8 February 2017
The peninsula L’Ile Longue on the west coast of France is home to one the country’s largest military bases, where a fleet of four nuclear submarines capable of launching long-range missiles are based.
A 140-metre long, black submarine named “The Vigilant” sits in a dry dock as one of its sister ships patrols the seas in secret. It weighs 14,000 tonnes, the equivalent of two Eiffel Towers, and carries 16 missiles which can reach a range of 8,000 kilometres (5,000 miles).
“For a launch, the commander and the chief of missiles service would be here and in the other post you’d find the second in command and the deputy chief of missiles. On these consoles the commander will input the codes received from the president of the republic which will allow for the firing to be authorised but also give the precise target data of those strikes to the missile,” French Navy Lieutenant Arnaud said on Thursday (February 2).
The four submarines take turns in stints of two and a half months at sea on patrol. The missions are kept secret even to most of the 111 strong crew.
Crews regularly train in engaging fire, a strong message that French naval forces are ready to retaliate in case of an attack on France’s vital interests.
“The aim is to go through the firing process until the irreversible actions are ready – so we’re not launching any missiles but the computing elements and all the procedures on the missiles and tubes are in action, allowing us to see that everything is working properly,” Lieutenant Arnaud told Reuters.
Beyond the capacity to launch missiles, the crucial aspect for submariners is to stay as discreet as possible while at sea and be able to listen to what’s around them.
Three submariners spend their time doing just that, with the help of some 1,000 microphones on the ship which scan the surrounding activity. The difficulty is deciphering the various sources of noise and building an accurate picture of what is happening, such as the activity of a threatening warship.
Submarines attract more and more women, such as Marie who is finalising her training as a mechanic at Brest’s naval school.
“The technical side of the submarine is something we find appealing but also the team spirit, living closely together and discovering a world which today is still dominated by men,” she said.
France’s Strategic Oceanic Force has a total of 4,000 crew, including 1,500 sea-bound submariners.