The French Ministry of the Armed Forces welcomed the successful test firing this weekend of its M51.3 missile, intended to be launched from its submarines. A way of strengthening the credibility of French nuclear deterrence in a context of atomic threat stoked by Russia since the war in Ukraine.
It weighs 50 tonnes and measures 12 meters high. Residents of southwest France saw it pierce the sky on the evening of Saturday, November 18, wondering what had caused the long streak of light across the horizon. Some thought it was debris from the American mega-rocket Space X, after its launch failure, and expressed their concern on social networks.
In reality, France carried out a test firing, without nuclear charge, of its advanced ballistic missile: the M51.3. The shots were carried out by the General Directorate of Armament (DGA) from its Landes site, according to a press release issued by the Ministry of the Armed Forces after the success of this test.
“This development perpetuates the credibility of our nuclear deterrence and demonstrates the excellence of our launcher sector,” said Sébastien Lecornu, Minister of the Armed Forces, on Saturday evening on X.
First successful test firing of the M51.3 strategic ballistic missile!
This development perpetuates the credibility of our nuclear deterrent and demonstrates the excellence of our launcher sector.
— Sébastien Lecornu (@SebLecornu) November 18, 2023
“The missile was monitored throughout its flight phase by the DGA’s test resources. The fallout zone is located in the North Atlantic, several hundred kilometers from any coast. This test was carried out without a nuclear charge and in strict compliance with France’s international commitments.the ministry said.
A capacity of around ten nuclear warheads
The French army tested there for the first time a new version of its M51, designed to be launched from a submarine. “Version 2 of the M51 has already been equipping nuclear missile submarines (SSBNs) for around fifteen years. We do not have precise details because it is very confidential. But we know that “there is possibly an increase in the number of nuclear warheads that can be carried in the missile. They would increase to around ten nuclear warheads for the M51.3,” explains Héloïse Fayet, researcher at the Ifri Center for Security Studies. Institute of International Relations) and coordinator of the Deterrence and Proliferation program.
With a range of nearly 10,000 kilometers, the destructive capacity of the M51.3, if loaded, could therefore reach 1,000 times the power of the American Hiroshima bomb. Even if it is not at all the same context, given that this missile is intended to support nuclear deterrence.
Dissuading from attacking France
In addition to its loading, this missile in its new version would above all have a better “penetration capacity, to be certain that it would manage to penetrate the anti-missile defenses facing it”, explains Héloïse Fayet.
“These are missiles that are practically impossible to intercept,” comments former officer and author of the Blog “Don’t Suffer,” Guillaume Ancel on France Info.
If on a quantitative level, France comes at the bottom of the pack – with the United Kingdom – of the five countries with nuclear weapons having signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), on a qualitative level, the The performance of the M51.3 is equivalent to that of the American-British Trident missiles and that of the Russian Bulava. French missiles are also better than the Chinese, believes Héloïse Fayet, who nevertheless recalls that France has a deterrence doctrine different from those of the other members of this group.
As the Ministry of the Armed Forces recalled on Saturday in its press release, “this arms program responds to the wishes of the President of the Republic who is committed to taking the necessary decisions to maintain the operational credibility of nuclear forces over the long term”. at the level of strict sufficiency required by the international environment.
French nuclear deterrence is based on the doctrine of “strict sufficiency”. It is a question of having a sufficient number of missiles, capable of inflicting – in the event of self-defense – unacceptable damage to an adversary, in order to convince him that attacking France is not worth it.
For this, in addition to the M51s that it can fire from its four nuclear missile submarines, the French army is also able to launch improved medium-range air-to-ground missiles (ASMP-A). , since its gusts.
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“There is no need to do more and increase the number of heads” adds Héloïse Fayet. And to recall that “France is part of an alliance – NATO – which is itself nuclear and that Paris maintains close relations with the United States and the United Kingdom which are two other nuclear powers”.
“A few years ago, there would not have been so much communication”
Test firings, without nuclear charges, take place regularly and the date of Saturday’s test is above all “linked to industrial and technological imperatives”. “But a few years ago, there wouldn’t have been as much communication,” remarks Héloïse Fayet.
“Through their success and publicity, test firings contribute to strengthening the credibility of deterrence, both vis-à-vis adversaries and allies,” specifies the X researcher.
According to Guillaume Ancel, “it is a way of making indirect communication on the fact that our nuclear deterrent is not 20 years old and that it is perfectly up to date”. And this in a context of tensions with Russia, since President Vladimir Putin threatened to use nuclear weapons during the first months of the war in Ukraine in 2022.
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Most recently, Moscow revoked its ratification of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) – which the United States, unlike France, has never ratified.
Debris of “defense secrets”
Scheduled to be put into service in two years, the M51.3 missile will have a lifespan of around fifteen years, explains to Le Figaro the head of defense activities at ArianeGroup, prime contractor of the M51 missile program, under condition of anonymity. At the same time, “reflections on the future M51.4 missile have already begun” with the idea of anticipating technological developments in ballistic defenses of the future, explains the French daily.
The missile tested on Saturday was fired from a “pool which reproduces the firing conditions of a real nuclear missile submarine” in a French military base located in Biscarrosse, to avoid mobilizing a nuclear missile submarine. which ensures the permanence of French nuclear deterrence in the seas and oceans of the world, specifies François-Xavier Dufer, deputy at the DGA, interviewed by France Bleu.
The rocket, which then crashed in the North Atlantic, several hundred kilometers from any coast, was followed at sea by ships of the national navy responsible, once the operation was completed, for recovering all the precious spin off. of the missile in the ocean. The latter are in fact remnants of “defense secrets”.“Absolutely everything is recovered by the French Navy and the DGA, because many countries would be very interested in knowing what is in our missiles,” notes Héloïse Fayet.