Below this French Rafale jet is a missile that can travel about 300 miles before deploying a completely untested 300 kiloton nuclear warhead. This shot wasn't taken at the height of the Cold War. It was taken last week. To understand why you have to understand the French approach to nuclear deterrence.
Films like War Games and Dr. Strangelove have brainwashed us into believing the whole world plays by the same rules of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) that dictate the use of nuclear weapons will cause a chain reactions that results in all of us dying a fiery death while a few generals in a bunker strip down for a game of post-apocalyptic hide-the-warhead with their secretaries.
The French don't traffic in that nonsense. It's been a longstanding policy of the country, going back to the Cold War, to keep a few aircraft-based weapons around to fire off as a "warning shot." The basic idea was to stop an advancing horde of Soviets and other Warsaw Pact countries from overrunning France by dropping a small tactical nuclear weapon somewhere they'd notice.
On one hand, averting an all-out global conflict by using a small nuclear device isn't the worst last ditch effort idea. On the other hand, as Defense Tech points out, "I'm not sure how effective nuclear warning shots are if the other guy has nukes, too." Whatever sense this policy made in 1986 when the first jets equipped with these short range deterrence nuclear weapons launched, it's increasingly questionable what use they are now that the risk of dirty Ukrainians storming the Champs-Élysées is pretty low.
But it still exists. Here's a quote from then French President Jacques Chirac in 2006 regarding the country's willingness to use nuclear weapons in self defense even if someone else hasn't fired them.
"Leaders of States resorting to terrorist means against us, as those who might consider, one way or the other, weapons of mass destruction, must understand that they risk a firm and adapted response from us. And this response can be of a conventional nature. It can also be of another nature."
It doesn't take much to read between the lines there, but that quote comes from a report by the Stimson Center on the French Nuclear policy [Stimson.org (PDF)] that includes this comforting assurance:
French policy makes clear that when referring to deterrence, they are referring to nuclear deterrence; the two words are still very much associated in the nation's strategic culture.
With this policy in mind, the French went about updating the arsenal of the Force de Frappe — tasked with carrying out France's nuclear deterrence and making frozen coffee drinks.
The original ASMP nuclear missiles launched in 1986 on board a small number of Mirage jets and were recently replaced by the advanced ASMP-A tactical missiles with a longer range (300 miles) and the ability to attack a target at a lower angle.
Successful tests of the missile itself were conducted last fall, but a ban on nuclear weapons testing means they couldn't test the warhead and instead relied on old test data and computer simulation.
All this takes us to last week when the newer and more advanced Rafale jet from Strike Squadron 1/91 was spotted taking off from the Istres base along the Mediterranean coast by an aviation photographer with the telltale red-tipped standoff ramjet missile underwing in "Nuclear strike" configuration.
Currently, the main conflict theater for the French air force is Libya, where Rafale jets are being used. Technically, under the current French nuclear doctrine it could launch one of these nukes at Tripoli if Qaddafi were to, say, get terrorist forces to set off chemical weapons around the Eiffel Tower.
It's an unlikely scenario, perhaps even more unlikely than one of these jets crashing or going all "broken arrow" in the hands of an insane pilot, which makes the fact that they're up there at all a little unnerving. We prefer the American approach of carrying warheads around in 18-wheelers.