France uses Rafale fighter in 'rare' nuclear attack test

1/91 Gascogne A Rafale fighter carrying the ASMPA missile under its fuselage | French Ministry of Defence

The French Air Force announced on Tuesday that it had conducted the test launch of a nuclear-capable missile from a Rafale fighter.

An ASMPA cruise missile, which is the French military's main nuclear strike weapon for aircraft, was reportedly used by the Rafale. According to the French Air Force, the nuclear strike mission lasted 11 hours and included aerial refuelling of the Rafale.

"These real strikes are scheduled in the life of the weapon's system," French Air Force spokesman Colonel Cyrille Duvivier said. "They are carried out at fairly regular intervals, but remain rare because the real missile, without its warhead, is fired."

The French Air Force declined to say when the test was carried out, but the simulation comes days after the US and Russia ended their adherence to the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which prohibited both sides from deploying missiles with ranges in between 500km and 5,500km. Speaking at a conference in Portugal on Tuesday, French Defence Minister Florence Parly said, “We Europeans cannot remain spectators of our own security.”

France spends approximately $4 billion annually to maintain its arsenal of around 300 nuclear weapons, deployed via submarine-launched ballistic missiles and aircraft-launch missiles. The ASMPA is a supersonic missile with range in excess of 300km. The ASMPA gives aircraft like the Rafale 'standoff' capability in the nuclear strike role, allowing them to stay clear of enemy air defences unlike conventional bombs, which require aircraft to approach their targets closely.

The nuclear strike mission is one of the objectives for the Rafale in French military service. The Rafale is equipped to carry long-range fuel tanks and fly at very low levels with the nuclear strike mission in mind. The Rafale is the sole fighter in the French Air Force earmarked for the nuclear strike role after a variant of the Mirage 2000 meant for the role was retired in 2018.

Interestingly, some media reports about the Narendra Modi government's deal to buy 36 Rafale fighters claim the aircraft were being purchased for the nuclear strike role in the Indian Air Force.