The UK Defence Secretary, Grant Shapps, has announced a £1.85 billion ($2 billion) contract with Thales, the UK arm of a defence and aerospace specialist, to utilize artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR) for maintaining British warships and submarines. The 15-year deal aims to keep naval vessels at sea for extended periods by using AI to analyze ships’ systems data and identify potential issues before they escalate. Virtual reality will assist technicians in guiding operators located overseas to perform physical repairs.
This contract is seen as part of the broader trend of integrating AI technology into defence systems. The objective is to enhance the Royal Navy’s operational capability by minimizing the downtime of ships and submarines, particularly amid heightened tensions over naval security in regions like the Red Sea, where Houthi rebels have attacked ships.
The technology provided by Thales under this contract will focus on various naval systems, including sonar, masts, periscopes, and electronic warfare equipment. It will also address sensors and sonar equipment on the continuous at-sea deterrent, a longstanding initiative that ensures at least one nuclear warhead-armed submarine is always on operational patrol.
Concerns have been raised about the amount of time Royal Navy vessels spend in port due to malfunctions or collisions. This contract aims to address these concerns and improve the overall readiness of naval assets. The use of AI and VR is expected to enable submarines to stay submerged for longer periods, reducing the need to surface for repairs and equipment updates that could potentially reveal their locations.
Shapps emphasized the importance of minimizing maintenance time for naval assets, especially in times of global instability. The contract with Thales is part of the UK’s ongoing efforts to modernize its defence capabilities, leveraging advanced technologies to enhance operational efficiency and address security challenges.
Thales, a multinational company headquartered in Paris, has a significant presence in the UK and holds various government contracts with the Ministry of Defence and Home Office. The company is known for its expertise in satellite propulsion systems, and it acquired Gemalto in 2019, which holds the contract to produce post-Brexit blue passports.