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The problem of mines: low-cost, lethal—and legion

Mines pose an ever-present threat to naval operations and commercial shipping. They are cheap, easy to deploy, and deadly. Numbers of low-tech mines are rising, and are increasingly matched by higher-tech variants, harder to find, and often programmed to detect specific signatures or use torpedoes.

The transition to unmanned systems: a complex and risky challenge for navies

Mine countermeasures are undergoing a major transition—from traditional minehunting to an unmanned and autonomous future. This means “system-of-systems” engineering is now required—a genuinely cutting-edge discipline in mine countermeasures (MCM).  Like modern warships, next-generation MW motherships must integrate sophisticated combat, platform, and communications systems. In addition, numerous unmanned vehicles (the MW toolbox) must be fully integrated with the platform and its Combat Management System, as well as communicating securely with each other for collaborative autonomy.  To add to the complexity, fields like autonomy are advancing at breakneck speed, driven by the new possibilities of by disruptive technologies. Navies are acutely aware of the complexities of the transition, and the risks they entail. They are seeking partners who understand their needs, combine a solid conventional background with unmanned expertise, and can demonstrate proven performance at sea.

Understanding navies’ needs—the foundation of success

The complexity of unmanned MCM systems requires genuine partnership. That’s why Thales is committed to working long-term with navies from around the world, but also with governments and their agencies (such as France’s DGA, with whom it has a long-standing partnership). This comprehensive approach ensures a deep understanding of current naval needs and a whole-systems focus. Just as vital is anticipating the needs of tomorrow. Cybersecurity, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Big Data Analytics, increasing connectedness, and advances in Human-Machine Teaming (HMT), are all part of this mix. Thales’s systems already deploy these technologies, but it is investing heavily too: self-financed group-R&D will reach €1bn annually within five years, and strategic acquisitions, such as that of Big Data pioneer, Guavus, are boosting capabilities further.

The background and expertise to deliver “systems of systems”

Thales harnesses its position as the world leader in conventional MCM (with over 300 systems in service across the globe), as well as long experience of unmanned systems, to build a unique base of expertise that helps navies navigate the unmanned transition. The outworking of this is an ability to engineer “system of systems” that meet customers’ specific requirements, function perfectly as a whole, and guarantee mission success. To achieve this, Thales draws on an extended network of 65,000 experts and uses a proven, top-down development process that steps from mission, to systems, to subsystem design.

Prioritising performance at sea

Meeting this need is a priority for Thales, which has invested heavily in at-sea demonstrations—in the Unmanned Warrior trials (Scotland, 2016), the North Sea Unmanned Trials (Zeebrugge/Belgium, 2016 and 2017), and trials in the US and elsewhere. Such proven performance is now concretised in groundbreaking projects such as the Maritime Mine Countermeasures Programme (MMCM—the cornerstone of future MCM for the British and French navies), and SEA1778, a key plank in Australia’s unmanned transition.