PARIS --- France will unveil Suffren, its latest nuclear attack submarine and the lead boat of the new Barracuda-class, during an official ceremony on July 12 at Cherbourg, in Normandy, in the presence of President Emmanuel Macron, government ministers and senior military officials.
However, she will only be floated at an unspecified date in late July, according to officials of Naval Group, her builder, and the Directorate-General of Armaments procurement agency speaking during a July 9 press conference here.
The six Suffren-class boats, as the former Barracuda-class is now known, will replace the earlier Rubis-class, the first of which, FS Saphir, was retired last week at the end of her final cruise. They were built in the 1980s and 1990s.
Displacing 5,300 tonnes submerged, Suffren is exactly twice as big as its Rubis-class predecessors, carries a comparably-sized crew (65 versus 68), and can also accommodate about a dozen commandos which can either swim in and out using the boat’s access hatch or operate a PSM-3G mini-submarine which uses the same hatch to latch onto the boat.
In addition to F21 heavy torpedoes and SM-39 Exocet anti-ship missiles, the Suffren-class boats are also the first French submarines capable of launching the Missile de Croisière Naval (MdCN) cruise missile developed by MBDA for long-distance strikes against land targets.
The new boats are also designed for greater operational availability, and will require changing their nuclear core once every ten years as well as a ten-week maintenance period every year, whereas the Rubis-class boats required two. Suffren is contractually required to be available for 270 days at sea each year.
A special effort was made during design and development to keep the boat’s acoustic signature as low as possible; this was notably achieved by reducing the number of moving parts, notably in the nuclear reactor, and by its pump-jet propulsion combined with improved insulation. Naval Group officials say it will be one of the most silent submarines in the world, and this, combined with its state-of-the-art sonar and passive sensors, will give the Suffren-class boats a “reinforced acoustic superiority.”
Late, but on budget
At its launch, Suffren will be about three years late compared to the initial schedule established in 2006, when the full-scale development contract was awarded to Naval Group. Vincent Martinot-Lagarde, the company’s Suffren program manager, says the delay was caused by the complexity of the design, and to the fact that development was being completed even as construction began. He adds that, with over 800,000 parts, construction and assembly proved longer than originally anticipated.
However, this delay has not resulted in a cost overrun, as often happens when military programs fall behind schedule. “The program’s budget remains €9.1 billion, and includes development, construction of the six boats, initial spares as well as a small number of major components whose long lead times require that they be procured in advance,” said DGA’s Suffren program manager, Ms. Emmanuelle M-T, who declined to provide her last name “by personal choice” – in this writer’s experience, an unprecedented instance of reticence at an on-the-record press conference.
That budget is still valid, she said, but it does not include the cost of infrastructures being built for the new submarines at their two future bases, at Brest and Toulon.
This means that each boat will cost about €1.3 billion, with a similar amount for development costs, making the Suffren-class boats the smallest and least expensive by far of Western nuclear attack submarines.
According to the National Audit Office, the Royal Navy is paying about £1.65 billion (€1.83 billion at today’s exchange rate) for its seventh and final Astute-class boat, which at 7,500 tonnes however displaces half as much again as Suffren.
The US Navy estimates the combined procurement cost of the three Virginia-class boats requested for procurement in FY2020 at $9.274.4 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service, or about $3.1 billion (€2.77 billion) each – about twice the cost of the Suffrens. Like the Astutes, the Virginia-class boats are 1.5 times bigger than Suffren.
Commissioning set for 2021
Once floated at the end of the month, Suffren will be fitted with her nuclear core in September, leading to the start-up of her reactor in December, according to Pascal Lucas, director of nuclear propulsion at the French Atomic Energy Commission, CEA.
She will then undergo shore tests, builder’s sea trials during the spring, followed by weapon system tests and weapon launching trials before being handed over to the French Navy in mid-2020. She will then sail on user’s sea trials followed by a shakedown cruise, leading to her commissioning in early to mid-2021 if everything proceeds nominally.
France has already ordered the first five Suffren-class boats, and the sixth and final one is due to be ordered this year, but DGA’s Ms. Emmanuelle could not say when the contract will be formally signed.
Current plans call for one boat to be delivered every two years, she said, with the first four due for delivery by 2025, which implies the fifth will follow in 2027 and the sixth and final one in 2029. The following five boats will be named Duguay-Trouin, Tourville, De Grasse, Casabianca and Rubis.
These boats are designed for an operational life-cycle of about 30 to 40 years; present plans call for the sixth and final boat to be decommissioned during the 2060s.
The six Suffren-class boats will carry about 20 heavy weapons (F21 heavy wire-guided torpedoes, SM-39 Exocet and MdCN missiles), compared to 14 in the Rubis-class. They are also capable of laying mines and of operating underwater unmanned vehicles.
-- Length: 99 meters
-- Diameter: 8/8 meters
-- Pressurized water reactor; rear X-shaped control surfaces and folding forward ailerons
-- Diving depth: >300 meters (Some sources say >350 meters)
-- Speed: 27 knots submerged
-- Endurance: 70 days
-- Crew: 65 + a dozen commandos
-- Capable of carrying PSM-3G mini-submarine fitted to rear deck aw well as drones.