Chapter 20. French Nuclear Policy: Developments and Significance for the Russian Political Interests

February 26, 2024

Recently, due to the growing tension in international relations, the nuclear factor has begun to play a more important role. The problems of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation continue to occupy one of the main places on the international agenda. Traditionally, Russian and foreign science pays more attention to the study of the nuclear doctrines of Russia and the United States, the states with the largest nuclear arsenals. In this regard, the nuclear factor in the foreign policy of other countries, especially medium-sized states such as France, is often underestimated. Meanwhile, the question of how to involve France (and the UK) in the arms control process together with Moscow is a key issue for Russia’s national security. In 2023, announcing the suspension of Russia’s participation in the New START Treaty, President Vladimir Putin outlined the accounting of the nuclear arsenals of the two European countries as a necessary condition for continuing the dialogue on strategic stability. In addition, France’s membership in the nuclear club concerns Russia’s security interests, since France, as a member of the Nuclear Five (P5), is an important player in negotiations on compliance with the nonproliferation regime.

How can France’s nuclear policy be characterized at the present stage? Is it significant for Russia’s foreign policy? If yes, why? 

Overview of the French nuclear arsenal: the basics

As of 2022, SIPRI estimates that France has 290 warheads, of which 280 are deployed[1]. France has been observing the ceiling of 300 nuclear warheads since 2008, when the corresponding decision was made by French president Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012). In 2007, France had 348 warheads[2]. The peak was in 1991-1992 – 548 warheads[3].

Number of France’s Nuclear Warheads (1991-2023).
Compiled by the author based on SIPRI. 

The French arsenal consists of an air and naval component. The ground-based missile forces were finally disbanded in 1998. The main component is considered to be the marine component. About 90 percent of the total budget allocated to the country’s nuclear forces is spent on it annually[4]. The ratio within the dyad is approximately 80 to 20, where 80 percent are sea-based forces and 20 percent are air-based. A marine component is generally intended to deliver a massive blow, because it is less vulnerable and more powerful. On the contrary, for a point strike or a last warning (preventive strike under the French nuclear doctrine), it would be more appropriate to use an air component, since it has greater accuracy and maneuverability. As the minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian (2012-2017) said in 2014, the accuracy of the air component makes it possible to “effectively destroy all centers of power [of a regional power] with very limited collateral damage, unlike sea-based strategic nuclear forces, which do not have the same accuracy”[5]

 NumberMax. numberof deployedmissilesYear of entrance into serviceMax. SpeedFlight range/autonomous navigation
Le Triomphant
4Up to 16 missiles201725 knots46,3 km/h6000 km
Ground-based bombers RafaleBF3401 missile2010-2011Mach 1,8Up to 17000 km (with refueling inthe air) [6]
Ship-based bombers RafaleMF3101 missile2010-2011Mach 1,8Up to 17000 km (with refueling inthe air)
Composition of France’s Nuclear Arsenal in 2021. Platforms
Compiled by the author based on SIPRI
 NumberMax. number of deployed warheadsYear of entrance into serviceFlight rangeCircular probable deviation
SLBM M 51.2606 warheads20109000 km150-200 m
Cruise missileASMP-A50 1 warhead2009500 kmLess than 10 m
Composition of France’s Nuclear Arsenal in 2021. Delivery Systems 
Compiled by the author based on SIPRI 
TNО (for SLBMs)240100-150 ktn
TN-80 or 81 (for cruisemissiles)50Up to 300 ktn
Composition of France’s Nuclear Arsenal in 2021. Warheads 
Compiled by the author based on SIPRI

The naval component of the French strategic nuclear forces consists of four submarines of the Triomphant type, each of which has its own name – Le Triomphant, Le Temeraire, Le Vigilant and Le Terrible – and is capable of carrying up to 16 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) in addition to conventional weapons – F17 torpedoes and Exocet SM39 anti-ship missiles. According to Bruno Tertrais, the striking power of two submarines is sufficient to inflict “irreparable damage” to the enemy (therefore, two boats, two more – guarantee the possibility of a “minimal” retaliatory strike)[7]

At the same time, one of the four boats is always under maintenance at the naval base in Brest. The other three are on alert: at least one nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) is on combat patrol, lasting up to 70 days, the second is preparing for patrol, the third is heading to the port after patrol. Accordingly, the number of SLBMs is designed for 3 SSBNs, not 4, and is 48 units. The location of the submarines Île-Longue has been ensuring the combat readiness of the SSBNs for 52 years. There are two dry docks, a storage facility for nuclear warheads[8].

The Triomphant SSBN is larger, faster and twice quieter than its predecessor, the Redoubtable (the noise level of the Triomphant is equal to the ambient noise level of the sea at full calm). Triomphant operates on a K-15 water-water type nuclear reactor with a capacity of 150 megawatts (MW). Unlike American and British submarines, the fuel for this reactor is low-enriched uranium (LEU), the degree of enrichment of which is 7-20 percent. The same reactor is installed on the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. The boats use the DMUX-80 sonar system, which includes bow and side sonars, which presumably have a detection range of 200 km[9]

Flight Range of the French SLBM M 51.2.
Compiled by the author based on open sources

The Triomphant is equipped with M51.2 missiles (48 units), which in 2021 completely replaced the M51.1 version. They are capable of carrying up to six TNO warheads (tête nucléaire océanique – marine nuclear warhead) with a capacity of 100 ktn. The approximate flight range of the M51.2 is up to 9,000 km, so it can already be called an intercontinental missile in any case. As Bruno Tertrais writes, the M51.2 is “a real deterrent tool in all azimuths. With a speed of up to 20 Mach, it could reach the far corners of Asia in about thirty minutes”[10]M51.3 and M51.4 are currently being developed, the technical characteristics of which are not yet known but they are actively being tested by France. The last test of M51SLBN was in April 2023 and was proclaimed successful by the Ministry of Armed Forces[11]. The new M51.3 type is planned to be introduced by 2025. In parallel, the new generation of TNO warheads are being developed. These warheads are being prepared simultaneously with the new generation of SSBN – SNLE3G, which will replace the Triomphant by 2050. New boats will have to have a lower detection level due to the special hull covering. In addition, it will install more sensitive sensors, as well as “innovative magnetic protection against air threats”[12]. The first boat should be in service by 2033.

As for the air component of the French strategic nuclear forces, it includes 40 ground-based Rafale BF3 fighters and 10 ship-based Rafale MF3 fighters capable of carrying one TN-80 or TN-81 charge (which is lighter and safer than TN-80) with a capacity of up to 300 ktn. As an anonymous source noted, the technical characteristics of ship-based and land-based Rafales do not differ. The Rafales finally replaced their predecessors, the Mirage 2000, in 2018. They have 2.5 times longer flight range (3.700 km vs 1.500 km), a flight speed of Mach 2.2 (instead of 1.8 for Mirages). The base of the BF3 aircraft is located in Saint-Dizier, MF3 – in Landivisio. But, as the Russian military expert Major General Midyhat Vildanov writes, “the MF3 sea-based aircraft, with the French president’s decision to use nuclear weapons and receiving a combat order, are transferred to the operational subordination of the command of surface forces and relocated to the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, ensuring the defeat of enemy objects with cruise missiles at a distance of up to 1000 km from the area location of the aircraft carrier”[13]. French Rafale bombers are equipped with ASMP-A cruise missiles, which replaced ASMP in 2009-2011. The launch range is 500 km, the speed is Mach 3. It is known that the ASN4G missile is already being developed, which will have to replace the ASMP-A by 2035 and whose speed will be from Mach 4 to 9. Home port of the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is Toulon.

The Sea-Based Aircraft Rafale M[14].
Source:  Outrun Change (

The modernization of the air component of the nuclear dyad involves the modernization of the ASMP-A cruise missile. As Romain Leschable writes, “the ASMP-A missile will be capable of overcoming any missile defense system until 2035. But further, a technological breakthrough may limit the effectiveness of delivery vehicles. Thus, this evolution, which will affect both the maritime and the air component, will pose a threat to the future of French capabilities”[15]. It is known that the development of the ASN4G rocket is already underway, which will replace the ASMP-A by 2035 and whose speed will range from 4 to 9 Mach. In addition, the VMaX hypersonic glider with an expected speed of more than 5 Mach will most likely act as the head of the missile, the first test of which took place in June 2023. In addition, in terms of modernizing the air nuclear forces, there is also an increase in the flight range of Rafale fighters, which can be achieved by adopting the Phoenix tanker aircraft, which it should provide a longer duration of the Rafale flight. As Romain Lechable writes, “in 2014, the first nuclear squadron of Rafales was able to reach Reunion from the Haute-Marne in less than 11 hours. Therefore, even before the commissioning of the multi-purpose tanker (Multi Role Tanker Transport), the air component of the strategic nuclear forces has confirmed its effectiveness”[16].

Summarizing, three areas of modernization of the French deterrence forces can be identified. Firstly, creation of followers of the M51.2 (M51.3, M51.4) warheads for cruise missiles and replacement of the TNO-1 warheads with the TNO-2 model for SLBMs, creation of a hypersonic gliding unit capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Secondly, modernization of delivery systems. Creation of a new type of ASN4G cruise missiles and a new model of SLBM – M51.3 and M51.4. Thirdly, design and construction of a third generation SSBN with a reduced level of noise and detection. In addition, the French nuclear weapons modernization program involves improving the nuclear test simulation system and creating a more advanced missile attack warning system.

The development of the missile defense system as a step towards the Europeanization of French defense policy

Curiously for a long time France did not develop its own missile defense system, considering it too expensive and justifying its absence by saying that nuclear deterrence can be effective only with some degree of vulnerability to the enemy. France was against the creation of advanced missile defense systems from the United States and the USSR, therefore sharply condemned the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty) in 2001. Further, in 2008, France was one of the few EU member states that opposed US plans to create a European missile defense system completely dependent on the United States. It insisted that decisions on the combat use of missile defense systems should be made by all NATO members, and not by the United States alone, to which Washington refused.

Due to the lack of its own missile defense system and a smaller nuclear arsenal in relation to Russia, France has always defended the right to launch a preemptive strike, which is prescribed in the French doctrine. Nevertheless, the deterioration of the strategic situation, the development of missile capabilities of other states unfriendly to France (Iran, North Korea), and the termination of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) forced France to embark on the path of creating separate interception systems together with other European countries.

Today, missile defense systems deployed in Western Europe and developed with the participation of France are capable of intercepting medium- and short-range missiles and combat aircraft. Interceptors, warning and detection systems are being developed within the framework of the Twister program. Finland, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain are participating in this international project, supported by the Permanent Structured Cooperation on Security and Defense (PESCO) and led by France. The project is intended to be a response to new challenges, including guided medium-range ballistic missiles, super- and hypersonic cruise missiles, and hypersonic gliding units. This system should become a contribution of European powers to the defense of NATO, and at the same time be more independent of the United States.

As part of the project, the SAMP/T complex (medium-range surface-to-air system), also called Mamba, equipped with tracked Aster anti-missiles was implemented and put into service. In addition to SAMP-T air defense systems, there are also SAAM ship-based air defense systems (PAAMS) for equipping ships of the French and Italian navies. Aster anti-missiles are also installed on them. SAMP SAM has a high rate of fire (8 missiles in 10 seconds) and a minimum response time; each battery can simultaneously aim 16 missiles at various targets. The range of the Aster anti-missile is 3-100 km for aircraft, 3-25 km for ballistic missiles.

France is also developing a hypersonic weapons interception system. During the Paris Air Show in June 2023, agreements were signed between four states – France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain on the creation of several projects for the HYDIS2 hypersonic missile interceptor. The interceptor will be developed by the largest European missile manufacturer, the French – based international company MBDA. In addition to the five countries, the consortium also includes 19 companies and 30 suppliers from 9 European countries (Finland, Estonia, Sweden, Denmark, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Austria, Belgium). It is expected that work on the new missile defense system will be completed by 2030. The approximate cost of the project is 110 million dollars. Now it is being implemented entirely with the money of manufacturing companies, but in the future the project may receive the support of the European Defense Fund (EDF), which may give other European countries the opportunity to join the project. It is also known that an interceptor missile must have a speed of 10 Mach. Lionel Mazenck, a representative of Future Systems, one of MBDA’s divisions, talked about this at the same Paris Air Show, noting that this is twice the speed of the Russian Kinzhal: “We must be able to maneuver better than them, with an extraordinary interception speed exceeding 12,000 km/h”[17]. However, according to the French expert Jean Ponce, so far, “none of the European systems is capable of countering the new generation of threats emanating from Russia and China, including hypersonic gliding blocks, hypersonic and supersonic cruise missiles and maneuverable combat aircraft of the new generation”[18].

Nuclear factor in Russian-French relations

After the start of the Special Military Operation of Russia in Ukraine in 2022, the importance of the nuclear factor in relations between Russia and France has increased. This is primarily due to the fact that France, as a NATO member, actively supports Ukraine. It strengthened the solidarity of the Western world towards Russia. French President Emmanuel Macron (2017-present), who for a long time tried to lead France to an independent position in relations between Russia and the West, eventually also made a choice in favor of Atlanticism. This fact is well reflected in the comment of the famous French researcher Francois Heisbourg, made during an interview with The Economist magazine. He said: “It seems to me that he [Emmanuel Macron] finally understood the essence of NATO and why it is important to us”[19]. According to Dr. Evgenia Obichkina, “pushing away from Russia contributes to the consolidation of the identity of the single European Union, which by its nature is heterogeneous. While the Russophobia pathos of the geopolitics of the new EU members – the Baltic States and Poland, as well as Sweden – has rather a historical explanation, the above consideration determined the assertion of a common position shared by the old members. This choice contradicted the traditional geostrategy of the Fifth Republic, but France, initially not sharing it, did not dare to actively resist it, respecting the desire of the former socialist countries to break with the Soviet past”[20].

Indeed, many of the postulates of French foreign policy have been significantly revised since the beginning of the Special Military Operation in Ukraine. For the first time, France openly advocated Ukraine’s accession to the EU and NATO[21], began to actively expand contacts with Eastern European countries, recognizing the validity of their anti-Russian rhetoric. France also, following the UK, agreed to supply Ukraine with long-range SCALP missiles, began to train Ukrainian pilots on Rafale aircraft. In short, today France is competing not for the role of an independent mediator in relations between Russia and the West, but for the role of a guarantor of the security of Eastern Europe and a reliable ally within NATO.

In this sense, the French nuclear shield, which was originally supposed to protect, among other things, the security interests of Western Europe, is one of the instruments of deterrence of Russia against the eastern flank of the EU. So, in March 2022, after the increase in the level of combat readiness of the Russian strategic nuclear forces, which was announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin, France also increased the level of combat readiness of its SSBMs. The number of boats on combat patrol has been increased from one to three. The last time this happened was in the 1980s during the Euromissile crisis[22]. In fact, this means that for the first time since the 1980s the contradictions have escalated so much that a similar escalation has become possible between France and Russia.

At the same time, France is well aware that it does not want to be drawn into a direct confrontation with Russia, so it constantly balances between cautious signals and openly hostile rhetoric. So, Emmanuel Macron in November 2022 declared that France would not respond with a nuclear strike in the event of a nuclear strike “on Ukraine or on the region”, since such an attack would not affect its “fundamental interests” of the state, however, French President added that Russia would have a “historical responsibility for making such a decision”[23].

France’s choice in favor of showing unequivocal Atlantic solidarity makes it an opponent of Russia in the current situation. Consequently, France’s nuclear arsenal is becoming a more tangible threat to Russian interests. 

“…Having made this collective statement, NATO actually claimed to be a participant in the Treaty on Strategic Offensive Arms. We agree with this, please go ahead. Moreover, we believe this framing of the issue is long overdue. Let me recall that the US is not the only nuclear power in NATO. Britain and France also have nuclear arsenals. They are developing and upgrading them and these arsenals are also directed against us – they are also directed against Russia. The latest statements by their leaders merely confirm it – listen for yourselves. We cannot just ignore this and have no right to do so especially now. Nor can we forget that the Soviet Union and the United States initially signed the first Treatyon Strategic Offensive Arms in 1991 in a completely different situation – in conditions of abating tensions and growing mutual trust…”.

President of Russia Vladimir Putin
at his Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly
 February 21, 2023
Source: Official Website of the Russian President ( 

Initially, the French Foreign Ministry’s reaction to Russia’s suspension of the New START Treaty did not say a word about this call by the Russian President. However, in June 2023, at the GLOBSEC Bratislava Forum, Emmanuel Macron said that Europe should participate in further negotiations on nuclear arms control: “I say this very clearly, we Europeans must be active participants in these treaties, which cover our security and create a framework for the future. If we delegate our role to others, Russia, the United States, or I do not know who, we will never be trustworthy players. And so, yes, we have to work out these diplomatic solutions for the future”[24]. The French President also stressed that the Europeans need to develop a “deep strike” weapon in order to have a trump card in negotiations with Russia in the future.

At present, France has a developed nuclear potential, which consists of a sea and air component. France has 290 warheads, of which 240 are designed to be placed on Triomphant-type SSBNs, 
50 – on Rafale-type fighters. The modern program of modernization of nuclear potential is aimed at developing the flight range of carriers, increasing their resistance against modern missile defense systems, increasing the explosive power of warheads. At the same time, France is developing its own satellite program and missile defense together with its European allies and has advanced technologies for simulating nuclear tests.The Ukrainian crisis forced France to adjust its foreign policy line in favor of almost unconditional solidarity with the United States and NATO, which cannot but affect the nuclear doctrine. Today, France recognizes the leading role of the United States in ensuring European defense and considers Russia as the main threat to European security. Thus, the independence of the French nuclear arsenal today is not supported by an independent political position on key issues of European and global security or is undermined by the limited French foreign policy resources in promoting its position. And although the French arsenal formally remains an independent element and can be used only by decree of the president of the Fifth Republic, in the conditions of France’s commitment to the policy of the alliance, Russia cannot ignore the French and British nuclear arsenals in nuclear planning. This lesson will undoubtedly be learnt by the Russian diplomacy, and Russia has already stated that an indispensable condition for starting new negotiations in the field of arms control will be to take into account the French and British nuclear arsenals. However, the future negotiations on arms control are only conceivable after the conflict in Ukraine will be regulated. 

[1] SIPRI Yearbook 2022. Armaments, Disarmament and International Security // SIPRI, 2022. URL:

[2] Ежегодник СИПРИ 2007: вооружения, разоружение и международная безопасность: Пер. с англ./ Ин-т мировой экономики и междунар. отношений РАН. – М.: ИМЭМО РАН, 1998 – 2007. – 2008. – 894 с. – ISBN 978-5-02-036799-9 (в пер.). 573. с.

[3] Kristensen H., Korda M. French Nuclear Forces // Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 2019. Pp. 51-55. URL:  

[4] Brustlein C. Forces nucléaires françaises : quel renouvellement ? Politique Étrangère, 3:2017. URL:

[5] Tertrais B. French Nuclear Deterrence Policy, Forces, And Future: A Handbook //Fondation pour la recherche stratégique. – 2017. P. 59. URL :

[6] The record set in 2021. See: Rafale Fighter Jets Spend A Record Time In The Air; Fly 17,000 Km While En Route To Tahiti // The Eurasian Times, June 25, 2021. URL:

[7] Tertrais B. French Nuclear Deterrence Policy, Forces, And Future: A Handbook // Recherches & Documents № 4/2020. Р. 56. URL:

[8] Kristensen H., Korda M. French Nuclear Forces // The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. – 2019. – Pp. 51-55. URL:

[9] Classe Le Triomphant //   Еncyclopedie des armes. URL:

[10] Tertrais B. French Nuclear Deterrence Policy, Forces, And Future: A Handbook // Fondation pour la recherche stratégique, 2017. P. 56. URL:

[11] Le système d’armes du SNLE Le Terrible / M51 validé en conditions opérationnelles // Le site du ministère des Armées. URL: 

[12] Un premier aperçu du futur sous-marin nucléaire français SNLE 3G // Air and Cosmos, July 6, 2023. 

[13] Вильданов М. Стратегические ядерные силы Франции: состояние и перспективы развития (2018) // Fact Military. URL:

[14] They do not differ from land-based Rafales B.F3 by exterior design

[15] Lechâble R. Réflexion sur le nécessaire renouvellement des forces de dissuasion // Revue Défense Nationale, 2017/2. № 797. Pp. 56-60. URL:

[16] Ibid. 

[17] Hardianto B. Hypersonic Missile Spikes Begin to Erode// Kompas, June 26, 2023.  URL:

[18] Havoc G. The Timely Warning and Interception with Space-based Theater Surveillance (Twister) // Secret Projects, October 17, 2020. URL:

[19] Emmanuel Macron’s Vision of a more Muscular Europe is Coming True // The Economist, March 8, 2023. URL:

[20] Обичкина Е.О. Внешняя политика Эммануэля Макрона: поиски геополитической стратегии в разладившейся мировой иерархии // Актуальные проблемы Европы. №3. 2021 г. С. 251. URL:

[21] Déclaration de M. Emmanuel Macron, président de la République, sur le sommet de l’OTAN, à Vilnius le 12 juillet 2023 // Vie publique, July 12, 2023. URL :

[22] Франция вывела в море сразу три атомные ракетные подводные лодки // Московский комсомолец, 24 марта 2022 г. URL:

[23] Guerre en Ukraine: la France ne ripostera pas par l’arme nucléaire à une attaque nucléaire tactique de Vladimir Poutine en Ukraine // La, October 12, 2022. URL:

[24] New Start – Annonce par la Russie de la suspension de sa participation au traité (21 février 2023) // Site du Ministère de l’Europe et des Affaires étrangères de la France. URL: