LONDON — Thales has signed a 15-year deal with the U.K. to use artificial intelligence and virtual reality to improve maintenance of the Royal Navy’s fleet, the Defence Ministry announced.

The £1.8 billion (U.S. $2.3 billion) contract with the French-based company’s U.K. arm got underway Jan. 1 but was only revealed Feb. 2 during a visit by British Defence Secretary Grant Shapps to the Devonport naval base in southwest England.

The support program will see Thales use data technology, including AI and virtual reality, to provide more proactive and predictive maintenance, replacing a more traditional engineering repair service the company previously ran with the Royal Navy.

Known as the Maritime Sensor Enhancement Team, the effort will see Thales support sonar systems, periscopes, masts and electronic warfare equipment deployed on existing and under-construction vessels across the surface and submarine fleets. In almost all cases, Thales is the original supplier of the equipment.

The contract is part of a wider drive by the Royal Navy to maximize the availability of its fleet during a time of increasing maritime demand in places like the Red Sea.

Thales said the new predictive model is more advantageous than the old approach of reacting when problems emerge.

“Over the life of the contract, it will deliver an average reduction in Turn Around Times of 100 days per repair, spares lead times will be reduced by an average of 44 days and reliability improved by 10%.,” Thales said in a statement.

Alex Cresswell, CEO of Thales UK, said the contract “will help keep more Royal Navy ships at sea for longer, by harnessing the latest developments in artificial intelligence, data analysis and improved dockland facilities.

The contract also involves improvements to waterfront facilities at major naval bases in Devonport and Portsmouth in England; Faslane in Scotland; and in Bahrain where the Royal Navy has a permanent base.

The Defence Ministry announced in November efforts to improve infrastructure at Devonport with £750 million in funding. That district is, among other things, home to Britain’s only nuclear submarine repair facility.

Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.

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