BELFAST — Renowned as a supplier of very short-range air defense missiles, the Northern Ireland arm of Thales UK is banking on the growing threat to warships from electro-optically guided weapons to attract an international partner and help it complete development of a laser-powered soft kill system.
Thales executives in Northern Ireland reckon they are about three years away from having a production-ready countermeasures system capable of defeating electro-optically guided missiles.
David Beatty, managing director of the Thales Belfast operation, said British Ministry of Defence funding had dried up, so the company is focusing on the Middle East and Asia for customers and industrial partners. Discussions with potential partners are taking place, he said.
Development of the company’s Lightweight Multirole Missile (LMM) alongside the Starstreak ground-based, very short-range air defense weapon remains the core of Thales Northern Ireland activities. But the naval electro-optic countermeasures system is one of several initiatives being pursued as it seeks to broaden its business base.
Britain’s cash-strapped MoD is unwilling to further fund work on the system, but it has allowed Thales to look for an international partner to help fund a project that not long ago was secret.
Industry sources here said the Thales system likely grew out of a U.K. naval countermeasures program known as the Maritime Integrated Defensive Aids Suite.
The program, which included separate radar and electro-optic technology demonstrator work, was subsequently shelved due to lack of cash.
Thales executives declined to discuss the origins of their system, but told reporters March 21 that the Belfast operation had been working on MoD direct energy, laser and laser countermeasures programs for 25 years.
“They [the MoD] would love to have it, but they just don’t have the money or the priority to take it from advanced prototype to development and manufacture. They are taking a risk; there will be more and more electro-optic guided missiles, that’s for sure,” Beatty said.
Beatty said the countermeasures system had been cleared by the government for promotion to select U.K. allies.
“We have a lot of evidence to show people who are genuinely interested, and some people are starting to come back and say, ‘We would like to know more,’” he said.
Doug Barrie, senior air analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies here, said the launch of the Thales system comes amid a growing threat from electro-optically guided weapons.
“There is an increasing range of small and medium-sized anti-ship weapons becoming available for launch from fast inshore attack craft, helicopters and other platforms. One of the prime countries pursuing weapons development in this area is Iran, using Chinese-based designs,” Barrie said.
The countermeasures system is capable of dazzling, and in some cases destroying, electro-optical systems on weapons or the platforms aiming the missiles. Beatty said the meter-high system can even be used to dazzle people if an eye-safe laser is included.
“The system can use up to four or five lasers as you have to defeat things in different wavebands,” he said. And power requirements are manageable.
“This does not take a power station. High power is required for a fraction of a second. It’s like starting your car; it takes a quick zap to start,” Beatty said.
Countermeasures activity is one of several areas Thales hopes to grow in a Northern Ireland business that became part of a new Thales land and air business unit formed in April.
Thales reckons business has been hit locally by budget problems and globally by a slowdown in air defense purchases — although the latter is now reviving.
That U.K. defense downturn is the primary reason the workforce in Northern Ireland declined from more than 600 people to the current 480.
Sales stand in the 70 million to 80 million pound range ($105.8 million to $121 million), but Beatty said he hopes that figure will rise to more than 100 million pounds on the back of an export drive.
The Thai Army announced a Starstreak deal last November, and Thales executives report other sales prospects.
Thales also is assembling about 400 Next Generation Light Antitank Weapon missiles a month in Northern Ireland as part of a joint venture with Saab.
The company has also secured about 1 million pounds of business from missile maker MBDA for early development work on its Common Anti-air Modular Missile (CAMM), ordered by the Royal Navy for local area air defense. That deal grew out of Team Complex Weapon, the missile partnership Thales and MBDA are involved in with the British government.
Thales could secure a further 8 million pounds of work on the next phase of the CAMM program, and the two companies said in a statement April 5 they were investigating other areas of cooperation.
Belfast’s reputation for low-cost precision engineering has also attracted U.S. space propulsion company Aerojet, which is planning to set up a European space propulsion base in Northern Ireland and has signed a business agreement with Thales to support the work as its primary partner.
But it’s the LMM on which Thales is pinning most of its hopes. The U.K. military has already ordered the weapon for use as an anti-surface missile on Royal Navy AgustaWestland Wildcat helicopters due to enter service in 2015, and overseas interest in the weapon is high, Thales executives said.