For an overview of France’s nuclear weapons consider the document French nuclear forces, 2019 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Their preferred citation is: Hans M. Kristensen & Matt Korda (2019) French nuclear forces, 2019, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 75:1, 51-55, DOI: 10.1080/00963402.2019.1556003.
The bulk of their nuclear inventory is submarine based with a small number of land-based fighters and a smaller number of carrier-based fighters.
France’s defense policy is their nuclear weapons are for “legitimate self-defense.” They have not adopted a no-first-use policy and reserve the right for a limited strike as a “final warning” that they will defend themselves.
SLBMs and SSBNs
France has four Triomphant-class nuclear powered submarines. One of these SSBNs is always on patrol, a second is getting ready to go on patrol, another has returned from patrol, and the final one is in maintenance. Article says each sub patrol is approximately 70 days.
When on patrol the SSBN is guarded by nuclear attack submarines (plural in the article), antisubmarine frigates, and maritime patrol aircraft.
Each SSBN has 16 tubes. Currently there are two variations of missiles, MS1.1 which can carry up to six MIRVed warheads at 100 kt each. At 0.1 mt, the equivalent megaton is 0.22.
The article speculates (“are thought” is the exact wording) that some missiles have a smaller load to allow for increased flexibility for various scenarios.
It seems to me (that means my wild, uninformed conjecture) in order to allow for maximum flexibility, and to allow a single warhead for “final warning”, that one missile would be loaded with one warhead. I would guess two more missiles are loaded with two warheads. That will give a lot of flexibility at a very low end of nuclear exchange. The rest of the tubes would be loaded with three missiles carrying five warheads and 10 missiles carrying six warheads, rounding out a sub’s load at 80 warheads.
ALCMs, land-based and carrier-based
Article says the French Strategic Air Forces have two squadrons with a total of 40 nuclear-capable aircraft. These are Rafale BF3. They can carry one ALCM with yield somewhere at or below 300 kt. Article identifies that as a rumor. At 0.3 mt, the equivalent megaton is 0.45.
The Rafales have a range of 2000 km. The ASMPA ALCMs have a range of 600 km. To increase reach the French have a fleet of KC-135 tankers.
France has one aircraft carrier, the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle. France has 10 nuclear-capable Rafale MF3 which can each carry one ASMPA ALCM.
Recap of the French nuclear inventory:
|launcher||warhead||mt yield||total warhead|
|total sub based||48||240|
My summary of the yields in the French inventory:
|mt yield||equiv mt||total mt||total Equiv mt|
|total sub based||24.0||51.7|
Here is my guess on the alert status of French nuclear inventory along with my wild guesses when weapons would go on-alert. The land-based fighters are located at a separate base than the weapons, so the maintainers and aircrews would need to be assembled, fighters moved to the storage location, and then weapons uploaded. The naval based fighters would have to get weapons uploaded and then wait for the carrier to get close enough to take on the fighters.
The four SSBNs are listed separately with my guess on their availability. I’ll assume either the sub just returning for patrol or getting ready for patrol would be ready in a number of days with a surge of preparation. The third sub would take more time to load and sortie.
My speculation on availability:
|launcher||total warhead||on alert||days||week(s)||months|
|patrol – MS1.2||16||80||80|
|preparing – MS1.1||16||80||80|
|returning – MS1.1||16||80||80|
|total sub based||48||240||80||80||80||–|
Article has no mention of the circular error probable (CEP) for the French missiles, which is the measure of accuracy.