Thales won in January a DGA contract for the development, qualification and mass production of the new SonoFlash sonobuoy. This game changing active-passive sonobuoy is a strategic tool to complement the ASW systems currently deployed by the French Navy, providing France with a sovereign solution for high-performance acoustic buoys.
The threat posed by submarines is evolving rapidly. While 30 years ago only superpowers had true submarine capabilities, today many nations are deploying modern fleets and the old certainties of deep water are giving way to much more complex littoral settings for sonar systems. In response to this threat, Thales is developing the SonoFlash, a new generation sonobuoy leveraging decades of sonar and acoustic sensor expertise.
The SonoFlash will be fully produced in France and based on a subcontracting network involving several French SMEs such as Telerad, Selha and Realmeca. This follows the French authorities commitment to strategic industrial independence.
France stopped producing its own sonobuoys in the nineties because of a decreasing need for the product. The French Navy then started using American sonobuoys (Ultra and Sparton). A new need for French-made buoys surfaced again about fifteen years later. SonoFlash is the offspring of this new (sovereign) need.
Talking to Naval News during an exclusive phone interview, Alexis Morel, Vice President – General manager, Underwater Systems business line at Thales said:
“We looked at the market, not just in France but globally, and noted a real need for performance as well as a need for more competition. With just two main players on the market, there is very little competition. This is when Thales came up with the SonoFlash project. It brings back a sovereign production line in France, but at the same time it addresses the duopoly situation”.
SonoFlash will be available for export to France’s allies, for all current and future air platforms: WPAs, ASW helicopters and unmanned platforms (unmanned surface vessels, rotary wing UAVs and fixed wing UAVs).
Morel expects existing users of the popular FLASH dipping sonar (over 10 navies worldwide) will be natural prospects for the SonoFlash. Pricing is expected to be very competitive which is likely to make Thales’ sonobuoy the new market reference. The company plans to demonstrate the SonoFlash technology to the U.S. Navy, via Advanced Acoustic Concepts (AAC), its joint venture with DRS in charge of marketing proven Thales technologies on the U.S. market. Such demonstration is expect to take place around 2023. Another likely market for the SonoFlash is the Royal Australian Navy because of the Thales sonar center of excellence located there, “this is a great asset for the project […] Australia will be among the first potential customers with whom we will initiate talks, when they are ready. We consider Australia as a domestic market at Thales…”. However Morel insisted that for now the priority is the launch customer: The French Navy.
Regarding the global market need in sonobuoys, Morel explained that:
“We identified the need in the tens of thousands… our objective at Thales is to produce several thousands. Sizing our initial production line to deliver tens of thousands of buoys would make no sense for Thales. The investment would be disproportionate relative to our natural market which is the French Navy first, followed by NATO allies, existing users of the FLASH.”
SonoFlash: The first passive/active sonobuoy
According to Thales, the SonoFlash’s innovative design and advanced technology incorporate several key features that deliver unmatched performance. Today’s buoys are either passive or active, but the SonoFlash combines the two modes in a single sonobuoy: an optimal, powerful low-frequency transmitter and a passive receiver with a high directivity gain. The combination of these two capabilities with high endurance makes the SonoFlash buoy very versatile.
The test campaign, including several at-sea tests from aircraft and helicopter, already took place over the past two years. The French Navy will be the first to be equipped with the SonoFlash, which will be deployed aboard the upgraded ATL2 maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) and the NH90 NFH maritime helicopter. The first prototypes will be delivered to the navy in 2022 for operational testing. The production line will be up and running in 2023. Pre-series production will start in 2024. Mass production as well as initial deliveries are set to start in 2025.
“The SonoFlash has no equivalent on the market today. If you look at the DICASS and DIFAR sonobuoys, they are meant to work as a couple. Thales succeeded to gather in a single buoy both active and passive roles. SonoFlash can also be used for multi-static anti-submarine warfare. With this unique product, the navies will be able to rethink their approach and operational concept. In addition, we selected for the SonoFlash a low frequency between 3 and 4 kHz in line with Thales’ specialty and know how. This provides the end user with great detection ranges. This is a key differentiator.”
“The structure of the SonoFlash buoy with five emitter rings allows to capitalize on years of R&D in acoustics. All the R&D previously invested in the FLASH dipping sonar allows us to develop a very efficient product on a strict acoustic level.
Alexis Morel, Vice President – General manager, Underwater Systems business line at Thales