Thales-Dutch-Navy
An artist's impression of the future M-class frigate (DMO, via Thales).

Angus Batey – Thales faces a ‘challenging’ schedule to develop a new concept in naval battle-management technology for the Royal Netherland’s Navy’s (RNLN) M-class multipurpose frigate replacement programme.

During a ceremony in Hengalo, Netherlands, to celebrate the signing of the contract, the CEO of Thales’ Dutch division, Gerben Edelijn, and Vice-Admiral Arie-Jan de Waard, director of the Netherlands’ Defense Materiel Organisation (DMO), joked with reporters about the technologically ambitious programme’s timetable: ”From now on, Thales has five years to develop the system, to test it, and to be fully operationally capable in 2025,” de Waard said. “That’s a long time to go – or not, Gerben?”

“It sounds like a long time,” Edelijn replied. “But this is quite a challenging timeframe from our perspective.”

Thales’ concept for its new Above Water Warfare System (AWWS) looks to increase platform protection by partially automating a number of elements of the vessel’s combat-management and fire-control systems. The intention is to develop a blend of hardware, software, sensors and effectors that will be capable of identifying, tracking and responding to a range of threats that will include future hypersonic missiles, small unmanned aircraft swarms, and everything in between.

Edelijn confirmed that some level of reliance on artificial intelligence (AI) technologies will be required to realise this vision, and de Waard acknowledged that thinking on how AI is deployed within a military context remains a work in progress.

“There are elements inside the scheduling mechanisms where we use AI, and we are making sure we can explain to our customers how this AI is treated in the system,” Edelijn said. “Thales as a group is investing a lot of money in order to be able to explain to our customers how the machine is coming to its proposed decision.”

“We still say there has to be a man or a woman in the loop,” said de Waard. “But when the target moves so fast, do you still have the time to act? You say, ‘I still want to have the man in the loop,’ but if the other side doesn’t have a man in the loop, what are you going to do then? That’s something we have to discuss on the political level.”

by Angus Batey