Operation Poker, during which the French Air Force showcases its nuclear deterrence capability, is by no means a rare occurrence. Indeed, the simulated nuclear strike on France’s national territory is carried four times a year. However, for the first time ever, the test took place in broad daylight.
The six-hour-long operation across the French territory includes “all phases proper to a deterrent nuclear mission“: a long high-altitude flight with inflight refueling, followed by a very low altitude and high-speed penetration in highly defended areas from both ground-air and air-to-air Anti Access/Area Denial systems, and ending with a precision firing of an ASMP-A missile (obviously without nuclear charge), on a test area of the DGA (the French Defense procurement and technology agency) missile testing center.
The strike test is usually carried out by a Rafale B. However, the Poker exercise involves over 40 aircraft, ranging from Mirage 2000 fighter jets acting as aggressors to the A330 Phénix and C-135 tankers, as well as Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft. Thus, the last part of the exercise at low altitude is usually carried out during the night not to alarm the population and to avoid any disruption from civilian traffic.
However, for the first time since 1964 and the creation of the Strategic Air Forces in charge of nuclear deterrence, this operation was carried out during the day on April 7, 2021. Due to the COVID epidemic, air traffic over the French territory is so low that the military managed to test its capability in broad daylight. To do so, air defense controllers (ATC) coordinated with civilian ATC. “The airmen of Cinq-Mars-la-Pile [where the Air Force’s Detection and Control Center is located – ed. note] have, for more than six hours, done everything they can to ensure flight safety and prevent collisions, whether at high altitude for the gatherings of fighters to their tankers, that at very low altitude where the day’s weather allowed crossings with private aircraft,” explained the French Air Force.