The strategic concept behind the force de frappe was the so-called dissuasion du faible au fort (Weak-to-strong deterrence), i.e., the capability of inflicting to a more powerful enemy more damage than the complete destruction of France would represent. The enemy, having more to lose, would therefore refrain from proceeding further (see MAD). The principle was summarized in a statement attributed to De Gaulle himself:
Within ten years, we shall have the means to kill 80 million Russians. I truly believe that one does not light-heartedly attack people who are able to kill 80 million Russians, even if one can kill 800 million French, that is if there were 800 million French.
De Gaulle's vision of the Force de Frappe featured the same "triad" of air-based, land-based, and sea-based means of deterrence deployed by the United States and the Soviet Union. Work on these components had started in the late 1950s and was vigorously accelerated as soon as De Gaulle became president.
France conducted its first nuclear test in 1960 and operational weapons became available in 1964.
Initially, the force de frappe consisted of an air-based component only around the newly developed Dassault Mirage IV strategic bomber, designed to carry gravity bombs over targets in the (now former) Eastern bloc. This component was declared operational in October 1964 and has been continually modernized since then. In particular, the bomber version of the Mirage IV was retired in 1996 and replaced by the Mirage 2000-N.
A land-based component was added in August 1971 with the commissionning of the 18-silo IRBM launch site at Plateau d'Albion in the Vaucluse region. Later, the land element was augmented with the mobile short-range Pluton and Hadès missiles, designed to be launched from the front lines at approaching Soviet armies. Since it was deemed that a full-scale Soviet invasion of Europe was unlikely to be stopped by conventional forces, these weapons were meant as a "final warning" (ultime avertissement) which would tell the enemy that further advance would trigger a full-scale nuclear attack on its main cities. The Pluton, introduced in 1974, was retired in 1993 and its successor, the Hadès, was produced in limited numbers in the 1990s and placed in storage in 1995 (the last missile was dismantled on June 23, 1997). The Albion site, approaching obsolescence and deemed no longer relevant following the fall of the Soviet Union, was shut down in 1999.
The sea-based component of the triad entered service in December 1971 with the commissioning of Le Redoutable, France's first ballistic missile submarine. Since then, the sea-based deterrent has expanded to a force of four submarines, two of which are always out on patrol.
It is estimated that France has 60 ASMP medium-range attack missiles with nuclear warheads, of which:
In the near future, the new Rafales will replace Mirage 2000Ns and Super Etendards in the nuclear strike role. In their F3 version, Rafales will be able to carry the improved ASMP-A missile.