M51 Missile Nears First Test Launch; Will Equip Final SSBN in 2010
(Source: defense-aerospace.com; published Sept. 25, 2006)

By Giovanni de Briganti; © defense-aerospace.com
The French navy’s fourth and final SNLE-NG nuclear missile submarine Le Terrible, which will be the first to be armed with the new M51 missile, seen at DCN’s shipyard in Cherbourg. (Photo © Pierre Julien)
CHERBOURG and BISCARROSSE, France --- France is nearing completion of the development of the M51 submarine-launched ballistic missile, and is on schedule to carry out the first test launch by year-end. In parallel, assembly of the final hull sections of the fourth and final SNLE-NG missile submarine, Le Terrible, is about three-quarters completed, and it will be floated in 2009 in preparation for sea trials, program officials say.

When it enters operational service in July 2010, Le Terrible will be the first to carry the new M51 missile, which offers substantially greater range and accuracy than the current M45, as well as improved survivability and operational flexibility.

The M51 will, in addition, introduce several innovative features including the ability to select the yield of its six nuclear warheads, nominally rated at 150 kilotons each. It also will be possible to detonate the warheads at high altitude, generating an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) that will cripple electronic systems on the ground without unleashing the full destructive effects of a nuclear explosion on the target, the officials said.

These and other aspects of the M51 program were showcased Sept. 18-19 by the French defense procurement agency, Delegation Generale pour l’Armement (DGA), which for the first time allowed access to some of its most closely-guarded installations. These included the Cherbourg shipyard where DCN, the state-owned shipbuilding group, is building Le Terrible, and the Biscarrosse test center where an industry/DGA team is testing the solid-fuel propulsion stages and other components of the M51 missile.

The increased flexibility afforded by the M51 program mirrors a gradual shift in France’s nuclear doctrine, notably announced earlier this year by President Jacques Chirac. The shift includes extending France’s nuclear umbrella over some of its allies and over unspecified “vital national interests,” and expanding the range of situations where France may consider that the use of nuclear weapons is justified. But French officials maintain there is no substantive doctrinal shift. “Our nuclear doctrine remains unchanged; it is simply being adapted to the new international context,” says Brig. Gen. Paul Fouilland, chief of the Nuclear Forces Division at the French defense staff.

Critics, however, worry that the extension of the nuclear umbrella, the fielding of variable-yield warheads and the acknowledgement that the M51 could be used to generate an EMP signals a new willingness to move beyond France’s official policy of “no first strike.” It is to protest against such a perceived shift that Greenpeace and other protest groups unsuccessfully attempted a “citizen’s inspection” of the Biscarrosse center on Sept. 23, claiming that the M51 missile will give France the capability to wage “pre-emptive nuclear war.”

Testing of the M51 missile is gearing up at Biscarrosse, a facility located south of Bordeaux, in south-western France, operated by DGA’s Centre d’Essais de Lancement de Missiles. Since the retirement of the Gymnote, an obsolete submarine used for ballistic missile trials, DGA has developed a comprehensive test infrastructure which includes a submersible rig for ejection trials of inert missiles (located at Toulon, on the Mediterranean coast); firing installations to test missile propulsion stages; a ground launch rig; and a circular pool, 100 meters deep, into which a special rig, comprising an SNLE-NG missile tube and accessories, is submerged for underwater launch tests. The first launch from the submerged rig is planned for late 2008, and a total of ten test launches are planned before the M51 enters operational service.

These new test installations allow significant savings: the ten test launches planned for the M51’s development program, says program manager Col. Jean-Louis Cardamone, are much fewer than the 40 that were necessary to develop the previous generation of M4/M45 missiles. Missile propulsion tests and launches each require between six and 30 months of preparation and between 10,000 and 40,000 man-hours, even though the entire combustion phase only lasts about 60 seconds. This explains the missile’s protracted test schedule and high development costs.

France is investing about 5.7 billion euros to develop the M51 and to upgrade its support installations at the Ile Longue submarine base, near Brest. An additional 2.8 billion euros is being spent to procure three ship-sets of 16 missiles each and a number of spare missiles. Development and production of the warheads and of the SNLE-NG submarines are funded separately.

DGA Gen. Christophe Fournier, head of the Coelacanthe project office which manages the M51, the SNLE-NG and related support programs, says that “costs are closely correlated with the authorized budget envelopes,” implying that the program is on budget without quite saying it.

The French navy’s third SNLE-NG missile submarine, Le Vigilant, seen after final assembly at DCN’s shipyard in Cherbourg. Its pump-jet propulsion system is hidden to protect its design. (French MoD photo)The M51 missile testing installations operated by DGA’s Centre d’Essais de Lancement de Missiles include this ground firing rig for propulsion stages located at Saint Jean d’Illac, near Bordeaux. (Photo Pierre Julien)

Total annual funding for the Coelacanthe project averages 1.5 billion euros, or about half of France’s annual investment in its nuclear forces. The balance goes to fund development of the warheads (about 1 billion euros/year), 60 million euros/year to fund nuclear-related communications, and 390 million euros/year to fund the nuclear forces’ aviation component. Spending on the nuclear forces, notes Fournier, averages less than 10% of France’s defense budget.

Initially, France planned to develop a more capable missile, the M5, but this was cancelled in 1996 for cost reasons. By reducing the M5’s range and accuracy requirements, the M51 program launched in 1998 was able to save about one billion euros without significantly degrading operational effectiveness, says DGA’s Cardamone.

Maintaining the credibility of the missile submarine fleet has been given the highest priority since France in the past decade unilaterally down-sized its nuclear forces, retiring the silo-based S3 ballistic missiles from its Plateau d’Albion base, cancelling the Hades mobile missile and reducing its nuclear warhead holdings. When the current modernization program is completed, the nuclear deterrent will comprise four SNLE-NG submarines, each carrying 16 M51 missiles, and air force and carrier-based Dassault Aviation Rafale F3 nuclear strike aircraft armed with the Air-Sol Moyenne Portée Amélioré (ASMPA) nuclear stand-off missile.

Development of the ASMPA, an improved version of the ASMP which currently equips Mirage 2000N and Super Etendard strike fighters, is also nearing completion, and to date it has successfully made three test firings, the officials said. The ASMPA, which will have a range in excess of 500 km., is due to enter operational service in December 2008, when it will equip a first squadron of Mirage 2000Ns. It will then equip the first operational Rafale F3 squadron in December 2009 and a second Mirage 2000NK3 squadron in September 2010. Also in 2010, the ASMPA will be fielded by a navy carrier-based Rafale F3 squadron which will replace the Super Etendard in the nuclear strike role. When the program is complete, air force and navy Rafale F3s will be France’s only nuclear-capable combat aircraft.

The M51 weighs 54 metric tonnes, or about 50% more than the M45 it will replace; it is 12 meters long and has a diameter of 2.3 meters. It is equipped with electric (instead of hydraulic) nozzle actuators, a celestial navigation system in addition to inertial navigation, a deployable wind shield to ease aerodynamic penetration after launch, and its nose cone and propulsion stages are made of composite carbon-based materials. Range is reportedly closer to 10,000 km. than to 8,000 km.

The initial version (known as M51.1) will carry up to six TN75 nuclear warheads, developed and produced by the Direction des Affaires Militaires of the Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique, the French nuclear authority, as well as unspecified penetration aids. An upgraded version (M51.2), due to enter service in 2015, will be fitted with the new TNO warhead.

EADS Space Transportation, Paris, is prime contractor for the M51 program while G2P, a joint venture between SNPE and Snecma Propulsion Solide, supplies the propulsion stages. Together, these two firms employ about 2,300 people on the M51 program; in all, over 15,000 people are employed on the French military deterrent.

Since EADS is a multinational company with international management, specific safeguards were put in place to ensure that only French nationals are involved in the M51 and other nuclear programs. This entails for example a distinct, all-French line of command connecting the head of EADS Space Transportation’s defense business to EADS Co-Chief Executive Louis Gallois.

Construction of the Le Terrible at Cherbourg is well advanced, with all of the massive hull sections now being assembled from pre-fabricated and fully-equipped “slices” lined up in two parallel assembly halls. Hull sections are mounted on computer-controlled, hydraulically-powered “walkers,” each equipped with four “feet” and a central pedestal, that can maneuver and move the hull sections. Ultimately, the “walkers” will carry the completed submarine onto a lift which will lower it into a dry dock. When the dock is flooded, the submarine will simply float off, avoiding the mechanical stress caused by a traditional launch on a greased slip.

These submarines are much larger than their “Le Redoutable-”class predecessors. They are 138.5 meters long, displace 14,120 metric tons, and have a hull diameter of 12.5 meters. They feature a much lower noise signature, “about one thousandth of that of the previous class of missile submarines,” according to DGA’s Fournier, thanks to major design improvements that include a second, internal hull mounted on shock absorbers, rubber mountings for all vibrating machinery, water cooling for on-board electronics, wide use of composite materials, and a more hydrodynamic shape for better water penetration. It is fitted with a shrouded pump-jet instead of a conventional propeller. DCN officials say both submerged speed (more than 25 kts) and diving depth (well over 300 meters) are much improved over the previous class of French SSBNs, but provide no specifics.

Three SNLE-NG boats (Le Triomphant, Le Téméraire and Le Vigilant) are already operational and carry M45 missiles; they will be retrofitted with the M51 during future scheduled refits, so that by 2015 all four will carry the latest missile. French SSBNs undergo refits every seven years on average.

The total cost of the SNLE-NG program, including R&D and production, is of about 15 billion euros; each boat costs about 2.5 billion euros.

The SNLE-NG program’s prime contractor is DCN, with Thales, Safran and Constructions Industrielles de la Méditerranée (CNIM) as major subcontractors. The K15 nuclear power-plant is supplied by Techicatome, a unit of the French atomic energy commission, CEA.


prev next

Official reports See all