The Airbus A380 started moving as soon as the door was closed, before the cars in the motorcade even had time to get fully clear of the massive thrust of the engines. The pilot, a colonel in the French air force, slammed the engines into full throttle to execute what was called a hard take-off, the plane getting into the air quickly and immediately into a sharp incline to gain as much height as possible. A number of Elysee officials who had been busy securing the president of the French Republic before getting back to their seats were knocked off their feet by the angle, both being grabbed by burly bodyguards and pulled into seats as the plane reached its cruising height.
The military cabin crew, briefed as to the situation, had immediately lowered all the blinds on the windows, so that the passengers on-board could not see the military airbase and Paris speed away into the distance.
It actually meant they would not be blinded by the detonation of a nuclear warhead over the French capital as was one possibility they were expecting at this very moment. Nor could they see the four heavily fuelled and armed Rafale fighters escorting the plane on its pre-planned flight plan, designed to avoid major urban areas and military targets (for spotting purposes and also because they were likely nuclear targets) and take the plane out over the Atlantic.
Once the plane was levelled out, the president, never the most relaxed of men, was out of his seat, barrelling for the command centre housed in one of the rooms to the rear of the plane. His civilian and military advisors and ministers quickly unbuckled their seats and followed him.
The president was still slim, but the boyish face was now lined, and the temples were grey, an appearance that many could suggest had revealed itself only in the last four weeks.
As they entered the room, centred with a large table which held a digital display of Europe, one of the military operators working at the communications panels to one side announced that “Jupiter was now airborne”, the recognition that the Jupiter command centre, normally located in a shelter in the Elysee Palace was now transferred to this plane.
Jupiter II, the prime minister, was being moved by helicopter to a hidden location to ensure continuation of command.
“Talk to me,” the president said.
The commander of forces, an admiral, tapped an area north of Bremen.
“It was a small nuclear weapon, no more than 5 kilotons, possibly launched from Kaliningrad. Exploded north-east of Rostock one hour ago, in the Baltic sea. NATO reporting the Germans have lost contact with two frigates in the area, the Hessen and the Baden-Wurttemburg.”
“What sort of casualties?” the president asked.
The admiral wobbled a hand.
“Around about 350 between them.”
“And it is definitely nuclear. And definitely Russian?”
“An American Satellite confirmed the flash. Matches previous Russian tests.”
The president slumped into the seat.
“This is a message, I presume? They could have sunk those ships with conventional weapons.”
The admiral nodded.
“This is part of Moscow’s political strategy. Part of the internal pressure they’re applying here and Berlin. The AfD will pile on now, moving from the German casualties in the Baltics and Poland to “are the German people willing to be incinerated for Estonia.”
The foreign minister put down the phone.
“The chancellor, Mr president,” he said. The president nodded, and a screen on the wall flickered on to show a tired middle-aged woman looking at them.
Everybody looked tired and middle-aged these days, the president thought.
“Madame chancellor: my condolences,” he said.
“350 young men and women in a flash of light, Mr president. A reminder of the stakes.”
“We are in agreement of the message the Kremlin is sending?”
“They are trying to break the resolve of our people. We have both seen the projections. This is to feed hysteria in both countries. The use of a second weapon is a strong possibility, in Poland perhaps, to convince our people that he has more resolve than we do.”
The president said nothing. Both knew what was being unsaid, and the reality of it.
All of this had been planned, both before and after that fool in the White House had withdrawn US forces from Europe.
The Russian invasion, prompted by a pretext of Russian minority riots in the Baltics, had ploughed through what was left of NATO forces in the three Baltic states, finally meeting resistance in Poland with British, French and German reinforcements. The Turks had declared their neutrality, and the Italian government had collapsed over the question of honouring the country’s article 5 commitments.
The surprise had come when Russian forces found themselves under massive cyber attack from the US and, to everyone’s surprise, China. Both countries denied it, of course. Some speculated that the US attacks were from rogue elements in the defence establishment, who ignored the president and went to the defence of America’s traditional allies. A more exotic suggestion was that America’s high-tech industry wanted to protect the European single market and so had acted when they felt their government was not defending the US commercial interest. It was also suggested that China was buying so much food from Europe that it was unwilling to let its food supply fall into the hands of Russia. It was agreed by most that neither power wanted a Russia with too free a hand in Europe, and the failure of Russian technology had caused the Russian supply line of fuel and ammunition to go haywire, stalling the Russian advance. It was just enough for the allied forces to counter attack and start to push the Russian forces back in Poland.
Then, as the playbook predicted, Moscow played the nuclear card.
The president was calm as he listened to his options. The truth was, there was nothing new here. NATO had war-gamed so many options that this one had already been tested. If the Russians found their conventional attack had been halted, they would then use tactical nuclear weapons to break European resolve. To try to get Germany out of the war with a mixture of fear of nuclear attack and an easy get out clause: they’d publicly announce a ceasefire, withdrawal to the Baltic border, and look to open negotiations. Effectively annexing three European countries.
The chancellor leaned into the camera. It gave her a slightly claustrophobic fish eye appearance.
“My coalition partners are on the brink of pulling out and approaching the Russians for a deal. As you know we have taken over a thousand casualties in the fighting, and today’s Germany can’t stomach that. We know what Moscow will do next, and if that fails, they will hit our forces in Poland with a second weapon. Unless…”
She let it hang, and he knew what she was talking about. The foreign minister slipped a paper in front of him.
“You see he’s about to speak live from the Kremlin?”
She was looking off camera at her advisors.
“Let us see what he has to say. No surprises, I suspect,” she said, and signed off.
The speech, straight to camera from that gold room he used for big set piece addresses, flanked by huge Russian flags, could have been written by NATO intelligence. Partly in Russian, partly in fluent German from his days there as a KGB officer, all for German consumption. How the war was caused by the oppression in the Baltic countries of the Russian minorities. How he had no quarrel with the German people, and how saddened he had been at having to use a nuclear weapon against their warships to send a message of seriousness.
The president snorted at the faux sympathy.
Then came the offer. A willingness to cease operations and begin negotiations on drawing up a “more stable” map of Europe.
They knew this story from old. How negotiations would drag and occupation would become de facto possession on the ground.
The Russian president left the choice in the hands of NATO.
The foreign minister excused himself to speak to his NATO counterparts on a teleconference, whilst the admiral laid out the military options.
“We can put two Rafales with low yield warheads anywhere you want in the Baltics, although they may have to ditch on the way back. As for targets, we need to be careful. Most of the Baltics are clear of civilian traffic since the war started, so if we can find a target we have to make sure it isn’t too close to an allied country. As it happens, the warheads are really very modest, hardly any fallout. For show, effectively.”
“And if we can’t find a Russian ship to hit?”
“Then it’s more tricky. The Russians have been careful not to hit homeland territory. We’d have to be the same. If they have withdrawn most ships to port, as they seem to, well, to hit St Petersburg would be a massive escalation, even just the port.”
“We could always just detonate a weapon off the coast, visible from St Petersburg. The fact that we hit nothing will cause us some problems, but it’s not like their patsies in the National Assembly will attack us for not killing Russians,” the defence minister said.
The foreign minister re-entered the room.
“Right, here’s the read: London has said that the UK will not use nuclear weapons under any circumstances. Truth is, I suspect he’d pull British troops out but it would bring down his government. The Germans are all over the place. Another nuclear weapon used by the Russians will probably bring her down. The Poles want to keep fighting, as do the Baltics. No surprises there. Good news from Madrid and Rome: The Spanish have assembled three divisions and they’re on the way: we’ll need the usual coordination to get them through to Poland…” he looked over at the Interior minister, who nodded, and started scribbling notes.
“We also have a new Italian prime minister: her first act was to order the Italian air force to commit to the allied defence command. Italian military have been itching to go: There’s a couple of squadrons of Typhoons and Tornados already in the air on the way to Poland. The ground forces will be moving in the next 24 hours: I’ll lean on the Austrians to let them through.”
The president smiled and slammed the desk.
“Good to hear that. Excellent. Now, the big problem.”
“This is all academic if the Russians use a second weapon. It’ll wipe out enough of our forces in Poland to matter, and Germany will collapse. The war’s over if Germany surrenders,” the defence minister said.
The foriegn minister nodded.
“It’s up to us Mr president. If France does not hold Russia’s nuclear capabilities in check, we lose Europe. Germany becomes a Moscow Vichy, Poland and the others are occupied. We live in a Russian Europe. We’ll have Russian troops on our border within 24 months.”
The president tapped on the plan for the proposed counter-strike.
“Do we have a target?”
The admiral, who had been consulting with other military officers in the corner, nodded.
“Some luck at last. The Americans are tracking the Smolensk, an Oscar class submarine returning to St Petersburg. One of their big nuclear boats. Even if it speeds up, if you give us the all clear we can hit it in sight of St Petersburg but without damaging the city, or at least have the planes in place to carry out your final order.”
“You mentioned the pilots might have to ditch?”
“There could be a range issue, but once it’s safe we can tip off the Swedes. They’ll recover them from the water. Technically they’ll be arresting them as combatants but they’ll be well looked after until this thing is over.”
“Assuming we’re all still here,” the president said, and gave the order to go.
“We still haven’t addressed the deterrence issue. Destroying the Smolensk tells the Kremlin we’re willing to match them blow for blow. But they’ll still be willing to push us. What do we do if they detonate a weapon in Poland?” the defence minister asked. Her bluntness was irritating the president if only because she was refusing to led anyone not acknowledge reality.
“Or in Germany?” the foreign minister said.
“The whole point of the NATO doctrine is that the nuclear umbrella applies to all,” the admiral said.
“It’s a bluff,” the defence minister said, before continuing.
“Even before the Americans withdrew, the idea that they were willing to take a nuclear blast in Boston to protect Warsaw is just not credible. If they detonate in Poland, even if we want to retaliate, where do we do it? Kaliningrad? Inside Russia? Inviting a similar blast on French soil. Mr president, we need to confront this. How far are we willing to go in defence of Poland and the others?”
The president opened a file and pulled out a paper marked “Option J”.
“Do we have agreement on this?”
The foreign minister exhaled.
“In theory, yes. The various air forces have trained for it, we can have it in place in, what four hours?” He looked over to the defence minister for reassurance.
“In theory. It’s high risk,” she said.
“It could neutralise the one advantage the Russians have over us with regard to nuclear weapons. Is there a better option?”
“We could lose control of the situation very quickly,” the admiral reminded the politicians.
“Surely that’s the point: as far as the Kremlin is concerned, anyway.”
The two Rafale fighters, one as the primary payload delivery unit, the second in support and escort, delivered the tactical nuclear weapon as planned, destroying the Russian Federation submarine Smolensk with a loss of 124 crew. As its patrol area had taken it past St Petersburg the flash was seen from the city.
The French foreign minister informed the Russian ambassador minutes before the attack, and the media were quickly briefed to await a statement from the President of the French Republic.
Both planes actually managed to land in Finland, where they were detained.
The President of France paused for a moment when the green transmission light came on. The teleprompter stood ready, but in reality he didn’t need it. Behind him, a green screen in the small TV studio on the Airbus allowed for TV viewers to see what looked like a formal setting with French and EU flags.
“Good evening my fellow citizens: As you will be aware, on my orders a small tactical nuclear weapon was used against a Russian submarine in the Gulf of Finland just over an hour ago. This was in response to the unprovoked use of a similar weapon against the German warships Hessen and Baden-Württemberg in the region earlier today.
The use of nuclear weapons, even weapons with as relatively small a yield as the two weapons detonated, is a moment of dire warning to all humanity. But Russia used them first in an attempt to intimidate the allied forces into ending our resistance to the Russian invasion of Poland and the Baltic states. The destruction of the Russian submarine Smolensk should be taken by Moscow as a clear understanding that France, as the only continental nuclear power, will stand by her allies and will not yield to further attempts by the Kremlin to break up the alliance.
Our intelligence assessments inform us that there are some at high levels in the Kremlin who believe that France can be bullied, that France will not, when the darkest hour arrives, take the risk of nuclear attack in order to stand with our allies.
I can make a pledge that our resolution is unbreakable. But politicians are politicians and our words are never quite trusted.
Therefore, I have taken action to ensure that Moscow is very clear about the dangers of using further nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction against our allies or against French forces. Twenty five minutes ago, under an agreed protocol similar to the NATO nuclear sharing programme of the past, I transferred direct control of ten tactical nuclear weapons to the governments of Germany and Poland and the exiled governments of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. These weapons have been fitted to aircraft belonging to those allied nations, or aircraft now directly under their control. These weapons are no longer under French control.
Those countries are currently informing the Russian government that the use of nuclear weapons on their sovereign soil by Russia will result in retaliation against Russian soil. The president of Russia may well believe that I will not risk French soil in response to a Russian nuclear detonation in Warsaw or Talinn. He is wrong, but it is academic. The president of Poland or Estonia, seeing a nuclear mushroom cloud over their homelands will not hesitate to extract a costly vengeance on the Russian motherland and on great Russian cities. as of 25 minutes ago, they have the independent means to do so. Let him have no doubt about that.
The allies are happy to meet a Russian delegation to end this conflict. But allied forces will not cease operations unless or until Russian forces have returned to the pre-conflict borders.
Europe wishes a peaceful and prosperous existence with our Russian neighbours.
But it must be on the basis of respect and equality. I look forward to a positive Russian response. Good night”