The Allies AAA Guns of the Great War

The concept of an Anti Aircraft Artillery guns was not even in the imagination of field commanders in the early part of the Twenty Century. Aviation was a new field of battle then. A much misunderstood one also. But, as with any new human-developed field, there were countermeasure being develop almost at the same time that the first few planes took to the air. As in the case with many war-related innovations, Germany took the lead in this new area. Between 1908 and 09, Germany demonstrate it that an effective AAA system could be achieved with the available weapon systems. The first rudimentary “Balloon Guns”, as they were then referred to; were developed by either the vaunted Krupp Corporation or the Rheinmetall Group. These pieces were basically a field gun modified to fire at a higher angle mounted on a truck. At the same time, Germany began to encircle its biggest cities with field artillery pieces turned through 360 degrees. These pieces were placed on static angles mounts which enabled them to fire at a higher angle. At the time of the eruption of the Great War, there were so few airplanes available to either side that the development of AAA systems were relegated to the bottom of every nation’s military budget. On those days, weapons budgetary assignments usually went to the Army and Navy. In the case of an Army for example, those funds were use to develop advance armored vehicles, more powerful field and machine guns as well as heavy mortars mainly designed for siege operations.

In August 1914, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had only a handful of rudimentary AAA guns on towed mounts. The French were even less prepare with only two modified De Dion Bouton cars fitted with a high angled field gun. The main British AAA gun of the war was the 13th Pounder. The system was a combination of a 13th pounder light field gun mounted on Thornycroft J-type automobile which was one of the most strange-looking vehicles of the entire war. The J-types were fitted with stabilizers and screw jacks in order to prevent the guns’ recoil from overturning the vehicle. Usually, the British will deploy two of those systems accompanied by two other vehicles for the crew, range finding equipment and ammunition. The first of those 13th Pounders began to appear on the Western Front in the summer of 1915. Meanwhile, the French began to use their famous 75 mm field gun in the anti aircraft role, mostly because the gun’s high firing rate. The 75 mm AAA concept was a very simple one. One of such guns was mounted on top of a De Dion automobile fitted with several stabilizers for recoil absorption.

  British 13 Pounder Gun French 75 mm AAA Gun
Shell Weight 13 lb 15.8 lb
Gun Weight 2150 lb 8800 lb
Elevation +80 degrees +70 degrees
Vertical Range 13100′ 15500′
Muzzle Velocity 1700’/second 1740’/second

The French 75 mm gun was extensively use on all fronts by the Allies. In fact, when the first daylight bombings of London commenced in the summer of 1915, the British acquired some of these weapons in an effort to bolster their capital city’s air defenses.

The main problem facing AAA operators was the targeting of, although slow moving, a three dimensional object. At the beginning, the gun was fired directly at the aircraft but by the time the shell arrived at the right altitude, the target would had move on. Gunners began to mitigate this problem by mounting complex sights on all of their weapons. Unfortunately for the gunners, this only duplicated the batteries’s efforts. It was then found simple enough to fit one, centralized sight positioned in the middle of a battery of guns. Once the crew had managed the data related to the height, range and speed of an incoming object; this was passed on to individual targeting gunners who will calibrate its guns towards the target.

It is almost impossible to achieve a reliable figure of the number of downed aircraft by those rudimentary AAA system, but is fair to say the number was a very low one. However, conclusive evidence has shown that AAA-generated fire did altered German reconnaissance patters in the later stages of the war.

– Raul Colon

More information:
Air Power: The Men, Machines and Ideas that Revolutionized War; Stephen Budiansky, Penguin Group 2004
Dirty Little Secrets of World War II; James F. Dunnigan & Albert A. Nofi, HarperCollins 1996
Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France; Ernest R. May, Hill And Wang 2001
The Bomber War: The Allied Air Offensive against Nazi Germany, Robin Neillands, Overlook Press 2001
The Second World War; Edited Sir John Hammerton, Trident Press 2001

Why France Fell to the Nazis: The Air Component Before the War

After a visit to France in early January 1940, Sir Edmund Ironside, Chief of the British Imperial General Staff, summed up his impressions of the French Army like this: “I must say that I saw nothing amiss with it on the surface. The Generals are all tired men, if a bit old from our view-point. None of them showed any lack of confidence…Will the Blitzkrieg, when it comes, allow us to rectify things if they are the same? I must say I don’t know. But I say to myself that we must have confidence in the French Army. It’s the only thing in which we can have confidence…All depends on the French Army and we can do nothing about it”. Those were telling words from the top British commander before the start of the Second World War. Unfortunately for the Allies, his fears proved to be right. When Germany finally attacked the West on May 13th 1940 they did it with such a force that caught the Allies by surprise. Fifteen days after the initial attack wave, Belgium capitulated and the combine might of the French Army and British force were defeated time and time again. Between May 26th and June 4th, the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and some remaining elements of the French Army were successful evacuated from the French Channel port city of Dunkirk. On June 10th, the French government relocated its seat of power from Paris. Four days later, the Germans marched victorious into the Parisian streets. On June 22nd, the new French government caved in and signed an humiliated Armistice ending one of the most lopsided military campaigns in modern times. The immediate aftermath of the defeat saw the emerging of the “search for scapegoats” syndrome. A syndrome that is still with us today. The questions regarding the fall of France had resonated since the tragic events of May-June 1940. There are many questions as to why France was mauled so effortlessly by a numerical inferior adversary. Did the French rearmament investment came too late? Was the Army’s combat doctrine too rigid? Did the French and, to an extend, the BEF; lacked innovating and refreshing combat ideas?, and so on. In the end, the fall of France is viewed as an example of a what disastrous planning and even more poorly execution could lead.

Since the mid 1930s, France main effort to gear up for a possible German attack was rearmament. Since the mid 1920s, because of the country’s misplaced believe that its newly develop Maginot Line (a series of reinforced structures-forts- along the common German/French border) would contain the expected German columns, not much effort was put on rearming the French armed forces. All that changed with the emerging of Hitler’s Germany in the early 1930s and by the middle of the decade, French rearmament was finally given top budgetary priority. But the sad state of all three services (army, navy and the air force) made progression towards rearmament painstaking slow at best. The worse problem was experienced by the air force. The French air force began rearmament in 1934 as part of Plan I, which called for the production of 1,343 new aircrafts. Nevertheless, the assemble of such force was doomed from the beginning. In the mid 1930s, the French aircraft industry was more of an scattered complexes than a cohesion structure. One in which up to forty organizations had input in nearly all aspects of aircraft design, development and production. While at the same time competing for those precious newly designated funds. As they originally were setup, France’s aircraft industry was not structured to handle such big orders, thus the structure needed to be alter which would cause further delays in production. Those delays had an adverse effect on the air force’s rearmament effort. Because of them, most of France’s developed aircraft from the late 1930s came through a narrow technological window. One which prevented the newly developed aircraft from achieving its top technological capability thus making them almost obsolete before they even achieved operational status. The problem was compounded by the type of airplanes the French government began to order. Plan I called for the construction of multirole air platforms capable of performing as bombers, fighters and reconnaissance aircrafts. So, instead of building dedicated platforms, the French government invested on various single type planes. Such aircrafts were indeed able to carry out, rather on an pedestrian bases, each of the various type of missions they were called for, but they could not to distinguish themselves on any. The decision to develop such platforms was a painful compromise between the Army, the newly formed Air Force and the government. Many inside the air force believed, with passion, in Giulio Douhet’s strategic theory which called for the destruction of the enemy’s economic strength by destroying its infrastructure. While on the other hand, the Army’s top brass desired that the new air force serve as a supporting package rather than an independent unit.

In September 1936, France develop a new strategic plan, Plan II. Plan II diverted from the predecessor in one major area. The new Plan called for the production of up to 1,339 dedicated bombers with a complement of 756 fighters of all types. This shifting in priority towards the bomber had its roots on new Air Minister Pierre Cot’s passion for Douhet’s strategic vision. Unfortunately for France, Plan II had the same opportunity to success as its predecessor. None. Chaos rained on nearly all French aircraft productions factories. Trying to handle such big orders The problem was accentuated by the Popular Front’s nationalization effort of the mid to late 1930s. As a result of those two factors, France’s aircraft production actually felt those years. Between the spring of 1937 and the first three months of 1938, French factories were producing an average of forty units per month. Five less than in 1936, the year the Germans overtook France in sheer number of available airframes. The fact that Germany overtook France as Europe’s top air force should had not surprise anyone. On a conference visit to London later that year, Joseph Vuillemin, France’s Chief of Air Staff, plainly put the situation of the French air force as this: “In a war, our air force would be destroyed in a matter of a few days”. That bluntly statement shocked all British commanders. They were well aware of the German advances in quantity but they held the believe that once fighting erupted, the French could hold their own with Germany in the air and that the aircrafts the Royal Air Force (RAF) had just began to deploy in northern France, would tip the balance towards the Allies. Unfortunately for British commanders, their French counterparts not only held the believe that Germany was superior in all air-related aspects, but in fact cement it early in 1938. Again, the culprit was Vuillemin. In the spring of 1938, he went to Germany to evaluate for himself the much talked about Luftwaffe. When he came back, the fate of France’s air force was sealed. Later that year, Vuillemin sent a private letter to Prime Minister Edouard Daladier stating once again that in the event of war, Germany will destroy the country’s air force in less than a week. This was the same letter Daladier carried with him to Munich.

The by product of Vuillemin’s obsession with a German air wipeout was Plan V. In March 1938, the French government decided to make the air force the main recipient of budgetary disbursements, forty two percent of the entire budget went to air rearmament. The new Plan called for doubling the country’s fighter capacity (41% of all funds were allocated to new fighter development) and somewhat relegated Plan II’s emphasize on bomber construction (34% for bombers). The shifting in position was attributed to two main elements. On one hand, the French decided to rely on the much advance and better prepare RAF’s Bomber Command to carry out its missions. Sort of outsourcing its tactical and strategic bomber capability to a second party. The other factor was the gradual change in the air force’s air doctrine. In France, Nazi Germany role in the Spanish Civil War was a topic of heated discussions, specially its air component. In Spain, elements of the Luftwaffe provided constant close air support to Franco’s ground troops, paving the way for Franco to assume control of the country. This fact was not lost on French commanders, many of whom began to move the air force from an strategic bomber force to a more robust air-ground combat arrangement. Close air support was now France main air doctrine. Although a change in doctrine was made, the air force was painfully slow to pair doctrine with hardware. A clear example of this “operational deficiency” was the fact that France never develop a top flight dive bomber aircraft, a platform that proved highly successful over the Spanish countryside.

The newly developed Plan V was twice scaled up between the painful Munich conference and the German invasion of the low countries. Nearly four billion francs were invested in the air force from January 1938 through the end of combat activities in June 1940. In charge of Plan V was a brilliant engineer named Albert Caquot. Beside having impeccable engineering credentials, Caquot had one other trait coveted by many, superb managerial skills. Skills France sorely needed at the time. Caquot immersed himself in the task at hand and by late 1938 he had the French aircraft industry cracking new airframes at a rate of 41 units per month, peaking at 298 planes per month in September 1939. What Caquot and his team did was nothing less than remarkable. Almost overnight, France had consolidated its scatter aircraft industry and developed an integrated skilled workforce. On August 23rd the French high command meet to discuss the state of the air rearmament. The ultra conservative General Maurice Gamelin, France’s top military commander, spoke eloquently about the country’s ability to match Germany step by step on all dimensions of combat. Guy La Chambre, the Air Minister, was more sober, but nevertheless, expressed high confidence in his unit. “There will be a shortness of bombers until the winter of 1940, but they could be supplemented by the RAF’s bomber force stationed in the north”. Chambre finished his presentation with one of the most memorable lines in French history: “the situation of our air force no longer needs to weight on the government’s decision as it did in 1938”. Vuillemin was more cautious, stating that France’s bomber situation has not improve much since the disgrace of Munich. But as caution as Vuillemin sounded that day, he did expressed optimism for the future. “There’s a good chance that within six months, the combine French and British air forces will match that of the Germans”. Not a ringing endorsement for war but more optimistic than some of his previous statements.

Table I. France’s Aircraft Industry Workforce

Date Workers
11/1934 21500
12/1936 35200
5/1938 48000
1/1940 171000
5/1940 250000

Everything seemed to be moving upwards. Plan V was to be revised two times before the declaration of war and the factories were turning up airframes at a record pace, but underneath the numbers laid a tragic picture. Mobilization had an adverse effect on rearmament, specially, the air component. Because a high percentage of the skill force was activated, the factories were deprived of their expertise as well as sheer manpower needed to keep up the rearmament pace. By the late 1939, aircraft production had actually fallen prompting Caquot’s resignation in January 1940. Also by that time, the aircraft industry was producing planes at such a high rate that spare parts manufactures just could not keep up with demands. The situation was so grave that after the disaster of Munich, Daladier send his trusted adviser Jean Monnet to the United States with a simple order to buy as many airframes as he could get “his hands on”. Monnet responded in a big way. By February 1939, the prominent French banker had placed orders for 550 aircrafts. Later that spring, Daladier made Monnet the head of the powerful Anglo-French Purchasing Committee. Vested with new powers and an even bigger cache of funds, Monnet arranged the acquisition of 4500 new airframes. Unfortunately for France, the delivery of all those newly purchased aircrafts was painfully slow. When the Germans finally attacked, only 200 of those units were actually deployed and ready for combat.

Table II. Aircraft Production Numbers From October 1939 through May 1940

Month Planned Figure Actual Figure
October 422 254
November 615 296
December 640 314
January 805 358
February 1066 279
March 1185 364
April 1375 330
May 1678 434

French dreams of achieving parity with the Luftwaffe by February 1940 were beginning to fade by November 1939. Beside the numbers, French aircraft lacked quality in comparison to the Germans. One clear example of this was the world’s first “bomber gap”. French bombers were mostly obsolete with the newest of them just arriving at the front when war broke. On the fighter front the situation was almost the same. The best French fighter at the time, the Dewoitine D-520 was as good as any German airplane. But again, the best aircrafts, such as the D-520, were commencing to arrive in limited quantity when the hostilities started. Only eighty D-520s were deployed when Germany attacked on May 1940. More telling was the fact even adding up the 416 RAF’s aircraft deployed in France, the Germans possessed a two-to-one aircraft advantage over the Allies (1711 to 3530) at the time of the attack. Add all those factors together and is easy to see why France fell in such a dramatic way. Better combat planning and tactics could had prolonged the fight, but the French air force’s inadequacies in equipment and its poorly maintain industry base would had cracked under the stress of attrition.

– Raul Colon

More information:
Air Power: The Men, Machines and Ideas that Revolutionized War; Stephen Budiansky, Penguin Group 2004
Dirty Little Secrets of World War II; James F. Dunnigan & Albert A. Nofi, HarperCollins 1996
Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France; Ernest R. May, Hill And Wang 2001
The Bomber War: The Allied Air Offensive against Nazi Germany, Robin Neillands, Overlook Press 2001
The Second World War; Edited Sir John Hammerton, Trident Press 2001

The New French Nuclear Posture

Lost in the mist of the recently concluded Olympics Games and the current United States’ Presidential campaign is the fact that the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, has completely transform France’s overall nuclear posture in a period of just one year. Although this transformation had its roots in the mid 1990s under former president of Jacques Chirac, it was Sarkozy who will go on to fully implement the reforms Chirac envisioned. Among other things, Sarkozy’s New Strategic Vision pledged France to reduce its overall nuclear stockpile, consolidate its armed forces and to slow the peace of next generation nuclear weapons design and development. The new French president even mentioned France’s desire to rejoin the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) after a forty two years absent. All of this in the background of the release of the much anticipated White Paper on Defense and National Security which foment the nation’s defense posture for the near-to-medium future. It is the attempt of this article to shed light on the French government new nuclear posture. Its weapon and delivery platforms, availabilities and weapons development.


a. The White Paper on Defense and National Security

The White Paper is a comprehensive and detailed overall review of France’s defense capabilities, budgetary platforms and its current and future force structure posture. The current Paper edition has its roots on a 1972 government inquire about the then current state of the country’s armed forces and its strategic vision for the future. The 1972 review was followed by a more extensive 1994 Paper. The 1994 review was so comprehensive that it became the cornerstone of France’s modern armed force structure. Among the 1994 Paper’s accomplishments was the restructuring of all of the country’s armed services into an all volunteer, professional force similar to that of the United States or Great Britain. The 1994 review also paved the way for the development of Continental Europe’s first true Expeditionary Force as a mean of projecting France’s military prowess beyond its borders. But what was more significant about the 1994 review was the elimination of the nuclear deterrent element of the French ground Army. As per the White Paper accepted doctrine of 1994, France went on to dismantle its S-3 Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile silos from the Plateau d’Albion. For the first time since its inceptions into the field in the mid 1950s, the French Army was stripped of its nuclear-tipped surface-to-surface missile systems such as the short range HADES platform.

As comprehensive as the 1994 review was, by the early 2000s it became apparent, specially after the events of September 11th 2001 that a new overhaul of the French forces and its tactical and strategic implementation was needed. Thus in August 2007, the President of the Republic appointed a high level commission to craft the country’s next military doctrine. This new Paper established the country’s military, both conventional and nuclear doctrine for the next fifteen years. Among many of the review’s findings was one that is at the heart of the country’s new, more “assertive” foreign and military posture: the vulnerability of France’s territories against a limited, albeit powerful, missile strike from states once considered as third world countries.

The Paper stressed the need for modernization and consolidation among the country’s armed services. Among other items studied and elaborated by the Paper are the areas of detailing the State’s future ability to detect, collect and transmit information through secure channels. The country’s ability to defend its territorial integrity as well as its ability to project its power overseas. It also discusses a vast array of threats and areas of concern. It deals with budgetary and infrastructure issues as well. The Paper also and for the first time, proposed a major shift in the role of the civilian population in regards to its support of the armed forces. But at the heart of the Paper is the Nuclear Posture which assures the country’s survival in an event of a major attack. The current White Paper was commissioned in July 2007. It was revealed to the public in Paris by the current president, Nicolas Sarkozy in June 17th 2008 in front of 3,000 military officers.

b. President of the Republic and Co-Prince of Andorra Nicolas Sarkozy

Born January 28th 1955. Sarkozy had been Minister of the Interior in two previous French governments. He was the leader of the center to right Union for a Popular Movement political party. He assumed the presidency of France on May 16th 2007. Sarkozy is looked by many military, political observers and analysts as a fiscally conservative leader who would like to move France back into the heart of the European defense posture. He is more incline to achieve a strong Atlantic Alliance with the United States than other Western European leaders beside the British Prime Minister. A sharp policy departure from his predecessors.

c. France’s Role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO by its acrimony, is a military-political alliance formed with the aim of contain the spread of communism through out post World War II Europe. The Treaty was officially signed on April 4th 1949. NATO currently has a membership of twenty six states and its headquarters are located in Brussels, Belgium. France was originally a founding member of the Alliance. In fact, the NATO’s first operational headquarters was located on the outskirts of Paris.

The French Republic began to succeed from NATO military organization in 1959. On March of that year, President Charles de Gaulle removed the country’s Mediterranean Fleet from the Treaty’s command structure. This move was followed four months later with the request for removal of all foreign-based nuclear weapon systems from French territory. By 1964, de Gaulle had also removed the Atlantic and Channel Fleets from the command. Thus paving the way for the official conclusion of all military ties with NATO in 1966. This state of affairs between NATO and France would last until the first steps of French re-approach commenced in late 1994 with the sending of a French military attaché to Brussels. The trend continued with a 1995 agreement between the leaders of NATO and the French government. The agreement, which caped off two years of face-to-face consultation about a French role in the alliance, made France’s military participation into the Treaty’s Ministerial Conferences a reality.

The 2007 White Paper advocates full French reintegration into NATO’s military structure as part of the country’s strategic vision. But the Paper clearly stipulate three main factors that had be “clean up” before France rejoins the Treaty Organization. The three factors or “stipulations” are, first, that France’s will keep command control over all of its nuclear assets and the deterrence posture they offer the country. Second, and maybe the most pressing point any French head of state will insist upon, is the country’s reserved right of decision making regarding the use of, not only its nuclear capability, but all of its military assets. Free from a third party command structure, the French Republic wants to hold permanent and solely control over its military force. Thirdly and more to the heart of former president de Gaulle’s dream, no French military formation or asset will serve under NATO command during peace time for a prolong time. If these factors can be “ironed out”, then a full integration of France into NATO military and political command structure will become a reality.

Nuclear Policy

France had possessed nuclear weapon systems since the 1950s. At the beginning France’s Nuclear Posture is based on three key points: Instability, Strategic Security, and Nuclear Independency.

a. Instability

France’s regards instability on a state and/or sub-state level and their technological breakthroughs a possible threats to the “strategic stability” balance in the world.

b. Strategic Security

France regards four major theaters of operations as their main areas of concern:

1. The Arc of the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. This area is regarded as a breeding ground for nuclear and other Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) proliferation.
2. The Sub-Sahara Africa. This is an area filled with the so-called fail states which are a prime territory for terrorist cultivation.
3. Eastern Europe. With the new and assertive Russian Federation, this theater is rapidly moving up in France’s strategic vision list.
4. The Asian Continent. As the current economic environment continue to grow in the area, so those the possibility of a regional conflict.

c. Nuclear Independency

At the heart of France’s military and political vision lay its objective of maintaining a credible and powerful nuclear strategic force as a deterrence. This force compromise the backbone of the Nation’s strategic and tactical vision.

Nuclear Delivery Systems

With the removal of its tactical surface-to-surface missile platforms, France was left with two fully operational Nuclear Delivery Systems: the nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine and the nuclear carrying fighter/bomber.

1. The Submarine Delivery System

a. The Nuclear Powered Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN)

The SSBN or “boomers” had its origins during the early days of the Nuclear Age and the Cold War as both, the Soviet Union and the United States began to develop more and more powerful nuclear ordinances. France’s new Sousmarins Nucleaires Lanceurs d’Engins-Nouvelle Generation or SSBN class of submarine is the Le Triomphant. First ordered back on march 10th 1984, the Le Triomphant class was viewed as a more advance platform to the venerable Le Redoutable class of SSBN as France’s main strategic nuclear deterrence platform.

Designed and built at the prestigious Direction des Constructions et Armes Navales (DCN) in Cherbourg, the Le Triomphant class was originally conceived to be six boat-strong but political and budgetary changes at the beginning of the 1990s forced the government to reduce the force to four boats.

Le Triomphant (S-616)   July 13 1993 March 21 1997 Operational
Le Temeraire (S-617) August 8 1997   December 12 1999   Operational
Le Vigilant (S-618) July 3 2002 November 30 2004 Operational
Le Terrible (S-619) July 11 2005 2008-? 2010*

* Projected date for first operational patrol.

Each boat has the same hull specifications and are equally built. The French government suggested that the Le Triomphant hull’s which was developed around the ultra tense HY-130 steel alloy will give the boat one of the quieter sound signature of any submergible, man-made body. Hull length is 453′-0″ with a beam of 41′-0″. Total surface displacement is 12640 tons while submerged displacement totaled 14120 tons. Each of the class subs is powered by one GWC PAR K-15 nuclear reactor with 150 MW of power output. The K-15 power a one shaft configuration. The engine is supplemented by two diesel auxiliary engines and one emergency motor. The engine gives the Le Triomphant subs a top surface speed of twelve knots. While its dive speed is twenty five knots. Maximum dive capability is estimated at 1640 feet. One hundred and eleven officers and submariners are needed to maneuver the sub. The subs of the class were fitted with a powerful DMUX 80 multi-function passive and flank array as well as a passive ranging and intercept mechanism. A very low frequency towed array is also carried on each sub.

The Le Triomphant class subs weapon system was originally centered around sixteen T45/TN75 SLBM each with six Multiple Independently Targeted Reentry Vehicles (MIRV) warheads for a total warhead count of eighty per submarine. The T45 system would be replaced on the next Le Triomphant-class boat, the Le Terrible (2010) and eventually on the three previous subs, by the new and more advance M51 system. Augmenting the SLBMs are a complement of SM 39 Exocet anti-ship missiles and 18 ECAN L5 torpedoes housed on four twenty one inch torpedo tubes and two forward storage facilities.

b. Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM)

France’s currently operates the much publicized T45/TN75 SLBM systems. The T45 or M-45 as its commondly known is a fourth generation SLBM directly derivate from the M-4 system. The M-45 is developed by Aerospatiale, Space and Strategic System Division at Les Mureaux.

Length 11.05 m  
Diameter 1.93 m  
Propulsion Three staged, solid fuel mechanism    
Stage Weight Burn Time
1 20000 kg 62 seconds
2 8015 71
3 1500 43
Payload Capacity 35000 kg  
Operational Range 6000 km  
Guidance Mechanism   One Inertial Plus Computer System  
Operational Accuracy 500/350 m  
Warhead TN-75  
Number of Warheads Six  

The M-45 was fired for the first time on March 1988. In 1996 the missile system became operational with the French Navy. The MIRV configuration of the M-45 is six TN-75 thermonuclear warheads. Each weight it around 250 kg which make the missile lighter thus improving the SLBM range. The development of the TN-75 was a major technological breakthrough for France. Its high performing configuration can only be seen in the arsenals of the United States, Great Britain and the next generation of Russian nuclear weapons systems. Each TN-75 is believed to have a 100 kt of explosive power. The TN-75 had a harden cover as well as an special paint coat to protect it from electromagnetic impulses that cold alter its guidance mechanism. It also posses some cover stealth features which make it difficult for radar stations to detect during its reentry stage.

Today, France is in the process of preparing to deploy its fifth generation SLBM platform, the M-51.1. The M-51 program had its origins in a 1992 government recommendation for the development of the Next Generation of Thermonuclear Weapons. The M-51 is very similar to the M-45 system. Its length is 13.00 m and the diameter is 2.35 m. Is estimated that the M-51 will weight around 5000 kg. Operational range of the M-51 will be between 8000 and 10000 km. Each missile will carry at first six TN-75 MIRV. Plans are in the works for the development of more advance, bunker penetrating nuclear warheads which should be operational by the summer of 2015.

c. Submarine Basing and Deployment

During the decades of the Cold War, France maintained a redundant submarine deployment. Two SSBN boats were deployed at any one time with two on alert and two on tactical reserve. As the Cold War ended, the French government re-evaluated its submarine deployment. The strategic missile boat force is organized under the Strategic Oceanic Force based at Ile Longue. Also located at Ile Longue is France’s Atlantic Fleet. Ile Longue is located at the Crozon Peninsula near the Brest Bay (48 degrees 18′-15″ N and 4 degrees 26′-45″ W) The Ile Longue area was selected by President de Gaulle in the spring of 1965 because of its large natural harbor and its remote location far and away from any major population center. Work began in the summer of 1967 to habilitate the base. It ran undisturbed until its competition in 1972. The Ile Longue facility had a unique hardening housing sector similar to the United States’ ground based ICBM silos (24 vertical missile silos in all) dedicated to the storage of the unused M-45 SLBMs. There’s also an “igloo” dedicated to the housing of the TN-75 warheads. Since the summer of 2006, work had commenced on that area of the base to prepare it for the arrival of the M-51 missile systems. The SSBN utilized the Rosnay-Indre structured communication center as the main communication link between the country’s command and control centers an a deployed SSBN. Testing for the SSBN M-45 SLBM systems takes place at the remote Centre d’Essais de Landes or Landes Test Center Facility near Biscarosse. The test area had been operational since July 1967. It had been the main testing center for all of France’s ballistic missile configurations. The Center is located at 44 degrees 27′ N and 1 degree 15′ W. the French Navy main launching test bed is the Base Lancemen Balistique located at 44.362 degrees N and 1.2500 degrees W.

Currently, France had one Le Triomphant class submarine on a two month tour deployment at all times. The other two available boats are on tactical alert at the Ile Longue base. Each SSBN is manned by a two crew system. A practice performed by France since the development of its SSBN force. While a sea, the SSBN is screened by a number of supporting submarines, surface vessels and aircrafts. Typical, all SSBN deployments are accompanied by a concurring SSN deployment. Currently, France deploys a fleet of six SSN Rubis Class of fast attack submarines. Plans are in the work to field the next generation of nuclear powered attack submarines: the Barracuda Class. The Rubis class is based at Toulon and its main mission profile is the cover of France’s SSBN force. The first boat of the class, the Rubis, was commissioned in February 1983, the last built sub, the Diamant, was officially welcomed into the fleet in 1999. France’s true “first” generation of self-sufficient nuclear attack submarines is compromised of the following boats.

Rubis (S-601) July 7 1979 February 23 1983 Operational
Saphir (S-602) September 1 1981   July 6 1984 Operational
Casabianca (S-603)   December 22 1984 April 21 1987 Operational
Emeraude (S-604) April 12 1986 September 15 1988   Operational
Amethyste (S-605) May 14 1988 March 20 1992 Operational
Perle (S-606) September 22 1990 July 7 1993 Operational

These attack subs are augmented by a small fleet of two dedicated Tourville Class (F67) Anti-submarine Frigates. Plans are well underway to field France’s next generation frigate platform, the FREMM Multipurpose Frigate Platform. The FREMM is a join effort between the French and Italian government. As of today, France expect the first FREMM vessel to be commissioned by the fall of 2011. Is expected that France will field up to seventeen of these advance weapon systems by 2017.

The SSBN surface support component is aided by a separate maritime asset: the C-160H Astarte Communication Aircraft. Developed by the Transporter Allianz Group in the early 1960s. The first C-160 took to the air on its maiden flight on February 25 1963. The first production line batch were of 169 units with the last completed by the spring of 1972. There are five variants of the C-160. The C-160D which is still in operations with the Turkish Air Force, the C-160F/R, the G/Gabriel, the Astarte and the NG; all designed exclusively for the French armed forces. The aircraft fuselage measures 106′-3″ in length with a wingspan of 131′-3″. The aircraft has a height of 38′-3″. Two powerful Rolls-Royce TYNE Turboprops engines, each generating up to 6000 shp, power two, four propeller blades alignments. Maximum speed is 513 km/h with an operational range of 2750 nautical miles. Total payload capacity for the airframe is 8000 kg. As with many of France’s weapon systems, plans are in the work to phaseout the venerable Astarte in favor of a militarize version of the Airbus 400M aircraft.

2. The Nuclear Capable Fighter/Bomber: Marine Nationale

a. The Naval Based Bomber Force: The Charles de Gaulle Aircraft Carrier

France operates two fully equipped sea-based squadrons with the sole purpose of nuclear deterrence. The squadron is part of the Charles de Gaulle nuclear power aircraft carrier’s air wing. The Charles de Gaulle is France’s most advance and capable aircraft carrier design. It is also the flag ship of the French Navy and a powerful symbol of the country’s ingenuity and sense of national pride. In September 1980, the French government approved the design and development of two next generation, nuclear power aircraft carriers to replace its aging Clemenceau Class fleet which dated back to the mid 1950s. As the program progressed it became obious to many inside the Ministry of Defense that the whole program were to be plagued by constant cost overruns and major technical difficulties, nevertheless, the CVN de Gaulle project continued. The carrier’s hull was launched in April 1989. Five years later, on May 1994, the Charles de Gaulle was officially launched. As the sea trial period commenced, a number of construction errors began to surfaced delaying the commissioned of the carrier until May 2001. Even after completion, the carrier’s construction mistakes, most noticeable its mistaken catapult measurements; prevent it from utilizing the US-made E-2C Hawkeye Electronic Surveillance Aircraft. Between the fall of 1999 and the autumn of 2000, the carrier’s angled flight deck area was lengthened accordingly to the E-2C’s takeoff characteristics. There were plans to develop a second Charles de Gaulle class of carrier, most likely a conventional powered version, but the government experience with the first prototype and the public reactions to the continuing delays had probably put to rest the idea for the time being.

  • Dimensions
    857′-8″ 211′-4″ 27′-10″ 30000 empty/40600 loaded
  • Crew Compliment and Basing: The boat can accommodate up to 1,150 officers and crewmen, plus 550 aircrew compliment. It can also carry nearly 800 Marines and fifty flag ranked officers.
  • Machinery: Two Type K-15 nuclear reactors, the same ones that powered the Le Triomphant class of submarines, deliver 300 MW (402,145 shp) and two turbines delivering 56845.21 kW (76,000 shp) powering two massive shafts. Top speed is twenty five knots but sea trials had placed the maximum speed closer to the twenty seven knot level. The aircraft carrier has two 246′-0″ US-type C-13F catapults which were able to launch a 23 ton aircraft. A below deck hangar facility is capable of storing twenty to twenty five airframes.
  • Armament: The Charles de Gaulle is fitted with an advance Integrated Weapons Systems centered around four Sylver octuple VLS launchers. The launchers carries the ASTER 15 anti-missile missiles. Two Sadral PDMS sextuple launchers for the MISTRAL Surface to Air Missile augment it. There’s also eight powerful Giat 20 mm heavy machine guns for close quarters engagements. The ship also posses an impressive array of countermeasure devices. Chief among them are four Sagaie ten barrel decoy launchers. A LAD off-board decoy mechanism serves as backup. There are plans to fit a SLAT torpedo decoy platform.
  • Electronics Package: The Charles de Gaulle is fitted with a vast array of sensors and radar system. The main defensive radar is the DRBJ 11B Air Search Radar which is supplemented by a DRBV 26D Jupiter Air Search Radar a DRBV 15D Air-Surface Radar, two DRBN 34A Navigational Radar and a second generation Arabel 3D Fire and Control Radar System.
  • Air Complement: Up to forty aircrafts including 24 Super Etendard, 2 E-2C Hawkeyes, 10 Rafale M and 2 SA 365F Dauphin search and rescue platforms.

b. The Naval Based Bomber Force: The Fighter/Bomber

Currently, the Charles de Gaulle currently operates two fully operational, nuclear capable Super Etendard strike fighter.

The Dassault Company Super Etendard (Standard) Program was designed to meet French military standards following the air combat experiences of the Korean Conflict. The Etendard program had its origins in the mid 1950s and the program ran un-eventually until the first production unit, the Etendard IV-M took to the air for its maiden flight in May 1958 . Before the IV-M variant first flight, Dassault had developed four other prototypes that were deemed un-fitted for the French Air Force, but the IV variant enticed the Navy. French Admirals, seeing the potential of this new air platform as a multi role strike-capable fighter, pushed hard for the model to enter production which the aircraft did in the fall of 1959. Between 1961 and the spring of 1965, the French Navy took delivery of 69 IV-M units plus 21 modified frames used as reconnaissance-tanker platforms. All of the Etendard’s 90 units served aboard France’s two deployed aircraft carriers: the Foch and the Clemenceau. The IV-M would serve the Navy for thirty years, being last unit retired from active service in July 1991. The unexpected success of the IV-M variant embolden Dassault to develop a replacement for it. They named the Super Etendard, the new fighter/bomber featured a redesigned Atar 8K-50 engine as well as a strengthened airframe for high speed operations. Revised flaps were installed on the wing structure to ease the aircraft’s takeoff motion. Modern navigational systems as well as the revolutionizer Thomson Multi Role Radar Array was also fitted into the new platform.

On the morning of October 28th 1974, the first Super Etendard prototype took to the air for the first time. After an extended testing phase, the Super Etendard when into full production mode. By the summer of 1978, the French Navy had received 71 units and was expected one hundred more. Massive budgetary overexpending curtailed the program.

  • Specifications
    Power Plant SNECMA 11005lb afterburning thrust Atar 8K-50 turbojet engine
    Armament Two internal 30mm DEFA Cannons, six hard points. Up to 4630lb of
    bombs and rockets
    Airframe Dimensions
    Length 14.3m
    Height 3.86m
    Wingspan 9.6m
    Total wing area 28.4m/2
    Empty 6500kg
    Fully Loaded 12000kg
    Air Performance
    Top Speed 1205kph
    Ceiling 13700m
    Operational Range 650km
    Climb Rate 6000m/per minute
  • Basing

    The Super Etendards, are based on the Charles de Gaulle. When the French carrier is not on patrol, its main operational base is at Rade Toulon (43 degrees .08′ N and 5 degrees 55′ E). Toulon is a southern French city of enormous naval heritage. Conceived initially to be a major military storage facility, the first blocks were put on in 1599. The facility was upgraded by the infamous Cardinal Richeliu, who wanted to make France a major naval player, between 1604 trough 1610. Known as the Arsenal, the base is home, not only to France’s only nuclear powered carrier, but to a complement of submarines and small vessels.

    When not on deployment, the Charles de Gaulle air complement sits at station alert in Landivisiau. It was there that France maintain a force of nearly forty available aircrafts with twenty more on strategic reserve. The base was first develop in 1963. By February 1965, President de Gaulle inaugurated the facility which had been the center for naval air operations since then. It is expected that by 2012, Landivisiau will be home of sixty Rafale strike platforms.

  • Future

    The French Navy is receiving deliveries of its newest carrier-based fighter/bomber: the Dassault-designed Rafale MK-3. Originally, France was a leading member of an European consortium assigned the task to develop the Continent next advance fighter/bomber platform, the Eurofighter. The country decided to withdraw from the project and to pursue an indigenous program instead. In 1982, France disclosed to the public its new aircraft program now called the Rafale (Squall). A technological demonstrator was rolled out on December 1986. The (A) version first took to the air on July 4th 1986. The Rafale is a single seat (a two seated variant is also available) aircraft based on a compound sweep delta wing structure similar to that of the Mirage. It posses an all moving canard configuration, a single fin and semi-vented intakes. It have a state-of-the-art fly by wire systems, augmented by an advance avionic package. The plane’s cockpit is fitted with the HOTAS and FLIR, touch sensitive system that allows the pilot a greater degree of integration with the platform than on any previous French aircrafts. The Rafale was first fitted with a F1 software packed. The software was updated in the late 1990s to a F1.1 which add more compatibility with the IR-homing version of the Mica AAM and MIDS data-link to allow the Rafale prompt communication with its supporting air package (most likely the E-2C Hawkeyes). Fifty percent of the Rafale’s airframe is made up of aluminum-lithium composites.

The Rafale made its first naval testing during 1987 when it clearly demonstrated its ability to handle carrier duties. The flight testing phase of the program concluded in January 1994. The first production version, C-01 introduced a new level of autonomy and stealth to the French fighter. A reshaped wingroot fairing and a goal-coated canopy were introduced as part of France’s first true attempt to develop stealth technology. Also, the airframe was littered with antennas attached to the SPECTRA self defense system. A multirole RBE2 radar array was fitted on the recontoured nose cone. The C-01 also, for the first time, demonstrated France’s ability to utilize dry-thrust (supercruise). The first navalized version of the Rafale was the M-01 which took to the air for its maiden flight on December 12th `1991. The M version had an strengthened undercarriage, an arrest hook and a jump strut nosewheel. The M made its first carrier landing on the Foch in the morning of April 19th 1993. The next Rafale prototype, the two seated B-01, made its maiden flight on April 30th 1993. On December 4th 2000, the first sixty Rafale Ms were accepted by the French Navy.

These aircrafts will be part of Flotilla 12 aboard the Charles de Gaulle. It is expected that the Rafale platform (MK-3 for nuclear delivery) would replace the outdated Super Etendard strike aircraft as the Navy’s main nuclear delivery platform commencing in the summer of 2010. Reduction in the number of carriers planned by the Navy (only one will be constructed) will also curtail the Rafale’s production run.

  • Specifications
    Power Plant Two SNECMA M88-2 turbofan 16424lb thrust
    Armament One 30mm DEFA 791B cannon, 12 hard-points
    Airframe Dimensions
    Length 15.30m
    Height 5.34m
    Wingspan 10.90m
    Total wing area 28.4m/2
    Fully Loaded 19500kg
    Air Performance
    Top Speed 2130km/h
    Ceiling 16765m
    Operational Range 1854km
    Climb Rate 6000m/per minute

B. Air Sol Moyenne Portee (ASMP) Ballistic Missile

The only nuclear offensive platform employed by the French Navy’s Super Etendard fighter/bombers is the advance, medium range ASMP Ballistic Missile System. The ASMP is designed and produced by Aerospatiale, Space and Strategic System Division at Les Mureaux.

Length 5.38 m
Diameter 300 mm
Propulsion One solid propellant booster and one ONERA Kerosene fueled ram jet engine
Weight 860 kg
Payload Capacity 35000 kg
Operational Range 80 km (Low altitude) 300 km (High altitude)
Guidance Mechanism One Inertial Standalone Computer System
Operational Accuracy 500/350 m
Warhead One- TN-81

The ASMP was first fired in May 1986. In 1988 the missile system became operational with the French Navy. The TN-81 is a miniaturized and hardened nuclear warhead designed specifically for the ASMP platform. The TN-81 is similar to the TN-70/71 in technical sophistication. It is a higher yield warhead though, roughly similar in yield and weight to the W78 Minuteman III warhead. The TN-80/81 has a yield of 300 kt, and a weight of around 200 kg. Development of the TN-81 commenced in late 1974. The improved TN-81 was first tested in 1984 and went into production in 1985. It entered service on July 1988 on the Mirage 2000N platform. It was later deployed on the Super Etendard, and finally replaced the venerable TN-80 on the Mirage IVP in 1991.
France is currently developing an improved version of the ASMP, suffixed -A. The -A version will have a larger area of operations (estimated to be between 500 to 600 km) and greater trajectory capabilities at all altitudes. The system is expected to become operational by late 2000. As with the missile, the TN-81 warhead is expected to be replaced by the decade’s end.

3. The Nuclear Capable Fighter/Bomber: The Armee de L’Air (Air Army)

The French Air Force, most accurate, its Air Army, possessed of fifty nuclear deterrent aircrafts. As of today, those are the Mirage 2000N version.

Designed to replace France’s aging fleet of Mirage IVP bombers which provided the country’s sole aerial nuclear capability. Dassault Company designed the 2000 around the after mentioned ASMP missile. The fist design of the 2000 was revealed to the French government in the summer of 1974. By December 1975, the design had gather the approval of the government and work commenced in earnests. The first prototype flew on March 10th 1978. The two seated (B) version took to the air for its first flight on October 11th 1980. Meanwhile, the (N) version flew for the first on February 2nd 1983. The N version airframe is based on the (B) training type. The frame was strengthened to withstand the high levels of stress associated to high-subsonic, low level flight profile. The N had several modifications that make its unique among France air platforms. For example, the nose cone housed a Dassault Electronique-Thomson CSF Antilope V radar array which replaced the common RDM/RDI system. The V offered the N version an all terrain following air-to-air, air-to-sea, air-to-ground; advance ground mapping system. The aircraft is also fitted with Dassault Electronique Sabre jammers and a Serval advance warning radar system. It also possess a MATRA Spirale integrated decoy mechanism. Initial order for the N version ran to 100 units, however, constants delays on the Rafale program and the pressing need to replace the outclassed Mirage IIIE, forced the government to procure seventy more units. These were to be employed as conventional delivery platforms.

All of the Mirage N versions are schedule to be replaced by the Rafale F3 bomber beginning in early 2009. As with the Navy air strike arm, all of the Air Force’s nuclear strike platforms carry the ASMP missile system.

  • Specifications
    Power Plant One SNECMA M53 turbofan 16424lb thrust
    Armament No internal gun set. Nine hard points.
    Airframe Dimensions
    Length 14.50m
    Height 5.10m
    Wingspan 9.10m
    Fully Loaded 16005kg
    Air Performance
    Top Speed 2338km/h
    Ceiling 18000m
    Operational Range 1480km
    Climb Rate 17080m/per minute
  • Basing

    Air Army currently operates fifty Mirage 2000N aircrafts on three squadrons. Two, squadrons La Fayette and Dauphine; were based at Luxeuil. Luxeuil is one of France’s main operational bases. Located at 47 degrees 66′-59″ N and 006 degrees 21′-51″ E. The base posses two runways parallel (2433mm and 2315m respectively). The most prominent facility of the base is the Depot Atelier Munitions Specialisees or Special Amounitions Storage facility. The Depot is a hardened bunker utilized to house the ASMP stand off missiles.

    The other squadron, Limousin, sits at Istres. Located at 43 degrees 31′-28″ N and 4 degrees 56′-30″ E, north of Marseilles. The base housed another Depot for nuclear weapons storage facility. It also the home base of two multirole squadrons as well as other support units.

4. Total Nuclear Inventory

It is estimated that the current French Nuclear Weapons Inventory is about 300 warheads diverted into two main delivery systems. There are estimates that the country carry up to 50 more warheads as a strategic reserve force. As impressive as this total is, it pale in comparison to the country’s 1992 estimated warhead total of 538 units.

Nuclear Deterrence Force

Platform Delivery System    Warheads
Mirage 2000N ASMP 50
Super Etendard ASMP 10

Because President Sarkozy’s pledge of reducing the country’s nuclear arsenal. It is expected that before the year 2011, France will have a total of 290 operational warheads in its inventory. Still a powerful inventory. One that is only rivaled by the US, Russia and China.

As for the future, France is in the process of establishing an advance simulator computer-based program, featuring the TERA super computer, that will assure the reliability of their nuclear stockpile. France’s main nuclear simulator center is located at Bruyeres le Chatel. This simulator, in conjunction with the Accelerateur a Induction radiographie pour L’Imagerie or AIRIX; will provide test data for future nuclear weapons design and development programs

– Raul Colon


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Jane’s Submarines: War Beneath the Waves From 1776 to the Present Day, Robert Hutchinson, HarperCollins Publishing 2005
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Aircraft Carriers: the World’s Greatest Naval Vessels and their Aircraft, Chris Bishop and Chris Chant, MBI Publishing, 2004
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