Key point: Paris still wants to remain a major power, which means building deadly submarines. Towards that end, France has launched an impressive new class of nuclear attack submarines.
On July 12, 2019, French president Emmanuel Macron celebrated the imminent launch of France’s first new nuclear-powered submarine in over a decade—the Barracuda-class vessel Suffren. A few weeks later on August 1, the Suffren finally took to the water as its drydock in Cherbourg, France, was flooded. Its newly trained crew is set to commence sea trials early in 2020.
The Suffren is launching years behind schedule, but has come only slightly over budget due to use of a fixed-price contract. In 2025 and 2030, French shipbuilder Naval Group will launch five more Barracudas, replacing all six of France’s original nuclear-powered attack submarines, the Rubis-class, at a total cost of €9.9 billion euros.
Delays in the Suffren’s completion were related to difficulties miniaturizing of the 150-megawatt K15 nuclear reactor, adapted from a type used on the larger Triomphant-class ballistic missile submarine. In addition to taking up less space, these will require refueling at ten-year intervals, instead of the Rubis’ seven-year cycle. That refueling will be cheaper due to the use of civilian-grade fuel.
Nuclear-powered submarines in general can remain submerged underwater virtually indefinitely, and can maintain much higher speeds over unlimited distances than their conventionally-powered (and much cheaper) peers.
Measuring nearly the length of a football field at 99 meters, the 5,300-ton Suffren displaces twice water submerged as the 2,600-ton Rubis, but has a smaller crew complement of sixty to sixty-three. The additional space allows more room for weapons: four torpedo tubes can load twenty spare weapons instead of fourteen, including F21 wire-guided torpedoes and SM39 Exocet missiles with a range of forty-five miles.
Furthermore, each crew member receives an individual bed, instead of having to share hot bunks.
France has traditionally emphasized its attack submarine’s role in protecting its aircraft carrier Clemenceau—the only flat-deck catapult-equipped carriers currently operated by a country besides the United States—as well as its ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), which are the core of France (and thus Europe’s) nuclear deterrence capabilities. For these roles, the ability to detect and engage enemy submarines, without being detected in return are paramount.
In fact, the Barracuda draws on new technologies developed for the Triomphant-class SSBN including an ultra-quiet pump-jet propulsion system instead of a regular propeller, which particularly enables quieter movement at higher speeds. French sources have variously boasted the new sub produces noise one-thousandth as loud as its 1960s-era Redoutable-class ballistic missile submarines, making no more noise than “sea shrimp.” Bear in mind, that in 2009 a French Triomphant submarine collided with a British SSBN, with neither detecting the other prior to impact.
The Barracuda’s Thales sonar suite is also claimed to be ten-times more sensitive than its predecessors. The Suffren’s captain can also spy on the surface using a non-hull penetrating optronic mast that can snap panoramic views of the surface with brief exposure, instead of a traditional periscope.
The Barracudas are also configured to perform new missions the Rubis wasn’t: land-attack and deployment of naval special operations forces.
The former capability comes via new SCALP MdCN naval cruise missiles which can be fired through the submarine’s torpedo tubes to strike land targets over 600 miles away with a thousand-pound warhead. The SCALP, and its British version the Storm Shadow, give European countries stand-off strike capability comparable to the U.S. Navy’s Tomahawk cruise missiles.
The Barracuda also has facilities to accommodate up to twelve naval commandos—and can hump a hangar facility on its bow which could house Swimmer Delivery Vehicles (SDVs), mini-submarines, or other useful gear for clandestine activities along the coastline. This acknowledges the reality that while submarines have seen very little combat since World War II, they have been extensively involved in spy missions and other covert operations.
Incidentally, both the covert-operations and SSBN-escort missions of French nuclear submarines were recently depicted in the French movie The Wolf’s Call, which can be seen on Netflix.
Australia is also set to receive a smaller 4,000-ton diesel-electric variant of the Barracuda, called the Shortfin Barracuda or Attack-class, although disputes over tech-transfers leave the program’s future somewhat uncertain.
The Barracuda’s new capabilities may see attack submarines play a larger role in Paris’s projection of military power in the twenty-first century. The six Barracudas will serve in the French Navy until 2060, while Naval Group switches its focus to building new ballistic missile submarines
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This first appeared in 2019.