Submarines: Tripping On Some Trash



February 11, 2009: The lead ship of the French Le Triomphant class SSBNs (ballistic missile nuclear submarines) had a little accident. Earlier this month, Le Triomphant submerged near the port of Brest, and promptly clipped something near where the bottom should not be. The uncharted object was apparently a shipping container, and it damaged the sonar dome on the front of the boat. The Le Triomphant surfaced and returned to port for repairs. The damage was light and there were no injuries to the crew. Uncharted underwater obstacles like this are increasingly common, especially around busy shipping lanes and ports. Brest is a port that frequently hosts container ships that sometimes come in through nasty weather, which often results in containers being blown overboard.

Last year, France launched the fourth (and last) of its new Le Triomphant class SSBNs, the "Le Terrible". This boat will enter service next year. The Le Triomphant class boats displace 12,600 tons, have a crew of 101 and carry 16 M51 ballistic missiles (weighing 56 tons each, carrying six warheads and with a range of 10,000 kilometers). The other three Triomphants, already in service, carry the older M45 missile (weighing 35 tons each, carrying six warheads and with a range of 6,000 kilometers). These boats will get the M51 after the "Le Terrible" enters service. The Triomphants replace the six SSBNs of the Redoutable class, 9,000 ton boats that entered service in 1971 and were retired in 1991. Each of these boats carried sixteen of the shorter range (5,000 kilometers) M4 missiles.

The French Navy announced that it always has two SSBNs available for duty, so that if one is unexpectedly put out of service, another is available to go out on patrol. Sea based, nuclear armed missiles are a deterrent to other nuclear nations only if you have one of your SSBNs at sea at all times.
Then, on February 15th, the French and British navies announced that two of their SSBNs, one of them the Le Triomphant,  had collided with each other on February 4th. The French decided to try and come up with a cover story, but the British decided not to, and thus both navies were forced to come clean. How two SSBNs could bump into each other in such a large ocean, is to be the subject of a  joint investigation by the two nations.


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