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Table of French Nuclear Forces, 2002

Weapon System




x yield

No. in


Mirage 2000N/ASMP
1 x 300 Kt
TN 81

Submarine-based missiles

6 x 150 Kt
TN 70/71
6 x 100 Kt
TN 75

Carrier-based aircraft

Super Étendard/ASMP
1 x 300 Kt
TN 81




The French stockpile as of 2002 is estimated at approximately 350 warheads of three types. The historical peak of 538 was reached in 1991-92.

In February 1996 President Jacques Chirac announced several reforms for the French armed forces, including the nuclear forces, for the period 1997-2002. This involved a combination of withdrawing several systems and modernizing others. The most significant development concerned the decision not to replace the silo-based S3D IRBM and hence to eliminate land-based missiles as a component of the nuclear forces. All 18 missiles on the Plateau d'Albion were deactivated on September 16, 1996; it took two years and cost $77.5 million to fully dismantle the silos and the complex. After the land-based missiles had been deactivated, Chirac stated during his visit to Moscow in September 1997 that "no part of the French nuclear deterrent force is any longer targeted". Other recent actions include completion of the dismantlement of the South Pacific test facilities at Mururoa and Fangataufa. France ceased producing plutonium for weapons in 1992 and HEU in 1996. It has closed down and pledged to dismantle the Marcoule reprocessing plant and the Pierrelatte enrichment plant, actions it began in 1998. Funding for France's nuclear deterrent is expected to remain fairly steady in 2001, at FFr 15.8 billion ($2.3 billion), although future expenditures may decline.

Three squadrons with 60 Mirage 2000Ns currently have nuclear roles. Two of these (Dauphine and La Fayette) are based at Luxeuil and the third (Limousin) at Istres. Since the 1991 Gulf War, in which France was unable to use the night-attack capability of the then nuclear-only Mirage 2000N, the aircraft has been given some conventional capability to increase its utility. However, in a speech in May 1994 President François Mitterrand identified the "N" in Mirage 2000N as standing for nuclear ("Mirage 2000N, c'est-à-dire nucleaires") and Dassault, the producer of the aircraft, states on its Internet site that the "primary assignment" of the Mirage 2000N remains the nuclear strike role.

The predecessor to Mirage 2000N, the Mirage IVP, was converted from its nuclear role in July 1996 and retired after 32 years of service. The Mirage IVP's ASMP missiles may have been reassigned to the Mirage 2000N. Five Mirage IVPs were retained for reconnaissance missions and are in the 1/91 Gascogne squadron at Mont-de-Marsan. The other aircraft were put into storage at Châteaudun.

The Mirage will eventually be replaced by the Rafale (B-301), which is planned to be the multi-purpose navy and air force fighter-bomber for the 21st century. Its roles include conventional ground attack, air defense, air superiority and nuclear delivery of the ASMP and/or ASMP-A. The navy version (Rafale M) will enter the inventory in 2001 to form Squadron 12F at Landivisiau and within a couple of years enter service onboard the Charles de Gaulle replacing the Super Étendard. The air force's Rafale D will attain a nuclear strike role in about 2005. The Air Force still plans to buy a total of 234 Rafales. The ASMP is equipped with a single TN-81 warhead. It is estimated that France has about 60 operational ASMPs but additional missiles may be in inactive storage. There are conflicting reports about the inventory of missiles and warheads. A report from the French Senate stated in 1991 that France initially produced 80 warheads and 90 ASMP missiles. In May 1994, however, when 15 Mirage IVPs (plus three spares) still had nuclear roles and only 45 Mirage 2000Ns were operational, President François Mitterrand identified 60 ASMP missiles for use by both air force and navy aircraft. He did not disclose the number of warheads, however, and used slightly different language to describe the number of missiles assigned to the different types of aircraft. For the Mirage IVP, he gave a fixed number, saying "we possess 15 missiles"("nous disposons de quinze missiles"). For the Mirage 2000N/Super Étendard aircraft, however, the number was less precise, namely, "these forces possess 45 missiles" ("les forces disposent de quarante-cinq missiles"), indicating that the exact number may be dependent on the number of operational aircraft. Since then an additional 15 Mirage 2000Ns have become operational. A longer-range ASMP (500 km as opposed to 300 km), sometimes called the "ASMP Plus" (the official name is ASMP Amélioré, ASMP-A), is expected to enter service in 2007. The ASMP-A may be equipped with a modified warhead designated the TNA (tête nucléaire aero-portée).

France built three aircraft carriers, the first of which entered service in 1961 (Clemenceau) and the second in 1963 (Foch). Both were modified to handle the AN 52 nuclear gravity bomb with Super Étendard aircraft. The AN 52 was retired in July 1991. The Foch was modified in 1981 to "handle and store" the ASMP, and about 20 were allocated for two squadrons-about 24 Super Étendard air craft. The Foch is thought to have routinely carried nuclear weapons until it was decommissioned. The new 40,500-ton aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, which has a crew of 1,850, can accommodate 35-40 aircraft. Until the first Rafale M squadron is introduced in 2002, the ship will carry a single squadron of Super Étendards (presumably with about 10 ASMPs). The Navy plans to purchase a total of 60 Rafale Ms, of which the first 16 will perform an air-to-air role. Missions for subsequent aircraft may include the ASMP and/or the ASMP Plus. The first 10 Rafale Ms are scheduled to be delivered in 2002, and about 40 aircraft may be delivered as two-seaters. The Charles de Gaulle has been commissioned but its full operability remains hampered by technical problems. It was previously scheduled to become operational at the end of 1999 but suffered a propeller failure during sea trial in November 2000, which has delayed its delivery until April 2001, almost five years behind schedule. France has spent over FFr 20 billion ($2.8 billion) on the Charles de Gaulle, or over FFr 7 billion ($1 billion) more than its initial estimate of FFr 13 billion ($1.8 billion) in 1987. Another FFr 50 billion ($7.1 billion) has been spent on 60 Rafale Ms and three E2C Hawkeye aircraft. France is currently considering whether to include funding for a second carrier in its 2003-2008 defense spending plan. It is possible that the second carrier will be built with a non-nuclear propulsion system.

Nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs)
France has in operation four SSBNs of three classes: two of the new Triomphant Class SSBNs, one L'Inflexible Class SSBN and one Redoubtable Class SSBN. The two Triomphant SSBNs each carry 16 M45 SLBMs with six of the new TN-75 warheads, which are assumed to have been tested at the Mururoa test site in 1995. Le Triomphant (S616) was rolled out from its construction shed in Cherbourg on July 13, 1993 and became operational in September 1996. The second SSBN, Le Téméraire (S617), which was commissioned in December 1999, some six months behind schedule, and successfully test launched an M45 missile in May 1999. The schedule for the third submarine, Le Vigilant (S618), has slipped and it will not be ready to launch until 2002 and commissioning in July 2004. FFr 1.9 billion ($256.5 million) was allocated for the fourth SSBN (S619) in September 2000, which is scheduled to become operationally available in about 2008. The total cost of the Triomphant Class program is estimated at FFr 96.3 billion ($13 billion). Until recently, the two older SSBNs both carried 16 M4 SLBMs. Faced with the delay of the third Triomphant SSBN, however, France has begun refitting the L'Inflexible to carry the newer M45 SLBM. The refit is a necessary, albeit expensive, solution to match a reduced inventory of only three sets of SLBMs (two M45 and one M4). Without this refit France would, in certain situations, only have been able to deploy two SSBNs as opposed to three. The remaining M4- equipped SSBN, Le Foudroyant, was refitted to carry the M4 in 1993. This system is widely reported to be armed with TN-70 or TN-71 warheads, although the French Ministry of Defense Internet site now credits the M4 with only the TN-71.

President Chirac announced on February 23, 1996 that a new SLBM, known as the M51, will replace the M45. The service entry date has been advanced to 2008 instead of 2010 to coincide with the commissioning of the fourth Triomphant Class SSBN, and the M51 is expected to have a range of 8,000-10,000 km and carry up to six warheads each. The M51, which is a modified version of the cancelled M5, will eventually arm all four SSBNs. The M51 was initially planned to carry an entirely new type of warhead (TNO, tête nucléaire océanique), but the combination of costs, changing strategic requirements and the cessation of nuclear weapon testing means that the missile will instead be equipped with a more robust version of existing designs. A dispute over increased costs briefly brought M51 development to a halt in the autumn of 2000 and efforts to control costs may force changes to the specifications of the missile. The first flight test is scheduled for 2005.

France is thought to already have transitioned to an operational inventory of 288 warheads for two sets of M45 SLBMs and one set of M4 SLBMs, enough to arm three of the four SSBNs. A lower number of missiles than launch-tubes were also the case when there were five submarines in the fleet, at which point only four sets of M4 SLBMs were procured. Of these four submarines, three are maintained in the operational cycle, although only one or two are normally "on station" in designated patrol areas at any given time, compared with three in the early 1990s. The SSBN force is organized under the Oceanic Strategic Task Force (Force Océanique Stratégique, FOST) and homeported at the Île Longue base in Brest. The Navy has recently reorganized its submarine fleet and will in the future base all its submarines (including SSNs formerly at Toulon) at Brest. Under this reform the SSBN command center at Houilles (Yvelines) will also be relocated to Brest, although communication facilities at Rosnay (Indre) will continue. Communication with SSBNs on patrol is also maintained with 4 C-160H Astarté communication relay aircraft. French SSBNs are protected during their operations by nuclear attack submarines, maritime patrol aircraft (Atlantique 2), anti-submarine frigates and minesweepers. SSBN protection will also be an important mission for the planned Barracuda Class SSN. Like the SSBNs, French attack submarines each have two crews to optimize their operational availability. In late 2000 France also detected increased levels of radioactivity in the cooling water of its Rubis, Amethyste Class SSN Saphir. The submarine was operating in the Mediterranean Sea when it was recalled to have its nuclear core replaced. It is unclear whether French SSBNs have similar reactor problems.

last revised 11.25.02

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