ALBERT GRENIER* looks at the development and history of the French air force Dassault Mirage lVA strategic nuclear bomber, a preserved example of which has recently been donated to the Yorkshire Air Museum.

On 30 March a preserved Dassault Mirage IVA supersonic bomber (Serial Number 45 - F-THBR) was delivered from France to the Yorkshire Air Museum & Allied Air Forces Memorial at Elvington in North Yorkshire. Elvington has strong connections with the French air force as it is the former location of the only two French heavy bomber squadrons of WWII where over 2,300 French airmen were based.

Force de frappe

Mirage IVA F-THBR was on display at the Citée des Sciences Museum in Paris but was offered to YAM after the Museum decided to replace it with the latest Rafale. (YAM)

The Dassault Mirage lVA was from 1964, until its withdrawal from service in 1996, the first component of France’s nuclear deterrent force. This historic aircraft is a significant factor in the birth of French nuclear technology and the development of her ‘Force de frappe’.

If you ask any Frenchman, ‘Who decided to add the nuclear bomb to the French arsenal?’, without a shadow of doubt, you will be answered “General De Gaulle bien sur!” But this is not completely true.

Indeed, in October 1945, General De Gaulle, returning from a visit to President Truman in the USA, where he was most impressed by ‘the flurry of activities and the optimism’ decided to create the CEA (Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique) whose mission was to develop civilian and military nuclear technologies.

However, France was not working from a blank sheet of paper. Thanks to scientists like Henri Becquerel, Pierre and Marie Curie, the country already had a long association with nuclear science. In 1903, the three of them shared the Nobel price in physics. In 1911 Marie Curie, once more, received the Nobel Prize in chemistry for her work on polonium and radium. These achievements were such that, in June 1940, had France not been so rapidly overwhelmed, she would have been in the position to develop a nuclear bomb during WWII.


Suez setback


The preserved Mirage IV is unloaded at Elvington (YAM)

At a rather slow pace, the newly established CEA began its work. A significant boost occurred in October 1956 when, under the secret Sevres Agreement, Britain and France, in association with Israel, retook control of the Suez Canal. From a military perspective it was an obvious success but it ended in frustrating humiliation, when the USSR, only too happy to mask its ongoing repression of the Budapest Insurrection in Hungary, threatened to use nuclear power against the two European nations. Lacking USA support, even facing direct opposition from President Eisenhower, Britain and France had no option but to put an immediate end to military operations and execute a complete withdrawal of their forces.

It was at this point that France recognised that, if she wanted to remain a major world power, she had no option but have her ‘own nuclear bomb’.


France’s first A bomb

AN-11 free fall nuclear bomb (Tzar/Wikipedia)

With the decision to develop a nuclear arm formally taken, a new branch was formed for military application and DAM (Direction des Applications Militaires) was incorporated within the CEA. However, at that time, while France was heavily embroiled in the Algerian conflict and suffered very unstable and short-lived governments, nothing substantial was achieved. However, things were soon to change. In December 1958 General De Gaulle, was elected President of the République, and took office in January 1959. A year later, on 7 February 1960, the first French 70KT ‘A’ (fission) bomb was detonated in Reggane (Algerian Sahara).

In March of the same year, directives were issued for the establishment of a triad based deterrent force. It was to include piloted vectors, in the form of a Mach 2 capable aircraft associated with a free fall 60KT fission bomb, ground based missiles (SSBS) and nuclear submarine launched missiles (MSBS). General De Gaulle ordered that the first segment of the triad, the piloted vector and its bomb, must be operationally ready not later than the end of 1964 and from its conception stage it was understood that the chances for any piloted vectors to penetrate deep into the European part of the USSR, even at high speed, would not survive. Thus the manned vector was conceived as a stopgap until sufficient technologies were available to enable the entry into service of a more capable intercontinental missile based force, and it was not until August 1971 that the first squadron of GMS (Groupement des Missiles Stratégiques) were declared operationally ready. In December of that same year the first strategic nuclear submarine ‘Le Redoutable’ embarked on her maiden operational cruise, taking with her 16 intercontinental missiles, each carrying a single re-entry vehicle, armed with a 500 KT boosted fission bomb. 

Retaliation Aircraft

From the early fifties, although there was no formal decision to develop a nuclear force, there were studies in great secrecy for the development of an interceptor, unassumingly named the ‘Retaliation Aircraft’. To help keep it secret and, to the shagrin of the design offices, the technical services of the French Ministry of Defence repeatedly changed the specifications, asking for more and more range, greater payload and enhanced navigation systems whilst unquestionably shifting toward a medium supersonic bomber.

 These ‘interim’ specifications called for an aircraft capable of carrying, without inflight refuelling, 15,00kg payload for 1,500km, with half of the distance to be done at a speed greater than Mach 1.7.


The Mirage IV was derived from the Mirage I/III (RAeS)

 There were two contenders. The Sud-Ouest Aviation SO-4060 ‘Super Vautour’ and the Dassault Mirage I/III. The GAMD (General Aéronautique Marcel Dassault), as it was known at the time, won the contest with the 30 tonne, twin-engined, Mirage IV 01. This was in fact a Mirage III derivative, powered by two Snecma ATAR 9B straight jets with afterburner, well suited for supersonic speed. The technologically inferior SO-4060 ‘Super Vautour’ prototype was thus abandoned and never flew.

Under the designation SASP (Système d’Arme Stratégique Piloté) the specifications were finally frozen in 1959. The Ministry of Defence requested 3,000km range and Mach 2 speed and the payload, 1,500kg, remained unchanged.

At first the GAMD proposed the 57 tonnes Mirage IVB but, since French industry could not offer powerful enough engines (the most powerful French engine available at the time being the ATAR 9B produced 4,25kN dry and 6kN with afterburner), the IVB would have to be powered by two Pratt & Whitney J75s. The J75-P-19W variant, as used on the F105, was rated at 63.74kN dry and 24.5kN with afterburner. However, the IVB proposal was short lived. This strategic, highly sensitive national programme could not be seen to be dependent upon US technology, although the financial aspect was not overlooked.

Enter the Mirage IV

A Mirage IV taking off (Jato Ochey)

Thus the new Mirage IV No.01 first took flight on 17 June 1959, from the Melun-Villaroche flight testing centre, at the hands of Roland Glavany. It flew so well that, on 20 June, on only its third flight, she was cleared for a fly-pass during that year’s Le Bourget (Paris) Air Show and Mach 1.9 was attained during its 14th flight with two world records soon after. In September 1960, the 1,000km close circuit at the speed of 1822km/h was achieved. (The previous record holder in April 1959 was the McDonnell F101 Voodoo at 1126km/h). Three days later, the 500km close circuit at an average speed of 1,972km/h, flying between Mach 2,08 and Mach 2.14. As impressive as these performances were, the GAMD was asked to enhance it further with specific emphasis on range. To accommodate more fuel the fuselage of No. 01 was lengthened and the take-off weight increased to 32 tonnes. The engines, ATAR 9Bs, were replaced by the more powerful interim ATAR 9D and the Mirage IVA was born. On entry into service she was powered by the ATAR 9K11 (67 kN with afterburner) and was the first European military aircraft capable of sustaining Mach 2 for a significant period of time.

Refuelling tankers


Caption: A French coalition C-135FR refuelling tanker at Manas Air Base, Kyrgyzstan during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2007 (USAF/Master Sgt Daniel Nathaniel)

If the range was slightly increased to 1,100km, including 50 % at supersonic speed to enable the contractual 3,000km, a fleet of in-flight refuelling tankers had to be obtained. First thoughts were to modify the twin-engined SO 4050 Vautour N into flying tankers and the SE 210 Caravelle was even considered, whereupon Boeing surprisingly offered the world’s most capable tanker (at that time), the KC135A. After some ‘discussions’ with Boeing and the US government, in November 1962 the USAF sent one of its own KC135s to the Istres Flight Test Centre to assist in four flight tests, code named BB ‘Boeing Biberon’ (Boeing feeding bottle), to confirm that the ‘probe and drogue’ air refuelling method was possible between the KC135 and the Mirage IV No.01. The US government then authorised the sale of 12 C135F variants to France. The ‘K’ for tanker, disappeared while the ‘A’ was replaced by an ‘F’, for France. These were the last 12 produced. This sale and the designation given to the aircraft were rather ironic since the ‘Force de frappe’ was acknowledged to be ‘Tous azimuts’ and somewhat amusing as well as emblematic of the tumultuous US/French relationship, that actually, France was not sold tankers at all but cargo aeroplanes with a refueling probe... but without the APU - the four engines had a provision for a pyrotechnic ‘cart start’ cartridge.

APUs were installed much later in the 1980s when the 11 remaining aircraft were fitted with the more powerful CFMI CFM56-2B (F108) turbofan engine, replacing the venerable J57-P-59W. To add to this in the ‘90s when, desperately short of tankers, France was allowed to lease three and subsequently buy two more USAF surplus aircraft, this time KC135Rs.

Entry into service

A total of 62 Mirage IVAs were delivered between 1964 and 1968 (RAeS)

The first Mirage IVA reached the FAS (Forces Aériennes Stratégiques) in February 1964 while the first C135F (Serial 63-8471) was delivered to the French Air Force the same month at the Mont-de-Marsan air base.

A total of 62 Mirage IVAs were delivered between 1964 and 1968, to form three bombing wings: 91st, 93rd and 94th. Each wing consisted of three squadrons: two of Mirages and one of C135Fs operating from nine air bases: Avord, Cambrai, Cazaux, Creil, Istres, Luxeuil, Mont-de-Marsan, Orange and Saint-Dizier. The C135F were based (and still are) at: Avord, Mont-de-Marsan and Istres (home base of the type).

Formed at Bordeaux in May 1964, CIFAS (OTU) No 328 was in charge of flight and ground crew training. In addition to a number of Mirage IVAs, it also operated ten Mirage IIIB-RV, whose mission was to familiarise the pilots with delta-wing characteristics and in-flight refuelling skills. This rare and little known variant of the Mirage III includes a mock refuelling probe on the nose, as fitted on the Mirage IVA, only allowing dry contacts with the C135F drogue. Mirage IVA navigator training utilised several Nord 2501 (Nord Atlas) twin piston-engined transports previously modified to the Nord 2501SNB standard, to include navigation and bombing systems in the cargo compartment. They were operated by ETI (Escadron de Transport et d'Instruction) squadron 3/328 and were added to the CIFAS inventory.

Support fleet

A Mirage IV was on display at the 2005 Paris Air Show.

Simultaneously, the COTAM (Commandement Air du Transport Aérien Militaire) contributed by providing flight crews and additional conventional Nord 2501, used to move engines, equipment and spare parts between the bases. They were quickly known as the ‘FAS Shuttles’. COTAM contribution did not stop there. Two DC8-55s were soon supplemented by three second-hand DC8-62s, the ultra long-range variant of the DC8, acquired by the DIRCEN (Direction des Centres d’Essais Nucléaires) from Finnair. Modified into convertible freighters they were operated by 03/060 Esterel Squadron flying between France and Tahiti to help support the CEP (Centre d’Essais du Pacifique), shuttling the Centre’s engineers and technicians, as well as components of the nuclear weapons to be tested. The specialists were flown via Los Angeles and the nuclear components, or TS (Transports Sensibles), via Pointe-à-Pitre in the French Caribbean Islands. From there, depending on the winds, the 12 to 13.5 hour flight to Hao via the Panama Canal was at the time the longest regular route flown by any airliner. The IACO allowed the Esterel to operate under 50% reduced fuel reserve and the lone diversion airport, Papeete, was put under technical QGO one hour before the DC8 landed. It is rather astonishing to record that this route was flown absolutely trouble free for so many years! Actually no one either in COTAM or the French Government ever contemplated the idea of a forced landing being required with such cargo on board and on any airport along the way!


Significant building work took place on the host bases with hangars, hardened shelters, highly secured QRA areas with autonomous living facilities and runway extensions for the underpowered C135F. Secured communication systems were diversified and strengthened and the network improved and of course DAMS (Dépôt d’Armes et Munitions Spéciales) were constructed. The DAMS were highly secured and reinforced facilities where the nuclear weapons were maintained and stored under the custody of the Gendarmerie and assembled prior to their installation on the Mirage IVA.

First refuelling

The first ‘all French’ Mirage IVA inflight refuelling took place in May 1964. (YAM)

The first 100% all ‘French’ C135F, Mirage IVA inflight refueling took place in May 1964 and paved the way for the first QRA which took place in Mont de Marsan in October of the same year. Armed with a gravity nuclear weapon type AN-11, this first QRA was delivered by a Mirage IVA from 1/91 ‘Gascogne’ squadron supported by the first available of the tankers manned by ERV (Escadron de Ravitaillement en Vol) 4/91 ‘Landes’. At an accelerated pace, many more QRAs, followed on from the other bases.

Marking the completion of the establishment of France’s nuclear triad’s first component, the ninth and last squadron 3/94 ‘Arbois’, was declared operational at Luxeuil (BA 116) in June 1966 and with the delivery of the last aircraft, the third C135F, Squadron 4/94 ‘Sologne’ was activated in April 1966 in Avord (BA 702). Things went very fast indeed!

The ‘Guyenne’ Squadron 1/93 (formerly No.346 Squadron RAF Bomber Command) with which RAF Elvington and the Yorkshire Air Museum has a long association was declared operationally ready at Istres (BA 125) in October 1965.


Withdrawal from NATO


Mirage IVs were expected to have quick reaction alerts of between five to 15 minutes. (YAM)

These first QRAs heralded a major change in French defence policy, where she no longer relied on the NATO umbrella but on her own unambiguous ‘anti-city’ national nuclear deterrent capability. From that point this strategy took absolute precedence leading to France’s withdrawal from the NATO military structure in 1966. Simultaneously the French Air Force was considerably transformed to support and operate the nuclear component with its command and control structure being comprehensively reviewed. Four air regions and operational commands were created, amongst which was COFAS (Commandement des Forces Aériennes Stratégiques) which would control the Mirage IVA and the C135F squadrons. The CAFDA (Commandement Air des Forces de Défense Aériennes) were to be responsible for all the ground radars, and the air defence fighters whose unique principal wartime mission was the protection of the bases on which the nuclear assets are stationed. The CTAA (Commandement des Transmissions de l’Armée de l’Air) were to be in charge of transmitting the engagement orders from the Government to the operational squadrons. The CTAA headquarter was based in Villacoublay (BA 107) and the COFAS and the CAFDA share the same Taverny (BA 921) facility. These headquarters were located deep underground inside a very large former gypsum mine.

A backup underground headquarters was subsequently established near Lyon (BA 942) in the Mont D’Or hills.

Reproducing the practices of the USAF Strategic Air Command, there were three types of quick reaction alterts (QRAs). A-15 or 15 minutes, the Mirage IVA having to be airborne within 15 minutes or less. A-5, flight crews, in the alert room dressed into their flight attires and ‘AB’ (A Bord) crew on board ready for immediate engines start. In fact, once all the Mirage IVA fleet was ready there would be several concomitant QRAs with always, at least one, ‘24/7’ on A-5, rotating between the squadrons. All the other bases were placed on A-15.

End of the A-5

In the mid seventies when the first BA 200 Apt-Saint-Christol 18 GMS silos became operational and more submarines were available, the A-5 was abandoned and replaced by A-15. At the end of the sixties at the height of its capacities there were 18 A-5 QRAs whilst it would have been possible to engage the rest of the fleet in less than one hour. Fifty identified runways all over France would have been able to support the aircrafts’ 32 ton maximum take-off weight. During the hot season or on the shorter runways it was possible to use jet assisted take off, adding plus five tons thrust.

Squadron reductions

For many years 36 Mirages IVAs, never more than four on the same base, were kept ready to take-off in either five or 15 minutes. As we know today, ‘maximum alert’ was only used once - during the 1968 ‘Prague Spring’. By the end of the seventies, as the world began to recognise improvements within the political state of affairs with the East, three bomber squadrons, 3/91 Beauvaisis (Creil), 3/93 Sambre (Cambrai) and 1/94 Bourbonnais (Avord) were disbanded. Their Mirage IVAs were shared among the remaining squadrons and the number of AN-22 warheads were reduced to 39. The A-5 was cancelled.

Banco and Poker


A wing from the preserved Mirage IV being unloaded at Elvington (YAM)

To test the reaction of the squadrons, as well as the reliability of the communication chain from the Presidential Office right to the bases and squadrons, QRAs under the code names ‘Banco’ and ‘Poker’ were regularly activated. Banco involves the installation of active AN-11 nuclear weapons or, from 1967, the lighter AN-22, on all the Mirage IVAs but without any flights. French rules do not allow any aircraft to take-off with an active nuclear weapon in peacetime. Poker replicates an all force scramble, with dummy nuclear weapons installed, including mock attacks on pre-established targets inside France, with occasional fighter interception and air defence simulation. A typical later Poker mission would last four hours from takeoff, if necessary JATO assisted, consisting of in-flight refueling followed by a low altitude, high speed 300ft / 600kt ingress, a climb for a second inflight refueling and return to base.

Fantasia Cup

In June of each year, to stimulate the competition among the squadrons, the FAS organised the ‘Fantasia Cup’. The crews, one per squadron, selected randomly, are tasked to drop one mock-up AN22 using the LADD (Low Angle Drogue Delivery) procedure over one of the southwest France training shooting range. The Fantasia Cup recognises the crew having the best result on that single drop.  Guyenne won the first one in 1966, and more thereafter.

North, Centre and South

Should the ‘mission’ have to be accomplished, mixed preset flight paths North, Centre and South were programmed. Several would involve flying 4,000nm, or some eight flight hours. North, taking off from the northern base, the Mirage IVA would overfly the Baltic Sea to attack Leningrad, Moscow and Murmansk. Centre, through central Europe, to attack targets in the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies. This central route, deemed far to dangerous due to the huge number anti aircraft sites and the number of air defence fighter bases was abandoned. South, taking off from the southern bases, through the Mediterranean and the Bosphorus, to attack cities in Ukraine: Kiev, Odessa or Sebastopol. The C135F tankers, also in charge of relaying the presidential communication, were positioned at rendezvous points to insure the required, up to four, in-flight refuelling posts.

In-flight rendezvous

The FAS adopted the proven USAF SAC’s in-flight refueling procedures which would not call for electronic emissions. ‘En route rendezvous’, where the tanker, at a set timing, overflies agreed co-ordinates then follows a precise bearing. The Mirage IVA previously informed of these navigation assumptions, would reach the tanker from the rear. ‘On point rendezvous’, the tanker orbits hippodromes waiting for the receiver. ‘Face to face’, the Mirage IVA and the tanker fly a collision course.

At a set distance, the tanker accomplishes a 180° turn to allow the Mirage IVA to rejoin from the rear. In case of a failed rendezvous, the tanker carries an airborne beacon which, through the TACAN Air/Air mode, the Mirage IVA can capture and beam too. 

Prior to the take-off, the Mirage IVA flight crew, all officers, knew that it was a non-return mission. After the nuclear weapon is delivered, they would be very short on fuel with no more access to the tankers. Their lone option was to eject, either over the sea, a neutral country, Sweden, a NATO member, Turkey, or worst, over any of the Warsaw Pact countries.

Nuclear arsenal

During the period of her operational career, the Mirage IVA and P used three different nuclear weapons. Initially, the AN-11 60 KT, optimised for high altitude delivery, was a fission bomb weighting some 1,500kg. Forty were produced until 1967 when it was replaced by a similar number of AN-22 fission bombs. The AN-22 of a similar power, 60 to 70 KT, was significantly lighter at 700 kilograms but incorporating additional safety features and a break ‘chute to enable low attitude delivery.

In 1986, when 18 Mirage IVA were upgraded to the P standard, the gravity AN-22 weapon was replaced by the Aérospatiale ASMP (Air Sol Moyenne Portée). The actual characteristics of the ASMP cruise missile are still classified. An upgraded variant of the ASMP, the ASMP-A, is in use on the Mirage 2000N and the Rafale F3 nuclear squadrons, the mainstay of the today French piloted force. The ASMP is known to be, a scramjet powered, Mach 3 capable, cruise missile carrying a 300 KT TN-81 thermonuclear weapon up to ‘several’ hundreds of kilometers.

Reconnaissance capability

The unquestionable Mirage IVA performances were soon recognised. Once the nuclear squadrons were set and running, it was decided to add the reconnaissance capability. At the end of the sixties, the Hurel Dubois Company was contracted to manufacture a recce pod, later designated CT-52, which would be installed in the bay between the two engines, as an alternate payload to the ‘bomb’. It was first installed in 1968, on Mirage IVA serial number 61 (F-THCH). The modular CT-52 could accommodate an impressive array of cameras tailored for high or low altitude as well as subsonic or supersonic speeds. The pod was versatile enough to enable shifting the conventional cameras with infra red or thermographic sensors designated ‘Cyclopes’ allowing all weather tactical or strategic recce capabilities. The standard joke in the French Air Force at the time had it that ‘The Mirage IVA was the most expensive camera in use in France’.

The recce mission was assigned to the Bordeaux OTU No 328. In 1996, when the ASPM nuclear mission was transferred to the three dedicated Mirage 2000N squadrons, EB 2/91 Gascogne, kept six Mirage IVP devoted to the strategic reconnaissance mission only. Its designation was changed to ERS 2/91 (Escadron de Reconnaissance Stratégique). The Casgogne squadron flew its six aircraft until June 2005, when the French Government decided abruptly end the Mirage IVP’s career.

SARIGUE survelliance

SARIGUE at Le Bourget (Musee de l'Air de l'Espace)

At the time of the Mirage IVA’s entry into service, the USSR had developed a remarkably potent anti aircraft defence. As evidence, if need be, in May 1960 a USAF Lockheed U-2 high-altitude spy plane, while on a mission over the USSR, was shot down by an SA-2 ‘Guideline’ ground to air missile. In October 1962 another U-2, on a reconnaissance flight over Cuba also followed victim to a SA-2. A few days later, a third U-2, operated by the ‘Black Cat’ squadron of the Taiwanese Air Force, was shot down over Nanchang in the Peoples Republic of China. It would not take long before the USAF and the US Navy, though at a much larger scale, were confronted to this ever-increasing threat in the North Vietnam skies.

The FAS recognised that its urban centre targets, situated deep in the USSR, would indeed be very strongly defended and that high altitude, even associated with high speed, would no longer offer any substantial protection. If the all-determent force was to remain credible, it was essential to protect the Mirage IVA against anti-aircraft defences. The SA-2 was known to fly at Mach 3.5 for over 40km and have a convincing 130kg explosive with its Fan Song (guidance) and Spoon (detection) radars in particular. In the sixties, French industry was very much lagging behind in ECM technologies. Nevertheless, adopting the same attitude as it earlier did for the engines, General De Gaulle’s government insisted that France must develop its own systems as she could not, in such a highly sensitive matter, trust on external procurements. It was the beginning of an immense effort. On the basis that: ‘There are no efficient ECM without intelligence on enemy electronic defence’, data gathering platforms had to be procured. Robust financing was allocated to set up or augment the existing listening sites located near the Iron Curtain in the French ‘occupation’ sector of the Federal Republic of Germany. A commercial Douglas DC-8-33 was modified into a -53 variant and turned into a COMINT and ELINT platform named SARIGUE (Système Aéroporté de Recueil d’Information de Guerre Electronique) operated by Escadron électronique 51 ‘Aubrac’ and adding additional long range capabilities to the handful of COMINT and ELINT Nord 2501 ‘Gabriel’ operated by EE 1/54 ‘Dunkerque’.

The SARIGUE, flying within international air space, eavesdropped on communication and emission spectrums within the USSR and its allies, as well as those generated by her Middle East customers. This effort helped replace and frequently upgraded the entry into service of the Mirage IVA’s ECM jammer detector ‘Agacette’ by more potent systems: ‘Agasol’, CT51 optimised for SA-2 jamming; ‘Boa’. Though not always a success, as experienced during the USAF invitations to participate in the realistic ‘Red Flag’ exercises demonstrated!  The modification of the Mirage IVA into P offered the unique opportunity to install better equipment: ‘Serval’ a radar detector associated to ‘Boz’ electromagnetic and infrared chaff dispenser. ‘Barracuda’ highly integrated, memory-based modular and adaptable concept designed to defeat ground to air as well as air-to-air menace. The more capable ‘Barax’ and even the ‘Barax NG’ finally replaced the Barracuda on the six recce aircraft.

Live nuclear test

A Mirage IV was used to test a nuclear bomb over the Mururoa lagoon in July 1966 (RAeS).

To demonstrate the credibility of the force; the effectiveness of the chain of command; procedures and at the same time confirm the aptitude of the flight and ground crew to execute the mission, the Ministry of Defense ordered a live test using an real nuclear bomb. In 1966, under the code name ‘Tamouré’, it involved two Mirage IVAs: serial number 9 (F-THAH) and 36 (F-THBI). Serial number 9 traveled from France to Tahiti Hao (BA 185) CEP in the hull of the French Navy amphibious warfare ship ’l’Ouragan’. Number 36 was configured in the subsonic heavy configuration with three additional fuel tanks: two external 2,500 litres and a 1,600 litres taking the slot normally allocated to the nuclear bomb. Supported by three C135F, SAR aircraft and several pre-positioned navy ships to relay communications, the Mirage IVA with no VHF radios, flew to the CEP from Mont de Marsan on 10 May via the Azores Islands and Otis (Massachusetts) AFB. This was the longest leg of the trip and an historic one as well. It was the first time a French combat aircraft crossed the Atlantic to land in the USA and was covered in seven hours 40 minutes with two in-flight refuelings. One more stop in Mather (California) AFB before Hickam (Hawaii archipelagos) AFB and Hao, landing on 13 May after two in-flight refuelings taking a total of six hours ten minutes flight time.

The nuclear weapon, a 50KT AN-11, dropped by Number 9, was detonated on 19 July at 3,000ft in the vicinity of the Mururoa lagoon. Number 9 then returned to France via the same route, departing Hao on 25 July and landing in Mont de Marsan on the 28th. Tamouré was a blatant success, even if during the training flights serial number 36 experienced a runway excursion. Disassembled it returned to France in the hull of  ‘l’Ouragan’. Informed of this incident, General De Gaulle is reported to have said: ‘What was a group captain doing at the command of this aircraft?’

After repairs, serial number 36 was among the eighteen modified to the P variant.

Supersonic testing

If the Tamouré exercise typified the intended type of nuclear deterrent mission for which the Mirage IVA was intended, it also did others including civilian and scientific missions to collect knowledge related to flights at supersonic speed for the Concorde programme. The strategy of the deterrent force having been successful, it never flew on an operational mission over Europe, and only ever once with an actual nuclear weapon. This was not known in public until recently, when during a lecture, an Air Commodore disclosed that in 1964 or 1965, due to a snag in the alert transmission system, a Mirage IVA, on QRA from a base which he did not reveal, took off with a live weapon. Although shocked, the crew nevertheless took off. The mistake was acknowledged and, while airborne, the follow-on order to proceed was not communicated; the crew was called back, soon enough to prevent the activation of the nuclear weapon. The event pleased General De Gaulle very much. “It proves that the all system worked, and that the airmen obeyed their orders without hesitating to execute their mission”. Needless to say that the FAS reacted swiftly in fixing the cause of this transmission snag…

Lower altitude


To avoid being detected on radar, the Mirage IV was expected to fly on attack missions at a height of only 600ft. (RAeS)

More often than not, high tech armaments are seldom used as originally intended. The Mirage IVA is no exception. Originally designed as an high altitude, 50,000ft high speed Mach 2, bomber less than two years after her entry into service, the western air forces realised that with the incumbent SA-2 ‘Guideline’, the USSR and her Warsaw pact allies had a very potent anti-aircraft/ground to air defense system soon complemented by the even more efficient SA-3 ‘Goa’ and the SA-6 ‘Gainful’.

Before these threats, the initially intended flight profile no longer stood any realistic chance of success and had to be abandoned. The FAS switched to low altitude, 600ft / 450kt, enabling flights below radar coverage. The robustness of the Mirage IVA delta wing allowed this shift even if some structural enhancements were necessary. Simultaneously, the navigation and bombing systems were modified, the tail marking disappeared and the aluminum livery was replaced by the green European standard camouflage. For the flight crews, tactical navigation and training on the LADD procedure to drop a break-chute equipped nuclear bomb, became the motto of the day. From the mid eighties, the Mirage IVAs were modified to Mirage IVP and the ASMP replaced the free fall bomb, adding significant punch to the weapons system, though it did not change the profile much. In fact, the Mirage IVP programme was a stopgap to help mitigate certification delays in the Mirage 2000N.

Reconnaissance missions

A Mirage IV reconnaissance pack on display  at the Musée de l'Aviation Clément Ader, Aérodrome de Corbas-Lyon. (Roland Turner)

If neither the Mirage IVA nor P ever did any actual nuclear strikes, both flew many long distance operational reconnaissance missions. Undoubtedly not all disclosed at this time of writing. A number were performed over Chad. One, in 1987, called Operation ‘Tobus’ over Ouadi-Doum, flown by serial number 31 (F-THBD) to assess the damage caused to a Libyan base after a FATAC (Force Aérienne Tactique) strike by 12 Jaguars. Taking off and returning to Bordeaux/Merignac, the mission lasted 11 hours, including 30 minutes at supersonic speed. It required four C135Fs, which transferred 48 tons of fuel in 12 inflight refuelling operations! ‘Deliberate Force’ over Bosnia, in 1995 was to pinpoint command posts and artillery positions. In 1996, ’Condor’ operating from Djibouti on behalf of the UN, helped step up and monitor a ceasefire between Yemen and Eritrea in relation to their Hanish Island conflict. In 1999, with the NATO ’Trident and Allied Force’ operating from Solenzara (BA 126) Corsica, twice daily at high speed and high altitude (Mach 1.8 - 50,000 feet) over Kosovo and Serbia and in 2001 ‘Heracles’. Again from the UAE once daily, consisting of 80 flights over Afghanistan. In 2003 they took part in Operation ‘Tarpan’ from the Al Kharj, Prince Sultan air base, in Saudi Arabia and flew at medium altitude to assist the UN Inspectors identify sites which could store WMD (weapons of mass destruction). These missions were not always trouble free, as experienced on 1st July 1998 by Mirage IVP serial number 25 (F-THAX), call sign ‘Calot 01’. Whilst taking pictures of the Al Assad air base during Operation ‘Aladdin’ on behalf of the UN and operating out of the UAE, the crew spotted two air-to-air armed MIG 25s taking off. The Mirage ECM system soon detected the two MIGs hostile illuminations. The chase across ‘six o’clock’ and ‘nine o’clock’ ended after four long minutes and after the Mirage went supersonic leaving the MIGS behind. Later investigation showed that the Iraqi Air Force had reported an identification error…

‘Circus’ operations during the Cold War. Classified photo reconnaissance flights supported by C135Fs lasting nine to ten hours were undertaken in partnership with French Navy: Atlantic (CECLANT) and Mediterranean (CESMED) Commands to gather intelligence on USSR Navy ships. On COFAS orders a Mirage IVA flew as low and as fast as they could above the Soviet vessels when cruising in international waters. It  gathered valuable intelligence on many type of ships, including the aircraft carrier Kiev; missile launcher, Kaschin and Moscowa class destroyers and Krivak frigates, even surfaced submarines when, on occasion, crews were stopped sunbathing. Areas of operation were well known: offshore Tunisia, Libya and Crete, sometimes flying as far as Newfoundland and targeting ships transmitting between Murmansk and Cuba. Returning from a typical ‘Circus’ mission, a Mirage IV crew brought back an exceptional film of a Krivak class frigate. Whilst analysing the pictures the intelligence officers observed, a smoke deflector panel on which a large inscription read: ‘This ship is a latrine’!


The Mirage IV was replaced as a nuclear platform by the Mirage 2000 N in 1996 and finally retired as a reconnaissance aircraft for the French Air Force in 2005. (YAM)

In conclusion and drawing together all the technology, politics and national pride the Mirage IVA created a diplomatic ‘retaliation’ for which she was indeed not designed. During a state visit to the USSR, President Georges Pompidou was invited by First Secretary Leonid Brezhnev to visit the USSR Strategic Command. During the visit Brezhnev, casually asked President Pompidou if he could depress a button. Having done so, Brezhnev told Pompidou: “You just destroyed France!” President Pompidou is reported at the time not to have appreciated Brezhnev’s sense of humour. Later, when First Secretary Brezhnev paid his return visit to France, it happened that the very day of the State Dinner, a Mirage IV returning from a ‘Circus’ mission over the Mediterranean caught a Soviet crew off guard, who were sunbathing and playing cards on the deck of their surfaced submarine. A photo album with suitable comments was swiftly compiled and presented by President Pompidou to the First Secretary. The story does not say if it also included the sign aboard the Krivak class frigate. Such was the Cold War…

*A member of the Yorkshire Air Museum Mirage IVA Project, Albert Grenier joined the French Air Force in 1969 as an apprentice at the Saintes (BA 722) Technical College. He obtained aero-engine qualifications at the  Rochefort (BA721) specialization school in 1972 and his postings included Reims (BA112) Vautour IIN engine base; Mirage F1C fighter squadron 2/30 ‘’Normandy Niemen’’ (the provisional Mirage F1 Squadron formed in Mont De Marsan (BA118) supporting Dassault’s foreign customer training. He worked for 2 years in Libya assigned to the French training mission on Mirage F1 then at Dijon (BA112) fighter squadron 2/2 ‘Cote D’Or', Mirage IIIB/BE, and 1/2 ‘Gigognes’ on Mirage 2000C. Doha, Qatar Emiri Air Force on Mirage F1QA. Albert joined the SNECMA engine manufacturer in 1986, as Field Service Engineer, with long term missions in Saudi Arabia on E3-A AWACS and KE3-A tankers, at RAF Waddington on E3-D Sentry and Jordan on A320 and A310s. He is currently General Electric 90-115B Technical Program Manager for the Emirates B777 fleet, Dubai.



Albert Grenier
7 April 2017

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