Saffren-class Attack Submarines: The Tip of Spear of French Navy

The first Suffren Class attack submarine has begun sea trials. It represents a step-change for the French Navy, officially known as the Marine Nationale. France already operates a nuclear-only submarine force, which places it on the top tier of world navies. But the current Rubis Class boats are significantly smaller than their U.S. and British counterparts. And they are a generation older. The Suffren should largely close the gap on France’s leading NATO allies.

A variant of Barracuda-class submarine

Suffren is the first of 6 Barracuda type boats for the French Navy. She was laid down in December 2007 and launched in July last year. She successfully completed a static dive test, part of the builder’s trials, on April 28.

At around 5,000 tons surfaced she is about twice the size of the diminutive Rubis class. And larger than any non-nuclear types in service around the world. Yet she is still smaller than either the Royal Navy’s Astute Class (~7,000 tons) and the U.S. Navy’s Virginia Class (~8,000 tons).

One disadvantage of this smaller size is that Suffren can carry fewer weapons. With nuclear-powered attack submarines being an apex predator there is a consideration that they may sink so many enemy warships that they run out of torpedoes. This will be particularly true of the Suffren which carries about the same number of weapons as a non-nuclear submarine. Her maximum load of around 24 weapons is about 60% that of the current Virginia and Astute classes.

The torpedo armament will be very modern however. The brand new F-21 Artemis heavyweight torpedo is derived from the Italian Black Shark type. This has an all-electric propulsion using the latest battery technologies. The boat will also be able to carry the SM-39 Exocet anti-ship missile and the new MdCN (Missile De Croisière Naval) cruise missile.

This latter weapon provides the submarine with a strategic ‘first night’ strike capability, hitting land targets hundreds of miles away. It will be the first time that a French Navy submarine is equipped with land attack cruise missiles.

One interesting feature is that the crew will be much smaller than U.S. and British types. Thanks to increased automation the crew has been reduced from 70 aboard the preceding Rubis class to just 65. This compares to 98 for the Astute Class and 135 aboard a Virginia Class boat. In an age when western submarine forces are struggling to attract and retain submariners the smaller crew may be a blessing. The challenge is whether it is enough people for very long patrols which are normal for larger NATO nuclear-powered attack submarines. More hands reduces crew fatigue and makes it easier to conduct underway repairs.

It’s an interesting experiment and too soon to call. Suffren has room for 15 special forces operatives so their bunks might be sacrificed for extra crew if it doesn’t go to plan.

There is no doubt that the Suffren Class is a thoroughly capable design which brings the French Navy closer to the U.S. and British capabilities. It will add new dimensions to the French Navy and reinforce it place in the top tier of world navies.

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