Nuclear deterrent, episode 2: the SSBN, a “system of systems”


Designer, prime contractor and whole warship architect for nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) at all stages of the vessel’s lifecycle, DCNS is developing know-how and critical competencies within an economic model that has been shaped by the significant constraints encountered in the field of nuclear deterrent. Discover the second episode of our summary of the study¹ published in October 2016 by the FRS (Foundation for Strategic Research).

The concept for the use of an SSBN is not in any way considered uncertain or called into question. As such, its design and construction requires competencies and industrial infrastructures that are highly specific as a result of the integration of the deterrence weapon system, the expected exceptional performance levels, the most exacting reliability, security and nuclear weapons/reactor safety requirements.

In addition, we must also ensure our capacity to handle small-volume orders, placed discontinuously over time, and the constraints imposed by the secret-defence context. These principles have shaped DCNS’s economic model, which is based on the internal control of the most strategic and sensitive domains and the rigorous management of subcontracting, addressed not only through large industrial groups but also via several hundred SMEs.

Sortie du bassin du SNLE Le Triomphant à Brest le 14/04/2014

Critical know-how and competencies

Within DCNS, around thirty different areas incorporate competencies considered critical, from the design of an SSBN to through-life support, modernisation and dismantling. For example, those linked to the architecture and implementation of the deterrence weapon system, the welding/forming of the steel for the resistant hull, the combat system (sonar, combat management system, stealth, acoustics), nuclear and pyrotechnic safety, without forgetting the control of physical and functional interfaces between the systems.

This criticality is defined by a certain number of factors: technical specificity, difficulty to acquire this through conventional training (initial or continuous), the weight of experience in mastering the competency, the rarity of this mastery (only a few persons possessing this competency and lack of availability on the job market), or strategic importance (close alignment with the company’s core strategies).

For all design, assembly and integration, qualification and testing activities, DCNS capitalises on a pool of specialists present in its teams across the different sites and in its research, certification and testing centres (CETEC, DCNS Research), which are of worldwide renown. However, with an average period of 15 years between each new generation of SSBN, the maintenance and development of these competencies assumes the continuous presence of activities and projects involving these professions, not only in-house but also with specialised subcontractors, to avoid the decline, or even complete loss, of these competencies over time.

A further challenge: supply security

Large industrial groups from the mechanical engineering, electrical and electronics sectors, SMEs of all sizes in both the civil and military domains, merger-acquisition operations… The profile of DCNS’s equipment supply base has changed significantly over the last few years. A reality that has redefined and has perhaps rendered even more complex the management of the Supply Chain to ensure supply security over the long term in the context of the production of such an atypical product as an SSBN.

All these elements, criticality of professions, inter-programme discontinuities, evolution of subcontracting, demonstrate the extent to which an SSBN prime contractor must be capable of bringing together scientific and technical excellence and collective and transversal control, rather than simply assembling areas of expertise. This overarching responsibility is taken on by DCNS and this distinguishes France from other countries.

DCNS prime contractor for 3 generations of SSBNs

  • Dismantling and deconstruction of the 1st-generation SSBNs
  • Through-life support for the 2nd-generation SSBNs currently in operation and their adaptation to the M51 missile
  • Design studies for 3G SSBNs

A unique organisation

An SSBN is a complex system whose efficiency is related to the quality of the integration of the components making up the vessel, the management of the technical interfaces between the main systems and the operational deployment of the deterrence weapon system. These fundamental technical aspects require strong control by the prime contractor, supported by the Cœlacanthe Management Unit (DGA), which manages programmes under the oceanic deterrence component, and industrial project management based on 4 coordinating entities:

  • DCNS (prime contractor and whole warship architect)
  • Areva TA (nuclear reactor)
  • Airbus Safran Launchers (strategic missile)
  • CEA DAM (nuclear warheads and simulation).


♦ Read the first episode, The key to independence