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Submarine-launched ballistic missile

M51 missile

The submarine-launched M51 is the France's only intercontinental ballistic missile

Country of origin France
Entered service 2010
Basing Submarine-based
Missile length 12 m
Missile diameter 2.3 m
Launch weight 52 t
Throw weight ?
Number of MIRVs 6-10 x 107 kT
Range (full load) 8 000 km
Range (reduced load) 10 000 km
CEP 150 ~ 200 m
Guidance Astro-inertial


   The M51 is a French Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) designed to replace the older M45. Improvements include longer range, better accuracy, enhanced performance, and the addition of penetration aids. It is France’s only Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) and represents a significant portion of their nuclear strike force.

   The M51 entered development in 1992. It was originally to have been called the M5. The French government planned for this missile to have a 10 000 kilometer range and 10 Multiple Independently-targeted Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs). However, this plan was soon scrapped due to excessive cost. In 1996, the project was renamed the M51, a missile with much more modest but still powerful capabilities. Development remained pricy, though, at $6.7 billion.

   In 2004, the French government concluded a $3.9 billion deal with EADS Astrium Space Transportation to build the missiles. That same year, the M51 completed its first test flight, with more following in 2006, 2007, and 2010. At last, in 2010, it entered service on a Le Triomphant class submarine and was operationally tested soon after. France plans to equip each of its four Triomphants with sixteen M51s. So a total of 64 missiles will be ready to use. In 2013, a missile test off the coast of Brittany failed, making it the first failure for the M51. However, in 2015, the M51 made a successful missile test from a land-based launch site.

   The M51 is a three-stage solid-propellant missile. With an 8 000 kilometer range and submarine launch platform, it can attack targets all over the world with deadly nuclear effect. Upon launch, the solid-fuel rocket ignites for 3 to 5 minutes, powering the missile to a height of several hundred kilometers. Then the missile launches between six and ten MIRVs. These each have their own 107 kiloton TN-75 thermonuclear warhead. In the final stage, the MIRVs rush down upon their targets, attaining a speed of Mach 25 (30 870 km/h). This speed, when combined with “penetration aids” (including metallic balloons, full-scale decoys, and chaff), gives the target virtually no time to respond, meaning that a successful launch is almost certain. To put this in perspective, the MIRVs can travel a distance of 4 500 km in just 20 minutes.

   Range of the M51 is sufficient to strike most areas in China, Russia or the United States, firing straight from the pier. While this French missile may be somewhat lacking in range, compared to the World's best ICBMs, its launch platform more than makes up for it. The Le Triomphant class is probably the third-best ballistic missile submarine in the world. It can travel closer to targets, giving the missile a technically unlimited range. It can also survive a country’s first nuclear strike, being undetected deep in the ocean. Then it can surface and unleash a powerful counterstrike. This massively enhances France’s nuclear capability, far more than a silo-based ICBM would.

   The M51 uses an astro-inertial guidance system, like that of the Trident II. The M51 has a Circular Error Probe (CEP) of about 200 meters. This basically means that it will go a maximum of 200 meters away from its target. This accuracy is rather poor compared to some other equivalent Western missiles. However, the power of its warhead is sufficient that even when hitting a target 200 meters away, it will probably successfully neutralize the target. The missile is planned to also use the Galileo satellite navigation system, for improved accuracy, but this has not been fitted yet.

   France is the only operator of this missile and, like all nuclear weaponry, it is not available for export.




   M51.1: the original operational model.

   M51.2: a second model that, after a 2012 testing, became operational in 2015 and features larger MIRVs with 150 kiloton warheads (as opposed to the M51.1’s 107 kiloton warheads).

   M51.3: an Airbus and Safran upgrade project that began in 2014. Its goal is to create a missile for the Le Triomphant class successor. It is projected to enter service in 2025.


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M51 missile

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M51 missile

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M51 missile

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M51 missile

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Le Triomphant class submarine

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M51 missile launch

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