The modern French armed forces are in many ways similar in structure to the U.S. military. More so than most European countries, the French military is structured to confront a vast continuum of conflict, ranging from guerrilla to nuclear warfare. Like the United States, France structures its forces for both expeditionary warfare and the homeland defense mission.
The French military maintains a high-end force of tanks, armored vehicles and modern jet fighters for high intensity conflict and a low-end of light infantry, special forces and light armored vehicles for the lower end of the spectrum. Heavy armored forces help France fulfill its European defense mission, while France’s commitments to its present and former colonies in Africa, South America, French Polynesia and the Middle East demand light forces capable of rapid overseas deployment.
France also has nuclear weapons, a legacy of French President Charles DeGaulle’s desire for a country that was militarily self-reliant. France was the fourth country to attain nuclear weapons capability, and during the Cold War maintained its own triad of land, air, and sea-based nukes.
Here is a sampling of France’s five best weapons systems ranging from fourth-generation fighters to ballistic missile submarines capable of delivering armageddon across an entire continent.
Dassault Rafale (“Squall”):
The Dassault Rafale was conceived in the early 1980s as a multi-role fighter to replace nearly all legacy French fighter and attack aircraft. Rafale is almost completely indigenous with the fuselage, avionics, engines and weapons all made in France.
Although small in stature, the Rafale packs a big punch with twelve wing-mounted hardpoints capable of mounting air-to-air missiles, air-to-ground missiles, sensors and drop tanks. Though nearly thirty years old, upgrades such as the RBE2 AA active electronic scanning array (AESA) radar, Damocles targeting pod, Meteor air-to-air missiles and SCALP cruise missiles have kept the design competitive with other fourth-plus generation fighters. Recent versions are capable of carrying the ASMP-A medium-range nuclear cruise missile.
Rafales have flown in combat in Afghanistan, Libya, Mali and Iraq. France operates 140 Rafales including the Rafale M, a navalized version of the fighter featuring strengthened landing gear and a tail hook for aircraft carrier flight operations.
LeClerc Main Battle Tank:
France’s main battle tank, the LeClerc, was designed toward the end of the Cold War to replace the AMX30 series of tanks. At fifty-seven tons, the LeClerc is one of the smallest tanks currently in production. A light weight and a 1,500hp engine — the same rating as the heavier M1A2 Abrams — combines to give the latest version of the LeClerc a speedy twenty-six to one horsepower to weight ratio.
Like the Abrams, the LeClerc has a 120mm main gun and carries forty rounds of ammunition. Unlike the Abrams, LeClerc uses an indigenous GIAT design fed by an autoloader. This reduces the crew by one, resulting in a smaller tank. The autoloader is reportedly capable of up to twelve rounds a minute. The commander and gunner have separate long distance and thermal sights for observation and aiming.
The French Army operates 426 LeClerc tanks, with the UAE operating just under that number. UAE LeClercs have recently been spotted operating in Yemen against Houthi insurgents.
Tiger Attack Helicopter:
Europe’s answer to the AH-64 Apache, the Eurocopter Tiger has evolved from a dedicated tank-killer into a multi-role attack helicopter. France operates two versions of the Tiger, the HAD multi-role combat helicopter and HAP combat support helicopter.
The general layout of the Tiger is similar to that of other attack helicopters, with a two person crew stationed in tandem. The Tiger is armored to withstand up to 23mm rounds, giving it protection against the most common anti-aircraft gun caliber. Two Rolls-Royce MTR390 engines propel the Tiger to speeds of up to 196 miles per hour.
The Tiger’s claws come in the form of a NEXTER nose-mounted 30mm cannon for anti-personnel and anti-armor targets. The HAD version is optimized for anti-armor missions, typically carrying eight Hellfire II laser-guided missiles. The HAP version typically carries 70mm unguided rockets for close air support and defense suppression, plus up to four Mistral air-to-air missiles. France has ordered eighty Tigers, split evenly between HAD and HAP versions.
Aircraft Carrier Charles de Gaulle:
The only non-American nuclear powered aircraft carrier in existence, Charles de Gaulle is also France’s lone aircraft carrier. Originally planned to be a two carrier force, the second ship of the class was cancelled due to cost.
At 42,000 tons fully loaded, de Gaulle is half the size of America’s Nimitz-class supercarriers. She can carry up to forty aircraft while underway, both rotary and fixed-wing. A typical cruise will see Charles de Gaulle carrying Rafale M multi-role fighters, Super Etendard attack jets, E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning and control aircraft and utility helicopters. Unlike American carriers, Charles de Gaulle has little in terms of anti-submarine warfare capability, leaving that job to her escorts.
Like other European aircraft carriers Charles de Gaulle can be configured as a helicopter carrier, in which case it can carry up to 800 paratroops/marine commandos and their Super Cougar helicopter transports. Charles de Gaulle has seen combat in Afghanistan, Libya and against the Islamic State.
Triomphant-class Ballistic Missile Submarine:
The decommissioning of France’s land-based ballistic nuclear missile force has left the country’s sea-based nuclear forces the most powerful leg of the remaining “dyad”. France’s four nuclear ballistic missile submarines: Triomphant, Téméraire, Vigilant and Terrible maintain France’s ability to keep at least one submarine on station all times, capable of inflicting terrible retaliatory damage on any nuclear aggressor.
France’s second generation “boomers,” the Triomphant-class is smaller than American and Russian equivalents, with a total tonnage of just 8,000 tons submerged. The use of nuclear power gives the Triomphants unlimited range and the ability to remain submerged for prolonged periods of time.
Each Triomphant-class carries 16 M-51 solid-fueled nuclear missiles. The M-51 has a range of 8,000 kilometers, putting the Middle East, most of Russia and the western half of China all within range. Each M-51 carries six warheads with a yield of 150 kilotons, or nine times the explosive yield of Hiroshima, plus penetration aids to help defeat enemy missile defenses.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boringand The Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter:@KyleMizokami.