Key point: Submarines are very useful for power projection and deterrence.
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.