PARIS – Britain and France today awarded a contract worth some €150 million ($164 million) to Thales, leader of an Anglo-French industrial team that will build two prototype unmanned mine hunting units under the bilateral Maritime Mine Counter Measures project.

Laurent Collet-Billon, head of the Direction Générale de l'Armement procurement office, and his British ministerial counterpart, Harriet Baldwin, handed over the contract to Patrice Caine, Thales chairman, at the Euronaval trade show.

Thales leads a cross-Channel industrial team comprising BAE Systems, respectively British and French partners ASV and ECA, and also European suppliers Saab and Kongsberg. 

The contract is for delivery in 2019 of two identical units of mine-hunting drones, to be deployed from a mother ship or the shore, the DGA said in a statement. The French Navy and the Royal Navy will each receive a prototype for testing.

The trials will be conducted from the shore, with tests from a mother ship to come later, a DGA spokesman said.

The undersea project signaled a determination to pursue close defense cooperation under the Anglo-French 2010 Lancaster House treaty, the procurement chiefs said.

The MMCM deal was "proof of the strategic importance of this bilateral cooperation," Collet Billon said after thanking Baldwin for attending the contract signing. The equipment will be identical, interoperable, and attract interest of other navies, he said. There is an expectation of export potential in the world market, he added.

The contract "signifies not just a leap forward in collaborative programs, but most crucially a strengthening of the bond between our two nations," Baldwin said. The MMCM project was for industry and government "a truly collaborative effort and testament to what we can achieve when we work as one team."

Some 150 British jobs would be sustained by the anti-mine project, she said.

DGA displayed on the defense ministry stand a small scale model of a surface unmanned vehicle from British firm ASV. This small boat will deploy a Thales towed sonar to collect data, while an ECA automated underwater vehicle and Saab remote operated vehicle will also gather information for assessment and destruction of mines.

These elements will form part of the Anglo-French MMCM project, which also contributes to the French SLAM-F anti-mine program, a next generation system intended to replace the existing 11-strong fleet of mine hunters. The French military budget law has noted acquisition of four mother ships for the anti-mine program, which is intended to remove naval crews out of harm's way by relying on undersea and surface drones.

The MMCM contract fulfills a March 3 joint statement made by British and French political leaders at the Anglo-French summit held at Amiens, northern France.