French Nuclear Forces, 2005

July 17th, 2005 - by admin

Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen – 2005-07-17 00:47:29

July/August 2005 pp. 73-75 (vol. 61, no. 04) © 2005 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

France currently has two nuclear weapons systems: submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) carried by nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and medium-range air-to-surface missiles carried by Mirage 2000N and Super Étendard aircraft. [1]

Fifteen years ago, it had four additional systems that have now been removed from service. France retired, and presumably disassembled, the 175 warheads associated with these systems.

Though France is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and is bound by Article VI’s goal of nuclear disarmament, it shows no signs of giving up its remaining arsenal. Instead, it is making plans to develop, procure, and deploy new nuclear weapons, and to maintain its existing arsenal without nuclear testing, for years to come.

French President Jacques Chirac set out his country’s nuclear plans in February 1996 when he announced broad military reforms for 1997-2002. The plans called for consolidating French nuclear forces on fewer platforms and developing a new generation of nuclear weapons. During a visit to Moscow on September 26, 1997, Chirac confirmed that none of France’s nuclear weapons remained aimed at designated targets.

Chirac and the government presented a new five-year military plan on September 11, 2002. Adopted on January 27, 2003, the plan, for the most part, continues to fund programs first presented in 1996. France’s 2005 budget authorizes 3.18 billion euros (about $4 billion) for nuclear weapons, with 1.85 billion euros (about $2.37 billion) of the total going toward the submarine program. Nuclear weapons spending makes up less than 10 percent of the total defense budget.

Bombers. Three squadrons with a total of 60 Mirage 2000Ns currently have nuclear roles. Two of these (named Dauphiné and La Fayette) are based at Luxeuil-les-Bains, 130 kilometers southwest of Strasbourg. The third squadron (Limousin) is at Istres, 40 kilometers northwest of Marseille.

Since the 1991 Gulf War, in which the night-attack capability of the then-nuclear only Mirage 2000N proved useless, the aircraft has been given some conventional capability to increase its utility. Both Dassault, the aircraft’s manufacturer, and the Armée de l’Air confirm that the Mirage 2000N’s “primary assignment” remains its nuclear-strike role. [2]

The Mirage 2000N carries the Air-Sol-Moyenne Portée (ASMP) supersonic missile equipped with a single TN-81 warhead. We estimate 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 1991 French Senate report stated that France initially produced 80 warheads and 90 ASMPs. In May 1994, however, when 15 Mirage IVs (plus three spares) still had nuclear roles and only 45 Mirage 2000Ns were operational, then-President François Mitterrand identified 60 ASMPs 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 IV, he gave a fixed number, saying, “We possess 15 missiles.” For the Mirage 2000N and Super Étendard aircraft, however, the number was less precise. “These forces possess 45 missiles,” he said, indicating that the exact number may be dependent on the number of operational aircraft.

Since then, the air force has made operational an additional 15 Mirage 2000Ns and retired most Mirage IVs. The aircraft’s ASMP missiles may have been reassigned to the Mirage 2000N. France is also preparing to enter into service a longer-range ASMP, named ASMP-Amélioré (ASMP-A), that will have a 400-500 kilometer range, compared to the 300-kilometer range of the ASMP.

The ASMP-A will be equipped with a new warhead designated Tête Nucléaire Aero-portée (TNA), a variant of the Tête Nucléaire Oceanique (TNO), and is expected to enter service with modified Mirage 2000N K3s in 2007 and with Rafale aircraft in 2008. The air force retained five Mirage IVs for reconnaissance missions as part of the 1/91 Gascogne squadron at Mont-de-Marsan, but they will be retired on August 31, 2005.

France intends to eventually replace all of its Mirage aircraft with the Rafale, its new multipurpose fighter-bomber. [3] The Rafale program calls for 234 aircraft for the air force and 60 for the navy. The Rafale’s roles include conventional ground attack, air defense, air superiority, and, eventually, delivery of the nuclear ASMP-A.

The air force began forming its first squadron of F2-standard Rafales at Saint-Dizier in February 2005, with the goal of having it operational in the summer of 2006. The F2 configuration includes both air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities. The second squadron will be nuclear-equipped and is scheduled to be operational in 2008. [4]

The first navy Rafale M, a carrier-based version, was delivered to Flotille 12 at Landivisiau in July 2000. The navy deployed a squadron of 10 Rafale Ms aboard the carrier Charles de Gaulle in December 2001 for training and in support of the US-led operation, “Enduring Freedom,” in Afghanistan. The squadron was declared operational on June 25, 2004. These aircraft were configured to the F1 standard, providing only air defense capabilities.

The navy plans to equip two additional Rafale M squadrons, one in 2007 and another in 2010. These aircraft will have the F2 configuration; the initial 10 aircraft will be upgraded to this standard. The final F3 standard expands the aircraft’s weapon capability to accommodate the ASMP-A nuclear missile. [5]

The Rafale M flew sorties with a model of the new missile on its centerline from the Charles de Gaulle in December 2002.

France has built three aircraft carriers. The Clemenceau entered service in 1961 and the Foch in 1963. Both were modified to handle the AN 52 nuclear gravity bomb with Super Étendard aircraft. The AN 52 was retired in July 1991. The navy modified the Foch in 1981 to “handle and store” the ASMP and allocated about 20 missiles for two squadrons–about 24 Super Étendard aircraft. The Foch is thought to have routinely carried nuclear weapons until it was decommissioned in November 2000.

The 40,500-ton nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle can accommodate 35-40 aircraft. Nuclear capability aboard the carrier remains with a squadron of Super Étendards, presumably equipped with about 10 ASMPs. France is the only country to still deploy nuclear weapons aboard aircraft carriers.

After lengthy consideration, President Chirac announced in February 2004 that a planned new aircraft carrier would have a conventional propulsion system. The ship is scheduled to enter service in 2014, and the government has earmarked approximately two billion euros (about $2.5 billion) for the program. Rafale aircraft will eventually operate from the carrier.

SSBNs. France currently operates four SSBNs of two classes: three Le Triomphant-class subs and one Le Redoutable-class sub. A Triomphant-class sub can carry 16 M45 SLBMs, each with a capacity of six TN75 warheads.

The navy rolled out Le Triomphant from the Cherbourg shipyard on July 13, 1993 and made it operational in September 1996. It commissioned the second Triomphant-class sub, Le Téméraire, in December 1999, some six months behind schedule, and successfully test-launched an M45 missile from the sub in May 1999. The third sub, Le Vigilant, was commissioned on November 30, 2004, and is replacing the soon-to-be decommissioned L’Indomptable in France’s Strategic Oceanic Force (FOST).

A fourth Triomphant SSBN, Le Terrible, is under construction at the Cherbourg shipyard and is scheduled for its initial patrol in 2010. One estimate has put the cost of the Triomphant-class program at nearly 16 billion euros (about $20 billion). This includes construction of the submarines, maintenance, personnel, and 25 years of operation. Adding the costs of missiles and warheads brings the total to 32 billion euros (about $40 billion).

During his February 1996 address, Chirac announced that a new SLBM, known as the M51, will replace the M45. The missile, now designated M51.1, is scheduled to enter service in 2010 in order to coincide with the commissioning of Le Terrible.

The M51.1 is expected to have a range of 6,000 kilometers and to carry up to six warheads and penetration aids. Its range could be extended by carrying fewer warheads. The missile was test-launched in early 2004 and will eventually arm all four Triomphant-class SSBNs by about 2014. Military planners initially intended for the M51 to carry an entirely new warhead, the Tête Nucléaire Nouvelle, but the combination of costs, changing strategic requirements, and the cessation of nuclear weapons testing led them to settle for the more robust TNO warhead.

This warhead was presumably tested during France’s last series of tests from September 1995 to January 1996. An upgraded missile, designated the M51.2, is scheduled to be deployed in 2015 and will carry the TNO warhead.

France has transitioned to an operational inventory of approximately 288 TN75 warheads for three sets of M45 SLBMs (48 missiles plus spares), enough to arm three of the four operational SSBNs. Final assembly of warheads occurs at the Valduc Center near Dijon, France’s Pantex. Warheads are stored at a Ministry of Defense facility contiguous to Valduc pending delivery to the military or disassembly. [6] We estimate that the TN75 warheads were produced between 1996 and 2003 at Valduc. France retired a comparable number of TN70/71 warheads beginning in the late 1990s and presumably disassembled them at Valduc.

The navy maintains three of four SSBNs 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. [7]

The SSBN force is organized under the FOST and home-ported at the Ile Longue base near Brest. Technicians mate the warheads from Valduc with their reentry vehicles and missiles at a special facility at Ile Longue.

The navy relocated its SSBN command center to Brest in 2000; communication facilities continue to operate from Rosnay in the department of Indre. Four C-160H Astarté communication relay aircraft also maintain communication with SSBNs on patrol. Nuclear attack submarines, Atlantique 2 maritime patrol aircraft, antisubmarine frigates, and minesweepers all protect French SSBNs during operations.

SSBN protection will be an important mission for the new Barracuda-class nuclear-powered attack submarine, which is planned to enter service in 2010. Like SSBNs, each French attack sub has two crews to optimize its operational availability. SLBM tests are coordinated from the Test Center of the Landes. The missiles are fired from down-range SSBNs toward an impact zone near the Azores.

France conducted its two hundred and tenth and last nuclear test on January 27, 1996, signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on September 24, 1996, and ratified it on April 6, 1998.

The Military Applications Division of the Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique has the exclusive responsibility for the research, development, monitoring (formerly testing), and production of French nuclear warheads. In the absence of full-scale testing, it has established a simulation program to guarantee that the warheads will perform to their design specifications.

A number of new facilities comprise the program. The Ile-de-France Center at Bruyères-le-Châtel, 35 kilometers south of Paris, contains the Téra supercomputer that powers computer simulations. Located at Moronvilliers near Reims, the AIRIX linear electron beam accelerator takes flash radiographic pictures of nuclear weapons components under dynamic conditions. It began operation in January 2001.

Construction of the Laser Megajoule facility began in May 2003 at the Centre d’Etudes Scientifiques et Techniques d’Aquitaine, 30 kilometers southwest of Bordeaux. The laser, which consists of 240 laser beams (30 lines of eight beams) converging on a target just a few millimeters in diameter, will simulate fusion reactions, like those caused by hydrogen bombs. It is scheduled to be fully operational (ignition) in 2011.

• 1. Bruno Tertrais, “Nuclear Policy: France Stands Alone,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2004, pp. 48–55.

• 2. Marie Bubenicek and Yves Gérand, “La Dissuasion Nucléaire,” Air Actualités, October 2004, pp. 48–49; “La Double Vie du ‘Dauphine,'” Air Actualités, September 2004, pp. 30–33.

• 3. Darren Lake, “Squall from the Sea,” Jane’s Navy International, November 2003, pp. 12–18.

• 4. En Brief item, Air Actualités, March 2005, p. 6.

• 5. Lake, “Squall from the Sea,” p. 15.

• 6. Bruno Barrillot, France and Nuclear Proliferation, (Lyon: CDRPC, 2001), p. 16.

• 7. French government, Fighting Proliferation, Promoting Arms Control and Disarmament: France’s Contribution (2005), p. 64.

Nuclear Notebook is prepared by Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Inquiries should be directed to NRDC, 1200 New York Avenue, N.W., Suite 400, Washington, D.C., 20005; 202-289-6868.

July/August 2005 pp. 73-75 (vol. 61, no. 04) © 2005 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

France’s Arsenal
Delivery vehicle • Year operational No.* •
• Missile range (kilometers) • Warheads x yield (kilotons) • Active warheads • Aircraft**

Mirage 2000N/ASMP 1988 60 300 1 TN81 x 300 50

Super Étendard/ASMP 1978 10 300 1 TN81 x 300 10

SLBMs M45 N/A 48*** 4,000+ 6 TN75 x 100 288

Total ~348

(ASMP: Air-Sol-Moyenne Portée supersonic missile;
SLBM: submarine-launched ballistic missile.)
* Refers to number of aircraft and SLBMs.
** Range of Mirage 2000N is 2,750 kilometers; range of Super Étendard is 650 kilometers.
*** Three sets of 16 M45 SLBMs are deployed on three of four SSBNs in the operational cycle.

French SSBNs
Name/SLBM* • Year operational • Missile range (kilometers) • Warheads x yield (kilotons)
L’Indomptable**/M4 1976 4,000 6 TN71 x 150
L’Inflexible***/M45 1985 4,000+ 6 TN75 x 100
Le Triomphant/M45 1997 4,000+ 6 TN75 x 100
Le Téméraire/M45 1999 4,000+ 6 TN75 x 100
Le Vigilant/M45 2005 4,000+ 6 TN75 x 100
Le Terrible/M51.1 2010 6,000 6 TN75 x 100
SSBN: nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine;
SLBM: submarine-launched ballistic missile.

* Three sets of 16 M45 SLBMs are deployed on three of four SSBNs in the operational cycle.
** Scheduled for decommissioning in 2005 and no longer in the operational cycle.
*** Scheduled to be withdrawn in 2008.

Copyright 2005 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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