Yannick Smaldore contributed to this story
The French Defense Innovation Agency (AID) issued a call for proposals in the fall of 2019, calling for the study and development of a new generation of decoy called “offboard active decoy”. This new system would be used as a complement to existing passive decoys. Lacroix Defense is one of a handful of French Defense companies who answered this call for proposals last year from the newly created “French DARPA”.
Lacroix is a pyrotechnic systems integrator which has been working in this field for over 40 years with the experts at the French DGA as well as with several navies throughout the world to ensure that self-protection capabilities meet the necessary requirements to defeat the latest threats. According to Lacroix, this experience gives the company’s R&D teams superior expertise in combining multiple decoy effects in various deployment vectors, which are themselves integrated into a system.
Here are some of the requirements as outlined by the AID for the project:
- a standalone remotely operated vehicle able to quickly reach a location from a ship, to follow a specified trajectory and capable of carrying a payload emitting electromagnetic waves.
- a vehicle able reach a defined position in any direction from the ship in less than 10 seconds, at a distance of about 600m. It can either be pre-deployed or deployed following an alert from the ship. Altitude: 5m to 50m.
- Trajectories can be modified in real time using data from the ships or the ROV. Changes of direction must be very fast.
- Payload of either 15kg or 35kg. Developed by a third party.
- Autonomy of at least 3min, 20min if possible.
- Integrated on the upper decks of the ship (and therefore not in the Sylver VLS). Launching device (catapult, launcher) must be included in the scope of the project.
VESTA stands for Versatile EW Self-protection Tactic onboard unmanned Aircraft. It is basically an active jammer embedded in a UAV.
“Our Off Board Active Decoy (VESTA) project is an essential component of our vision of self protection, based on a comprehensive approach, allowing “multi-layered” and “multi-threat” protection mixing Hard Kill, off board active and passive decoys tactics, Anti torpedoes solutions.”
Xavier Cadour, head of Naval Systems at Lacroix Defense
Compared to existing offboard active decoys, such as the Nulka, VESTA comes with the following advantages:
- More maneuverable
- More affordable because it is based on COTS technologies
- Unlike Nulka, VESTA will be optionally retrievable
- VESTA’s in-flight endurance is confidential, however Naval News understands that the electrical propulsion of the UAV will likely provide a much longer autonomy than the Nulka’s rocket propulsion
“Mixing a pyrotechnic booster with a dexterous UAV will provie the end-user with immediate reaction and unrivalled operational maneuvrability”
For the UAV itself, Lacroix partnered with French company Aviation Design which is a specialist in the field. The VESTA relies on a hexacopter UAV. The jammer system will highly likely be provided by the French leader in this field: Thales.
Lacroix did not disclose much details about the launch system but said their plan is to have a highly modular decoy launcher based on the existing Sylena family. The idea would be to be able to offer navies a customizable launcher able to deploy the entire range of decoys:
This launcher could be named “Sylenna Mk+” and would provide surface vessels with needed protection across three layers:
Lacroix told Naval News that the goal, eventually, is to control VESTA from the ship’s CIC via a datalink. Such a datalink will also allow VESTA to autonomously follow and protect its mothership, when no human decision is required. A lot of development work will be need to be able to maintain that link in a highly complex EW environment (with the ship’s jammers at full power for example) as well as on the cyber front, to make sure that VESTA can not be hacked.
Just one year after the IAD issued their call for proposals, Lacroix Defense was able to study and develop a solution to answer the needs of the French Navy. The project is progressing well according to Lacroix: The first flight of VESTA is set for early 2021. Should these tests be conclusive, it will be up to the DGA to decide to go ahead and procure the VESTA. In this eventuality, the first surface combatants to be fitted with VESTA would likely be the FDI… which are currently set to enter active duty with no anti-missile decoy systems or EW jammers: As of today, their protection will rely exclusively on guns and missiles. That is unless VESTA comes into play.