We Asked a Military Expert What It Would Take to Invade France

He seemed pretty certain that it's completely impossible.

Félix Macherez

Félix Macherez

(Illustration : Zelda Mauger)

I've always felt that losing the Battle of France and letting the Germans turn Paris into a Nazi holiday camp might have dented the French military's credibility a little. But recently Barack Obama praised the efforts of French troops in Central Africa and Mali, and I figured maybe we'd redeemed ourselves somewhere along the way.

Of course, that could have just been our American "protectors" talking us up in the international media. Because everyone likes praise, and being told we're doing a good job might tempt us into siding with the Yanks the next time they want to occupy a load of oil fields in the search for weapons of mass destruction.

To get to the bottom of whether we're actually a legitimate military force or not, I contacted Admiral Alain Coldefy – Research Director at IRIS and a defence strategy specialist – and asked him what would happen if the rest of the world tried to invade France.

(Photo via)

VICE: Hi Admiral. What's France's nuclear capability?
Alain Coldefy:
We've had a 24/7 operational nuclear submarine with 16 nuclear warheads since 1972. We are able to operationalise a second submarine in a few days – so that's 32 heads multiplied by six, which is 192 missiles of 125 kilotons.

What does that mean?
As a reference point, Little Guy – the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 – was 15 kilotons.

OK, so it sounds like we're relatively safe.
Yeah. A nuclear submarine is roughly 1,000 times Hiroshima, and we have four of them – as do the English. The Americans have 14, the Russians a dozen and the Chinese two or three.

Oh, so the Chinese are lagging behind?
We're in the second package, with England and behind the United States and Russia. France is part of the five nuclear powers in the world – the permanent members of the Security Council. So, if we faced a big attack, we could destroy the equivalent of France – no more, no less. Nuclear power has contributed to what has been called the "balance of terror". This is why you'll never see a war on French territory. Never.

How could other countries disarm or neutralise our nuclear equipment?
You cannot disable a submarine with nuclear propulsion. That's why great nations have chosen them. Submarines lurk in what makes up 75 percent of the globe – the oceans – and are undetectable.

So how would a foreign military undermine ours?
We've had an airborne component on permanent alert for 50 years, equipped with Dassault Rafales [fighter jets] in the air force and navy. They're all equipped with ASMP missiles – supersonic missiles with a power similar to the one dropped on Hiroshima. So if other countries wanted to block our air force, they would have to drain their oil or try to dismantle them. I don't see any other solution.

Submarines are almost all of our power of deterrence, aren't they?
Yes, they are 99 percent of our assets. Apart from that, we have the air force on aircraft carriers.

So, hypothetically, we'd be invaded by earth and air, right?
If a country wanted to conquer France, it would be a land-sea invasion, with air and naval support. But there is no hypothesis, chief; if they move, we kill 65 million people. Nuclear deterrence 16,000 times as powerful as that of Hiroshima can be sent in 30 seconds if the president decides it should be. And if the international situation is really rough, it's 32,000 times that of Hiroshima. Nobody can attack France. There can be no attack on French soil because the backlash would be terrible.

(Photo by Mychèle Daniau/AFP)

But if our historical enemies – the crooked-teeth-roast-beefs in England, who have the same nuclear power as us – decided to send their army into France, who would win?
It wouldn't happen. But if it did, there would be 65 million deaths on each side.

OK. What if the same scenario happened with the States?
We could kill 65 million Americans. We could destroy all major US cities on the east coast.

So what's the point in the Yanks having a defence budget of $600 billion (about £365 billion) and all these submarines if they can't prevent 65 million deaths?
American power must represent a threat proportional to the richness of its territory. Although US military power in conventional arms and manpower is ridiculously higher compared to the other forces of the world, nuclear power equalises everything. We live in a world where the number of soldiers are almost redundant. Remember this number: there are 111 people in a nuclear submarine. These are the 111 people who work with something that has the same power as a nuclear power plant. Our security relies on those soldiers and their very high level of technical skill.

Combat conditions have completely changed – only, the folly of men has not, and this is why we need to have a strong army. We must not let down our guard, otherwise we'll find ourselves obliged to follow our "protectors”.

Are these "protectors" the Americans?
Yes. They manipulate European countries, but not France. They impose their foreign policy throughout Europe – except on us, because we are autonomous in nuclear power.

But don't you think the States could get past all our deterrents?
Not militarily, because we have the same means of destruction. The United States are dissatisfied with our military strike force – they are our allies, not our friends – because we don't follow them like dogs, like the United Kingdom do. They bribe a number of movements, including Greenpeace, to discredit the nuclear forces. The Americans would love to be the only Westerners with nuclear power.

Should we fear any other forces?
In order to not be attacked by tyrants, we must first control nuclear proliferation in countries like Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Then we must remain informed about terrorist organisations. But a terrorist attack never changed the systems or the institutions of a country, even after the 9/11 attack.

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Then what are our weaknesses? 
Given that half the imports into the European Union are taken in on boats, the destruction of ships – or maritime embargoes – are possible threats. France also imports 100 percent of its oil by boat. Sinking a tanker – one day of gas for France – would therefore disrupt our business, even if we have 90 days' worth in reserve on French soil.

Pure military threats are over. But threats can come from pirates who plunder platforms of oil and gas, or Colombian drug cartels. There are also weapons against which no one can fight: biological weapons. With just a few millilitres, terrorists can kill many people – in the subway, for example, like in Tokyo. The scale of the damage is reduced, but each civilian life is a priority.

There are also threats that don't know borders – like the cyberwar. These attacks are becoming increasingly important. The opponent is anonymous. Hypothetically, a large army of hackers could completely immobilise France.

Then there's space, which also presents a new form of war. Other countries could attack our satellites in space if they have the technological capacity. Our communication and observation satellites have already been disturbed. Countries can damage our satellites to blackmail us. This is an important current issue. A decade ago, Americans disrupted our satellites after we refused to go to Iraq. We didn't follow them in the battle because we knew that it was a shitty call and that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. The Americans also knew it, but they wanted to go there to satisfy their geopolitical goals.

We fought Uncle Sam in space?
In the name of peace, we had to make them understand that we could disrupt their satellites, too. And as you can imagine, it happened several times.

Cool. Thanks, Admiral!