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A U.S. Aircraft Carrier Was ‘Sunk’ in 2015 by a French Nuclear Submarine

2015 Aircraft Carrier France
071030-N-6074Y-053 PACIFIC OCEAN (Oct. 30, 2007) - USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) conducts rudder checks as part of the ship's Board of Inspection and Survey (INSURV) following a six-month Planned Incremental Availability. All naval vessels are periodically inspected by INSURV to check their material condition and battle readiness. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class M. Jeremie Yoder (RELEASED)

Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) is one of the United States Navy’s most important – and most difficult – operational tasks. As the U.S. Navy continues to prepare itself to address future challenges in an era of renewed great power competition, ASW will no doubt remain an important area of focus. That the U.S. Navy needs to continue to develop its ASW capabilities was made clear when in 2015 a French submarine sank a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier during an exercise.

The French Navy’s first foray into the operation of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs)came in the late 1970s with the launching of the first of its Rubis class SSN. While the French Navy had already been operating nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) for some time, the country’s first SSN would not come until the launch of the lead vessel of Rubis class in 1979.

The Rubis is smaller than most similar vessels in both the U.K.’s Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy, and is able to mount only a modest ammunition load of 14 torpedoes and missiles. In addition to standard 21-inch torpedoes, the Rubis is also capable of firing the Exocet SM39 anti-ship missile. The SM39 has a range of just over 30 miles, and due to the Rubis’ lack of vertical launch tubes is fired as a torpedo, with the missile ejecting and flying towards its target once the munition makes contact with the surface.

France operates a total of six Rubis SSNs. Issues related to high noise levels plagued the first four vessels of the class that France produced before the development of the Améthyste (Amélioration Tactique Hydrodynamique Silence Transmission Ecoute) silencing program, which was incorporated into the design of the fifth and sixth SSNs. The original four were then retrofitted to make use of the system, which also included upgrades to both sonar and electronics systems, between 1989 and 1994.

In 2015, the French Rubis-class submarine Saphir took part in a training exercise with the U.S. Carrier Strike Group 12, which was built around the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier as well as several Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, along with a single Los Angeles-class SSN. The exercise, which took place off the coast of Florida, came as the Carrier Strike Group was set to leave on an operational deployment.

The exercise reportedly took place in two phases, the first of which saw the Saphir integrate with U.S. Navy assets in order to locate an enemy submarine before passing its location on to friendly ASW elements. During the second phase, the Saphir was matched up with U.S. Navy aircraft and tasked with locating the Theodore Roosevelt and maneuvering into position to sink it. During the exercise, the Saphir was able to slip undected through the ranks of the opposing vessels before “sinking” the target aircraft carrier as well as four of its escort ships.

In the immediate aftermath of the exercise, an online French report on the outcome was quickly taken down, and limited information regarding the extent of the Saphir’s victory has emerged. Still, it is an impressive accomplishment from a submarine that is nearly 30 years old, and hinted at some potential shortcomings in the U.S. Navy’s ASW capabilities at the time.

France continues to operate its six Rubis-class submarines, with one of the vessels. In February, the Rubis-class SSN Emeraude completed a patrol in the South China Sea, having transited from France to the Indo-Pacific in September. The Rubis is likely to be replaced in the coming years by France’s new Barracuda-class SSNs.

Written By

Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focusedd on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. TrustbutVerify

    July 5, 2021 at 9:33 am

    You guys keep reporting these exercises that are purposely stacked in favor of the foreign sub we are training with as if they are meaningful.

  2. Philip Spector

    July 5, 2021 at 11:31 am

    I do not believe these war games are stacked! Their intended usage is understand vulnerabilities.

  3. Bill Thompson

    July 5, 2021 at 1:36 pm

    The US military is simply a buyer for defense contractors. That is the priority. Because of that, it’s loaded with inept technology and weapons. The new Ford class aircraft carrier is over budget and way late being launched into service because this $13 billion a piece carrier a) can’t launch planes, b) can’t land planes, c) can’t defend itself. I think the elevator system is also crippled. The USA’s Congress is corrupt to the core. So is it’s military. There is a stealth destroyer that can’t even do a 30 day mission. The new fighter jets are way way overpriced and unable to beat the old F16 in dog fights.

  4. John Dapper

    July 5, 2021 at 3:19 pm

    I served on a destroyer that was part of an ASW group in the 1960s. Six destroyers and an Essex carrier with fixed wing MAD aircraft and helos with dipping sonar. Two of the destroyers had Variable Depth Sonar and most had drone DASH helos. And another two had ASROC. Until the Vietnam War drew too much money, we practiced as a group with a 2 week exercise every month.
    When we acted against diesel electric subs we won every time. But the nuke subs of the time were nearly unstoppable. Their goal was to sink the carrier, and to get credit had to pass under the carrier and fire a rocket. Usually the rocket would go off before anybody got a contact. I think this is where the theory of using subs against subs came from.

  5. Armin

    July 6, 2021 at 12:15 am

    A few years earlier a single lone diesel Dutch stealth sub downed an American carrier plus a few others support ships as well while at full defensive max speed. A feat considered almost impossible at that time. These are good things, as that way we learn where the weaknesses are. The idea that these large carrier groups are invincible is dangerous arrogance, that will lead to massive losses. So it is good they train against highly skilled friendly forces with different material than the US itself has.

    The Dutch did it by listening in on the radio chatter between the aircraft and the carrier tower, and then by a combination of skillful positioning, and a timed sprint and as the Dutch captain said a bit of luck managed to dive under the “ring of steel” (the protection ships) and submerged right in front of the carrier and take the shot. And then the Americans panicked allowing for more open season by the Dutch sub. The result no doubt is that the Americans took counter measures and adjusted training so that kind of attack never can happen. And indeed a few years later the Dutch failed to repeat it and got sunk themselves.

    So I’m sure the Americans will exchange data with the French as well.

  6. Chingon

    September 18, 2021 at 2:07 am

    Sure, I also single handedly sank the entire French Naval Fleet in seconds in a Game called “World of Warships”… Fucking idiots…

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