It is a new weapon system intended for the French Navy, which should be very formidable. Scheduled, it could as much perform surveillance and detection missions (signing submarines) in an assigned area as a denial of access while remaining very, very discreet due to its small size. What are we talking about ? An autonomous oceanic submarine drone currently being developed by Naval Group for about six years in the utmost discretion. An innovation self-financed (between 10 and 20 million euros) by the group and presented last week during the 5th edition of Naval Innovation Days.
The manufacturer of the Barracuda, which has already built a demonstrator with a length of ten meters (10 tons) and launched for the first time in November 2020, is ultimately planning a submarine 12 to 13 meters long. (13.5 meters maximum). An underwater drone which can obviously be armable and which will also be equipped with a self-destruction system if it should fall into the hands of enemies. Consumable that will remain at a reasonable price. Or a machine that should be offered at less than 15 million euros to remain commercially attractive. This type of drone could equally well be of interest to navies like France in addition to their submarine fleet to keep an operational advance, or countries that do not have the capacity to afford submarines.
Prototype in 2025
The French Navy will have to quickly appropriate this new undetectable weapon system to ensure that it does not get caught up in deep sea warfare. And therefore stay in the first division. Because these drones are also being developed by the United States, where Boeing is leading the Orca project, but also by Russia and China. Moreover, the accident of an American nuclear submarine which struck an unidentified object in early October while it was patrolling in the South China Sea is of great concern. Is an underwater drone developed by the Chinese group Boya Gongdao Robot Technology based in Beijing, the Robo-Shark which is armed with torpedoes. “The USS Connecticut struck an object in the afternoon of October 2 while sailing submerged in international waters of the Indo-Pacific region”, the US Navy said in a statement.
In this context, Naval Group will have to accelerate the development of this new weapon, which will however require from the French Navy a very detailed employment doctrine to avoid possible accidents, both civil (fishing boat) and military. . Especially since there is no real operational superiority under the sea unlike in the air sector. The Minister of the Armed Forces is aware of the interest of this new weapon. Florence Parly announced last May that France would “invest in this new field of abyss by acquiring the first submarine capabilities that will be investigative and action drones “. So now is the time to take the plunge.
“In the naval field, the deployment of submarine drones off Île Longue, with the aim of observing the activity of the naval base which hosts the four nuclear submarines launching the oceanic force strategic, could quickly no longer be science fiction. The same is true in the deep sea, where various drones could be deployed for intelligence purposes or sabotage submarine cables, in the heart of a global economy that has become widely connected, ”say Stéphane MEPs for their part. Baudi and Jean Lassalle in their report on the drone war.
To date, Naval Group plans, in the event that it quickly obtains a development contract from the General Directorate of Armaments (DGA) and the French Navy, the commissioning of a prototype in 2025 having more capacities than the demonstrator from incremental innovations. A prototype which will be very close to the first of the series. In the meantime, the submarine will carry out a two-month test campaign in November after making a first dive in January 2021 to a depth of 100 meters to test the pressure resistance of the hull. “We are aiming for a first completely autonomous surveillance mission in spring 2022”, explains Cyril Lévy, director of drone and mine warfare programs at Naval Group.
This program is carried out in partnership with ten SMEs (including CeSigma, Techvar, EODev), Thales (sonars suite) and several research centers (ONERA, Inria, Lirmm de Montpellier). With ONERA, Naval Group wishes in particular to innovate in the field of controlled decision-making autonomy within the framework of a partnership. This is the case for this underwater drone, which was developed thanks to Naval Group’s know-how in the field of CMS (Combat Management System).
According to Naval Group, this rugged submarine will be undetectable underwater by active and passive sonar due to its low emission surface. On the other hand, with each incident (bug, collision etc …), it will have to rise to the surface to readjust and could at that time become vulnerable. For the time being, the demonstrator has an autonomy of five days (Saft lithium-ion batteries) while sailing only at 5/6 knots (maximum speed 15 knots). The goal is to achieve autonomy of a few weeks. However, this still implies a great deal of research work on the most suitable mode of propulsion for this type of submarine (electrohydrogen batteries? Diesel alternator rectifier?) Naval Group still has its work cut out for it to maintain its technological lead. ..