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Thales – Fast Foot Forward By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

thalesAs a recognised leader in defence electronics technology the size and scope of Thales UK operations together with the extent of various capability produced here is easy overlook. Understated as the company often is Thales plays a very significant role in UK defence just as it also does for the UK economy in terms of technology and design, exports and retention of important engineering and electronics based skills.

Having previously written on the Belfast based Thales air defence and anti-ship missile manufacturing systems following a visit that I made in June 2014 I will over the coming months be looking other Thales UK based activities including those of Air Operations Systems and Services that includes Air Battleship Management Solutions, Transportation for which Thales is one of the largest and most respected European suppliers of signalling, train protection and warnings systems in Europe plus other activities that may include Thales Training & Simulation, Air Traffic Management, Satellite Communications and Network and Cyber Systems.

Thales is probably best known externally for the extensive range of capability produced for the defence maritime sector. The Templecombe based operation which I recently been able visit is the centre of excellence for production of Sonar, Antenna and Acoustic Product equipment design and manufacturing. A sizable and well invested operation producing equipment to be found on almost all Royal Navy ships and submarines and those of a great many other navies internationally Thales UK is not only highly respected but is the undisputed leader in its various fields. Good communication is what makes for good business opportunities and I was particularly impressed to see, in order to ensure no opportunities are lost that might better support the end customer, how Templecombe staff work closely with other Thales UK based operations, particularly those engaged in naval communications, electronic warfare, Optronics and simulation and training.

Although the roots of what comprises a large part of the Thales Templecombe based operation date back rather longer, the present operation began life in 1965 as the Plessey Marine/Plessey Marine Research Unit. Through a string of complicated consolidation based mergers plus a handful of acquisitions including some that involved BAE Systems, Ferranti, the former GEC Marconi and others the Templecombe operation together with a separate Cheadle Heath based operation comprise the bulk of Thales UK Maritime.

The Thales UK maritime product based portfolio extends through a vast number of different capabilities including airborne surveillance and control systems, unmanned systems, naval communications and antennas, electronic warfare, Optronics, Navy weapon systems plus a variety of simulation and training related capability solutions.

As a major supplier of sovereign equipment capability to the Royal Navy and to export customers Thales UK sonar and Optronics equipment, communications, electronic warfare radar, surveillance and controls equipment is to be found in virtually all Royal Navy surface and sub-surface capability and in some airborne equipment as well.

The ability to learn more about the huge variety of Thales UK produced sonar systems used by Royal Navy plus other surface warship capability, mine-warfare vessels, submarines and also airborne sonar products has from a personal perspective filled an important gap in my own knowledge. What the company produces is mission critical capability that must of necessity be able to operate in a range of different and often dangerous conditions. Deployed on-board throughout the life of the ship or submarine, capability reliability, efficiency and durability are hugely important aspects. Low through-life maintenance cost based on lean maintenance routines and a continuous obsolescence containment programme are all important aspects emphasised in Thales produced capability.

Key features of surface ship sonar are the high performance long range tactical low frequency passive and active search and surveillance capability, multistatic transmission/reception capability and variable depth designed to exploit propagation together with high bandwith for littoral operations. This is sophisticated pieces of equipment capability at its best and that has gone through a continuous process of improvement over the years.

Minehunting is an area that the Royal Navy has long been recognised as a world leader. Indeed, the UK has a large fleet of minehunting vessels equipped with two different versions of Thales designed sonar systems. Sonar 2093 is a high resolution variable depth minehunting sonar system in service with eight different navies around the world. Sonar 2193 is a hull-mounted high frequency sonar system that is fitted to Royal Navy Hunt Class minehunting vessels. This particular sonar emits an acoustic signal containing a wide range of frequencies which greatly increase range and accuracy at which mines can be detected. Simple to install, Sonar 2193 provides high resolution imaging and computer aided detection.

Royal Navy Astute and Trafalgar class submarines are equipped with operationally well proven Sonar 2076 and Royal Navy Helicopters are equipped with Flash dipping low frequency Sonar equipment. Designed for high-end performance applicable to larger, ocean going, expeditionary submarine forces the outboard hull-mounted flank, bow, mine detection and intercept arrays together with the fin-mounted underwater communication arrays are recognised as being the best submarine sonar capability available in the world. Similarly, Thales inboard Bow Passive and Active Arrays together with Intercept Arrays and Mine Detection and Avoidance Arrays can be found on all Royal Navy submarines and those in service with many other navies. Finally and requiring an extremely long building to construct at Templecombe, the towed array system with its associated reelable cable is a remarkable piece of kit and one that has long been coveted by navies around the world.

Thales has a very long history in anti-submarine warfare systems and is able to boast that it holds 50% of the accessible global market for submarine sonars with equipment on more than 140 conventional and nuclear powered submarines in service with 23 navies around the world. The company has specialised in building comprehensive, cohesive and integrated solutions over the years that can provide submarines with all-round situational awareness together with the ability to detect, locate and classify all types of threat at short, medium and long range across a broad spectrum of frequencies. Submarine sonar suites incorporating high-performance acoustic sensors, integrated processing electronics and advanced user interfaces are based on open, interoperable architecture to accommodate future capability and minimise cost of ownership.

With activities spread across Templecombe, Crawley, Cheadle Heath, Glasgow, Bristol and Belfast locations and with a very active and expanding presence in Rosyth Thales has long been recognised by the UK Ministry of Defence for product excellence. The company is also a founding member of the Aircraft Carrier Alliance which alongside its BAE Systems, Babcock International and MOD partners are responsible for delivering the two Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy.

The future looks very bright and with SDSR 2015 confirming that eight Type 26 frigates will be built over the coming years along with a number of ‘light frigates’ and with the Astute programme continuing and ‘Successor’ Trident replacement programme now moving closer to fruition Thales UK based maritime activities can be expected to be extremely busy in the years ahead.

In summing up, Thales role as an important producer of UK sovereign capability cannot be understated. The company continues to invest in its range of products and it plays a prominent role not only in maintaining UK engineering skills but also in defence exports. I was extremely impressed with what I was able to see at Templecombe particularly in relation to end product, design and production capability. With a professional, highly skilled and well-motivated team of people based at Templecombe the company is deserving of the success already achieved and that is clearly set to continue.

CHW (London 7th January 2016)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS


Tel: 07710-779785

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