By Pierre Tran
Paris. The European arms procurement agency signed Nov. 16 a contract worth some €300 million ($358 million) with Thales to build an unmanned surface and underwater minehunter system for the British and French navies, a source close to the deal said Nov. 27.
A production deal for an operational system, dubbed Maritime Mine Counter Measure, was seen as giving the British and French partners an edge in a highly competitive world market, with US industry the closest competitor.
The British part of the program was worth £184 million, the UK ministry of defense said in a Nov. 26 statement. That will cover four systems and service.
The overall value of the order was some €300 million, with the French part making up the rest, the source said.
The French armed forces minister, Florence Parly, said Nov. 26 the MMCM deal marked close ties between Britain and France fostered by the Lancaster House defense treaty signed 10 years ago.
“So, we are proud, with secretary (Ben) Wallace, to announce today, before the community of the Franco-British Council, the signing, which took place November 16, of a production contract for the Franco-British minehunter program,” she said at the opening of the virtual meeting of the high-level defense council.
The MMCM deal directly supported the French deterrence and helped “guarantee our sovereignty,” she said. “The proof, if any were needed, that combining our forces does not threaten our independence.”
Minehunters played a vital role in clearing the waters for the nuclear ballistic missile submarine and aircraft carrier, as well protecting ports, deployment of the naval task force, and sweeping contested waters, the French defense ministry said in a statement.
The MMCM unmanned system will eventually replace the present fleet of minehunters sailed by the Royal Navy and the French sister service.
France made an initial order for three systems, with the fourth to be placed next year. The latter order will be for the prototype with upgrades, including doubling the depth of an undersea drone to 200 meters.
The MMCM phase 2 order comprised eight systems, equally split between France and the UK, and followed a phase 1 2015 development contract worth €165 million. BAE Systems had been a partner on the initial deal but left in 2016.
Thales was prime contractor, with ECA, Kongsberg, L3 Harris, and Saab among subcontractors on the development contract. Thales signed the phase 2 contract with the European procurement agency Organisation Conjointe de Coopération en matière d’Armement (OCCAr).
Thales designed the system and will supply its SAMDIS sonar, the company said in a statement.
An MMCM system can cover an area as large as 30,000 football grounds and detect threats as small as a credit card, Alexis Morel, Thales vice president for underwater systems, said Nov. 27 in a telephone press conference. The British and French play soccer, so there was no confusion over feet or meters, he said.
For France, a new system will consist of one 12-meter long unmanned boat from L3 Harris and Thales, dubbed Unmanned Surface Vehicle, linked to a towed Thales sonar to detect and locate mines, and a Saab Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) to place charges and destroy threats.
There will be a mobile operations center, which can be airlifted by A400M or C-17. France has ordered a training simulator.
ECA supplied six Espadon A27 Autonomous Underwater Vehicle drones for the prototype systems for Britain and France. Each navy had a demonstrator system, with three ECA AUV drones on the system.
The Royal Navy accepted the three ECA drones on its demonstrator but is expected to open next year a tender for new drones for the production contract.
First delivery of the MMCM was due by end-2022, with last shipment in 2025.
There was close interest in the MMCM from navies around the world, including the US, Australia, India, and the United Arab Emirates, Morel said. There were potential sales of tens of systems by the end of the decade.
There was marketing advantage in supplying the system to the British and French navies, seen as first class services, he said. The system avoided use of US components to bypass Washington oversight over exports through the International Traffic in Arms Regulations.
“With this contract, French and British navies equip themselves with the world’s first fully integrated unmanned mine countermeasures system of systems,” Thales said in a statement.
In the UK, the MMCM deal will support 215 jobs at Thales operations in Somerset and Plymouth, while L3 Harris works in Portsmouth, the defense ministry said.
In France, Thales will work on the program in Brest, western France.