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FAS Project on Intelligence Reform


France currently deploys a force of both land-based and sea-based solid-fueled intermediate-range missiles with thermonuclear (TN) warheads. (1) However, the end of the Cold War and budgetary restrictions have resulted in a scaling back of French strategic and tactical nuclear forces. The major development is President Jacques Chirac's intention to replace one leg of the French nuclear triad, the 18 silo-based S-3D strategic missiles (3,500 km/1 x 1 mt TN) deployed in the Plateau d'Albion, with a nuclear attack version of the Rafale D fighter armed with air-to-surface TN missiles. The ASLP (Air-sol Longue Porteé) missile, jointly planned by France and Britain for development by the French company Aerospatiale, may no longer be a viable alternative because of cost. (2), (3) The ASLP was to have a range two to three times that of the tactical nuclear stand-off missile currently in service, the ASMP (650 km/1 x 300 kt TN). (4) In July 1991, France canceled its S-45 program, which would have produced a land-mobile ICBM similar to the Soviet SS-24 and SS-25 and the U.S. Midgetman missiles. The S-45 was to have had a range of approximately 4,000 km. (5) The land-based leg of the triad may therefore be closed down well before an extended-range air-launch missile capability becomes available, if ever.

The other two legs of the French nuclear triad consist of 15 Mirage IVP bombers armed with ASMPs and five nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines with M4A ballistic missiles (6,000 km/6 x 150 kt TN). The Mirage IVPs will be retired from nuclear duty in 1997 and that role assigned to 45 Mirage 2000 NK2 dual-role strike aircraft carrying ASMPs. (6) By 2005, four Triomphant-class ballistic missile submarines, replacing the existing subs, will begin carrying a longer-range missile, the M5 (8,000 km ?/6 x 150 kt TN ?). (7)

French air and ground tactical nuclear missile forces have also been significantly reduced. The Pluton missile (120 km/1 x 10-25 kt fission), deployed in 1974, was retired in 1993, and its intended longer-range replacement, the Hades (480 km/1 x 80 kt fission), was drastically cut back in production and only briefly deployed before being placed in storage in 1992. (8)

These changes in French missile programs respond to the end of the Cold War and the consequent irrelevance of short- and intermediate-range nuclear missiles to stem an attack by non-existent Warsaw Pact armies or to strike eastern European democracies clamoring to join NATO. Longer range M5s and stand-off ASMPs provide a semblance of relevance to a potentially resurgent Russian nuclear threat, but these strategic force reconfigurations may have as much or more to do with maintaining France's position of power in the Western Alliance.

1. "Nuclear Notebook, Lesser Nuclear Powers: France," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Dec 90, p. 57.

2. Robert Norris and William Arkin, "French Nuclear Forces 1993," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Oct 93 , p. 56.

3. Giovanni de Briganti, "Chirac Aims to Maintain Efficacy of Nuke Force," Defense News, 2-8 Oct 95, p. 2.

4. "ASLP shapes up," Jane's Defence Weekly, 22 June 91, p. 1082.

5. "France Cancels S-45 Programme," Military Technology, Aug 91, p. 74.

6. Giovanni de Briganti, "France to Replace Mirage Bomber Fleet by 1997," Defense News, 8-14 Jan 96, p. 8.

7. "French Nuclear Forces 1993," op. cit.

8. Jane's Defence Weekly, 20 June 92, p. 1041.


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