Martin Manaranche story with additional reporting by Xavier Vavasseur
Back in April, the Royal Netherlands Navy (RNLN)’s MCM Module Group published a tweet showing them training with a A18-M unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) – a drone which is part of the Toolbox of the Belgian-Dutch MCM replacement program. This caught our attention because production for the unmanned systems was set to start at a new facility in Ostend, Belgium in 2022.
For record the record, the Belgian Ministry of Defense officially notified the consortium Belgian Naval & Robotics (formed by Naval Group & ECA Group) on May 22, 2019, a contract to supply 12 motherships and associated equipment to the Belgian and Dutch Navies.
To understand this “acceleration” in the schedule, Naval News reached out to ECA Group and the RNLN to find out more:
What is the reason behind the delivery of an A-18 UUV that early in the rMCM program ?
“The RNLN together with the Belgian Navy wants to be prepared as much as possible for receiving our new MCM platform and drones toolbox. It is the aim of the OT&E project to ‘operationally test & evaluate’ the most important elements of the toolbox. OT&E provides the RNLN and its Belgian partner in the rMCM project to get acquainted with (prototypes of) the toolbox and where possible to further improve it. Of course, this will also benefit ECA and the rMCM project as a whole.“
Is the A18 tested/operated from a ship or from Den Helder naval base ?
“To be able to execute the OT&E project the RNLN set up a lease contract for a supplier type vessel (MV GEOSEA) to facilitate the necessary sea trials, exercises and operations. On board the MS GEOSEA the RNLN MCM Module Group (‘MMG’) is responsible for the execution of the OT&E program.“
Will other systems of the rMCM program be evaluated ?
“The OT&E project consists of several autonomous tools, including AUV’s and USV’s and different Launch And Recovery Systems delivered by Naval Group. Some are the final product, some are prototypes we hope to be able to optimize them in cooperation with ECA.“
Will the Belgian Navy also go through an OT&E phase ?
“The OT&E project is initiated and run by the RNLN. However, the Belgium Navy is participating in the MMG and also taking part in the different educations and trainings which are part of the OT&E project. Knowledge acquired will be shared with the Belgian Navy as it will enhance the success of our binational rMCM program.“
About A18-M UUV
A18-M is ECA Group’s latest generation of mid-size UUV and is one generation ahead of the A27 used for the demonstration phase of SLAMF/MMCM. The A18-M is capable to carry out missions requiring long operating endurance (up to 24 hours), up to 300 meters underwater depth. According to ECA Group, thanks to its very high area coverage rate of 2km2/hr, very large areas (20-40km2 depending on transit distance) can be covered in a fraction of the time of legacy assets with reduced risk to personnel and with far superior image quality, due to it’s high stability which makes this AUV much less affected by waves than a surface ship or a towed system. The 18-M is equipped with a Synthetic Aperture Sonar (SAS) for high resolution imagery, Multibeam Echosounder (MBES) or Volume Search Sonar (VSS) can also be fitted. The A18-M weighs less than 700 Kg and can be deployed from an USV thanks to its small size: A length of 3.8m and diameter of 0.465m.
The A18-M has already been selected by the Belgian Navy and Royal Netherlands Navy for the rMCM program as well as by the Latvian Naval Forces for the upgrade of existing minehunters.
The UUV is likely being proposed to navies seeking to transition to “unmanned mine warfare” with “man outside of the minefield” concept (in countries such as France, UK, Italy or Australia).