France have approximately 300 nuclear weapons in their arsenal. The Federation of American Scientists notes that France, like other nuclear weapon states, probably has inactive nuclear warheads in a reserve. The French arsenal consists of two nuclear weapon systems: submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) and air-launched intermediate-distance missiles.
In the 1950s, France initiated a civilian nuclear research programme, which also produced plutonium. In 1956, France established the Secret Committee for the Military Applications of Atomic Energy, tasked with the development of nuclear weapon technology and delivery vehicles. In the same year, the United States intervened in the Suez Crisis against France’s regional interests, confirming the French belief that the country needed an indigenous nuclear weapons capability in order to preserve its position as a global power. Upon the election of Charles de Gaulle as French president in 1958, the decision was made to develop nuclear weapons.
The first French nuclear test detonation took place in 1960 near Reggane in the Algerian desert. France later conducted 210 test detonations of nuclear weapons up until 1996. These tests took place in French Sahara and in Polynesia in the Pacific Ocean. Despite the fact that France developed its own nuclear weapons, there was a certain level of technological cooperation with the United States in the 1980s. Starting in 2010, France and the United Kingdom agreed to construct and operate two joint nuclear weapons research facilities.
In the 1990s, France made large cuts in its nuclear weapons arsenal discontinued a number of nuclear weapons programmes, and closed all its land-based missile sites. This makes France the only nuclear power to completely do away with its earlier deployed land-based nuclear weapons systems. Since the end of the Cold War, the number of nuclear delivery vehicles in the French arsenal has been cut by more than half.
The French nuclear arsenal today is estimated to consist of about 300 nuclear warheads, based on two main modes of delivery: nuclear strategic ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), and air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs).
The backbone of France’s nuclear forces is its fleet of four Triomphant-class SSBNs, which is operated by the Force oceanique strategique of the French Navy. These submarines fully replaced the earlier Redoubtable-class SSBNs in 2008, and the last Triomphant-class SSBN in the series entered service in 2010. Each of these SSBNs is equipped with 16 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), each of which carries from four to six multiple independent re-entry vehicle (MIRV) warheads with 100-150 kt yields. Therefore, each SSBN carries as many as 64-94 warheads (former president Chirac said some SLBMs have fewer deployed warheads. The submarines are based at Ile Longue at Brest in western Britanny).
- M-45: The M-45 SLBM is an older missile that is currently being replaced on the Triomphant-class SSBNs in favour of the newer M51.1 and M51.2 SLBMs. Initially deployed in 1996, the M-45 is a three-stage, solid-fuelled missile with an estimated 4000-6000km range, able to carry 4-6 MIRV warheads.
- M-51.1: The M-51.1 is a newer missile that was introduced in 2010 to replace the older M-45 SLBMs. As of 2014, the M-51.1 had been introduced on two of France’s Triomphant SSBNs; the remaining two submarines are to be retrofitted with the M-51.2 version. The M-51.1 is a three-stage, solid-fuelled missile with a 6000km range, able to carry 4-6 MIRV warheads.
- M-51.2: The M-51.2 is a newer iteration in the M-51 SLBM series. Two Triomphant SSBNs will be equipped with this missile beginning in 2015. The M-51.2 is a three-stage, solid-fuelled missile with 6000-km range. Like the M-45 and M-51.1, this missile can carry 4-6 MIRV warheads, but differs from its predecessors by using the tete nucleaire oceanique (TNO) warhead with an estimated 150-kt yield, as opposed to the 100-kt warhead of the TN-75.
France’s second mode of nuclear weapon delivery is based on its fleet of nuclear-capable aircraft, which can be based on either land or ships. The land-based aircraft are operated by the French Air Force, while the sea-based aircraft are operated by the Aeronavale—the air-based arm of the French Navy. The two main types of nuclear-capable aircraft are the Mirage 2000N and Rafale F3, both of which are equipped with air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) (4). The nuclear warheads for the Rafale M F3 are stored on the aircraft carriers from which they operate, making France the only remaining nuclear power to deploy nuclear weapons on aircraft carriers.
- Mirage 2000N:
The Mirage 2000N was initially deployed in 1988, and is the nuclear-capable version of the Mirage 2000. The aircraft is solely land-based, and has a projected range of 2750 km. Each of the 20 Mirage 2000Ns is equipped with a single Air-Sol Moyenne Portee-Amelioree (ASMP-A) ALCM with a selectable yield warhead up to 300 kt. The Mirage 2000N is scheduled to be replaced by a newer Rafale B aircraft in 2019.
- Rafale C F3: The Rafale C F3 is the land-based version of the Rafale F3, and was initially deployed within the French Air Force in 2010. It has a projected range of 2000 km, and is similar to the Mirage 2000N equipped with the ASMP-A ALCM.
- Rafale M F3: The Rafale M F3 is the sea-based version of the Rafale F3, is otherwise similar to the land-based M-version, and is equipped with the same nuclear armament, although deployed in smaller numbers (10 vs. 20).
Nuclear weapon modernization
In cooperation with the United Kingdom, France maintains a highly advanced computer simulation programme for the production of modified or new nuclear weapons without the need for test detonations. The Megajoule Laser facility was scheduled to begin the first tests in December 2014. France and the United States are thus the only states seeking to induce miniature thermonuclear explosions in contained vessels in giant laser facilities, which are not counted as nuclear tests due to their small scale.
According to the SIPRI World Yearbook 2014, evidence from government documents indicates that France is beginning preliminary development work on a new generation of SSBNs, which may be the successor to its current fleet of Triomphant-class SSBNs by 2030. One French source has said that France is also working on a new iteration in the M-51 series: the new M-51.3. Little is known, however, about this SLBM.
France is currently developing a new version of its ALCMs, with longer range. The new missiles will be equipped with a new type of warhead, the Tête Nucléaire Aeroportée.
France is also developing a mid-life refurbishment programme for the ASMP-A ALCM, which is scheduled to begin in 2022. France has stated that it will replace its current fleet of Mirage 2000N aircraft with the newer Rafale B.
Fissile material inventory
Compared with most other countries, France maintains a large amount of fissile materials albeit smaller than the levels of the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom. The total fissile material stock, however, is mostly due to a large amount of separated plutonium from civilian reactors, as France’s stocks of fissile materials for weapons purposes is rather low compared to US and Russian levels. France stopped producing weapons-grade plutonium in 1992 and stopped producing highly-enriched uranium (HEU) in 1996—the first nuclear-weapons state to do so. Because of increased use of plutonium for MOX (mixed oxide) fuel for nuclear reactors, France will nevertheless retain a large inventory of civilian-separated plutonium for the forseeable future. However, with the near bankruptcy of the French nuclear power company AREVA in early 2015, the future of French MOX production looms uncertain as the market value of French plutonium is now negative.
France has not publicly declared its inventories of military-grade HEU and plutonium, making estimates of the French fissile material inventory highly uncertain.
The role of nuclear weapons in national security strategy
Nuclear deterrence still remains an important part of French defence policy. The “le Livre blancs” (white papers) on national defence and security, and presidents Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande, have said that an attack on vital French interests could prompt a nuclear response. In a speech in Istres in February 2015, President Francois Hollande stated that the purpose of nuclear deterrence is to defend the country against any agression from another state that threatens vital French interests (“the life of our nation”). President Hollande confirmed that France would not use nuclear weapons against any member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty that acted in accordance with its commitments in regards to weapons of mass destruction.
An important element in French nuclear weapons policy is that the France views it necessary to have such weapons in order to defend its great power status in the world. President Hollande stated that “France is one of the rare nations whose influence and responsibility are situated on the global level. This is because France can exercise her responsibilities. Because everyone knows that when France speaks, [France] can act. The nuclear deterrence force ensures that France’s international commitments remain respected…”.
France also views its independent nuclear weapons force as a part of Europe’s security policy. Despite having decided that it will not partake in NATO’s nuclear planning systems, France nevertheless desires to contribute to the elaborations on NATO nuclear weapon strategy.
France has stated on numerous occasions that it considers the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) a priority, and that there should be negotiations on an international treaty prohibiting the production of fissile materials for weapons purposes (Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty). Despite sharing the vision of a nuclear-weapons-free world, “[France] knows that it is not enough to proclaim immediate and total disarmament… That is why the era of nuclear deterrence is not over.” – President Hollande, February 19. 2015.
Last update: March 15, 2017