The M51 missile failure: where does this leave French nuclear modernization?

The latest M51 ballistic missile test was a failure. The missile blew up minutes after emerging from the French submarine, Le Vigilant, in the Audierne Bay (off the coast of Brittany) on May 5. French leaders have always claimed that France has never participated directly in the Cold War arms race; but, the scale of its current modernization program of nuclear weapon systems, running for over fifteen years, is massive.

It has involved both the airborne component (involving new Rafale F3 bombers, a new cruise missile ASMP-A and a new nuclear warhead Tête Nucléaire Aéroportée) and the sea-based component (la Force Océanique Stratégique (FOST)). The latter FOST upgrade involved commissioning four new submarines (Le Triomphant, Le Téméraire, Le Vigilant, Le Terrible) with the next generation of ballistic missile between 1997 and 2010. When the final SSBN Le Terrible was commissioned in 2010, the final step involves the gradual introduction of the M51.

The M-5 project began in the late 1980s. The specifications for the new missile were adjusted downwards in 1996, and renamed the M-51, but it became one of the most expensive military projects ever run by France. Parliamentarian reports indicate a cost of €8.5bn, made up of the development and implementation (€5.7bn) and production of three batches of sixteen missiles and an additional twelve test missiles (€2.8bn), a unit cost close to €142m, without the nuclear warheads. The test failure will no doubt increase the overall cost. The missile, capable of carrying six thermonuclear warheads, has a range of over 8,000km, depending upon the payload, with a high-confidence “accuracy” of less than 500m.

There will be three versions of M51 produced by 2020:

  • M51.1: Le Terrible was the first SSBN to deploy sixteen of these missiles with TN-75 (100 Kt) warheads. A second batch will equip Le Vigilant. But, the test failure could mean Le Vigilant will not fit be ready for its planned service in a few months’ time, and throws some doubt over the continuous-at-sea deterrence posture.
  •  M51.2: A second version of the M51 will be introduced between 2015 and 2018 in the SSBNs Le Vigilant, Le Téméraire and Le Triomphant. This version, currently in production, will carry a new warhead called Tête Nucléaire Océanique (TNO), developed without explosive testing under the warhead simulation program.
  • The M51.3: AN official parliamentary document refers to “a development of a new third stage of the M51 (M51.3) for commissioning in 2020, the current stage having been taken from the previous generation M45. It will have enhanced performance”. Parliamentarians have described the need for this part of the project to maintain the capabilities to design the next generation of ballistic missile. Initial spend on the M6 concept have already started!

Though France had halved its arsenal in twenty years when President Sarkozy announced the total arsenal of 300 warheads in 2008, its capabilities have been greatly improved with each new generation of missile. And the M51 is the sixth generation of ballistic missile developed since the M1 was deployed in Le Redoutable in January 1972: an expensive change of missile every six years and three months (M1, M2, M20, M4, M45, M51).

The focus on missile development has undermined any potential French inclination to engage in disarmament efforts, and undermines the spirit of Article 6 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and subsequent Review Conference declarations under which France is obliged to engage in disarmament negotiations. The failure of the M51 presents an opportunity to review the whole nuclear modernization program, and start to bring the nuclear deterrence posture in compliance with the NPT.



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