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The force de frappe (literally Strike Force; meant for dissuasion, i.e. deterrence) is the designation of what used to be a triad of air-, sea- and land-based French Nuclear Forces, part of the military of France. France has the third largest nuclear force in the world, after Russia and the United States. In March 2008, President Nicolas Sarkozy confirmed reports of the size of France's nuclear arsenal and announced that France will reduce its air-launched nuclear arsenal by a third, leaving the force de frappe with fewer than 300 warheads.[1]



The decision to arm France with nuclear weapons was made in the mid-1950s by the administration of Pierre Mendès-France under the Fourth Republic. Charles de Gaulle, upon his return to power in 1958, solidified the initial vision into the well-defined concept of a fully independent force de frappe capable of protecting France from a Soviet attack independently from NATO, which de Gaulle considered to be dominated by the United States to an unacceptable degree. In particular, France was concerned that, in the event of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, the United States, already bogged down in the Vietnam War and afraid of Soviet retaliation against the United States proper, would not come to the aid of its Western European allies.

The strategic concept behind the force de frappe was the so-called dissuasion du faible au fort (Weak-to-strong deterrence), i.e., the capability of inflicting to a more powerful enemy more damage than the complete destruction of France would represent. The enemy, having more to lose, would therefore refrain from proceeding further (see MAD). The principle was summarized in a statement attributed to De Gaulle himself:

Within ten years, we shall have the means to kill 80 million Russians. I truly believe that one does not light-heartedly attack people who are able to kill 80 million Russians, even if one can kill 800 million French, that is if there were 800 million French. [2]

France conducted its first nuclear test in 1960 and operational weapons became available in 1964.

De Gaulle's vision of the Force de Frappe featured the same triad of air-based, land-based, and sea-based means of deterrence deployed by the United States and the Soviet Union. Work on these components had started in the late 1950s and was vigorously accelerated as soon as De Gaulle became president.


Initially, the force de frappe consisted of an air-based component only around the newly developed Dassault Mirage IV strategic bomber, designed to carry gravity bombs over targets in the Eastern bloc. This component was declared operational in October 1964 and has been continually modernized since then. The bomber version of the Mirage IV was retired in 1996 and replaced by the Mirage 2000-N.

A Pluton missile mobile launcher.

A land-based component was added in August 1971 with the commissioning of the 18-silo S3 IRBM launch site at Plateau d'Albion in the Vaucluse region. Later, the land element was augmented with the mobile short-range Pluton and Hadès missiles, designed to be launched from the front lines at approaching Soviet armies. Since it was deemed that a full-scale Soviet invasion of Europe was unlikely to be stopped by conventional forces, these weapons were meant as a "final warning" (ultime avertissement) which would tell the enemy that further advance would trigger a full-scale nuclear attack on its main cities. The Pluton, introduced in 1974, was retired in 1993 and its successor, the Hadès, was produced in limited numbers in the 1990s and placed in storage in 1995 (the last missile was dismantled on June 23, 1997). The Albion site, approaching obsolescence and deemed no longer relevant following the fall of the Soviet Union, was shut down in 1999.


The sea-based component of the triad entered service in December 1971 with the commissioning of Le Redoutable, France's first ballistic missile submarine. Since then, the sea-based deterrent has expanded to a force of four submarines, two of which are always to be out on patrol.[3]

Present state

Land-based component

France no longer possesses land-based nuclear missiles. The IRBM base at the Plateau d'Albion (Vaucluse region) was deactivated in 1999. All army units equipped with SRBMs as the Pluton and Hadès missiles have also been disbanded.

Sea-based component
The Redoutable, the first French nuclear missile submarine.

The French Navy includes a nuclear strategic branch, the Force Océanique Stratégique, composed of four nuclear ballistic submarines:

Air-based component

It is estimated that France has 60 ASMP medium-range attack missiles with nuclear warheads,[5] of which:

In the near future, the new Rafales will replace Mirage 2000Ns and Super Etendards in the nuclear strike role. In their F3 version, Rafales will be able to carry the improved ASMP-A missile.


  1. ^ "France to reduce nuclear arsenal, warns of Iran danger". March 21, 2008.  
  2. ^ Dans dix ans, nous aurons de quoi tuer 80 millions de Russes. Eh bien je crois qu'on n'attaque pas volontiers des gens qui ont de quoi tuer 80 millions de Russes, même si on a soi-même de quoi tuer 800 millions de Français, à supposer qu'il y eût 800 millions de Français.
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ BBC, France to reduce nuclear warheads. March 21, 2008.
  5. ^ (French) Centre de Documentation et de Recherche sur la Paix et les Conflits, Etat des forces nucléaires françaises au 15 août 2004

See also

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