-profile flight, the range is believed to increase to 500 km.

      21. A knowledgeable reader may recall the Granite missile complex at the heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser Admiral Kuznetsov. However, in early 1990s, the U.S. and Russia agreed to refrain from equipping their ships at sea with nuclear-armed cruise missiles.

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