France cuts two nuclear-powered submarines in half to build a new one

The French submarine Saphir is seen in this file photo from August 15, 2004.

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An intense 14-hour accidental fire on the Perle attack submarine while it was in dry dock for repairs last June rendered the bow section of the boat unusable, according to the French Defense Ministry. It sustained structural damage to steel components which could not be repaired.

But the rear half of the 73-meter-long submarine, which has a displacement of 2,600 tons, was not damaged in a fire at a shipyard in Toulon, southern France.

Fortunately for the French navy, one of the Perle’s sister ships, the Saphir, retired from service in 2019, was awaiting dismantling in a shipyard in the northwest port of Cherbourg.

The forward section of the Saphir was structurally sound, and French officials determined that it could be mated with the stern of the Perle to make a usable attack submarine.

The damaged Perle was moved from Toulon to Cherbourg on a semi-submersible vessel in December.
Workers cut the Perle in half in February and did the same with the Saphir in March, according to a press release from French shipbuilder Naval Group.

Earlier this month, the rear half of the Perle and the front half of the Saphir were placed on “walkers” at the Cherbourg shipyard so that they could be carefully aligned and then welded together, the Naval Group statement said.

Naval Group spokeswoman Klara Nadaradjane said the association work will be completed in the coming months.

The resulting submarine, which will always be called the Pearl, will be about four and a half feet (1.4 meters) longer than either of its predecessors to accommodate a “junction zone” while the miles of cables and pipes running through it the submarine will be spliced ​​together, according to the release.

The staging area will also provide room for new living quarters, adding some space for the crew of 70 submariners.

Numerical modeling

All of this work will be repeated using a three-dimensional digital model before being attempted aboard the submarine, Naval Group said.

The task involves 100,000 hours of engineering studies and 250,000 hours of industrial labor by 300 people, he said.

Nadaradjane said industry regulations did not allow the company to give a cost for the operation.

The Perle, commissioned in 1993, was the most recent of the French fleet’s six Ruby-class nuclear submarines. The Saphir, the second boat in the class, entered service in 1984, 35 years before decommissioning.

The French submarine Saphir is seen in this file photo from August 15, 2004.

The Rubis-class submarines are expected to be replaced in the coming years by the new Barracuda nuclear submarines, the first of which, the Suffren, was delivered to the French navy in November. But the sixth Barracuda submarine is not expected to join the fleet until 2030, so the half-and-half Perle will be needed to keep the French attack sub-numbers at the required six, according to Naval Group.

Franck Ferrer, director of programs in the Services division of Naval Group, said in January that the new Perle was due to be brought back to Toulon at the end of this year for more technical work and upgrades to its combat systems before d ” enter the French fleet in early 2023.

“Carrying out this type of project under these circumstances, that is to say repair work which consists of joining the fore and aft ends of two twin ships, is of course a first in the modern history of Naval Group. Said Ferrer.

Modern underwater construction

But it is not the first of its kind.

“The US Navy did something similar by replacing the bow of the damaged USS San Francisco, which ran aground on a seamount near Guam in 2005, with the bow of the USS Honolulu, which was to be withdrawn, ”said Thomas Shugart, a former US Navy attack submarine commander.

And those kind of repairs beat from scratch, he said.

“Sure, that would be a lot of work, but probably a lot less than building a whole new submarine,” said Shugart, now a member of the Center for New American Security.

Shugart said the current construction of the submarines is essentially doing what the French are currently doing in the Cherbourg shipyard.

“All US new build submarines are now built using modular construction, which is basically putting pieces of submarines together, although clearly in a more planned fashion than in the case of this repaired French submarine.” , did he declare.

The Pearl’s rebirth is certainly a better outcome than that experienced by another fire-damaged submarine, the USS Miami.

Burned down by a disgruntled shipyard worker while undergoing repairs in Portsmouth, Maine in 2012, the Miami was said to have been too expensive to put back into service and was scrapped.

Last year, a US Navy surface ship, the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard, was damaged by fire while undergoing modernization in San Diego. After determining that it would take up to $ 3.2 billion and up to seven years to repair it, the Navy ordered the scrapping of the Bonhomme Richard in November.

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