Cold War Era

Operation Tamouré: the only time a French Air Force Mirage IV strategic bomber dropped a live nuclear bomb

The Mirage IV

The Suez crisis in October 1956 prompted France to look into setting up a “strategic intervention force”, equipped with nuclear weapons. Soon after General Charles de Gaulle came into office, in June 1958, he said France was to single-handedly develop what he called its “dissuasion of aggression” weapon. The scheme involved an aircraft first, and a ballistic missile later. In fact, besides the scale effect, the air-friction heating is very different. The Mirage IV was chosen.

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Whereas the Mirage III could only withstand Mach 2 for a few minutes, the Mirage IV needed to hold that speed for much longer than the 20 or so minutes required for the temperature to stabilize throughout the outer structure and inner casings housing the equipment, petrol and hydraulic liquid. According to Dassault Aviation website, every component, therefore, needed to undergo a full thermal assessment. French equipment manufacturers fulfilled virtually all the requirements.

The bomber’s specifications were jointly defined by government authorities and Dassault staff, and cleared on Mar. 20, 1957.

The Mirage IV was introduced into service in 1964.

The Mirage IV, the only asset to deliver a nuclear bomb

As explained by Philippe Wodka-Gallien in the book A Sword for Peace and Liberty Volume 1 Force de frappe – The French Nuclear Strike Force and the First Cold War 1945-1990, during the 1960s, the first decade of French deterrence, the Mirage IV was the only asset to deliver the bomb. In its communications, the Strategic Air Forces Command always liked to humorously mention this legacy to be ‘the first nuclear component’ in a friendly rivalry with the French Navy. This is true from an historic point of view.

The Mirage IV featured amazing performance. It was the structural pillar of a new command, the Commandement des Forces Aériennes Stratégiques (COFAS or Strategic Air Forces Command). COFAS has been created by a decree of President Charles de Gaulle on Jan. 14, 1964.

The image of the wide delta wing is almost always associated with the C-135 Stratotanker, which was purchased in the US. On the day of its first use in October 1964, the Mirage IV was the only European military aircraft able to maintain a speed of Mach 2 for over 30 minutes. The Dassault creation had an incredible operational longevity, lasting 42 years.

The French Air Force carried out one test with the Mirage IV when a Mirage IVA in Operation Tamouré on Jul. 19, 1966 dropped an AN-21– the bomb exploding 85km east of Mururoa.

Operation Tamouré

Operation Tamouré began in May 1966 with a long flight from mainland France to French Polynesia. The name of the mission was inspired by a Polynesian folk dance. The decision to conduct a full-scale nuclear test at the Pacific test centre was made on Oct. 30, 1964 at a defence council formally presided over by Charles de Gaulle at the Elysée Palace.

The green light was given at BA 118 (Air Base 118) at Mont-de-Marsan in south-western France). It was a complex mission, tasking two Mirage IVs of the EB-1/91 Gascogne 39 squadron and three C-135F tankers. The group’s task was to carry out a live test of a 60kt AN-21 at the Pacific Experimentation Centre. Parts of the atomic object were transported by a Douglas DC-8 of the GLAM squadron (Groupement de liaisons ministérielles).

At 9:00 a.m. on May 10, a Mirage IV took off for the first transatlantic voyage achieved by a French combat aircraft, heading to Otis Air Force Base in Falmouth, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, upon arriving in French Polynesia, the Mirage IV was damaged when landing, hitting an excavator on the 3,380m runway of BA 185 in Hao. It had to return to France by sea, immediately being replaced by Mirage IV 09.

The only time a French Air Force Mirage IV strategic bomber dropped a live nuclear bomb

After being postponed four times due to adverse weather, meteorological conditions were deemed favourable on Jul. 18 and the Mirage IV was put on alert the following day at 4:00 a.m. local time. At 05:05 a.m., the aircraft dropped its AN-11 atomic bomb off the coast of Mururoa.

A USAF KC-135 Stratotanker and the USS Richfield were in the vicinity an hour after. As soon as the atomic cloud was formed, some of the Vautours of the 85 Loire squadron took samples of the fallout. For this mission, these 10 aircraft used special air-to-air missiles or, more dangerously, traversed the atomic mushroom cloud. On 25 July, the FAS detachment in Polynesia took off from Hao for the return trip to Europe, following the same route in reverse. The Mirage IV and C-135 landed at night at Mont-de-Marsan on 28 July; Operation Tamouré was over.

The Mirage IV would never again be tasked to carry out real atomic tests. They were no longer necessary, as the trio of Mirage IV, AN bomb and Stratotanker had demonstrated their operational credibility.

A Sword for Peace and Liberty Volume 1 Force de frappe – The French Nuclear Strike Force and the First Cold War 1945-1990 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.

Mirage IV

Photo credit: National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office, Rob Schleiffert from Holland via Wikipedia

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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