PARIS — France’s Defence Procurement Agency (DGA) awarded Naval Group a contract to build a demonstrator of an unmanned underwater combat vehicle, based on a prototype developed by the company.
The French Armed Forces Ministry is seeking a long-endurance demonstrator with a length of more than 10 meters (33 feet) and weighing more than 10 metric tons, it said in a statement on Jan. 30. The agreement with Naval Group, a French industrial company specializing in naval defense design, will allow for the development of technologies around energy autonomy, sensor integration and autonomous operation.
The drone will have the capacity to be armed, though design specifics will need to be worked out, Naval Group spokesperson Faïza Zaroual told Defense News. Further technology contracts will follow the demonstrator deal, which was signed on Dec. 28 and will run for 24 months, according to the company.
The project will allow France “to evaluate a new naval capability that could provide a medium-term operational response to new areas of conflict and asymmetric combat,” Naval Group said.
The demonstrator will help the French Navy answer questions such as whether underwater drones will be able to defend France’s coasts and detect submarines, Navy Chief of Staff Adm. Nicolas Vaujour told the French senate in November. Unmanned vehicles will increasingly be part of underwater warfare, Navy leaders from the U.S., Italy and India said at the Paris Naval Conference last week.
Initial work on the contract will focus on perfecting the drone’s autonomous decision-making and its ability to navigate in complete safety, the ministry said. Naval Group in 2021 presented a 10-ton ocean-going drone demonstrator developed using its own funds, with Thales as a partner for the sonar and startup Delfox for the autonomous system.
The drone could be used for intelligence gathering or protection and underwater detection for a carrier strike group, surface ships and submarines, a parliamentary defense committee wrote in February last year. Its size means the drone would be able to carry smaller autonomous undersea vehicles, or AUVs, as well as recover them.
European navies are increasingly vigilant about seabed threats since the 2022 attack on the Nord Stream gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea. Competitors are developing seabed warfare capabilities, and the French Navy is working with partners to do the same, Vaujour said at the naval conference.
France has budgeted €5 billion ($5.4 billion) for drones in its 2024-2030 military spending plans, including for autonomous underwater vehicles. The 2024 budget specifically includes €190 million for the development of demonstrators, including an ocean-going unmanned submarine. Zaroual declined to provide the value of the demonstrator contact. A DGA spokesperson wasn’t immediately able to provide the amount.
The French Navy has been testing underwater drones since 2021, including the Hugin offered by Kongsberg and Exail’s seabed mapping drone A18D. Naval Group said it has built up know-how in naval unmanned systems over the past decade, and Zaroual said the design for DGA will be a new demonstrator.
Rudy Ruitenberg is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. He started his career at Bloomberg News and has experience reporting on technology, commodity markets and politics.