skip to Main Content

IN DETAIL: ECA Group targets RAN mine warfare project

Underwater robotics and Mine Counter Measures (MCM) specialist ECA Group is teaming with Australian SMEs to pursue the RAN’s Maritime Mine Countermeasures (MCM) and Military Survey (MS) Project, SEA 1905 Tranche 1.

Gregor Ferguson

To aid its local expansion and secure the project, ECA Group is forging new Australian partnerships as the tender for SEA 1905 Tranche 1 draws near. Meanwhile it plans to merge with fellow naval and undersea navigation specialist iXblue later this year, effectively doubling its specialist workforce.

The company’s CEO, M. Dominique Giannoni, told EX2 during Indo Pacific 2022 that ECA Group will offer what it believes is the only fully integrated 3rd generation mine warfare system available today, based on the MCM solution it is supplying to Belgium and the Netherlands. A request for tenders for Tranche 1 Batch 1 of Project SEA 1905 is scheduled for the middle of this year.

In April 2021, ECA Group signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with WA-based Remotely Operated Vessel (ROV) designer Total Marine Technology (TMT). It is also working with Sydney-based software firm Solutions from Silicon (SfS), which is prime contractor for the RAN’s Mine Warfare Tactical Command Software, or MINTACS; the two companies are already working together in Latvia, said M. Giannoni.

Project SEA 1905 Ph.1 aims to put remote Mine Warfare (MW) and MS systems aboard up to eight ships based on the Arafura-class Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) design; these will be built by Luerssen at Henderson in WA. The intent is to deploy robotic and autonomous MW and MS capabilities from safely outside a maritime minefield using a mix of Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs) and Autonomous Undersea Vessel (AUVs).

This will be the Royal Australian Navy’s first major foray into autonomous and robotic surface and sub-surface systems and, and while forward-leaning and embracing the new technologies, its risk appetite is not limitless.

The solution offered by ECA Group is based on that it has already developed for the Belgian and Dutch Navies. In May 2019 the Belgium Naval and Robotics (BNR) consortium, of which it is part with shipbuilder Naval Group, won the contract to provide 12 mine counter measure vessels to the two Navies (six each) along with a mix of 100 USVs, AUVs and ROVs. ECA Group provides the MW capability while Naval Group builds the ships for this contract.

The Belgian Navy is NATO’s lead in maritime MW and operates a joint training school, EGUERMIN, with the Royal Netherlands Navy near Oostende for the two countries and for other NATO members. That joint Belgium-Netherlands solution has four major MW elements which M. Giannoni says ECA Group is able to offer the RAN in a low-risk, proven system.

The first element is a dedicated USV designed specifically for MW operations and ease of maintenance. This will launch and recover autonomously the second element, an autonomous or towed vehicle that uses a Synthetic Aperture Sonar (SAS) to detect and classify potential targets. The third element is a tethered Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) to identify targets. This is tethered because its fibre optic cable provides the essential communications link via the USV back to an operator on land or on a ship safely out of harm’s way.

The fourth element is a mine-killing ROV which is expendable: it operates close to the target for accuracy so the shaped charge it carries will neutralise the mine. ECA also includes in this suite an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) equipped with a LIDAR sensor to detect mines on or underneath the surface.

The solution will be embarked on a fleet of up to eight Arafura-class OPV derivatives which will house the MW and MS control centre and launch and recover the USVs which in turn launch and recover the AUVs, towed sonars and ROVs.

If the company wins the contract for SEA 1905 Tranche 1, M. Giannoni recognises that this is a long-term program that will require ongoing R&D investment in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Systems Integration. ECA Group has already established a dedicated team which is scouting potential Australian industry and university R&D partners to help develop both a skilled workforce and an ongoing R&D program to support the capability’s continuous evolution in RAN service.

The company already has a sponsorship program at the University of Toulon, taking students through undergraduate and masters degrees. ECA Group itself is based in La Garde, near Toulon in southern France, which is one of Europe’s biggest naval bases and not far from what has become an underwater systems R&D ‘hot spot’ at Sofia Antipolis.

It currently employs about 700 staff but later this year, says M. Giannoni, ECA Group plans to merge with iXblue and effectively double its payroll to around 1500 personnel. This is a strategic move, he told EX2, because iXblue is a world-leader in Inertial Navigation (INS), which is at the core of undersea navigation and therefore of everything ECA does in the MW and MS space. The result will be a vertically integrated company that owns all of its own critical IP and is able to deliver tailored and fully integrated solutions, he said.

The company is not new to Australia, however. More than 30 years ago it first supplied the RAN with the PAP ROV mine identification and neutralisation system. More recently, it supplied Thales Australia with the remote control and autonomous ‘drone kit’ system for the USVs that Thales Australia is building for the RAN in Project SEA1778.

So, despite the cancellation last year of Naval Group’s contract to build 12 Attack-class submarines for the RAN, there is still a great deal of maritime business within the reach of French undersea specialists such as ECA Group, many of whom already have a solid footprint in Australia and a track record they can build on.

Back To Top