France Just Test Fired A Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile In The Atlantic (Updated)

A U.S. Air Force RC-135S Cobra Ball launch surveillance aircraft took in the test while orbiting over the Caribbean.

byTyler Rogoway|
M51 photo


The French Triomphant class nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) Le Téméraire test-fired an M51 submarine-launched ballistic missile in the Atlantic off of Finistère, France in the early hours of June 12th, 2020. Some sort of a test appeared to be in the works just three days ago when Le Téméraire was spotted sailing out of port with huge test instrumentation masts attached that are commonly fitted to submarines prior to developmental ballistic missile launches. Then, last evening, our good friend @aircraftspots began tracking a U.S. Air Force RC-135S Cobra Ball ballistic missile and rocket tracking aircraft flying out over the Caribbean. Not long after, a French Falcon 50 maritime patrol aircraft showed up in the area, indicating a launch was likely imminent. 

If the launch occurred off France in the Eastern Atlantic, the Cobra Ball was likely involved in tracking the missile's midcourse and possibly its terminal phase to impact. The Falcon 50 may have been up to make sure the termination area was cleared of sea traffic. It's also very possible that the impact or flight termination area was in another region altogether and this is just the vantage point the RC-135S wanted to get of the test. In that case, the presence of the French Falcon 50 maritime patrol jet may have been just a coincidence as they are a common sight in that area

Roughly similar to the U.S. and Royal Navies' UGM-133A Trident II SLBM, albeit with a bit less range, the M51 was just introduced into service in 2010. An enhanced variant, the M51.3 (or version three), is currently in development. It's possible, if not highly probable, that the missile tested was the M51.3. The Triomphant class submarine used for the test is the last of four SSBNs in the French Navy's inventory to be thoroughly refitted to receive the M51. describes the M51.3 as such:

"The work on the third version (M51.3) were launched in 2014. The M51.3 is designed to maintain the capabilities of the ocean component facing the most severe missile defenses, which will enter service in the middle of the next decade [eg, about 2025] when the M51.1 ends it service life. The M51.3 program is a development of a new third stage of the M51 missile (M51.3) for commissioning after 2020, the current stage having continued from the previous generation M45. It will offer on the operational plan for increased performance."

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It would be interesting to know if the Cobra Ball was recording the test on behalf of the French or if it was collecting intelligence on its own. 

Beyond potentially testing France's latest and most advanced SLBM, which will represent the backbone of the country's nuclear deterrent for decades to come, the launch also serves as a reminder to France's potential foes that it possesses an extremely potent second-strike nuclear capability. Each Triumphant class submarine carries 16 SLBMs, each of which is capable of carrying up to six (possibly even ten) multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). 

Update: 10:15 AM EST—

France's Minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, has issued a statement about the test launch, in French.

The statement says, in part:

The missile was tracked throughout its flight phase by radars. The impact zone is located in North Atlantic several hundred kilometers from all sides. This test was carried out without nuclear warhead and in strict compliance with France’s international commitments. This firing validates the operational capacity of the SSBN Le Téméraire’s global weapon system and once again demonstrates the high-tech excellence that French industries are implementing in this area.

The French Navy's Chief of Staff, Admiral Christophe Prazuck, has also Tweeted out a message congratulating the crew of  Le Téméraire, as well as other personnel involved.

In addition to the aircraft monitoring the test, France's Directorate General of Armaments (DGA) says that the French Navy's missile range instrumentation ship Monge was also involved in tracking the M51's flight. Monge was spotted docked in San Juan, Puerto Rico, last month.

We will update this post as more information on the test comes available. 

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