PARIS — A team led by BAE Systems, DCNS and Thales is in the lead in a competition for a study to develop an unmanned underwater system to fight against sea mines, a key project for Anglo-French defense cooperation, three industry executives said.
An evaluation is under way for a selection, with French firm iXBlue and the UK unit of German specialist group Atlas Elektronik partnered as the competitor in the bilateral tender. The offer from BAE, DCNS and Thales "is well positioned," one of the executives said. The latter company, which leads the team, will draw on its British unit.
Best and final offers were due in October, a fourth industry source said.
At the Jan. 31 Anglo-French summit last year, the British government said an agreement had been reached "on a £10 million contract for the development of underwater vehicles capable of finding and neutralizing seabed mines." The study for an unmanned system is a key part of the cooperative Maritime Mine Counter Measure (MMCM) program. After the study, a decision to build a prototype is expected in 2016, an industry source said. That contract will seek a demonstration project to prove the capability, rather than design of a production standard system, a BAE spokeswoman has said.
ECA, a French builder of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV), would be a supplier to the BAE-DCN-Thales group. One industry executive said the selection is driven by "the political position." BAE, DCNS and Thales are leading firms in Britain and France, while Atlas is 51 percent owned by the German industrial giant ThyssenKrupp, and 49 percent by Airbus Group.
Last year, Airbus said it will sell its Atlas stake, and ThyssenKrupp said it would talk to Airbus, but did not say it would buy the holding. If the British-French team wins the deal, Atlas and iXBlue could work as suppliers, executives said. The companies declined to comment.
"There is no fully mature MMCM solution based on autonomous drones available on the market," an executive said. "The first full solution on the market will attract great attention," he said. Navies across Europe and Asia have shown close interest in the anti-mine studies, he added.
France has been working on feasibility studies under the Espadon, or Swordfish, project. DCNS supplied the remote-controlled and fully automated ship, ECA the AUVs, and Thales the mission system. That project feeds into the système de lutte anti-mine future (SLAMF), also a naval program intended to replace the current minehunter with an unmanned surface vehicle, which would tow sonars and deploy AUVs to detect, identify and destroy the mines.