Commando Hubert SDV development + new SWUV


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Oct 31, 2014
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Special Warfare Underwater Vehicle, illustrated article From

The recent revealing of the 'SWU' at Euronaval-2014 prompted me to put together a quick overview of the lesser documented history of French Navy SDVs. Hope it's interesting and sufficiently obscure for this forum. :)


Since WW2 France has always been in the top tier of Naval Special forces adopters and maintained a ‘proper’ SDV capability during the Cold War. Defense budgets and desert distractions contributed to the loss of this capability, but things are looking brighter again for the famous Nageurs de Combat (combat swimmers). France pioneered Swimmer Delivery Vehicle (SDV) technology and adoption and was the first Navy to operate removable Dry Deck Shelters. So it was a major step backwards when they retired the last of the Agosta class submarines in 2001 and with it the world-reaching SDV capability. The SDVs they operated (termed PSM in France) were a well kept secret and they too have been retired.

In their place Commando Hubert (French Special Forces akin to SEALs) and DGSE (equiv. CIA) have leveraged the impressive but inherently more limiting Stidd DPD single-man craft. There’s a lot of good things to say about the Stidd but that is for another time. Let’s just say that they are a quantum leap over the earlier Diver Propulsion Vehicles (DPVs) and can tow a second diver but it is not the same capability as an SDV.

With the future introduction of the Barracuda Class SSNs the French Navy will regain its SDV capability. From the outset the Barracuda are designed to carry a Dry-Deck-Shelter (DDS) behind the sail. This will be larger than previous French ones and incorporate direct access into the hull so that divers can access the chamber whilst it is drained which is a massive operational advantage.

The new SDV for Commando Hubert's next SDV is the ECA SWUV (Special Warfare Underwater Vehicle). The company has some experience in the field as they previously supplied SDVs to French forces but that's not something you can read much about, so perhaps a topic for a future article! Back to the present, the SWUV is some 8.5m (28ft) long and carries six men, making it larger and more capable than previous French types.

The French contribution to post-war special forces technology is often under-appreciated beyond their borders. Largely invisible to the outside world, within the community of Western Naval Special Forces (SEALs, SBS…) Commando Hubert has forged particularly strong links and had a two-way exchange of ideas and tactics. This history is broadly relevant to both American and British Special Forces buffs. Here we will deal mainly with the personalities and underwater vehicles.

The pioneers included the Famous Jacques Cousteau who played a part in the development and promotion of air SCUBA gear (invented after the rebreather!) and then of underwater vehicles in the 1950s. He enjoyed a degree of international fame and is remembered for lots of diving related things but perhaps less well known is that his organisation, GERS, developed the military application of one-man diver propulsion devices which he termed Tracteurs. Less famous that Cousteau was Dimitri Rebikoffwho was a contemporary who developed his own line of underwater scooters which are generally known as the Pegasus family. Rebikoff’s designs had a much greater influence on the SEALs and SBS than Cousteau’s. an under-recognized hero. Coming years after Cousteau and Rebikoff, Jean C Havas developed a long line of SDVs from the late 1960s. Switching to the secretive military market soon after starting Havas never enjoyed the limelight of the other two.


Left: Cousteau's tracteurs being demonstrated in a civilian setting. Middle: Rebikoff's Pegasus. This one is in the UDT/SEAL Museum. Right: An early Havas craft, again in a civilian setting.

When it came to equipping the Commando Hubert's Nageurs de Combat GER was an official government organization and so had an advantage. The first underwater vehicles used by Commando Hubert were the TSM (Tracteur Sous-Marins) which was a GER trateur with basic navigation aids and a large detachable anti-ship mine carried on the nose.


TSMs in use. The difficulty of keeping formation and navigating in the dark can easily be imagined

Mind your French!

  • Nageurs de Combat = combat swimmers / frogmen
  • Sous-marins = submarine
  • TSM = Tracteur Sous-marins = diver propulsion vehicle (DPV) which tows the driver
  • PSM = Propulsor Sous-marins = SDV
  • Valise = suitcase = Dry Deck Shelter (DDS)
  • Kiosk = submarine sail (/fin)

The limitations of single-diver vehicles were self-evident and the follow-on design was to be a two-man craft in the chariot style. The PSM (Propulsor-Sous-marins)Vostock was a uniquely French design broadly equivalent to the Italian made Cos.Mo.S CE2F Chariots. The hull was a streamlined fibreglass construction with the two crew sitting in a cockpit near the front. In a hint to the future there was a transparent perspex water-shield and canopy but it provided limited visibility forwards. Diving at night or in murky waters there wasn't much to see out the front anyway.

One of the limitations of operating the Vostock was that French Navy submarines were not equipped to carry them. This was at a time when only the USN and Italians (very secretive!) among major navies had an operational way of attaching SDVs. Mid-tier navies tended to simply lash them onto the outside but this had serious limitations. So the French invented a detachable hangar which can be flooded or drained whilst the submarine is submerged, allowing it to operate underwater. The French called this a valise meaning 'suitcase', but we know it today as a Dry Deck Shelter (DDS). The French were about ten years ahead of the USN in this regard. The early shelters were significantly smaller and less sophisticated than their USN equivalents but that's part of being first.

Early prototype DDS, mid-1970s

Agosta Class SSKwith DDS and representative SDV highlighted behind the 'kiosk' (sail). Note that the divers have to exit from the main lock-out chamber forward (also highlighted) and swim aft to access the DDS

The Vostock and TSM served alongside each other for many years. In the meantime SDV technology was advancing and the craft were getting old. The Vostock-NG was a rebuild of some of the earlier Vostocks.

Eventually the Vostock-NGs got old too and the Agosta class SSKsused to transport them were retired, and the capability was wound down. The current SDV is the US made Stidd-DPD.
The new SWUV design is much larger than the previous types and noticeably longer than the SEAL's SDV Mk.VIII, making it too large for existing DDS':

Other designs

To meet the new requirement several French firms have been competing and collaborating in designing the next generation PSM. The basic specification laid out to them is clear - a six to eight person wet-sub with sonar broadly in line with the USN'sSDV Mk.VIII. Three designs have recently emerged, all bearing an uncanny resemblance to each other and to the Mk.VIII:
The Alcen Group advertise this eight man design. Note the black hole on the side of the nose which is a horizontal thruster, and the folding mast:

Submarine builder DCNS have unveiled their SMX-Ocean export submarine which is essentially a diesel-electric version of the nuclear-powered Barracuda design. The marketing emphasizes its versatility which includes a DDS. The SDV shown differs from the other two designs described but is broadly equivalent. Again, note the holes at the side and top of the nose for thrusters.


*The holes at the back may indicate diesel propulsion

The DCNS materials also show how the casing below and behind the DDS can be used to stow special forces kit and as a lurk and exit route for divers:


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Many thanks and a warm welcome !
Great post with great artwork and due to the latest events at the Swedish shores,
this quite neglected theme has come somewhat more to attention.
Maybe (and hopefully) it even could help to bolster success for your coming book ! ;)


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Sep 8, 2006
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Rather frivolous point but I believe the left and right hand pictures in the third block down are not a Jacque Cousteau demonstration, but out of the James Bond film Thunderball.


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Oct 31, 2014
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JohnR said:
Rather frivolous point but I believe the left and right hand pictures in the third block down are not a Jacque Cousteau demonstration, but out of the James Bond film Thunderball.
ha, it does look that way.

Sorry, most definitely isCousteau tracteurs on the left and a Havas Mk.I on the right.

Basic Tracteur without mine fittings etc:

Havas Mk.I (civilian model before military SDVs)

Thunderball film props made especially for the movie:

Thunderball was not entirely popular with Special Forces because it created unrealistic expectations among senior planners.

It wasn't just civilian types that were panted bright colors like that though. Yellow and orange made it easy to find if you misplace it underwater (common!), and easier for the safety boat to follow you during training.

I tracked down a long lost secret British SBS craft gathering dust in storage at a museum.... a fascinating and unique craft but it doesn't look very menacing simply because it is painted in high visibility yellow! UDT (Underwater Demolition Teams) and SEALs did the same thing, it was only about 1970s that 'tactical' colors became the norm in UK and US.

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