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A tour of the ballistic missile nuclear submarine Redoutable

After 20 years at sea, traversing more than 685,000 nautical miles, the ballistic missile submarine Le Redoutable now rests in a drydock in Cherbourg, France. It is the largest tourable submarine, and one of the only ballistic missile subs accessible to the general public. Here's a full tour.

Geoffrey Morrison Contributor
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
4 min read
Geoffrey Morrison

As a French word, Redoutable is pronounced with little concern for the letters involved. Essentially vocalized as "hoo-doo-tab-leh", it means "formidable," which is as apt a name for a boomer as I've ever heard.

Launched in 1967 and commissioned in 1971, the Redoutablespent 20 years at sea, was home to thousands of sailors (135 at a time), and clocked up nearly 800,000 miles on the odo. Unlike the hunter/killer subs most commonly found as museum ships, the Redoutable is a missile boat, a boomer, its main purpose to hide quietly as a silent threat of nuclear annihilation.

After an extensive refurbishing (and some serious, let's say, "decontenting"), the Redoutable is open to the public. See inside this massive submarine in many pictures and a bunch of words, all in the image gallery below.

A tour of the ballistic missile submarine Redoutable (photos)

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Cherbourg is a gorgeous and quiet French seaside town. Its advanced ports, replete with rail links and dockyards, caught the fancy of none other than Sir Winston and Ike and was a key target for the Allies which aimed its might toward Normandy to breach the Atlantic Wall.

After the war, Cherbourg became known for building ships, and in the 60s, gave birth to France's first nuclear submarine. While other countries were designing fast attack subs to use nuclear power, France started with boomers, ostensibly a deterrent.

Le Redoutable was launched in 1967 and commissioned 4 years later; she was the first of her class, a state-of-the-art war machine designed for stealth.

After 20 years at sea, she was decommissioned. In 2000, the process began to make her a museum ship, to my knowledge, the only missile sub available for tours. The biggest challenge: removing the nuclear reactor.

The hull was split in three pieces: the bow to the reactor area, the reactor area, and everything aft. Though not much larger than a refrigerator, the reactor had extensive lead shielding to protect the crew. So the entire donut of the reactor and pieces, the inner hull, and the outer hull, were all removed completely, then the outer hull was replaced with thin steel plating. From the outside, you can't tell such surgery was performed. From the inside, well, you'll see.

Sitting in its glove-like drydock, there's a certain sadness at seeing such a proud ship out of its element. But the sea is a harsh beast and would have surely been harder on the Redoutable than air.

You start the tour in the engine room, through a purpose-build door in the hulls. You work your way forward, past the hauntingly creepy missile tubes, the bridge, and then the crew decks.

I've been on many submarines, the USS Bowfin, HMS Alliance, and HMAS Ovens, to name three. All have that intense, Das Boot cramped nature to them. There is significantly less of that here. This is a much larger boat than what came before. For comparison, the USS Nautilus, the first combat nuclear sub, was 320 feet long, and 28 feet wide, vs. the Redoutable's 420 and 35 feet, respectively. The difference in being on the Redoutable is like being on a small ship, versus being inside an ornate and tube-filled closet.

Certainly, everything is still compact, but wait 'til you see how big the mess is, or the Officer's Lounge (OK, it's technically their mess, but still...). There are multiple decks, multiple showers (thanks to unlimited fresh water), and more that you just don't see on smaller subs.

Geoffrey Morrison

On an older sub or an attack sub, there are few to no concessions for the human occupants. Space is such a premium that you can never quite escape the feeling of the machine crowding in around you. That's less so with the Redoutable. The hallways are a bit more generous, the rooms a little more spacious.

You don't always see the curve of the hull, or the tubes and conduits that let the machine keep itself moving for a thousands and thousands of leagues at a time (basically until the squishy bits inside run out of food).

The US Navy's current missile subs are the Ohio-class, much larger than the Redoutable, at 560 feet long and 42 wide. I can only imagine what one of them looks like inside. Then there's the "Red October" Typhoon-class Soviet sub, at 574 feet by 75(!) wide. Maybe, sometime after this current crop of boomers is decommissioned, we'll get to tour one of them. If we're not too old....

As well as covering audio and display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers, medieval castles, epic 10,000-mile road trips and more.

Also check out Budget Travel for Dummies, his travel book, and his bestselling sci-fi novel about city-size submarines. You can follow him on Instagram and YouTube