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France's nuclear arsenal is a lot bigger than you might think

You've heard the jokes about the French. Their surplus rifles have never been fired, just dropped once. Raise your right hand if you like the French, raise both hands if you are French.


But there is one thing that isn't a joke: France's "force de frappe." No, this isn't some fancy drink that McDonald's or Starbuck's is serving. The force de frappe – translated at strike force – is France's nuclear deterrence force.

The French nuclear force is often ignored, though it did play a starring role in Larry Bond's 1994 novel Cauldron, where an attempted nuclear strike on American carriers resulted in the U.S. taking it out.

France's nuclear deterrence is a substantial force, though.

According to a 2013 CNN report, France has about 300 nukes. According to the Nuclear Weapons Archive, these are presently divided between M51 and M45 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and ASMP missiles launched from Super Etendard naval attack planes, Mirage 2000N bombers, and Rafale multi-role fighters.

When launching a nuke, the French have options.

M51 submarine-launched ballistic missile used on French ballistic missile submarines. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The M51 ballistic missile is carried by the Le Triomphant-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. According to the 16th Edition of Combat Fleets of the World, three of these submarines carry 16 M45 ballistic missiles, which have a range of just over 3,100 miles and deliver six 150 kiloton warheads.

The fourth carries 16 M51 ballistic missiles with six 150-kiloton warheads and a range of almost 5,600 miles. The first three subs will be re-fitted to carry the M51.

The ASMP is a serious nuke, with a 300-kiloton warhead that is about 20 times as powerful as the one dropped on Hiroshima. It has a range of 186 miles and a top speed of Mach 3, according to Combat Fleets of the World.

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65), the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, steams alongside the French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle (R 91). One of these carriers could launch aircraft equipped with a long-range nuclear-tipped missile - and it isn't the Big E. (US Navy photo)

Furthermore, the fact that it can be used on Super Etendard and Rafale fighters means that the French nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle now serves as a potential strategic nuclear strike weapon.

While Globalsecurity.org notes that F/A-18s from American aircraft carriers can carry nuclear gravity bombs like the B61, the retirement of the AGM-69 Short-Range Attack Missile in 1990 and the cancellation of the AGM-131 SRAM II mean that the United States lacks a similar standoff nuclear strike capability from its carriers.

In other words, France's carrier can do something that the carriers of the United States Navy can't.