The inner workings of a submarine

There is a school of thought that says that, when it comes to the maritime realm, everything that is not a submarine is simply a target waiting to be sunk.

Now it’s obviously not as simple as all that and this writer would never pin his colours to the mast in such a decisive action. Although, come to think of it, he does and he just did.

But these things are pretty difficult as a jobbing hack to board or embark on at the best of times so when the chance came to join a group of fellow scribblers to see the innermost workings of a real one, it wasn’t hard to drop the laptop, ignore the emails and pretend to be an ancient submariner for a day.

The venue was to be Toulon, where the Marine Nationale’s Améthyste is currently undergoing a life-extension programme. These boats weigh in at around 2500t, give or take a little depending on whether submerged or on the surface, and are the smallest nuclear attack submarines in the world.

Like all military and defence industry sites, security was tight, even more so given nuclear signs dotted around the area. One picture was permitted, so one picture was all we took.


The Améthyste had more scaffolding over her than a Chiswick terrace

Roughly one million man hours will go into the overhaul with maintenance crew working in shifts for 24 hours a day, five days a week. This will be the last of the major overhaul the boat will undergo, before decommissioning in 2027.

Four ‘soft’ patches are built into the submarines hull in order to allow easier access through hull and into the interior. Given how tight it is down the conning tower and tiny corridors leading from for’ard, past the nuclear reactor housing and the steam generation plant ending at the propeller shafts, this simple bit of engineering goes a long way in making a complex scenario less difficult than it already is.

Quill managed to grab some comments from the head of the team working on the submarine, who we will call Thiebault, saying of his charge that despite its age, it was a ‘really impressive design’.

‘Major overhauls are performed roughly around every 11 years. We remove all the equipment, which is then sent away for testing, check the hull and refuel the reactor,’ he said, wearing the boiler suit and easy manner of a seasoned naval maintainer.

‘Our job is to design and maintain but also respond to the needs of our international clients. [DCNS] is paid on the basis of submarine availability, it is not so easy to improve [given the age of the vessel and standards reached already] but we will try and succeed.’

The maintenance programme is awarded by the French government to DCNS in a five-year set contracts which in theory is examined each time the awarding process comes around. However given the amount of planning that goes into organising such a routine for a fleet of submarines, it would be difficult not to award repeat or rolling deals given the risks of loss of capability.

Naval officials during a pre-tour briefing spoke highly of the maintenance programme, saying that they maintain 3.6 boats at sea from the six strong fleet, better than the UK’s Royal Navy although some concession in mission duration was given.

‘We cannot deploy for eight months [like the UK] but we produce more time of availability,’ said one officer. ‘Other European SSK [conventionally-powered] operators are finding it difficult, struggling to put submarines to sea.’

The Améthyste is of course one of the Rubis class of SSKs operating with the Marine Nationale and these ageing vessels are due to be replaced by the Barracuda boats from 2018. The new boats, roughly twice the weight and significantly larger and more capable, will run the same maintenance schedule as their predecessors.

This system roughly means a complex overhaul lasting 16-18 months every ten years while between such programmes routine maintenance is conducted after every four month deployment, lasting for around five weeks.

Simulating success and journalistic failure

Near the site too was the simulation training centre where all the French submariners are put through their paces. So were the hacks who, in teams of four or five, were put through their paces in the navigation and control centre.


A still image taken straight from the minds eye of this writer during simulated navigation trials

One group performed particularly well, managing to send the simulated boat diving to crush depth, the lights turning red and klaxons blaring as our damage control team reacted to the situation as a toddler does to a keyboard – all smashing buttons and smiling faces. Our claim to have turned it around with an emergency main ballast blow was met with short shrift by the stony faced instructor.

For the amateurs it’s a bit of fun but professionals rightly take it deadly serious. The failure rate for recruits when on their designated programme is around 10-15% officials revealed, although some of those are moved into other roles onboard and continue training.

The facility is constantly being upgraded with a variety of new simulators and ready rooms being added. This is required because according to one industrial official, ‘it is difficult to test floods and fires [on a submarine] in the real world’.

Three simulators perform diving safety and platform management, two focus on tactical combat simulations and a further two being dedicated to the nuclear plant. The intention is to procure additional 3D simulators to assist in recruit training.

Dread noughts and crosses

While we are on the subject of submarines, the UK recently decided that the planned Successor SSBNs will likely be nom-de-guerred as the Dreadnought class, with the first boat due to take up that name.


A small image of an absolutely massive submarine

Now we all like a good Dreadnought. Indeed the name is one of the most famous in the Royal Navy after the vessel that made one class of warship obsolete upon entering service in 1906 and introducing an entirely new one. The name has been part of English/British naval lore for either 370 or 470 years, depending on how you classify these things.

However ship names run in cycles and given the immense number of vessels the service used to have, compared to today, there probably should have been a bit more time between the last Dreadnought (and first UK SSN) leaving service in 1980 and the (in more ways than one) successor. What’s wrong with calling them B boats, with names like Birkenhead, Blackburn and Blencathra?

Worth a shot.


  • Interesting ship names starting with B are Barham, Belfast , Bellerophon, Bellona, Black prince, Blake, Britannia.
    But I have a feeling this time it wont be a B or even a D class name and it will just be famous names eg Ark Royal but maybe Duke of Edinburgh.


  • You have clearly never been to Birkenhead or Blackburn! With an ever decreasing fleet, reusing the most famous and historic names is all the more important for profile and morale. I for one is delighted that RN finally broken free from ‘letter’ submarine classes. We need to maximise the use of the stupendous ‘back catalogue’ of names we have


    • Happy to say that I have indeed been to Birkenhead and Blackburn many times, great towns both. I do fear that you might be right about the (future) name choices.

      Very interesting and sad tale about HMS Birkenhead, worth a quick search if you’ve got five minutes.


  • Two things that influence sub naming committees: first, for SSNs they tend to favour names with a history of use in the RN submarine service already, hence names like Ambush have been used instead of the very popular and hoped-for Agamemnon. Second, SSBN names tend to favour the use of former battleship names. While Dreadnought ticks that box, I agree that it’s too soon and that the name has become associated with a game-changer which Successor is definitely not. Also, there’s lots of cruiser names in the suggestions offered here, including a few with unfortunate histories such as Black Prince who stumbled into the High Sea Fleet during the night following Jutland and was destroyed with all hands. Would not be very good PR for the navy if that one was used.


    • Thanks for the comment and nice avatar, that show scared me something silly way back when.

      It’s an interesting point you’ve raised too, as to whether a vessel that met an unfortunate or catastrophic end should have its name consigned to memory or the history books. I could understand arguments on both sides, were they made.


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