Following the cancellation of the Australian contract for the design and manufacture of 12 conventionally powered Attack-class submarines derived from the Shortfin Barracuda, the French shipbuilder Naval Group was in an unenviable position, given its image international community had been altered by this decision. Some Anglo-Saxon commentators even saw it as an opportunity to move towards a consolidation of European naval production means, in other words, to eliminate French from this market for conventional submarines which are being fought over by 4 European manufacturers, and which represents more than half of its exports over the last 20 years with contracts in India, Brazil and Malaysia.
If the confirmation from Athens of an order for 3 FDI Belharra frigates gave new color to the group, and despite the opportunity which opens up 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 its image on the international scene.
This took place during the Naval Group Innovation Days, at the beginning of June 2021, 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 tested in the dock, and which will begin a test phase in the days to come for 2 months, in order to evaluate its performances and validate the options technologies used for its design.
The project, developed in great secrecy and with its own funds 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, particularly for face the new challenges emerging in the oceans.
An underwater drone designed for combat
The demonstrator tested by Naval Group measures 10 meters long for a displacement of 10 tonnes, and has a biomimetic hydrodynamic shape inspired by large cetaceans such as the sperm whale. According to Naval Group , it is capable of sailing, in its current form, for 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-optical system on mast when operating 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 ship, or a control station, in the form of compressed encrypted messages to increase the stealth of the ship. 'machine. Finally, it has a navigation, sensor analysis and mission control system based on artificial intelligence combining Machine Learning and deterministic analyzes to ensure fine control of the drone's actions.
But this data only concerns the demonstrator currently under test. Indeed, according to Naval Group, this family of underwater combat drones 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 Naval Group engineers are working will be longer, 13 meters for a displacement of 20 tonnes, and will have autonomy at sea, discretion and a speed greater than that of the demonstrator.
It should be noted in this respect that the scale models presented during the event were equipped with a pump jet, a ducted 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 basic 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 significant loads, 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
In fact, Naval Group's new underwater drone is positioned as a formidable fighter, acting as what the military calls "a force multiplier", that is to say making it possible to increase the operational capabilities of other units. Like air combat drones, this will make it possible, for example, to carry out intelligence missions on opposing coasts, or as close as possible to enemy naval assets, without having to risk a submarine and its crew in this perilous mission. .
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