Eyeing the Future

DCNS combines research with innovative ideas to build futuristic vessels

A FORCE Report

Nantes/Lorient, France: One would have imagined that a shipyard would be closer to the sea. But DCNS’ Indret Centre at Nantes couldn’t have been more unlike a shipyard. Significantly west of Paris, it stops short of the Bay of Biscay in the Atlantic Ocean. More in the league of a sterilised laboratory than an industrial enterprise where heavy-duty items are churned out at rapid frequencies, the Nantes-Indret Centre has chequered past. Starting off as a shipyard, it was converted into a canon factory during the turbulent years of the French revolution before being reclaimed as a ship-manufacturing facility.

DCNS combines research with innovative ideas to build futuristic vessels

Today, the Nantes-Indret Centre is the powerhouse behind DCNS’ shipbuilding empire which spans several countries like Brazil, Chile, Greece, India, Italy, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Singapore, builder as it is of propulsion systems. So, it was only expected that when DCNS decided to showcase its state-of-the-art manufacturing capabilities and technological reach to select Indian journalists, the first stop would be the Centre, which houses a submarine division (making submarine propulsion systems), a naval defence systems’ division and the services division. “Through life support is very important,” explained one DCNS official. “We believe in helping customers maintain their own ships. They don’t have to come to France for everything.”

Even though DCNS, which till 2007 was called DCN (an MoU with Thales resulted in the ‘S’ in the acronym), is primarily surface and sub-surface ship-builders, a substantial part of its business comes from civil nuclear energy and marine renewable energy. What’s more, as one senior DCNS executive told the visiting journalists, “We are also equipment designers and producers.” Which means, very little work is outsourced.

Despite the range of these ancillary businesses, DCNS core business is submarines. According to the escort of the media team, “Since the French nuclear deterrence is based on submarines, DCNS’ largest focus is on them, both the long endurance conventional variety as well as nuclear powered ones.” DCNS’ inventory boasts of 2nd generation SSBNs, 2nd generation SSNs (the latest of which, Barracuda would be ready by 2016) and 4th generation SSKs, the latest of which, Andrasta, meant for coastal waters is under development. Based on the Scorpene class, which DCNS is also building for the Indian Navy at Mazagon Dock Ltd in Mumbai, Andrasta is more in the realms of concept as of now. DCNS believe in relentless research and development, which is why every year it introduces a concept vessel, whose development may or may not take place depending upon the response it gets. However, in the SSK category, Scorpene has been DCNS’ most successful vessel. According to one DCNS executive briefing the media, “Scorpene meets all requirements, and exceeds some.”

Even though the Scorpene facilities remained out of bounds for the visiting Indian media team — “No clearance from the Indian MoD”, muttered one official — the submarine, its capabilities and future prospects were the focal point of the visit to the Nantes-Indret Centre, which incidentally also houses the newly-developed Mesma air independent propulsion (AIP) systems division. According to DCNS officials, unlike other AIPs in the market, Mesma is a low risk system which can be installed on existing submarines, which implies that it can be installed on the Indian Scorpenes if the navy so desires. For the double hull subs, Mesma operates on Ethanol and for single hull low sulphur diesel is used. Given that DCNS sold the first AIP system in 1995, it sure knows its Mesma from other AIPs.

To better explain the merits of Mesma AIP, the Indian media was escorted to a tower housing the Mesma prototype. Notwithstanding the hushed whispers and sharp intake of breath that followed the discovery that the prototype on display was being developed for Pakistan Navy’s Agosta 90B submarines, which are in for refits, it was a bit surreal to see the long tubular object placed vertically on the ground, reaching as high as the ceiling. The Indian media was only allowed to admire the base of the object with the upper level being shrouded on the ‘request of the customer.’ Clearly, that is where the meat was. Anyway, the Mesma expert who was tasked to brief the media team said, “The Mesma AIP is a low maintenance system which will incur low life cycle cost, even as it gives more than three weeks of endurance.”

Nearly a month after this visit, DCNS issued a press release saying that it was ready to ‘ship the second of three Mesma air-independent propulsion modules ordered by the Pakistan Navy for its DCNS-designed Agosta 90B submarines. This module will be installed as part of a scheduled major refit for one of two Agosta 90Bs in active service. The self-contained hull module will be integrated with the host submarine over the next few months with DCNS technical assistance. A “cut-and-plug” operation will see the 8.7-metre-long “plug” inserted into the boat’s hull. The first Mesma module was integrated directly during the construction of third-of-class Agosta 90B submarine, PNS Hamza which entered active service in 2008. Following the “cut-and-plug”, the boat will have a length of 76.2 metres for a submerged displacement of 1,980 tonnes. The Mesma module will enable the submarine to remain submerged for weeks at a time.’

So now we know what we have in our neighbourhood! Incidentally, according to a senior Indian naval officer, Indian Navy did not want the Mesma AIP system, despite DCNS offering it, because it was an unproven and costly system. However, DCNS is once again offering to put the Mesma AIP module on the fifth and the sixth submarine without any escalation in manufacturing costs.

The coming months will be crucial for DCNS in India as the navy is likely to issue the request for proposal (RFP) for the second line of submarines called P-75I. DCNS will be one of the respondents and it is hopeful that the navy may decide to stick with the tried and tested system. A few weeks before the visit to DCNS facilities in France, talking to FORCE in New Delhi, managing director, DCNS India Pvt Ltd, Bernard G. Buisson had said, “All I want to convey is that DCNS’ strength cannot be compared with anyone else. You have to see the long-term sustainability of DCNS as opposed to other submarine manufacturers in Europe.” Basically, what he implied was that given the way European economies are struggling, several submarine-making shipyards will be rendered workless in the near future, calling for some amount of consolidation. And when that will happen, the big fish will either gobble up the smaller ones or they will be forced to shut down. “But this will never happen with DCNS,” says Buisson. “75 per cent of DCNS is owned by the government with the remaining 25 per cent by Thales.”

It was perhaps to reinforce what Buisson had said that the select Indian journalists were given small teasers on DCNS over two days. But very packed two days, they were, encompassing submarines, surface ships and equipment manufacturing, which was also housed at Nantes-Indret Centre. DCNS designs, manufactures and integrates a range of equipment for submarines and surface ships, which is considered strategic from both shipbuilding and customer point of view as it may impinge upon the eventual performance of the vessel. In the case of submarines, the equipment includes Weapon Launching Tubes, Weapon Handling Systems, Torpedoes, Unmanned Underwater Vehicles, Combat Management Systems, Integrated Platform Management System, Air Independent Propulsion system and Heat Exchanger among others. For surface ships it builds equipment like Vertical Missile Launchers, Propulsion Systems (now including hybrid system involving diesel, electric and gas), Shaft Lines, Helicopter Landing Grid, Helicopter Traversing System and so on.

In fact, of Helicopter Landing Grid is one of the peculiarities of DCNS. Meant to be fitted on the rear deck of the surface ship, the grid helps the helicopters and UAVs (from as small as Fire Scout to as big as NH-90 or AW101) land and immediately stabilise. So far, DCNS has sold more than 400 grids worldwide including to India.

Sirehna
Since research and technology (R&T) is an integral part of DCNS’ work philosophy, several years ago, it took over the Sirehna research facilities and converted it into DCNS Research. But to maintain the academic nature of the work, the facility in Nantes is located within the Nantes University campus. While Sirehna conducts research in several areas including autonomous aerial and underwater vehicles, alternative energies and so on, its biggest focus is on working on various ways of ensuring safety at sea. This is done in a huge indoor pool where different sea states are simulated and movement of vessels, their response to waves etc is studied.

The DCNS Research has 150 scientists working full-time at the Centre and nearly 25 per cent of their research is carried out in cooperation with the University. Often DCNS Research also contracts different universities to conduct research on its behalf. According to the director of the Centre, “While in most technical subjects, we are ahead of the universities and only need their assistance for basic figures and computation, in areas of basic research, the university students are often ahead of us.” DCNS puts eight per cent of its turnover towards the development of new projects.

Gowind Day
This was the crowning glory of the two-day visit: The naming ceremony of the Gowind class offshore patrol vessel at its Lorient shipyard in the Bay of Biscay on June 17. Despite, relentless and heavy rain, the enthusiasm at the shipyard was palpable, where DCNS had also organised an exhibition for all the vendors who had contributed to the building of the new class of OPV.

In a grand ceremony, attended by defence attaches of various countries, including Pakistan, (the Indians were not there) the vessel was officially named OPV L’Adroit by one of the DCNS staffer who had worked on the Gowind programme from the beginning. She also cut the ceremonial ribbon to inaugurate the vessel. Also present during the ceremony were French Navy’s chief of staff, Admiral Pierre-François Forissier and executive vice president and deputy managing director of DCNS, Bernard Huet.

The construction of OPV L’Adroit started in May 2010 when the steel was cut. The ship was launched in April 2011 and in June (when the naming ceremony was held) was scheduled to be commissioned in August 2011. The biggest peculiarity of OPV L’Adroit is that this technology demonstrator ship has been made by DCNS for DCNS. The vessel will be leased to the French Navy for three years to carry out trials after which the vessel will be marketed globally. In this period, L’Adroit will be made to perform tasks like border patrol, combat and environment protection. The vessel, with the crew strength of 30 and additional capacity for 30 Special Forces, comes fitted with two 40mm naval guns, one five ton helicopter and a UAV.

Designed for maritime safety & security (MSS) missions ranging from counter piracy and terrorism to the policing and interdiction of all forms of trafficking, OPV L’Adroit, is the first member of the Gowind family of corvettes and OPVs. Build in open architecture style, rendering enormous flexibility to its future customers, L’Adroit combines advanced technologies including unmanned aerial and surface vehicles (UAVs and USVs), commando boat launch ramps and a single enclosed mast which, with a panoramic bridge ensures 360 degree visibility for crew and sensors alike. With the length of 87 metres and displacement of 1,000 ton, OPV L’Adroit offers three weeks’ of blue-water endurance, a range of 8,000 nautical miles and a top speed of 21 knots. Moreover, OPV L’Adroit can sustain itself through sea state four to five. The importance of this programme for DCNS can be judged by the fact that Indian journalists apart, it invited hacks from various European countries who could be its potential customers for this ceremony. Clearly, this is one ambitious project for the shipyard with expertise in building surface ships from 1,000 to 70,000 tons.