On the evening of December 13, the French Air Force launched its fourth and final exercise of the year 2022, simulating a strategic air raid over France. This operation, called Poker 2022-04, is obviously centered around the Rafale fighter aircraft of the Strategic Air Forces, but also includes other aircraft. Indeed, a Poker operation generally includes about 50 combat and support aircraft.
Poker 2022-4 is launched
On December 13, shortly after 10:10 p.m. (Paris time), several French military aircraft took off from several air bases in France. Some of these aircraft are part of the Strategic Air Forces (Forces Nucléaires Stratégiques, FAS) and are participating in their fourth and last exercise of the year 2022: Poker 2022-4 is launched! The aim of the Poker exercises is to train the FAS, as well as all combat and support aircraft that could be deployed alongside FAS aircraft in the event of a nuclear air strike. This exercise is also a reminder of French nuclear capabilities.
A standard "Poker game" within the AAE
Depending on the Poker operations and the units involved, the means and manpower may differ. However, the patterns of most previous Poker operations occur in three phases;
Phase 1: ramp-up
This exercise brings together about 50 combat and support aircraft, divided into two forces: a strategic strike force, grouping the bulk of the aircraft as well as the Rafales of the Strategic Air Forces. The other combat aircraft and a few tankers play the role of an opposition force (OPFOR). The Air and Space Force therefore mobilizes a significant number of aircraft that must be assembled and prepared:
- a majority of Rafale and Mirage fighters
- A330 MRTT and KC-135FR air-to-air refueling tankers
- An E-3F Sentry forward airborne lookout and command aircraft (AEW&C)
Once the operation is launched, these aircraft will take off: the strike force will head for Brittany and the OPFOR will head for the Massif Central.
Phase 2: long-distance raid
Once assembled over Brittany, the second phase begins. It is to simulate the long distance of the strategic air raid: the planes are refueled by several tankers over Brittany. The aircraft then flew due south to the Pyrenees and then headed for the Mediterranean. A second refueling is also organized before the beginning of phase 3.
Phase 3: nuclear raid
This is the offensive phase of Operation Poker: the OPFOR must try to prevent the FAS aircraft from reaching a drop point, simulating the drop point of the ASMPA-R nuclear missiles. However, the Rafales are escorted by combat aircraft that OPFOR must also take into account. Moreover, some of our readers may have heard the aircraft, since FAS aircraft tend to fly low to avoid detection. It is also possible that one or more anti-aircraft batteries are deployed by OPFOR, hence the need to fly low.
Some visible aircraft
Strategic Air Forces missions are classified, so little information is available. However, it is certain that the FAS Rafales do not carry an active but simulated ASMPA-R nuclear missile. The route is also known because a NOTAM (available at the end of this article) is issued before the operation in order to reserve certain areas of French airspace for Air Force and Space Force aircraft. Finally, the support aircraft are, depending on the aircraft, visible during part or all of the Poker operation. For example, for the final Poker exercise of 2022, the AAE had mobilized:
- 1 E-3F Sentry forward airborne lookout and command (AEW&C) aircraft
- 1 KC-135FR Stratotanker tanker aircraft
- 1 C-135FR Stratotanker tanker aircraft
- 5 A330 MRTT tanker aircraft
The exercise probably ended around 00:55 (GMT+1), at which time the E-3F Sentry left its patrol area to return to its Avord airbase. At the time this article was published (03:00 GMT+1), most of the support aircraft - and therefore probably most of the combat aircraft - had also returned to their home base or main base. Only two tankers are still visible but are heading back to their base:
- MARC57 (having changed its call sign to REFU406): the latter is making several holding circles not far from its departure base in Mont-de-Marsan before heading to Istres air base
- METIS405: It is heading for its Istres air base
A unique nuclear triad
France has three nuclear fire projection forces:
- The Strategic Oceanic Force (Force océanique stratégique, FOST), composed of the four Le Triomphant-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SNLEs), all of which are deployed from Ile Longue (Finistère). At least one SNLE is constantly at sea and is ready, on presidential order, to deploy its M51 strategic ballistic missiles.
- The Strategic Air Forces (Forces aériennes stratégiques, FAS), centered around the Rafale fighter jets and A330 MRTT Phénix refueling aircraft and a few KC/C-135FR Stratotankers. These aircraft are deployed from three nuclear air bases: 125 Istres-Le Tubé (Bouches-du-Rhône), 702 Avord (Cher) and 113 Saint-Dizier-Robinson (Haute-Marne). The FAS also has two command centers, located in Taverny (Val-d'Oise) and Lyon (Rhône).
- The Nuclear Naval Aviation Force (Force aéronavale nucléaire, FANu): this is a unique capability in the world because, with the withdrawal of the nuclear capability of the F/A-18F Super Hornet in 2021, the U.S. Navy no longer has a strategic naval air capability. Thus, France is now the only nuclear power with a strategic strike force deployed from an aircraft carrier, namely the Charles de Gaulle. Like the FAS Rafale, the FANu Rafale M can carry an ASMP-A nuclear missile.
It should be noted that, unlike the SNLE, the FAS Rafale and FANu Rafale M have dual capabilities: they can be used to project French nuclear fire but can also be armed to carry out conventional combat missions with conventional munitions.
To conclude, this exercise has no connection with the war in Ukraine: Poker operations are organized four times a year, and the very date of this exercise was known since November 24, when the NOTAM was issued (available below).
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