On 13 February 1960, France detonated its first thermonuclear weapon, a 60-kiloton device, in the Algerian desert making France the fourth member of nuclear-capable powers alongside the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union.
French President Charles de Gaulle considered it unacceptable that the United States held a predominant position within NATO. French planners, like most NATO members, were concerned with a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. De Gaulle, well aware of French failures in Indochina and the growing US involvement in Southeast Asia, feared that the US would not come to the aid of France in the event of Soviet aggression or a nuclear first strike, allowing Western Europe to fall as an acceptable strategic trade.
More proximate in the French defense establishment’s collective memory was the US opposition to the joint Anglo-French invasion during the 1956 Suez Crisis that led to the collapse of British support for the venture. It is no coincidence that the month after the Suez Crisis, the French committed themselves to conducting their first nuclear test.
Creating an Independent French Deterrent
In December of 1960, President Charles De Gaulle formally announced his intentions to establish an autonomous nuclear strike force, the Force de Dissuassion (more commonly known as the Force de frappe) to serve as a nuclear deterrent.
This force, independent of US control, was to be based on the Dassault Mirage IV supersonic strike bomber which had made its first flight the year prior.
President de Gaulle viewed the operational establishment of the Mirage IV fleet as a critical component of the French nuclear deterrent and believed that an independent French nuclear capability was necessary to ensure independence as a nation
The Mirage IV would be the first component of the French nuclear triad (bombers, land-based missiles, and submarine-based missiles) to enter service, equipped with the 60-kiloton AN22 nuclear bomb. President De Gaulle wanted the Mirage IV operational by 1964.
At the time of its entry into service, the Mirage IV was the only supersonic aircraft in the world that could sustain Mach 2 for at least half an hour. The Mirage IV bomber force comprised nine squadrons of four aircraft each operating in 2 pairs — one aircraft carrying the nuclear payload, one a buddy-refueling tanker.
Extending the Range of the Deterrent
The Mirage IV, however, lacked the range to reach targets in the western Soviet Union and defense planners in the Armee de l’Air (French Air Force) wanted to acquire an aerial tanker that could launch at a moment’s notice with the Mirage IV force, refuel the bombers at high speed and high altitude, and offload fuel quickly to the aircraft.
Surprisingly, the French got an unsolicited offer from Boeing for the KC-135 Stratotanker which was far more suited to the French requirement than either the Vautour or Caravelle options. Negotiations began to purchase 10 KC-135As – one for every four Mirage IV bombers in the Force de frappe plus one spare.
The Shifting Political Winds
However, with the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy came a change in US nuclear strategic doctrine from massive retaliation to one of flexible response. To the new US president, his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, and his Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, an autonomous French nuclear deterrent would undermine the new strategic doctrine and increase the chance of premature use of nuclear weapons without American oversight.
The sale of the KC-135 to France was seen to be a form of nuclear proliferation as the tankers were necessary for the Force de Frappe to reach Soviet targets. By 1962 France increased its Mirage IV force to 50 aircraft and wanted more than the 10 tankers which were agreed on in principle by military officials in the US Defense Department. President Kennedy, however, vetoed the sale and even announced at a press conference that the tanker sale was a dead issue.
Despite this, the USAF sent one of its own KC-135As to the French flight test center at Istres to conduct four test flights with a Mirage IV to confirm that the aircraft were compatible. On the very same day as Kennedy’s press conference, the Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatrick approved the sale of 12 KC-135s to be designated C-135FR (ostensibly to hide their purpose as tankers for the Force de Frappe).
Two weeks later at a commencement address at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Defense Secretary McNamara reiterated official US policy of opposing any aid that allowed an independent French nuclear deterrent. Despite this, a month later, both McNamara himself and Secretary of State Dean Rusk signed off on the tanker sale worth $50 million.
At the time the sale was rationalized as an offset for American gold losses to France and alleviated concern by the US Treasury Department about foreign accumulation of gold. However, with the end of the Cold War, declassified documents showed the sale was undertaken quietly in an effort to improve strained relations between France and the United States as an attempt to keep France within NATO’s military command structure.
Deployment of the C-135FR Force
The first Armee de l’Air C-135FRs arrived in France at Istres in 1964 following completion of KC-135 crew training by the French at Castle AFB in California. The last C-135FR arrived in October of that year and coincided with the Force de Frappe‘s first operational Mirage IV nuclear alert at the air base at Mont-de-Marsan. Initial operations included a 24-hour airborne alert of Mirage IV bombers supported by the C-135FRs, but these were ended in 1967 as they were too expensive to maintain by France unlike the US Strategic Air Command’s continuous “Chrome Dome” airborne alert.
Defense posture shifted to maintaining a five to fifteen-minute Quick Reaction Alert (QRA). Three bomb wings in the Armee de l’Air were equipped with the Mirage IV and each wing had two squadrons of Mirage IV bombers and one squadron of C-135FR tankers. Interestingly, and little known, is that the C-135FRs also acted as radio relay aircraft between the French national command authority and the Mirage IV force.
In 1966, after establishment of its own deterrent force and with the Mirage IV force fully operational with its C-135FR tanker support, President De Gaulle pulled France out of NATO’s military command. This action was only reversed in March of 2009 when President Nicholas Sarkozy signed a decree supported by the French legislature re-integrating France into NATO’s military command structure.