Cold War Era

The Minerve (i.e. a sort of ‘tricolor B-58 Hustler’) and the French bombers that never were

The French bombers that never were: the Mirage IVB and the Minerve

In 1957, when the Mirage IVA programme had been launched for a year, officials at Dassault imagined an extrapolation, the Mirage IVB. The idea was to compensate for the deemed insufficient range of the IVA to strike in the East.


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, the length of the new version was to be increased to 27.8m, compared to 23.5m for the Mirage IVA. The wing surface, 130m2, was doubled. Speed would increase to Mach 2.3 and its range would reaches 4,400km without refuelling. On Mar. 18, 1959, three prototypes were ordered. Pratt & Whitney received an order for 10 engines, the J-75 B-24, that Snecma would manufacture under license. However, the C-135FR tankers purchased from Boeing made the Mirage IVB over-specified; the contracts were cancelled.

Thereafter, Nord Aviation, the historic competitor of Marcel Dassault, proposed in 1962 a large delta propelled by two engines in nacelles, a sort of ‘tricolor B-58 Hustler’. Piloted by a crew of three seated in tandem, the Minerve bomber was an elegant aircraft of 58 tons, having a length of 34m and a wingspan of 19.5m. Its armament was an 8-ton missile.

A project of heavy supersonic bombers was proposed by the Minerve project. It was planned to equip the
aircraft with a specific supersonic air-to ground missile. (Fana de l’Aviation)

More French bombers that never were: the Mirage 4000 and the Balzac

Hopes for a ‘super bomber’ reappeared in the 1970s at Dassault with the Balzac and then the Mirage 4000.

With two M-53 engines, the aircraft was twice as powerful as the Mirage 2000. The ‘4000’ would be Dassault’s last manned prototype and very nearly went into production. The supersonic twin-engine aircraft was launched in September 1976. Its performance was exceptional: a payload capacity of 8 tons, a long-range radar and unprecedented manoeuvrability thanks to electric flight controls and a mobile canard configuration.

Jacques Chirac proposed in 1981 that if elected as President of France, he would provide the air force with around 100 Mirage 4000s to replace the fleet of already aging Mirage IV. However, the economic slowdown then imposed a painful review of ambitions, and the Mirage 2000 would instead be the standard French combat aircraft from 1984. The Mirage 4000 would, however, be used for the development of the Rafale project, and thus carried out nearly 290 test flights in that role.

The Dassault Balzac, a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) testbed of the early 1960s, also has its place in the gallery of proposed French types. For VTOL sequences, the aircraft integrated eight Rolls-Royce RB108 lift engines. The project came about after a request by the French Air Force for a new recce and tactical strike aircraft.

Mirage 4000

After an accident involving the prototype on Jan. 10, 1964 during its 125th sortie, then a fatal crash of the second prototype on Sep. 8, 1965, officials decided to stop the programme in 1965. On the positive side, the Balzac configuration was so innovative that Dassault had achieved progress in electric flight controls on a Mach 2 airframe.

The strength of Soviet air-defence missiles

One parameter that also came into the game was the strength of Soviet air-defence missiles, as had been witnessed by the American air forces in Vietnam, which shifted the situation regarding raids at medium and high altitude. The credibility of nuclear deterrence required efforts in electronic warfare, an area which had a great future; critical and spectacular in its effects, it saved the notion of air power.

The principle of technological and operational sufficiency of the French nuclear strategy imposed limits on the specifications of what was strictly necessary. This explains the cancellation in 1993 of the Franco-British ASLP (Air-Sol-Long Range) missile, a stealth weapon that could strike beyond 1,000 km, as a successor to the ASMP. The credibility of the nuclear force meant an avoidance of any risks inherent in projects that were deemed too fanciful.

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.

Balzac VTOL project

Photo credit: Steve Fitzgerald via Wikipedia, Dassault Aviation and Fana de l’Aviation via Helion & Company

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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