UK, France partner up on developing autonomous minehunting systems

The UK and France reaffirmed their long-standing defence relationship on 26 November by committing to a joint programme for autonomous minehunting systems that will detect and neutralise mines around the world.

Royal Navy
Photo: Royal Navy

Speaking at the virtual Franco-British Council Defence Conference, Ben Wallace, UK’s Defence Secretary, announced a £184 million ($245.3 million) investment in the joint Maritime Mine Counter Measure (MMCM) programme, which will create new systems to combat sea mines and keep ships and personnel away from danger.

As informed, the contract signed between the two countries will support 215 jobs across the UK at Thales sites in Somerset and Plymouth, as well as in the wider supply chain, including L3 Harris in Portsmouth, Stonehaven in Aberdeenshire and Alba Ultrasound in Glasgow.

This investment follows the substantial £16.5 billion settlement in the Spending Review for Defence over four years that aims to modernise the armed forces, reinvigorate the shipbuilding industry and bring jobs and prosperity to the UK.

“This £184 million contract offers a huge leap forward for the Royal Navy’s autonomous capabilities in the detection and defeat of sea mines. As the Armed Forces puts modernisation at the heart of its future strategy, these systems will protect vital shipping lanes, commercial traffic and our brave personnel from these deadly devices,” Wallace said.

“The programme also underpins a deep and ever-strengthening relationship with France and marks the tenth anniversary of the Lancaster House treaties between our two nations.”

Royal Navy minehunting

The Royal Navy is regularly called upon to deal with mines and other historic ordnance, left over from the Second World War, around the United Kingdom.

In recent times, the UK has been involved in minehunting operations across the world, including the Gulf and off Libya.

Following a successful demonstration phase and trials completed in October 2020, the new contract will produce three sets of minehunting equipment, consisting of:

  • Autonomous vessel – a boat controlled and operated from a “mother ship/base”;
  • Towed sonar – a sonar which is towed/dragged behind the vessel to locate ordnance;
  • Mine neutralisation system – a remotely operated underwater vehicle which is used once the mine is located to neutralise the device and prevent its detonation.

When used together, these three elements are known as the Primary System.

This next-generation mine hunting capability is designed to potentially replace conventional crewed mine hunting vessels, such as the Royal Navy’s Hunt and Sandown class ships, with autonomous systems.

“I am enormously excited by the potential of the future minehunting capability. This will allow us to deliver minehunting more effectively, more efficiently and more safely, and to integrate even more closely with our French counterparts in this important area,” Tony Radakin, First Sea Lord Admiral, said.

The UK element of the MMCM programme was negotiated by Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S), the procurement arm of the UK Ministry of Defence.

“This ground-breaking technology brings with it a step-change in capability for the Royal Navy which is a bold step into the digital and autonomous world,” Simon Bollom, DE&S CEO, noted.

“Technologies such as autonomy and AI are transforming societies and warfare at an exponential rate. This contract represents the next generation for Anglo-French minehunting,” Alex Cresswell, CEO of Thales in the UK, said.

The first equipment sets are due to be delivered in late 2022. It will commence operational evaluation prior to entering service with the Royal Navy.