French Views on Missile Defense

Justin Vaïsse
Justin Vaïsse Former Brookings Expert, Director, Policy Planning Staff - French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs

April 1, 2001

A new debate has emerged in France on the opportunities and risks of missile defense. It has been triggered by events of the past three years — nuclear tests conducted in 1998 by India and Pakistan, the missile tests in Iran and North Korea a few months later, the national missile defense project of the Clinton Administration, and the US Senate’s rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty — that appear to have threatened non-proliferation efforts and increased awareness of the danger that weapons of mass destruction pose to Europe. American plans to develop a national missile defense (NMD) system have been the focus of particular attention. French President Jacques Chirac and Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine, for example, have both recently warned that a US missile defense program could have “possibly destabilizing strategic consequences” for US allies.

In December 2000, the French National Assembly issued a major Report on the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destriction and their Delivery, the primary author of which was Pierre Lellouche, a member of parliament from Paris and a noted expert on strategic affairs.

The Lellouche report presents an unusually clear discussion of the rising threats from weapons of mass destruction and missiles, including less publicized threats from biological weapons and cruise missiles. It follows a report commissioned six months earlier by the French Senate, signed by President of the Foreign Affairs, Defense and Armed Services Commission Xavier de Villepin, on the subject of the US national missile defense (NMD) plan.

Based on the statements of political leaders and on these reports, it is possible to distinguish areas of agreement and disagreement between French and US policy towards missile defense.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, France does not wholly reject the idea of anti-missile defenses. Indeed on many issues in the missile defense debate French and American views and interests already converge. French officials and experts agree with the US assessment of the growing threat of proliferation, although they differ on the level, timing and nature of the threat. France shares the US interest in developing theater missile defense. But France is concerned that the United States will embrace a national missile defense system as an alternative to cooperative diplomacy as a means of reducing foreign threats. By doing so, France worries, the United States would worsen the security dilemma for its friends and foes without significantly improving security at home.

The French Position

The French position on missile defense is often misunderstood in Washington. In a recent article in the New York Times, Michael Gordon writes: “The French remain opposed to the Bush plan, in part, because they fear that a world full of antimissile systems might affect the effectiveness of their small missile deterrent. But the French have been critical of so many policies of the United States that their criticisms tend to be discounted in Washington.”

While representative of the US view, the claim is misleading in two important respects.

First, France is not concerned about losing its deterrent capability, whatever the “Bush plan” ends up being. France has only aproximately 450 nuclear warheads mounted on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), compared to the several thousand that Russia and the United States possess. But for the purpose of deterrence, the destructiveness and reliability of a nuclear force is more important than its size. Moreover, French ICBMs are launched from bombers and submarines. This would make them almost unreachable by any defense system that targets missiles in their boost phase. French ICBMs also carry multiple independently-targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) and employ sophisticated decoy systems. This would make them a difficult target for an umbrella-style missile defense, one that targets ICBMs later in their flight trajectories.

Second, French concerns about US missile defense plans should not be discounted as mere anti-Americanism. They represent a coherent alternative view of strategic policy — one that is broadly shared by France’s European partners, including Britain and Germany.

The French view can be summarized in three points.

Non-proliferation regimes remain essential. French experts acknowledge that bilateral and multilateral agreements aimed at curbing proliferation are not a panacea. Non-proliferation agreements such as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) have been disappointing. But agreements aimed at controlling nuclear and chemical weapons proliferation — including the International Atomic Energy Agency created in 1956, the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, and the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty — have been relatively successful, and there is a strong consensus in France that they are worth strengthening. In 1974, US intelligence experts were forecasting the emergence of two dozen nuclear powers over the following two decades. As recently as 1990, Dick Cheney estimated that, by the year 2000, “more than two dozen developing nations will have ballistic missiles, 15 of those countries will have the scientific skills to make their own, and half of them either have or are near to getting nuclear capability, as well. Thirty countries will have chemical weapons and ten will be able to deploy biological weapons.”

Yet each of these predictions have proved almost entirely wrong, and this success must be credited in large part to international non-proliferation efforts.

The threat is real, but distant. French experts and officials accept that risks are increasing, and point out instances-Iraqi nuclear capacities and North Korean ballistic capacities — in which Western intelligence estimates have proved to be overly optimistic. And the possibility exists that countries like North Korea would sell missiles to countries close to Europe. Moreover, as the Lellouche Report acknowledges, Europe is “already within range of ballistic missiles developed by some countries in the Middle East.” Still, French analysts feel that real threats will be less serious and emerge on a longer time scale than those foreseen by US analysts, for three reasons.

  • First, US estimates are based on an improbable assessment of the scientific and industrial capacities of so-called rogue states. They thus assume threats will emerge more rapidly than does the French analysis. North Korea today, for example, has only somewhat enhanced SCUD missile technology. France feels that the North Koreans still face enormous challenges before they are able to produce a reliable ICBM, including conversion to solid fuel, management of multi-stage propulsion, and improved guidance.
  • Second, it is necessary to distinguish between the enormous threat posed by nuclear weapons, and the lesser threat posed by conventional, chemical and biological weapons. Nuclear weapons alone offer a viable payload for ICBMs intended for blackmail or deterrence, and developing adequately miniaturized warheads is an extremely difficult task.
  • Third, France sees weapons of mass destruction as a risk, not a threat. They become threatening only in a political or military context in which a country might profitably consider using them. France feels that such a context is extremely unlikely to arise given the retaliatory power of any western coalition.

Missile defense has its uses. If skeptical of the threat posed by ICBMs, the Lellouche and Villepin reports stress the growing threat coming from short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) and cruise missiles and, in the longer term, medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs). In the cases of Japan and Israel, for whom these weapons already pose a real threat, missile defense can be a sensible tool. These systems could also be used to defend Southern Europe, and to protect European troops — in particular Europe’s forthcoming 60,000-troop Rapid Reaction Force — operating in remote theaters.The French Ministry of Defense has included a theater missile defense system in its next five-year plan. It is a necessary complement to France’s on-going military modernization effort, aimed at projecting the French military more effectively abroad. Thus the French aerospace firm Aérospatiale-Matra and the Italian firm Alenia are collaborating on the Aster antimissile system, able to intercept cruise missiles, SRBMs and MRBMs. The Aster (Mark I) designed to destroy a 600 km SCUD-type missile, should be ready in 2005. Its successor, Aster (Mark II), will be equivalent to the American Patriot PAC 3 anti-missile system and capable of destroying missiles with a 1500 km range. It should be in production in approximately 2010.

The High Cost and Low Benefit of a National Missile Defense Shield

The benefits the US would gain from building an NMD shield are much less clear to France. Technically, it seems unlikely that a country like North Korea will be able to mount a reliable nuclear weapon on a reliable ICBM any time soon. It seems even less likely that an NMD shield could stop the missile and its accompanying decoys. Politically, it seems unlikely that Pyongyang would ever be in a military or political situation in which it could use its missiles as a credible deterrent to US intervention in the region. France does not believe that nuclear weapons will ever be used for irrational reasons. It is, among other things, a scenario with no historical precedent. And experts agree that building an effective system against the Russian or even Chinese nuclear arsenal is bound to fail. This view was summarized by President Jacques Chirac: “[In the] struggle between sword and shield, there is no instance in which the shield has won.”

Thus from the French perspective the benefits of an NMD shield for the United States are, at best, unclear.

The costs, however, are easier to assess. The financial cost, estimated at $60 to $100 billion for any likely program, is of course a domestic matter for the United States. But the political costs will be born by the entire international community. One political cost, already being felt, is a slowing of international non-proliferation efforts. The NMD project, accompanied by the Senate’s rejection of the CTBT, and by candidate George Bush’s speech on 23 May 2000, in which he advocated unilateral cuts in the US nuclear arsenal and large missile defense systems, has given the impression that the United States intends to move from a stable strategic paradigm of deterence and cooperation to an uncertain paradigm of defense and unilateralism. This shift in US tone has altered the perceptions and behavior of all other international actors — friends and foes alike — who must now define their own security in different terms than in the past.

The second political cost lies in the risk of encouraging proliferation and arms race. On the one hand, an American NMD program risks to antagonize Russia, especially if no agreement is found on the ABM Treaty. Very little would be worse for world security than a proliferating Russia. On the other hand, there is a strong risk of setting off an arms race in Asia. China does not need NMD to justify building up its forces in the Taiwan Strait, but there is little doubt that it would respond to an NMD shield by building even more ICBMs, as well as developing MIRVed heads and decoy technologies. This would likely induce India to upgrade its nuclear arsenal, and Pakistan would quickly follow. It would be surprising, at this point, if Iran and Israel did not also choose to follow suit, further upsetting their neighbours.

Room for Compromise

France’s objection to the Clinton NMD system was not against the idea of missile defense in general. It felt that the project threatened to upset — indeed already showed signs of upsetting — the international strategic balance and to undermine non-proliferation regimes. And that it did so in order to counter an implausible scenario of attack against the US, based on an implausible estimate of NMD efficiency. The Bush administration plans are not yet known. It is to be hoped that they will offer a system that will not be strategically destabilizing. A boost-phase missile defense, for example, could provide an imaginative, comprehensive solution on which many countries, including France and Russia, could cooperate.

It is also to be hoped, as Tony Blair emphasized in February 2001, that president Bush will be able to complement any missile defense plan with a new international drive against proliferation.

The world still needs US leadership to promote and help enforce useful cooperative agreements. As the Lellouche report emphasizes, each partner needs to make a step towards the other:

There is no contradiction between non-proliferation and counter-proliferation, that is, between a diplomacy-based approach and a defense-based approach. The real debate is on the optimal combination to reach between them. In this respect, it would be illusory, and destabilizing for the international strategic balance, to claim that it is possible to reach this goal only by defense, as the US seems to think. But it would also be insufficient for Europe to rely only on diplomacy.

Justin Vaisse is a visiting scholar at the Center on the US and France at the Brookings Institution and an instructor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques, Paris.