Key point: France has a modest arsenal with advanced capabilities.
France was the fourth country to join the so-called “Nuclear Club,” and at the height of the Cold War maintained its own nuclear triad of land-based missiles, nuclear-armed bombers and ballistic missile submarines. Today, France’s sea-based nuclear deterrent is the home of most of its nuclear arsenal, with four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, of French design and construction, providing constant assurance against surprise nuclear attack.
France’s nuclear weapons arsenal began in earnest on February 13th, 1960, with the country’s first nuclear weapons test. The test, code-named “Gerboise Bleue” (Blue Desert Rat) confirmed that France had the know-how to build its own weapons. It also confirmed that France had the nuclear know-how to part ways with the United States and NATO and chart its own course versus the Soviet Union.
France began working on its own naval nuclear propulsion program in 1955, under what was known as Project Coelacanth. The first effort to build a nuclear-powered submarine, Q.244, was to be the first of five nuclear ballistic missile submarines. The effort to develop Q.244 was a failure, due to the inability of nuclear engineers to sufficiently miniaturize the reactor, and the submarine was cancelled in 1959. A subsequent project to develop a land-based reactor, PAT 1, was a success and led to development of Q.252, which became the submarine Le Redoutable.