PARIS — France’s synchronized test firing of naval cruise missiles from a surface ship and a submarine 400 kilometers apart adds a land-attack capability for European navies that may be more difficult for air defenses to counter, analysts told Defense News.

The French frigate Aquitaine and a Suffren-class nuclear-powered attack submarine, sailing near Quimper and Biscarosse, respectively, last week each fired a Missile de Croisière Naval or MdCN that simultaneously hit a target at a military testing site in south-west France, a first for the French Navy.

Coordinated cruise missile strikes could be used to saturate adversary defense systems, raising the chance of a successful hit on defended targets in a high-intensity context, the French Navy said in statement to Defense News. The synchronized double shot of the domestically developed MdCN relied on existing systems and software, the service said.

The French Navy’s coordinated launch from different platforms “is a notable development,” said Nick Childs, senior fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “Being able to carry out strikes from different platforms in different locations at the same time complicates the air-defense challenge for the opponent.”

Whether it’s possible to actually saturate air defenses depends on how many missiles can be launched and the sophistication of the defense, Childs said. He said both France and the U.K. already had the ability to carry out complex strikes through the combination of air-launched missiles and weapons from naval platforms.

The synchronized cruise-missile firing is “something special,” as few navies in Europe perform land strikes, said Sebastian Bruns, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Policy Kiel University (ISPK). He said the exercise is “more of a capability demonstrator,” meant to validate the technology and telegraph the implications to would-be adversaries at the same time.

The political winds surrounding such military capabilities are changing, he added. “Land attack is entering the realm of the imaginable.”

The MdCN is France’s answer to the U.S.-made Tomahawk, and was developed by pan-European missile maker MBDA following a contract in 2006. The naval cruise missile entered service in 2017 and was used operationally by France for the first time in strikes against Syria in 2018.

“This development gives some operational advantage to the French Navy as a single service and more options for French planners,” Childs at the IISS said. “But it is probably not a game-changer in terms of capability.”

The French Navy said it regularly trains on multiple missile launches from different carriers, with trajectory coordination and synchronized missile arrival the most important training goals. Training on joint strikes is also planned with U.S. and U.K. partners, with regular exercises on coordinating trajectories and missile arrivals, according to the Navy.

Missile coordination is an active field of research, and a Google Scholar search for the term finds dozens of studies since 2023, including on neural networks for warhead coordination and ant-colony-based algorithms for missile-flight planning. Of the first 20 studies that show up, 16 are by authors affiliated with Chinese research institutes and companies.

While the U.S. can carry out this type of synchronized firing from different carriers, the U.K. only has this capability on its nuclear-powered attack submarines, according to the French Navy. The U.K.’s Trafalgar-class submarine Triumph fired Tomahawk missiles at Libyan air defenses during Operation Ellamy in 2011.

The U.K. Royal Navy aims to have similar options when its Type-26 frigates enter service with the ability to launch cruise missiles, Childs said. The Navy’s current Type-45 destroyers were originally intended to be fitted with land-attack cruise missiles, but that was never funded, he said.

The long-range capability provided by the MdCN “makes it possible to impose a military threat from the very outset of a crisis, thus influencing the will of competitors,” the French Armed Forces Ministry said in statement last week.

The French naval cruise missile is powered by Safran’s Microturbo TR 50 engine, and has a speed of around 1,000 kilometers per hour and a range of about 1,000 kilometers, according to official data. The 6.5-meter, 1.4-metric ton missile is launched using a first-stage booster that separates before wing deployment, and French submarines can launch the missile from their torpedo tubes in a protective shell that is discarded on breaking the surface.

Firing cruise missiles from a naval platform provides a permanent presence and “undeniable freedom of action” at sea, as there are no diplomatic overflight constraints, the Navy said. The use from a submarine also allows for actions that require greater discretion, it said.

The Netherlands has said it will equip its four current Zeven Provinciën-class frigates with Tomahawk missiles during maintenance in the 2025-2029 period, adding a land deep-strike capability the Dutch navy currently lacks. The Dutch also plan to fit the cruise missiles to their future air-defense frigates and submarines.

Sebastian Sprenger in Cologne, Germany, contributed to this report.

Rudy Ruitenberg is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. He started his career at Bloomberg News and has experience reporting on technology, commodity markets and politics.

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