For the first time in nearly three decades, France deployed three of its four nuclear-powered strategic ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) to patrol the sea at the same time.
The dramatic increase in France’s nuclear deterrent appears to be a warning to Russia at a time when European tensions are at an all-time high. If Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine fails, the West fears that nuclear weapons will be part of the Kremlin’s plans. Two more SSBNs have left the base on the Île Longue peninsula, according to Telegramme, the newspaper of the port city of Brest (France), where the nuclear submarine base is located. These two ships will work together with a submarine to patrol the Atlantic Ocean. Normally, only one of France’s SSBNs is assigned to patrol duty.
The SSBNs Le Triomphant, Le Téméraire, Le Vigilant, and Le Terrible, which were commissioned between 1997 and 2010, are currently in service in France. Each can carry 16 ballistic missiles launched from submarines (SLBMs).
The M51 missile weighs 54 tonnes, has a range of up to 10,000 kilometres, can carry 6 to 10 nuclear warheads with a yield of 150 kilotons, and is self-seeking and capable of destroying targets. According to Telegramme, France currently has enough SLBMs to equip all three submarines at the same time in the event of a crisis.
The exact date of the latest deployment was not revealed, but it is clear that France is beginning to strengthen its nuclear deterrent in the wake of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, which began on February 24. This will be the first time France has deployed three SSBNs at sea at the same time since the end of the Cold War.
Each patrol typically lasts between two and three months. The fourth SSBN will be kept operational while the other three are deployed. If France is attacked with nuclear weapons, the SSBN is a viable option for launching a retaliatory strike. France hopes that increasing its maritime presence will serve as a deterrent to Russia, preventing potential nuclear attacks on French soil. In light of Moscow’s statement that it will not rule out the use of nuclear weapons if its survival is threatened, Paris believes this plan is appropriate. The US and its European allies have long been concerned that if the conflict in Ukraine escalates, Russia may launch a “limited” nuclear strike to prevent NATO from intervening further.
Since Russia’s military operation in Ukraine began, Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered that the strategic nuclear deterrence force be brought to the highest level of combat readiness possible. “Not only do Western countries take unfriendly economic actions against Russia, but top NATO officials also make aggressive statements toward our country,” Putin said at the time in a televised speech.
Analysts believe France has changed its nuclear policy to send a clear message to the Kremlin that it is always prepared to respond if Putin considers launching a nuclear attack. In addition to warning Russia, deploying two or three nuclear submarines at sea instead of one could reduce the force’s overall risks. The risk of being detected, tracked, or attacked by the enemy is higher when only one SSBN is on patrol. On the other hand, doubling the number of ships will cause the enemy to abandon their attack plans for fear of a strong retaliation.
Currently, France is also strengthening the capabilities of its other nuclear forces. On March 24, the French military announced that it had successfully renovated and tested a ballistic missile carrying a nuclear warhead that can be fitted to many current fighter lines. This is part of a plan to boost the air force’s nuclear capabilities.
According to the announcement, the ASMP-A missile was launched from a Rafale fighter aircraft. The ASMP missile weighs 860kg, is 5.38m long, has a body diameter of 300mm, is equipped with a 150 kiloton or 300 kiloton nuclear warhead. The missile is equipped with a supersonic static jet engine that allows it to reach speeds of up to 3 times the speed of sound,Mach 3.
The ASMP-A missile can also be fitted to the French Navy’s version of the Rafale M fighter aircraft operating on the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle currently deployed in the Mediterranean.
Despite stating that these missiles will not be used under “normal circumstances”, France has always aimed to ensure that a nuclear deterrent exists at all times in the context of European security.