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autonomous marine minehunting

Britain and France order autonomous naval minehunters

Image credit: Thales

The UK and France have signed a joint contract with defence firm Thales to build remotely operated marine mine-hunting systems, following successful sea trials.

Mines and improvised explosive devices present a continuing threat to naval forces and commercial shipping, creating a need for new solutions to tackle the problem while minimising the risks to crew members.

Ten years ago, the UK and France signed the historic Lancaster House treaties on defence, security and nuclear cooperation, which established a long-term partnership between the two countries. One fruit of this was the Maritime Mine Counter Measures (MMCM) programme, with the first phase launched in 2015 to demonstrate and qualify the technology.

Now, with French and British sea trials completed, the two countries have agreed to move into the production phase, ordering four systems each for delivery from 2022.

Announcing the new contract, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the UK’s £184m investment “offers a huge leap forward for the Royal Navy’s autonomous capabilities in the detection and defeat of sea mines”.

The subsystems developed for the programme by Thales and its partners (including ECA Group, L3 Harris and Saab) comprise three main elements. An unmanned surface vessel (USV) carrying the necessary equipment will be controlled and operated from a ‘mother ship or base’. Towed sonar is dragged behind the vessel to locate ordnance, while a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) will be used when a mine is located to neutralise the device and prevent its detonation.

The entire system is remotely supervised by operators working from a Portable Operational Centre capable of controlling up to three systems in parallel at sea.

This next-generation capability is designed to potentially replace conventional crewed minehunting vessels - such as the UK’s Hunt and Sandown-class ships - with autonomous systems.

The Royal Navy is regularly called upon to deal with mines and other historic ordnance, such as that left over from the Second World War, in the waters around the UK. In recent times, the Navy has also been involved in minehunting operations across the world, including the Gulf and off Libya.

The contract will support 215 jobs across the UK at Thales sites in Somerset and Plymouth, as well as in the wider supply chain, including L3 Harris in Portsmouth, Stonehaven in Aberdeenshire and Alba Ultrasound in Glasgow.

Alexis Morel, VP Underwater Systems at Thales, commented: “To date, during trials, the MMCM systems and its assets have covered the equivalent of 30,000 soccer fields at sea, sometimes with very rough sea conditions. This is indeed a step change in how navies will be able to respond in the future to vicious threats such as mines and improvised explosive devices at sea.”

First Sea Lord Admiral Tony Radakin said: “I am enormously excited by the potential of the future minehunting capability. This will allow us to deliver minehunting more effectively, more efficiently and more safely and to integrate even more closely with our French counterparts in this important area.”

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