• French President Emmanuel Macron at the launch of the Suffren. Credit: Naval Group
    French President Emmanuel Macron at the launch of the Suffren. Credit: Naval Group

Naval Group has launched the Suffren, the first of six Barracuda class nuclear submarines, in Cherbourg.

The Suffren is the first to replace the Rubis class submarines. Naval Group is the prime contractor of the ship’s architecture and TechnicAtome is the prime contractor for the nuclear reactor. The French Defence Procurement Agency (DGA) is in charge of the overall program, with the Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies Commission (CEA) in the lead for the nuclear reactor.

The submarine is designed and built in Nantes-Indret, Angoulême-Ruelle, Brest and Lorient, with Naval Group's Ollioules site responsible for the design and production of the combat system and a site in Toulon responsible for maintenance.

The entire program is managed from Cherbourg, which is where a number of Australians are based as they work on the design for the RAN's diesel-electic Attack class subs, a Barracuda variant.

“We are proud to have presented to the President of the French Republic the first submarine of the Barracuda class, a symbol of our exceptional know-how and our ability to master the most advanced technologies and the most complex products," Hervé Guillou, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Naval Group, said.

"Now, we are all focused on finalising the Suffren tests at the shipyard, with the start-up of the nuclear boiler room in the coming weeks, but also on producing the complete series. Maintaining our knowledge and adapting to new technologies are among our main priorities.”

According to Naval Group, in-service support was taken into account from the submarine’s design stage to limit the number and duration of interventions and optimise at-sea availability.

The Suffren will be armed with MBDA's naval cruise missiles. It also allows the discreet deployment of special forces or underwater vehicles thanks to a diver's hatch and an optional dry deck shelter.

The new class of submarine have a surface displacement of 4,700 tonnes, a diving displacement of 5,300 tonnes, are 99 metres long, 8.8 metres wide, and carry F21 heavy-weight wire-guided torpedoes, modernised Exocet SM39 anti-ship missiles and cruise missiles, with a crew of 65.

The hybrid propulsion system uses a pressurised water reactor derived from the reactors on board the Triomphant-type SSBN and the Charles-de-Gaulle aircraft carrier, two propulsion turbines, two turbo generators and two electric motors. 

ADM Comment: News that France is set to launch the first nuclear-powered Barracuda submarine has re-invigorated a polarised debate in Australia around whether the country should also have chosen to procure the nuclear variant, rather than the planned diesel-electric submarines.

Some commentators argue it is ironic that Australia is the third-largest exporter of uranium globally but has so far eschewed the 'immense' operational and strategic benefits of nuclear powered submarines. Nuclear power, the argument goes, is reliable, efficient and cost effective, whereas the Attack class suffers from large projected cost and delivery time frames.

These commentators generally do not examine the costs and delivery time frames of setting up a civilian nuclear industry capable of supporting and maintaining nuclear-powered submarines. Whilst this should not prohibit the nuclear option, the 15-20 year lead time required to build a nuclear industry, stand up regulatory authorities, and train the personnel to man nuclear submarines means the ADF will need to complete the Attack class build before transitioning.

This would need to be done in the face of existing crew shortages - remembering that HMAS Perth is currently sitting in dry dock because the RAN can't find a crew - and public opposition to nuclear power plants, which will require political capital to overcome. If RAN already struggles to man its surface ships, it is difficult to imagine how it will train and recruit the 16 crews required to man a fleet of ten SSNs. This fleet size is the minimum required to generate a sustainable number of engineers, technicians, and officers to run both the fleet and a nuclear safety and training organisation capable of meeting international standards.

In short, the nuclear option is likely to suffer the same large project cost and delivery time frames that the Attack class is criticised for. That is not to say it shouldn't be an option altogether: only that the two options are not as mutually exclusive as many assume, and that arguments built on the 'cost efficiency' of nuclear submarines require comprehensive evidence.

More on this will be available in Thursday's edition of Defence Week.

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