French Uncrewed Maritime Systems at Euronaval 2022

By Defense.Info

Two articles by Christina McKenzie for Breaking Defense highlighted French uncrewed maritime systems at the Euronaval show just concluded.

The first focused on a merger of French firms to create a new firm called Exail.

Two French naval robotics firms, ECA Group and iXblue, announced here at the show that they are joining forces, with their individual brands replaced by a new, single brand, Exail.

The new company, which will continue work in the fields of robotics, maritime navigation, aerospace and photonics, now has a workforce of 1,500 spread over 21 offices in France and 11 in the rest of the world. Its expected annual revenue will be €250 million ($244.4 million), according to company documents. It also has one of the largest stands at the show, showcasing, amongst other things, its mine countermeasure solutions and the eye-catching, large, bright red DriX unmanned surface vessel (USV). More about that a bit later.

The merger, announced Tuesday, is the latest development in an evolution for both firms. Despite the name’s reference to aeronautics, ECA Group, which stands for Etude et Construction Aéronautique, turned its attention to maritime systems decades ago. Founded in 1936, it became a subsidiary of the family-owned high-tech company, Groupe Gorgé, in 1992 and although ECA Group was then merged with Gorgé in 2020, it kept its own identity.

The second focused on seabed operations.

One topic that was top of mind here at Euronaval was the bottom of the ocean — specifically both defensive and offensive seabed operations to protect, or attack, critical infrastructure, in light of the suspected sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipeline off the coast of Sweden last month.

Seabed warfare is not new, according to former Royal Navy clearance diver Chris Lade who is today the defense sales manager for Saab Underwater Systems. “It’s been around for a very long time with mine warfare, but it’s what’s on the seabed that’s changed. Today there are communications networks, pipelines, power cables, and the threat against them is real.”

Nations have grown increasingly concerned about and intrigued by the vulnerability of those networks and cables in recent years, so much so that in February, France’s then-Minister of Armed Forces Florence Parly and current Joint Chief of Staff General Thierry Burkhard unveiled a new “Seabed Warfare Strategy” aimed at broadening the French Navy’s undersea capabilities up to 6,000 meters (19,685 feet) deep, which, according to Lade, seems to have set the “go-to depth.” To put this in perspective, that’s more than deep enough to reach the average depth of any ocean, but not enough to reach into their deepest trenches.

Though it was publicized months ago, one of the first actual moves in the new French strategy was revealed on Thursday by the DGA procurement agency when it announced it had signed a €4 million ($3.9 million) contract with Norwegian company Kongsberg Maritime. The contract, signed in mid-August, was for trial tests of a Hugin Superior Autonomous Unmanned Vehicle (AUV) which can operate in depths of up to 6,000 meters.