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Alliance, NATO research vessel, tests underwater drones in the Far North

(B2 – In the Norwegian Sea) While sailing between Iceland and Norway, we were able to embark for a few hours on board the NATO Research Vessel (NRV) Alliance. This original ship, which carries specialists from different NATO countries, is testing underwater drones in the icy waters of the Arctic

A Slocum G3 drone prepares to dive in front of the NRV Alliance in the Norwegian Sea. (©B2/Romain Mielcarek)

« We take science to the sea sums up Doctor Catherine Warner, the American who heads the Maritime Research and Experimentation Center (CMRE) on which the boat depends. Covered with antennas, sonars and experimental machines, this building is the pride of NATO. Officials visiting on board see it as proof of the Allies' ability to develop new solutions to meet the needs of the military.

Underwater drones or gliders

If you NRV Alliance is likely to work on all areas identified as priorities by the NATO navies (anti-submarine warfare, anti-mine warfare, intelligence, etc.), its work is currently concentrated on underwater drones, called gliders in English. Machines that could revolutionize many missions.

NB: The NRV Alliance and its drones regularly participate in NATO maneuvers, such as the Unified Vision 2018 inter-allied intelligence exercise. Read here.

More enduring than men?

These drones seduce within NATO. He is a high-ranking officer, with a wealth of experience in maritime military intelligence, who sums up all the appeal: “ A human crew needs to return to port to sleep, eat, and see family. These robots can stay for months at sea. Inexpensive, discreet, versatile, durable and autonomous, these machines are at the heart of the experiments carried out by the 25 scientists on board. The ones they currently use, Slocum G3 from the American company Teledyne, map the seabed and take readings of temperatures and currents. Crucial information for tracking and monitoring the movements of submarines, for example.

To launch this Slocum G3, it only takes a few minutes from a boat. (©B2/Romain Mielcarek)

Multipurpose

The potential of gliders interested in various fields. These machines have been tested in the fight against mines, with robots capable of patrolling, recognizing threats and signaling them to humans who can then intervene. An interesting way to compensate for a European fleet of anti-mine warfare vessels that is increasingly aging and expensive to replace.

In another register, drones could mesh the funds of certain strategic points to monitor the movements of enemy submarines. In a few years, if powers were able to block certain key axes in this way, nuclear deterrence could be impacted and should reinvent itself in its naval component. This is one of the interests of the Far North, where nuclear submarines regularly transit. According to a senior NATO intelligence specialist, these underwater drones are currently almost undetectable.

The questioned submarines

The arrival of these submersibles risks calling into question the whole submarine operation. Especially since they are mostly automated: given the difficulty of ensuring communications under water, it is not possible to control them permanently. The man is therefore in reality content to follow the movements on screens, giving only a few adjustments for the regular ascents to the surface. A strategic development that reminds Dr. Catherine Warner of another major change within the US Air Force, where she was in charge of several drone programs: “ The submariners are skeptical for now. Like the US Air Force pilots when the Predators arrived back then. But today, they have fully integrated the interest of these drones and they have agreed to work on them. »

An almost unique ship

Custom designed

The NVR Alliance is a ship custom-designed for NATO needs, in the workshops of the Italian Fincantieri. Delivered in 1988, it carries a multitude of research equipment which makes it a cutting-edge laboratory in the field of maritime studies. It has the latest technologies in the oceanographic, acoustic and meteorological fields as well as its own workshop to repair or modify equipment. " The strength of this ship, explains a scientist on board, is that it allows you to test ideas outside, in real conditions. The building can actually sail in polar waters. All this with living conditions on board that remain very comfortable: almost all the researchers have individual cabins!

The Alliance within NATO

Le NRV Alliance is, with the BRC Leonardo, one of the two ships owned by NATO. Attached to the Center for Maritime Research and Experimentation (CMRE) in La Spezia (Italy), it is responsible for testing technologies for the benefit of the Allies. The building was operated by German sailors for a long time, until 2015. To simplify logistics in its home port, it was transferred to the hands of the Italian Navy, which quickly seduced the scientists on board with its secret weapon: pizza as a late-night snack!

Pioneers not always followed

The teams of NVR Alliance work in collaboration with industrialists and universities. They often develop their own solutions to the problems identified. For example, they bought a Bluefin drone from the French Thales, in which they integrated their own equipment. The manufacturer was able to benefit from feedback and is thus progressing in its development, thanks to NATO trials. On the public authority side, the enthusiasm is not always so present. According to Dr. Catherine Warner, the discoveries on board are not always followed by the sponsoring States who hesitate to continue the investments.

(Romain Mielcarek)

Another robot launched into the water using a mechanical arm from a hatch on the side of the ship. (©B2/Romain Mielcarek)

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