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French Nuclear Capability Data

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Sea-Based Strategic Weapons
L'Inflexible (SNLE M4) SSBN
L'Inflexible (SNLE M4) SSBN
  • Year Deployed: 1973
  • Displacement: 8,080 tons surfaced, 9,820 tons dived
  • Dimensions: 128.7 meters length, 10.6 meters height, 10 meters diameter
  • Propulsion: Nuclear, 1 shaft, 1 propeller
  • Speed: 25 knots dived, 20 knots surfaced
  • Missiles: 16 M-4 SLBMs
  • Locations: Ile Longue, Brest
  • Number Deployed: 1 submarine
  • Primary Contractor: Direction des Constructions et Armes Navales
  • Like U.S. and British SSBNs, the French have two rotating crews for each of their missile boats, which they call Rouge (red) and Bleu (blue). The submarines usually spend two months on patrol, then return to Brest to exchange crews and perform maintenance before heading back out to sea. French policy has been to maintain three SSBNs ready at all times, with two at-sea on patrol. This was difficult with the early M-1 SLBMs and M-2 SLBMs, which had to patrol off Norway's north coast to reach inland targets in Russia. The M-4 has cut down dramatically on transit time to patrol areas, which because of the greater range can include the western Atlantic. With M-4 missiles, the SSBNs can even reach some targets in Russia from dockside in France. Each SSBN carries several predetermined "target dossiers" on magnetic disks. The entire complement of 16 M-4 missiles can be fired in three to four minutes.

    Unlike the British, who developed a sea-based deterrent with significant U.S. aid, the French did it largely on their own. While there was much U.S. sharing of nuclear design and test data with the United Kingdom, including the outright sale of SLBMs, there was little such cooperation with the French. In the spirit of Charles de Gaulle's independent force de frappe, and its later incarnation, the force de dissuasion, the French embarked on constructing their own nuclear triad. Little American aid was forthcoming during initial development, though there was some U.S. nuclear aid after 1972, after the French had developed their first generation of weapons. French SSBNs and SLBMs consequently have lagged at least a generation behind those in the U.S. arsenal. Today the United States is sharing testing and simulation data with the French to help them maintain their arsenal under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

    With President Jacques Chirac's announcement in February 1996 of the elimination of the S-3 IRBMs, as well as other recent reductions, the SSBNs will play an even larger role in France's nuclear force. In addition to destroying the S-3 silos on the Plateau d'Albion, the short-range Hades missile (follow-on to the retired Pluton) will be eliminated as well. Jaguar and Mirage IVP aircraft have also been removed from the nuclear mission. France is going ahead with modernization of its remaining nuclear forces in the next decade, including a new short-range attack missile, the ASMP+, a new SLBM, the M-51, and equipping the new fighter-bomber, the Rafale D, for the nuclear role.

    Le Triomphant SSBN (SNLE-NG)
    Le Triomphant SSBN
  • Year Deployed: 1996
  • Displacement: 12,640 tons surfaced, 14,335 tons dived dived9
  • Dimensions: 138 meters length, 12.5 meters height, 17 meters diameter
  • Propulsion: Nuclear K-15 reactor, 1 shaft, pump jet propulsor10
  • Speed: 25 knots dived
  • Missiles: 16 M-45 SLBMs
  • Locations: Ile Longe, Brest
  • Warhead: Single warhead
  • Yield: 2 megatons
  • Locations: Xia SSBN
  • Number Deployed: 1 submarine
  • Primary Contractor: Direction des Constructions et Armes Navales
  • The Le Triomphant boats are the latest addition to the French missile submarine force, the FOST (Force Oceanique Strategique). They are referred to as the SNLE-NG (SSBN, New Generation). A class of six was originally planned, but that was reduced to four. There was widespread speculation that this total might be further reduced to three, but Chirac has reaffirmed that four Le Triomphants would be built. The fourth ship, Le Terrible, has been ordered and is scheduled for delivery in 2010. These submarines are a replacement for the aging L'Inflexible class of SSBNs. The first of the class entered service in1996, the second in 1999. The third should be ready for launch in 2002, and the fourth in July 2004.

    The Le Triomphant class is quieter than its predecessor, heavier, able to dive deeper, and have more advanced computers and software. It is built of HLES 100 steel, and capable of diving to 500 meters, twice the depth of L'Inflexible. Much though has been given to quieting, and the radiated noise level has been described as "less than that of the sea bottom noise ... reduced to a few millionths of Watts."

    The Le Triomphants will initially use the M-45 SLBM with TN-75 warhead, but are planned to use a new missile, the M-51, which is under development. The proposed M-51 SLBM is a very long-term project; backfitting of the Le Triomphant class to carry the proposed M-51 is scheduled to begin in 2010. Four boatloads of M-51s were originally to be ordered but this number will likely be reduced to three to rotate among the four planned submarines. In addition to torpedoes for self-defense, the Le Triomphants also carry an unknown number of SM-39 Exocet anti-ship missiles.

    M-4 SLBM
  • Year Deployed: 1985
  • Dimensions: 11.05 meters length, 1.93 meters diameter
  • Propulsion: Three stage solid-fuel
  • Throw-weight: unknown
  • Range: 4,000 to 6,000 kilometers, depending on the variant
  • Guidance: Inertial plus computer payload control
  • Circular Error Probable: Unknown
  • Warhead: 6 x MRVs, TN-70/1
  • Yield: 150 kilotons
  • Locations: Le Foudroyant, a Redoubtable Class SSBN
  • Number Deployed: 48 missiles
  • Primary Contractor: Aerospatiale, Space and Strategic Systems Division
  • The M-4 is the fourth SLBM, or MSBS (Mer-Sol-Balistique-Strategique - Sea to Ground Strategic Ballistic missile), deployed by the French. It has a relatively short range, and is comparable to the American Polaris and Poseidon SLBMs. First tested in 1981, the missile was deployed on the five L'Inflexible (modified L'Redoubtable) boats, which were modified in the 1980s to carry it.

    The M-4 represents a significant increase over its predecessor, the M-20, particularly in terms of range (4,000 kilometers compared to 3,000 kilometers) as well as warheads (six compared to one). Accuracy is assumed to have improved from the M-20's 1000 meter CEP as well, though details are unknown. The M-4's six warheads are believed to have a limited independent targeting capability. The warhead "footprint" of the M-4 has been reported as capable of attacking targets within a 150 by 350 kilometer area.

    A primary goal of the M-4 was defeating the upgraded Soviet ABM system. To this end, the TN-70/-71 warheads were "extremely hardened" to resist EMP effects from nearby nuclear blasts, and were miniaturized. With U.S. aid, the French were able to space (using explosive charges to propel the warheads away from the central missile bus) the incoming warheads so that a Soviet ABM nuclear blast would only destroy one of the missile's six warheads. Ninety-six of the earlier TN-70 warheads were manufactured (missiles carrying the TN-70 are sometimes referred to as the M-4A). An improved variant, the TN-71, has a lower radar cross section and is reported as more survivable against ABM defenses -- 288 warheads were manufactured (missiles with the TN-71 are sometimes called the M-4B).

    The M-4 was briefly considered as a replacement for France's S-3 IRBMs, but that plan, as well as the S-3's, has been scrapped.

    M-45 SLBM
  • Year Deployed: 1996
  • Dimensions: 11.05 meters length, 1.93 meters diameter23
  • Weight: 35,000 kilograms
  • Propulsion: Three stage solid-fuel
  • Throw-weight: unknown
  • Range: 6,000 kilometers
  • Guidance: Inertial
  • Circular Error Probable: Unknown
  • Warhead: 6 x MIRVs, TN-75
  • Yield: 100 kilotons
  • Locations: 1 Le Triomphant submarine
  • Number Deployed: 16 missiles
  • Primary Contractor: Aerospatiale, Space and Strategic Systems Division
  • The M-45 is an upgraded SLBM that will be deployed on the new Le Triomphant SSBNs. Compared to its predecessor, the M-4, the M-45 has upgraded electronics, re-entry vehicle, and warhead. The reentry vehicle is coated with a new material and has a precisely designed shape, a high reentry speed, and is accompanied by advanced penetration aids to defeat ABM defenses. The new TN-75 warhead is miniaturized and hardened against EMP effects. The TN-75 warhead has been described as "almost invisible" due to its stealth characteristics. Talk of ABM defenses and the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative in the 1980s spurred development of a design that would be resistant to such measures. As Chirac stated, the French nuclear tests at Muroroa Atoll in 1995-6 in part stemmed from the need to test this new warhead design. Deployment of the M-45 is expected to extend until 2010-15, when a follow-on M-5 SLBM will be deployed in its place.

    The proposed follow-on to the M-45, the fifth-generation M-51, has been in the design stages since 1988. The greatly increased range of the proposed M-51 over the M-45 (11,000 kilometers versus 6,000 kilometers) represents a large increase in capability. France had hoped to deploy the M-51 with a new TN-76 warhead, but costs and strategic considerations led the French to settle for equipping the M-51 with an upgraded TN-75 warhead.

    Air-Based Strategic Weapons

    Mirage 2000N
    Mirage 2000N
  • Year Deployed: 1988
  • Dimensions: 14.55 meters length, 5.15 meters height, 9.13 meters wingspan
  • Weight: empty - 7,600 kilograms, max takeoff - 17,000 kilograms
  • Propulsion: SNECMA M53-P2 turbofan
  • Speed: Mach 2.2
  • Range: (hi-lo-hi) 1,205 kilometers
  • Maximum Loadout: 1 ASMP (plus two Magic conventional air defense missiles)
  • Weapon Load: 6,300 kilograms
  • Locations: Luxeil 30 aircraft (2 squadrons), Istres - 15 aircraft (1 squadron)
  • Number Deployed: 45 aircraft
  • Primary Contractor: Dassault Aviation
  • The Mirage 2000N (Nucleaire) is the nuclear strike component of France's Force Aerienne Strategique (FAS). It is the seventh-generation of Mirage combat aircraft. The Mirage 2000N is a two-seater, single-engine, delta-wing, low altitude penetration variant. The first batch became operational in 1988, with production ending in 1993. Some of the earlier models have been fitted for a dual-use conventional ground-attack capability. To carry out their mission, they are fitted with terrain-following radar, two inertial guidance platforms, two Magic self-defense missiles, and a jamming suite.

    In 1989, the number of deployed nuclear-armed Mirage 2000N aircraft was cut from 75 aircraft in five squadrons to 45 aircraft in three squadrons. Before 1991, they were armed with the AN-52 nuclear gravity bomb, but with its retirement, they carry the ASMP short-range attack missile. France no longer has any nuclear gravity bombs.

    With the retirement of the Mirage IVP strike aircraft in July 1996, the Mirage 2000N has become the sole French land-based nuclear-armed aircraft. Mirage IVPs had been on ground alert since 1964, with nine four plane squadrons deployed at nine separate bases -- one Mirage IVP at each base was ready to take off with 15 minutes' notice. The Mirage 2000N will likely be replaced by the next generation fighter/bomber, the Rafale. The Rafale D is slated to take up the nuclear role in 2005.

    Super Etendard
    Super Etendard
  • Year Deployed: 1980
  • Dimensions: 14.31 meters length, 3.86 meters height, 9.60 meters wingspan
  • Weight: empty - 6,500 kilograms, maximum takeoff - 9,450-12,000 kilograms
  • Propulsion: SNECMA Atar 8K-50 non-afterburning turbojet
  • Speed: Approximately Mach 1
  • Range: (hi-lo-high) 850 kilometers
  • Maximum Loadout: 1 ASMP
  • Weapon Load: 2,100 kilograms
  • Locations: Aircraft carrier Foch
  • Number Deployed: 24 aircraft
  • Primary Contractor: Dassault-Breguet
  • In addition to missile submarines and ground-based strike aircraft, the French retain a nuclear capability based on their two aircraft carriers. Since the United States, Russia, and Britain have removed such weapons, and China is not suspected to have them, France is the only nuclear power remaining with deployed, naval-based, non-SLBM nuclear weapons. This capability is based on France's Clemenceau class carriers, the Clemenceau (R98) and Foch (R99), which have Toulon as their homeport. Referred to by the French as PANs (Porte-Avions Nucleaire), the carriers are equipped with a varying number of Super Etendard nuclear-capable strike aircraft. Since 1988, only the 20 aircraft assigned to the Foch have carried nuclear weapons, since only that carrier was modified to handle the ASMP missile. Previously, both carriers were equipped to carry the AN-52 nuclear bomb, since retired. The Super Etendards in the nuclear role were reduced from 50-55 airplanes to 24, with 20 ASMPs allocated to them. The new de Gaulle-class carrier was delivered in 2001 (with a second planned but not yet ordered), and will also carry Super Etendards and later nuclear-capable Rafale strike aircraft.

    The Super Etendard is a single-seat, single-engine, all-weather, fighter/bomber. Production ended in 1983. It is the successor to France's previous carrier-based strike aircraft, the Etendard IV-M. It was supposed to have extensive commonality with its predecessor, but the addition of a more powerful engine, improved aerodynamic features, and other enhanced capabilities gave it a 90 percent new design. It is designed for low- to medium-altitude flight, and is capable of in-flight refueling.

  • Year Deployed: 1986
  • Dimensions: 5.38 meters length, .38 meters diameter
  • Weight: 860 kilograms
  • Propulsion: Solid propellant booster and ramjet
  • Throw Weight: Unkown
  • Speed: Mach 2
  • Range: 250 kilometers
  • Guidance: Inertial and terrain mapping
  • Circular Error Probable: 350-400 meters
  • Warhead: TN-81
  • Yield: 300 kilotons
  • Locations: 45 Mirage 2000Ns and 20 Super Etendards
  • Number Deployed: 65 missiles
  • Primary Contractor: Aerospatiale, Space and Strategic Systems Division
  • The ASMP (Air-Sol Moyenne Portee medium-range air to surface missile) appears to be the French analogue of the recently retired U.S. short-range attack missile (SRAM). The ASMP replaced the AN-22 gravity bomb, and gave the French nuclear-armed fighter-bombers a standoff capability against heavily defended targets. The ASMP was designated for carriage by the Mirage 2000N, Mirage IVP (recently retired), and Super Etendard.

    The wingless ASMP uses a solid fuel booster initially to reach speeds of approximately Mach 2 within five seconds, then switches to a ramjet for the remainder of the flight. Range depends upon the altitude of the firing platform, with a 250- mile range at high altitude, down to a minimum of 80 kilometers at low levels. The missile is programmed prior to takeoff via data cassette with specific launch and target parameters, although the missile receives a last-minute guidance update before firing.

    France probably has 60 operational ASMPs with more in inactive storage. 18 were allocated to the Mirage IVP strike aircraft, which have since been retired. France is pursuing an "ASMP+" program, a missile with an extended range of 500 kilometers, which is expected to enter service in 2007.


    Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, "Nuclear Notebook."

    Federation of American Scientists.

    Jane's All the World's Aircraft, Ed. Paul Jackson, Alexandria, Va. Jane's Information Group, 1997-2002.

    Jane's Fighting Ships, Ed. Commondore Stephen Saunders, Alexandria, Va. Jane's Information Group, 1997-2002.

    Jane's Naval Weapon Systems, Ed. E.R. Hooton , Alexandria, Va. Jane's Information Group, 1997-2002.

    Jane's Strategic Weapon Systems, Ed. Duncan Lennox, Alexandria, Va. Jane's Information Group, 1997-2002.

    The Military Balance, The International Institute for Strategic Studies, London England, Oxford University Press, 1997-2002.

    Compiled by Ted Flaherty, December 1996
    Updated by Ben Friedman, CDI Research Assistant, May 14, 2002

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