Updated: April 2017
As a nuclear-weapons state under the NPT, France maintains the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal, estimated to include 300 nuclear warheads. Since it eliminated its land-based ICBMs beginning in 1996, 80 percent of these warheads are designed for delivery through SLBMs, with the remainder affixed to ALCMs carried by strategic bombers. France has taken significant steps toward disarmament—including halving its warhead total since its Cold War peak, no longer deploying nuclear weapons on its aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, and extending the time it takes to launch nuclear weapons to several days—and it adheres to a principle of “strict sufficiency” whereby it keeps its nuclear arsenal at the lowest possible level in accordance with the strategic context.
- The Nuclear Arsenal, an Overview
- Delivery Systems
- Ballistic Missile Defense Systems
- Fissile Material
- Proliferation Record
- Nuclear Doctrine
- Open Skies Treaty
- Conference on Disarmament (CD)
- Nuclear Weapons Free Zones
- Nuclear Security Summits
- Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)
Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty
Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM)
CPPNM 2005 Amendment
International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism
Signatory, entered into force in April 2004
France has filed reports on its activities to fulfill the resolutions and volunteered to provide assistance to other states
The Nuclear Arsenal, an Overview
France maintains the third largest nuclear weapons force in the world. As of 2017, France is estimated to possess approximately 300 nuclear warheads, most of which are designed for delivery by submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with the remainder affixed to air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) carried by strategic bombers.
French President François Hollande publically affirmed the size of the arsenal in February of 2015, when he said that France’s stockpile included 300 warheads for 48 SLBMs and 54 cruise missiles. Estimates place France’s deployed strategic warhead numbers at around 290, with a remaining 10 in reserve. Although France has reduced the size of its nuclear arsenal by half its Cold War numbers, the current stockpile has remained relatively stable over the last few decades. In 2008, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy stated that France’s arsenal would be reduced below 300 warheads but also reaffirmed France’s commitment to its nuclear deterrent, declaring it as a “life-insurance policy.”
In 2009, France declared that its aircraft carrier, the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle, no longer deployed nuclear weapons, marking the end of peacetime deployments of short-range nuclear weapons at sea. France continues to modernize its nuclear arsenal and develop new missiles. According to the French Ministry of Defense (MoD), the nuclear deterrence budget in 2016 was 3.6 billion euros.
Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM)
- In 1996, France decided to eliminate its nuclear-armed land-based ballistic missiles.
Submarines and Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM)
- France’s nuclear submarine force consists of 4 Triomphant- class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) known as the FOST (La Force Océanique Stratégique).This fleet forms the backbone of the France’s nuclear deterrence and is responsible for approximately 80 percent of its nuclear arsenal. It is based at the Île Longue peninsula, south of Brest in the Brittany region of France.
- At least one submarine remains out at sea at all times on deterrent patrol while another two remain fully operational and can be rapidly put to sea. The fourth submarine, as per the Triomphant-class’ extensive maintenance cycle, will be undergoing overhaul at any given time; as a result, France only maintains three sets of SLBMs and warheads.
- Beginning in 2010 with the Vigilant, two of the SSBNs have been upgraded to carry the M51.1 missile while the remaining two are to be upgraded with the M51.2 missile. All four SSBNs are expected to be upgraded with M51 missiles by 2019. The M51.3 is anticipated to be deployed on the Terrible in 2020.
- In 2013, France was beginning preliminary work for the development of a third generation SSBN to replace the Triomphant-class by 2030.
- France fields the following SLBMs:
- M45 – 16 missiles carrying around 80 warheads, each missile can carry a total of six 100 kt TN-75 multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) warheads, 4,000-6,000 km range. The M45, deployed in 1997, is an improved version of the M-4 missile, its predecessor.
- M51.1 – 32 missiles carrying around 160 warheads, each missile can carry a total of six 100 kt TN-75 MIRVs, 6,000+ km range. With greater range and accuracy, the M51.1 was developed in 2010 to replace the ageing M45 missiles; replacement is still in progress as of 2017.
- M51.2 – capable of carrying up to six new 150 kt TN MIRVs, 6,000+ km range. Development of the M51.2 is ongoing; a test of the missile failed in 2013.
- M51.3 – in 2014, Airbus was contracted by the French government (now a joint venture between Airbus and Safran) to produce a new generation M51 missile, the M51.3. Details are unknown but it is expected to be tipped with the TNO (tête nucléaire océanique) warhead and enter service in 2020 and to arm the successor to the Triomphant-class SSBN.
- French SLBMs do not carry the maximum number of nuclear warheads. Former President Jacques Chirac stated in 2006, that "The number of nuclear warheads has been reduced in certain of the missiles in our submarines." This decision was supposedly made to improve targeting flexibility against regional powers.
- The French Air Force currently operates Mirage 2000N and Rafale aircrafts which are capable of carrying and delivering nuclear payloads.
- According to a French MoD “Defense Key Figures” report in 2016, the French Air Force possesses 23 Mirage 2000N nuclear and conventional assault planes and a further 81 Rafale omnirole aircraft. Of these, France deploys only around 20 nuclear-capable Mirage 2000Ns (though some sources cite 23) and 20 nuclear-capable land-based Rafale F3 aircraft.
- Each of these planes carries a single 300 kt TNA warhead on an Air-Sol Moyenne Portée (ASMP) ALCM. The ASMP has a range of around 300 km or 500 km for the ASMP-A, an improved variant carried by most of the bombers.
- By 2018, all of the Mirage 2000N fighters will be replaced by the Rafale fighters, completing the ongoing upgrading process.
- The French Navy also operates 10 new nuclear-capable Rafale MF3 fighters that have replaced its Super Éntendard aircrafts, retired in 2016, that were also capable of carrying and delivering nuclear payloads. These aircraft also carry a single 300 kt TNA warhead fired from an ASMPA-A missile.
Ballistic Missile Defense Systems
France is part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), a collective missile defense system operated by NATO allies. To learn more, see: "The European Phased Adaptive Approach at a Glance."
Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU)
- After ending its production of HEU in June 1996, President Jacques Chirac announced in February 1996 that France no longer produced fissile material for weapons purposes and that would it would dismantle its fissile material production facilities.
- As of 2016 estimates, France is believed to possess an HEU stockpile of around 31± 6 metric tons.
- France holds approximately 26 ± 6 metric tons of military HEU. There exists significant uncertainty over this figure due to a lack of public information about French HEU production.
- As of December 2014, France had declared a 4.6 metric ton stockpile of civilian HEU to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). A large percentage of this civilian stock is believed to be of U.S. and Russian origin for use in research-reactor fuel.
- France ceased its production of separated plutonium in 1992.
- As of 2016, France is estimated to possess a military plutonium stockpile of 6±1 metric tons.
- At the end of 2014, France reported holding 61.9 tons of domestic unirradiated plutonium, the second largest stockpile globally, and 16.9 metric tons of reprocessed foreign unirradiated plutonium, mostly belonging to Japan.
- France is one of the few countries that continues to reprocess spent nuclear fuel, and it accepts fuel from foreign countries for that purpose. Its AREVA La Hague plant has a commercial reprocessing capacity of about 1,700 tons of used nuclear fuel per annum (around half of the world’s light water reactor fuel reprocessing capacity as of 2009). France uses separated plutonium to fabricate mixed oxide (MOX) fuel that is used in light water reactors.
- France officially maintains a long-standing position in support of nonproliferation activities.
- In 1957, France signed a major nuclear cooperation agreement with Israel even though it was generally understood that Israel was interested in potentially developing a nuclear arsenal. France halted the agreement in 1960.
- France built the Osirak reactor in Iraq despite warnings from other governments that the reactor might be used to support a secret Iraqi nuclear weapons program. Paris declined to rebuild the reactor after Israel bombed the plant in 1981.
- France remains among the world’s top suppliers of peaceful nuclear facilities and expertise.
French nuclear policy is one of calculated ambiguity regarding first-use of nuclear weapons. France adheres to its principle of “strict sufficiency” whereby it keeps its nuclear arsenal at the lowest possible level in accordance with the strategic context. In its 2013 White Paper on Defence and National Security, France claims that its deterrence strategy is strictly defensive and that “The use of nuclear weapons would only be conceivable in extreme circumstances of legitimate self-defense” and that nuclear deterrence “protects France from any State-led aggression against its vital interests, of whatever origin and in whatever form” including terrorism. France has reaffirmed a 1995 negative security assurance to the UN not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) unless it is facing an invasion or sustained attack against its territories, armed forces, or states with which it has security agreement and the attack is in alliance with a nuclear-weapon state.
Paris declared that it took steps in 1992 and 1996 to extend the time it takes to launch nuclear weapons. It is believed that France needs several days in order to launch nuclear weapons.
France conducted 210 nuclear tests. The first test occurred Feb.13, 1960, and the last test took place Jan. 27, 1996. France was the fourth country to conduct a nuclear weapon test.
- Little is known about past French biological weapons activities, which reportedly included research on anthrax, botulinum toxin, cholera, ricin, rinderpest, and salmonella.
- France is not suspected of having a current offensive biological weapons program, and under France’s 1972 Law on the Prohibition of Biological Weapons, it is illegal to produce or stockpile these weapons. They are believed to have stopped their program after WWII.
- France’s 2004 Code of Defense states that “The development, production, possession, stockpiling, acquisition, and transfer of microbiological agents, other biological agents and biological toxins, whatever their origin and mode of production, which are of a kind and quantity not suited for prophylactic, protection or other pacific purposes, are prohibited.”
- France acceded to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) on Sep. 27, 1984, and is also member of the Australia Group.
- France annually submits reports as confidence-building measures under the BWC and encourages other states to follow suit. It also hosts the annual plenary meeting of the Australia Group.
- France maintains a biodefense program that it claims is in strict compliance with the BWC.
- During World War I, France produced and used mustard gas and phosgene. France maintained stockpiles of these weapons at the beginning of World War II but did not use them.
- After World War II, France resumed offensive chemical weapons research and testing, and in the 1960s they manufactured Sarin and VX nerve agents.
- France destroyed its stockpiles of chemical weapons prior to 1988. President François Mitterrand claimed, in a 1988 speech to the United Nations, that France no longer had any chemical weapons and ended production.
- France signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in Paris in 1993 and ratified it in 1995. It also holds that it displays “exemplary” cooperation with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
Open Skies Treaty
France is a state-party to the Open Skies Treaty, which enables unarmed reconnaissance flights over all states-parties territories.
Conference on Disarmament (CD)
The CD was formed in 1979 as a multilateral disarmament negotiation forum for the international community. France has regularly participated in its meetings. On April 9th, 2015, France formally deposited a draft fissile material cutoff treaty at the CD.
Nuclear Weapons Free Zones
France has signed and ratified additional protocols pledging not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against any of the contracting parties to the African, Central Asian, Latin American and Caribbean, and South Pacific nuclear weapons free zone treaties. However, France maintains reservations to each of these protocols. No states have signed or ratified the Southeast Asian nuclear weapons free zone treaty protocol.
Nuclear Security Summits
In keeping with its official stance in support of securing nuclear material around the world, France has participated in the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) held in Washington, DC, the 2012 NSS held in Seoul, the 2014 NSS Held in The Hague, and the 2016 NSS held again in Washington, DC.
Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)
Since its initiation of nuclear talks with Iran in 2003, France has engaged in multilateral diplomacy with Tehran over its nuclear program, including the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. After its conclusion, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that the deal would be sufficiently “robust” for another 10 years.