Chirac overhauls missile arsenal

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The Independent Online

Defence Correspondent

France has decided to proceed with a long-range, air-launched cruise missile with a nuclear warhead, and to scrap missiles based in ageing silos in south-east France, according to reliable sources in Paris. The French Defence Ministry and President Jacques Chirac's office yesterday said no final decision had been made but indicated it was imminent.

The authoritative defence newsletter TTU (Tres, Tres Urgent) said President Chirac had accepted recommendations from government defence experts to proceed with the new missile and close down silos in the Plateau d'Albion. Instead, the French deterrent, or Force de Frappe, will rely on air- and submarine-launched missiles and nuclear bombs carried on Mirage and Super Etendard aircraft. The recent French tests in the Pacific have been designed to test the warhead for a new submarine-launched missile, called the SN- 75, and to enable France to evaluate future warheads - including that for the new cruise missile - using computer simulation.

The cruise missile, known as the Air-Sol de Longue Portee (ASLP) - long- range air to ground - will enable France's Rafale fighter bombers to hit targets from up to 900km, enabling them to stay out of range of most anti- aircraft defences.

A joint Anglo-French ASLP was one option considered by the British Ministry of Defence to meet its requirement for a Tactical Air-to-Surface Missile, or TASM, to replace its free-fall WE-177 nuclear bombs, until the idea was scrapped in 1993.

Instead, the British have decided to concentrate on one nuclear system, the submarine-launched Trident missile. From about 2006, Trident will provide Britain's only nuclear deterrent.

The 18 French missiles in the Plateau d'Albion are SSBS S3s, introduced in 1980, with a range of 3,500km. They are housed in ageing silos which look increasingly vulnerable in view of the growing threat from missiles fired from North Africa.

Britain and France, the only Western European nuclear powers, exchange information on nuclear strategy but have not yet co-operated on nuclear warhead design. Following the resumption of French nuclear tests in the South Pacific there have been allegations that Britain has received data from the French tests, but the Foreign Office yesterday said no direct data had been received and none had been requested.