MU90 torpedo (Causa83 / it.wikipedia)
ROME — With a new CEO at the helm, Italian torpedo-maker WASS is testing the waters for closer European cooperation in torpedo work, four years after the abrupt meltdown of its partnership with France’s DCNS and Thales.
“WASS has focused on self-sufficiency while also looking for alternatives, but alternatives did not appear, and we saw it was difficult to remain alone,” said CEO Alessandro Franzoni, adding that he wants to again “consider WASS part of the European scenario.”
Until 2009, WASS, which is a unit of Finmeccanica, worked closely with DCNS and Thales, first on individual programs such as the MU90 light torpedo and the Black Shark heavy torpedo, as well as on ambitious plans to merge into two joint ventures with the underwater units of the two firms, one covering torpedoes and the other acoustic activity.
But a row over control not only ended talks on the joint ventures but also put on hold cooperation on individual programs.
Instead of pushing on with placing the Black Shark — originally an Italian program — on French Navy nuclear subs, the French firms forged a partnership with Germany’s Atlas and are now developing the F21 heavy torpedo, with sea trials underway this year.
But now, Franzoni said WASS is again interested in European tie-ups.
“We are not in negotiation with anyone right now, but a European solution, a consolidation of this industry, is possible,” he said.
Franzoni said he is cautious about teaming WASS with Atlas, claiming they have a large overlap, while the German firm is the only other company already offering a heavy torpedo, the DM2A4. “But imagine what could happen if the two joined forces and coordinated research?” he said.
Franzoni, who took over at WASS in March, has a proven track record at Finmeccanica. He held various posts at Alenia Aermacchi in the past decade and worked on the F-35, C-27J, M-346 and Superjet programs, among others.
As a first step to European rapprochement, Franzoni has already overseen the resurrection of the Eurotorp alliance between WASS, Thales and DCNS, the bedrock of the original Italo-French torpedo alliance, which marketed the MU90 but fell apart along with the greater plans for mergers in 2009.
“Eurotorp had stalled due to the failure of the talks to create two new firms,” Franzoni said. “But we have now agreed to keep it going partly in response to demand from customers, partly because of mid-life upgrade opportunities and partly due to renewed good relations with the French,” he said.
WASS is now working on reducing costs for the ship- and helicopter-launched MU90 and is working on contracts for two Mediterranean navies, thought to be Morocco and Algeria.
Reuniting on the Black Shark looks like a tougher proposition. Under the original partnership, DCNS provided the battery and the torpedo was destined for French subs.
Now, France has teamed with Atlas for its heavy torpedo requirement, although Franzoni said he is still waiting to see concrete results of the alliance.
Meanwhile, WASS has developed its own batteries for the Black Shark, meaning it can do without the original French input.
The firm’s new primary battery — which is a one-time use battery to be used in live firings — is based on aluminum and silver oxide cells first developed by US firm Yardney. When the US discontinued the work, WASS took it over, Franzoni said.
The secondary batteries, which are lithium polymer, rechargeable and used in practice firings, are a step up from the French equivalents, he said. “They are WASS-patented and can be recharged 100 times, compared to 20 times for the French batteries, and they recharge five times faster, which means they can be used more often in training.”
The new batteries will be sea-tested next year and will be used in the Black Shark Advanced torpedo for the Italian Navy. “We want to sign with Italy in 2014 to coincide with the arrival of its new submarines,” said Franzoni, who added he would propose using the new battery technology on the MU90.
Ahead of the Black Shark order for the Italians, WASS is readying an order of 24 torpedoes for a Southeast Asian Navy.
Franzoni said he is aware that potential export nations are increasingly thinking of building their own torpedoes in house instead of buying from firms like WASS. “We need to work with them,” on technology-sharing programs, he said, naming South Korea, India and Turkey as possible targets for dual-development proposals.
Meanwhile, the firm is ramping up its countermeasure systems, which account for 30 percent of revenue against 50 percent for torpedoes. The firm is also working on an unmanned undersea vehicle it says will use the secondary battery and the optical cable developed for the Black Shark and be able to dive 10,000 meters and travel 50 kilometers from the ship controlling it. An autonomous version is also being considered.
“We don’t know of any other [remotely operated vehicle] that can do that while supplying live data,” Franzoni said. “The head of the Italian Navy has said he wants an unmanned undersea vehicle on every new, multipurpose ship he wants to buy, and we also see opportunities in the oil and gas and undersea archeology markets,” he said. ■