By Pierre Tran
Paris – France was launching design studies and starting to build first sections of a third-generation nuclear ballistic missile submarine, in a bid to maintain national sovereignty and military independence, the armed forces minister, Florence Parly, said Feb. 19.
A new generation nuclear missile boat signals French ambition to hold firmly to its world military rankings, shared with Britain, China, Russia and the US.
The operational and geopolitical importance can be seen in Parly’s proudly saying Feb. 8 on social media the Emeraude nuclear attack submarine had sailed through the South China Sea, an operation denounced by China as unwarranted intrusion.
“Today, what we are launching in concrete terms are the design studies and general industrial process, procurement, and construction of the most critical parts, as well as the preparation of our industrial capability,” she said at the hydrodynamics center of the Direction Générale de l’Armement procurement office, at Val de Rieu, northern France.
France will look to the four new boats to guarantee a “long-term operational credibility of the ocean-going element of the deterrent,” she said, adding the submarines will replace the Triomphant class of boats without a break in continuity.
The contracts are due to be signed in a few weeks or months, an industry source said.
There will be two prime contractors, with Naval Group as systems architect and building the boat, while TechnicAtome will build the nuclear engine. The DGA will manage the program, along with the CEA alternative energy and atomic energy commission.
The engine will be the K15 engine fitted on the Barracuda nuclear attack submarine, a TechnicAtome spokeswoman said.
The nuclear boiler room on the new boats will form a “link” between the boiler room of less power on the Barracuda and the nuclear boiler rooms – which will be more powerful – on the next-generation aircraft carrier, TechnicAtome said in a briefing note. The new aircraft carrier will be powered by the K22 engine.
Thales will supply a new sonar suite, which will use artificial intelligence and algorithms to handle a vast amount of data, the electronics company said.
The first of the boats will be delivered in 2035, a unit to be delivered every five years, and the fleet operating until 2090, Parly said, adding the submarines will be slightly longer and heavier than the Triomphant boats, and be more silent – no noisier than a shoal of shrimps.
Studies will be conducted for cybersecurity, improved “acoustic discretion,” and to boost the effectiveness of sensors, she said.
First steel is due to be cut in 2023. The new class of submarines will be armed with an updated version of the M51.3 ballistic missile.
Some €4.1 billion ($5 billion) has been voted for funds for payment in the 2021 defense budget for maintaining and renewing the nuclear capability, which includes submarines, ballistic missiles, and the airborne nuclear-tipped missile. That amount is up seven percent from a year ago.
A detailed breakdown of the nuclear weapons budget is classified as top secret.
“It is too early to say what the bill will be,” said an official in the private office of the minister, regional newspaper Ouest France reported, adding that it was “too much” for those who rejected the nuclear deterrence, and “too expensive” as the missiles would only be fired in retaliation to a first strike.
On the planned sonar system, Thales has signed a memorandum of understanding with the DGA for development of a new generation of flank arrays, sonars fitted on the bow, and a towed array based on optical technology, the company said in a Feb. 19 statement.
There will also be equipment including intercept arrays, echo sounders and underwater telephones, the company said. The sonar kit will be a “significant break” from systems in service. The size of the arrays and frequency bands will deliver a higher level of precision in undersea 3D detection in terms of azimuth, elevation and range.
There will be a sensor data processing system, dubbed ALICIA or Analyse, Localisation, Identification Intégrées and Alertes, intended to allow the operator to handle the range and volume of data, and provide decision support, the company said.
The sonar system will be delivered in increments, with the technological building blocks and first versions to be fitted on the Triomphant class from 2025, and on the new-generation boats from 2035.
The new boat will be some 150 meters long, weigh 15,000 tons underwater, and carry a crew of some 100 strong, Naval News website reported. There will be 16 nuclear ballistic missiles, and four tubes for the F21 heavy torpedo and likely, a planned future cruise/anti-ship weapon.
The Téméraire submarine test fired an M51 ballistic missile in June 2020, without a nuclear warhead.
In a few weeks the DGA will mark 60 years since its founding under the then president Charles de Gaulle, Parly said, with the aim to be independent in arms, to give France a voice which would be heard and understood.
This year also marked 50 years since the first sailing of a French nuclear ballistic missile submarine, she added.
“France would not be France without its deterrence,” she said in her concluding remarks. “We reaffirm our determination of independence and sovereignty.”
Graphical Rendering of Next Gen SSBN: Credit: Naval Group