How will Naval Group's new underwater drone redefine naval combat?

Following the cancellation of the Australian contract for the design and manufacture of 12 conventional propulsion submarines of the Attack class derived from the Shortfin Barracuda, the French shipbuilder Naval Group was in an unenviable position, given its image international had been affected by this decision. Some Anglo-Saxon commentators even saw it as an opportunity to move forward towards a consolidation of European naval means of production, in other words, to eliminate French from this market for conventional submarines contested by 4 European manufacturers, and which represents more than half of its exports over the past 20 years with contracts in India, Brazil and Malaysia. If the confirmation from Athens of an order for 3 FDI Belharra frigates gave the group a new lease of life, and despite the opportunity opened to it concerning the export of nuclear-powered submarines after Washington and London opened this Pandora's box, the French industrialist still needed a major announcement in the underwater sector to restore his image on the international scene.

This took place last week during the Naval Group Innovation Days, an event organized to promote the innovations of the French shipbuilder, in the form of a long-endurance underwater combat drone, not as a digital model. or distant promise, but as a demonstrator already assembled and even experienced in dock, and which will begin a test phase in the coming days for 2 months, in order to assess its performance and validate the technological options selected for its design. The project, developed in great secrecy and on its own basis by Naval Group, does much more than put the industrialist back in the saddle in the field of submarine warfare, because it opens up unparalleled operational, industrial and commercial perspectives, in particular for face the new challenges emerging on the oceans.

An underwater drone built for combat

The demonstrator currently being tested by Naval Group is 10 meters long for a displacement of 10 tonnes, and uses a biomimetic hydrodynamic shape inspired by large cetaceans such as the sperm whale. According to Naval Group, it is able to navigate, in its current form, several days in autonomous diving, at a cruising speed of 6 knots, and a maximum speed of 15 knots. It carries a hull sonar for underwater detection, as well as a radar and an electro-optic system on mast when it evolves near the surface. It has several communication systems, including a satellite link, a radio link and a low frequency link, allowing it to communicate with a mother ship, or a control station, in the form of compressed encrypted messages to increase the stealth of the machine. Finally, it has a navigation, sensor analysis and mission control system based on artificial intelligence combining Machine Learning and deterministic analysis to ensure fine control of the drone's actions.

The Naval Group demonstrator was put to sea for the first time in 2020. In the days to come, it should begin a two-month testing phase.

But these data only concern the demonstrator currently under test. Indeed, according to Naval Group, this family of submarine combat drone will be able to go well beyond the characteristics of its current demonstrator, both in terms of performance and mission profiles. Thus, the production version on which the engineers of Naval Group are working will be longer, 13 meters for a displacement of 20 tons, and will have an autonomy at sea, a discretion and a speed superior to that of the demonstrator. As such, it should be noted that the reduced models presented during the event were fitted with a pump jet, a streamlined propeller making it possible to reduce noise and the risk of cavitation at higher speeds. Above all, beyond the ISR intelligence missions for which the base model is designed, a more imposing model, 20 meters long, will have an AIP propulsion system giving it a diving autonomy of several weeks, and the potential capacity to carry large payloads, including anti-submarine or anti-ship torpedoes, and naval mines, opening up an immense range of possibilities at the operational level.

Force multiplier and denial of access


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