Known and very highly respected across the aerospace, defence, security, space and transport market community and by the UK Government for the work that it does in all these fields, I am extremely grateful for having had the opportunity to visit another important Thales UK site and to learn more about what this highly invested and very innovative company does in the UK.
With 6,500 employees working across 35 sites that are spread over ten key locations from Crawley in South of England to as far away as RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland to the north the bottom line is that Thales UK is not just a significant player in terms of the vast range of sophisticated electronics based technical product, equipment capability and through-life support that it either produces or provides but also for the for the highly important skills base that it maintains here in the UK. Thales UK is a very important contributor not only within the UK defence industrial base but in terms of the economy as well.
With 4,000 highly skilled engineers and technicians now employed in the UK of whom I am told that 90% are qualified to degree level or above it is clear that company management continue to place a very large emphasis on maintaining skills just as they also do on training those that will be needed for the next generation of technology development and take the company further forward on the longer term. With its own large and highly invested research and technology facility in Reading where 80 engineers, scientists and technologists are employed working on future innovation solutions and ideas the importance of Thales not only in relation to what the company provides to the MOD and export markets in relation to defence products but also for the important role the company is already playing in the UK government prosperity agenda.
With annual UK sales in excess of £1.3bn and having invested over £3bn in the UK over the past dozen or so years Thales UK management have over the years not only developed a superb infrastructure and wide range of sophisticated yet well proven and reliable defence electronics products but have in the process of that investment and expansion placed themselves into an unrivalled position in the various specialist market segments they serve in the defence and aerospace market.
My most recent visit to the company’s operations in Crawley late in January and where the primary activities include train warming systems, integrated communications, electronic warfare equipment, synthetic training devices, unmanned aerial vehicle technology including Watchkeeper, airborne surveillance radar and mission systems, cockpit avionics, civil-satcom, connectivity systems, in-flight entertainment systems and importantly, air traffic managements systems was extremely impressive. Quite apart from the range of sophisticated defence products produced and the excellent approach the company takes to through-life product support one of the things that struck me most was the low throughput of personnel and how long many of those employed have remained at Thales. That says a lot for the excellent, modern and highly invested facilities that they work in, the attitude, approach and style of management and of course, the working conditions which I can only regard as being excellent.
Clearly within my own specific domain and experience it is the aspects of Thales activities in defence electronics, air traffic management and synthetic based training aids that is of foremost interest. That said, I am looking forward to visiting the rail and signalling aspects of Thales at some future point to learn more about an area of activity in which the company has been very successful particularly for what is now Transport for London.
In defence related activities, aside those that I described in previous commentaries following visits made to Belfast and Templecombe during 2014 and late 2015 respectively, Crawley is best described as the centre of excellence of Thales UK. The completely rebuilt site employs over 2,000 highly skilled personnel and who represent one third of all those working for the company in the UK. The high security facility is extremely well designed and laid out as one might expect and includes no fewer less than 26 system integration laboratories.
In my walk through what Thales does at Crawley and elsewhere I will start with military fixed-wing simulators which the company has been engaged in one way or another for as long as 80 years past. Thales UK has in fact delivered no fewer than 300 simulators worldwide covering 60 different aircraft types. The company operates for 95 different customer owned sites but in terms of Royal Air Force simulation/synthetic based training it is the full Tornado GR4 mission simulators at RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Marham, the Tucano training unit at RAF Linton on Ouse, Voyager and A400M training at RAF Brize Norton and Eagle (Lynx) at Middle Wallop that are perhaps the best known. The company will also be responsible for the High G trainer facility that is to be built at RAF Cranwell and that will replace the operation currently still in use at Farnborough.
For rotary and UAV synthetic based training Thales has systems available ranging from desk-top computer and classroom based training aids through to full weapons systems and tactical mission trainers and flight training devices and full mission simulators. Royal Air Force synthetic based fast jet training today is increasingly based on use of variety of different training aids that work up to use of the full mission simulator. In both theory and practice depending on which capability we are taking of fast jet pilot training and retraining has already reached a 50% synthetic to 50% live basis saving considerable aircraft flight operating costs and yet providing pilots with far greater scope and reach than pure flying training. Thales look to be very well placed in this market and have an excellent reputation on this very interesting field. Synthetic training is technology that no matter how good it appears to be when you are locked into a training environment and using a full mission simulator continues to evolve and develop in terms of graphics and of what one is able to do particularly in terms of warfare based training. Having myself had the opportunity of doing both front and back-seat Tornado GR4 in the excellent Thales run full mission training facility at RAF Lossiemouth on several occasions and made to work extremely hard I can personally vouch for the very high level of skills achievable in a synthetic based training environment and of what the capability can provide.
In addition Thales is also involved in synthetically based battlefield training and this too is remarkable in terms of what it allows those in a supervised training environment to achieve. Thales is also involved in providing training systems for rotary (computer based training and Helicopter Crew tactical trainer, cockpit procedure trainer, full training devices, full flight and full mission simulators) on a similar basis as that done for fixed wing and also for UAV and maritime mission capability as well.
In November 2013 Thales acquired XPI Simulation which is a pioneer of commercial –off-the-shelf solutions to build and deliver high-fidelity simulated environments. The company designs and manufactures a range of simulator-based diver training systems used by the MOD and UK police forces for advanced driver training and has also been involved in providing a high fidelity armoured vehicle driving simulator for the MOD’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL
Thales UK is also a major prime and systems integrator to OEM’s in both rotary and fixed wing sectors on the field of avionics, cockpit managements systems, moving map displays, FLOR Displays, navigation, radio altimeter, TACAN, multi-Mode receiver, NVG’s and Head up displays, self-protection, communications, countermeasure dispensing systems and antenna systems. Thales UK was also responsible for the supply of military avionics systems, defensive aids suites, in-flight entertainments systems and the overall turnkey support contract for the UK’s Air Tanker Airbus A330 Voyager air-to-air tanker refuelling and transport systems aircraft capability that is based at RAF Brize Norton.
Thales Mission 360 is a scalable, integrated end-to-end air mission support comprising a set of products that are ideally used together and that have been specifically tailored the needs of military fixed wing and rotary wing operators. Mission 360 comprises a range of modular sub-systems comprising Dynamic information management, Ground Mission Support Systems, On-Board Mission Management Systems, Avionics Management Systems and Sensor and Display Systems. The systems are designed to provide flexibility, improved safety by reduced workload and error free data transfer, continuity and common software environment and enhanced mission effectiveness through tasking through visibility of real time asset deployment, planning and briefing improved through mission rehearsal capability and real time information availability (supporting conflict avoidance) superior execution through reduced cockpit workload and in providing flexible responses to changing situations. The system is extremely impressive and makes use of a huge variety of Thales based products.
The Thales Mission 360 offer for fixed wing transports includes Communications and satellite equipment (SATCOM, V/UHF, Secured Intercommunications, IFF, ATS, T-CAS, TAWS and radio management) Mission (Flight Management Systems, Digital Moving map, Mission management) Flight Controls and Navigation (Autopilot, FCU & actuators, Inertial Navigation system, GPS, CRPA, Air data unit and probes, TACAN, Radio Altimeter) Integrated Modular (avionics, computers, Arinc 664 switches, development tools) Training solutions (Full flight simulators and procedural training devices and training services) and Cockpit (multifunctional displays, HUD, EVS, Electronic standby and HMSD).
Thales DMS software and ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) activities include the recent win of Crowsnest, a next generation helicopter airborne surveillance and control capability for the Royal Navy and which will be fitted to EH101 Merlin Helicopters, digital DMM (next generation radar electronics support measures) that provide exceptional detection and parameter measurement while, also in the predominantly naval environment, the electronic warfare heritage provides and supports products such as Sabre, Sea Lion, APX, UAT, DPX, Scorpion, Sabre, Scorpion 2, Accolade, Meerkat, Meerkat SA, Barbican and others.
Thales I-Master radar is regarded as the best of class moving target indicator radar and is installed on multiple fixed wing, rotary and UAV’s. Thales ISR is a fully managed platform and sensor agnostic service in which the company retains ownership of ownership of assets that it operates and maintains on behalf of the customer government and that delivers a constant stream of information. This is an impressive piece of kit and one that has over 105,000 hours proven service in Afghanistan.
Watchkeeper which is in service with the British Army is a high end tactical unmanned aerial system with dual sensor – EO/IR and radar – that was deployed to Afghanistan in 2014 and that achieved the first UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) flight in controlled civil airspace in September 2015.
Thales UK is a very important part of the overall Thales activities worldwide and the well-run operations in the UK continue to expand. As a group Thales has a well-balanced divide of activities spread almost equally between defence and civil. The company as a whole employs 61,000 personnel worldwide, is present in 56 countries and has an excellent record of self-funded research and development expenditure.
CHW (London 10th March 2016)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS