Commissioned on 1 December 1971, she was the first French SNLE (Sous-marin Nucléaire Lanceur d'Engins, "Device-Launching Nuclear Submarine"). She was initially fitted with 16 M1 MSBS (Mer-Sol Balistique Stratégique) submarine-launched ballistic missiles , delivering 450 kilotons at 2,000 kilometres (1,200 mi). In 1974, she was refitted with the M2 missile, and later with the M20, each delivering a one-megatonne warhead at a range over 3,000 kilometres (1,900 mi). Redoutable ("formidable" or "fearsome" in French) was the only ship of her class not to be refitted with the M4 missile.
Redoutable had a 20-year duty history, with 51 patrols of 70 days each, totalling an estimated 90,000 hours of diving and 1.27 million kilometres (790,000 mi) of distance, the equivalent of travelling 32 times around the Earth.
She was decommissioned in 1991. In 2000, she was removed from the water and placed in a purpose-built 136 metres (446 ft) dry dock, and over two years was made into an exhibit. This was a monumental task, the biggest portion of which was removing the nuclear reactor and replacing the midsection with an empty steel tube. In 2002, she opened as a museum ship at the Cité de la Mer naval museum in Cherbourg-Octeville, France, being now the largest submarine open to the public and the only nearly-complete ballistic missile submarine hull open to the public — although several museums display small portions, such as sails and/or parts of rudders from such submarines. Special dinner events for organizations aboard this ship's interior spaces are offered by Cité de la Mer.