Testing the Tech: An autonomous underwater vehicle is seen in the French Sterenn Du technology demonstrator, which itself has operated under full automation and remote control. (A.Monot Marine Nationale)
PARIS — Editor’s note: This article corrects a reference to the company teaming arrangements as confirmed by the BAE spokeswoman.
Two industrial consortiums are competing for a contract worth £10 million (US $16.9 million) to study how unmanned underwater vehicles can fight sea mines, three industry executives said.
The UK arm of German group Atlas Elektronik and French company iXBlue have teamed up to bid, while British BAE Systems, and French firms DCNS, ECA and Thales have formed the competing group, two executives said.
A selection is due this year for a study to develop an unmanned system that the British and French navies plan to put through trials. A single system is intended to “confirm an interoperability,” an executive said. The authorities launched the tender in March.
“The UK and France are collaborating to build an unmanned underwater mine-clearing system that will allow our navies to deploy more flexibly and rapidly to counter mine threats at sea,” a UK MoD spokeswoman said. “The program is at an early stage and is commercially sensitive, but we can confirm that there are two consortia competing at this time.”
A BAE spokeswoman confirmed the company’s teaming with DCNS, and the British and French arms of Thales. The contract seeks a demonstration project to prove the capability rather than design of a production standard system, she said.
ECA would be a supplier but not a consortium member, said the spokeswoman.
The companies declined to comment on the tender. An Atlas UK executive said the contract talks are at a “critical stage.” iXBlue failed to return calls.
The system would be part of the cooperative Maritime Mine Counter Measure, as announced at the Jan. 31 Anglo-French summit. One defense agreement reached at the summit was “a £10 million contract for the development of underwater vehicles capable of finding and neutralizing seabed mines,” the British government said.
Besides the operational stakes, the project would allow development of industrial know-how in undersea detection and robotics, the French Defense Ministry said.
There are three key missions for the anti-mine capability, French Navy spokesman Capt. Philippe Ebanga said:
■ Clear the approach for the nuclear missile submarines based at Brest, northern France, and the nuclear attack submarines at Toulon, in the south. These are the two main naval bases.
The Mistral-class helicopter carriers, aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle and frigates are also based at Toulon.
■ Clear mines on deployments such as the Libya campaign.
■ Clear the waters around large commercial ports such as Marseilles, Le Havre, Saint-Nazaire and Bordeaux. These sites handle container ships and oil tankers.
Apart from the tender, the Direction Générale de l’Armement procurement office and the French Navy have since 2011 backed sea trials of vehicles in feasibility studies with the project name Espadon, or Swordfish.
For the studies, DCNS supplied a mother ship named Sterenn Du, or Black Star in the Breton language. Thales delivered the mission systems, while ECA shipped the autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) deployed by the mother ship.
The Sterenn Du is a technology demonstrator used to test the AUVs, and is not the design of the future vessel, according to the January edition of the Col Bleu Navy magazine. A feasibility study for the AUV is due in 2014, with production due around 2020-2023, the magazine said.
The Sterenn Du is a surface vehicle that has worked under full automation and remote control in the trials, the Defense Ministry said on its website. The ship deploys the AUVs to detect, identify and classify mines.
ECA also supplies remotely operated vehicles such as a mine killer named K-Ster, which competes with the Atlas Sea Fox, an ECA executive said.
The K-Ster carries a relatively light explosive charge of 3 to 4 kilos compared with 100 kilos on older, larger vehicles. The vehicle is wire-guided to a mine and detonated from a safe distance.
BAE has pursued development of its Talisman AUV, but ceased work several years ago. The company continues to offer the Archerfish mine neutralization system, which can be launched from unmanned underwater vehicles.
Britain’s Royal Navy, meanwhile, is pursuing near-term options to further develop remote minehunting capabilities.
The Navy’s Maritime Autonomous Systems Trial Team recently began testing an Atlas remote combined influence minesweeping system with the goal of installing the capability on one of its Hunt-class warships in the next couple of years.
The high-speed boat is being operated with a small crew, but the Navy intends to test the system under remote control. The motorboat, which the Navy calls Hazard, will automatically launch and recover systems such as Kongsberg’s torpedo-sized Remus AUV while mine warfare personnel work on a mother ship some distance away.
Other European navies are moving down a similar path. The German Navy is looking for a long-range AUV.
While the Federal Office of Bundeswehr Equipment, Information Technology and Service Support has issued a letter of intent for a European tender, it is not clear when a competition will be launched.
One of the AUV requirements is an operational capability for about 20 hours, an official at the Federal Office of Bundeswehr Equipment, Information Technology and Service Support said.
The German Navy has a program to replace outdated Pinguin B3 systems in service on its Frankenthal-class minehunting ships with the Sea Fox, which is also on duty on Kulmbach-class warships.
The European Defence Agency also has pursued mine countermeasure capabilities through a project launched in 2008.
Andrew Chuter in London, Julian Hale in Brussels and Albrecht Müller in Bonn contributed to this report.