Toulon // On the quayside at Saint-Mandrier-sur-Mer, opposite the French naval port of Toulon, state-of-the-art drones and robots capable of performing the most intricate of tasks on land, in the air and at sea stand gleaming in the Mediterranean sunshine.
Behind them rest two elderly and decommissioned warships.
The frigates’ remaining function is to serve as breakwater for the combat diving school run by DCI, the French defence ministry’s commercial arm for exporting know-how.
The expertise taught by DCI centre instructors travels successfully and 60 per cent of the divers trained there in the past 14 years have been from the Arabian Gulf.
DCI sales in the fields of consulting, training and technical assistance reached €227.5 million (Dh904m) in 2015m, reflecting a 35 per cent increase in five years. It brings employment for almost 1,000 people and there are permanent offices in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia as well as South East Asia and India.
The juxtaposition of old and new on the Saint-Mandrier quayside presents a striking contrast. The old frigates have done their active service and been replaced by much more modern vessels; the robotic equipment to which they provide a backdrop has a wide range of military and civil applications in a more technological age.
The most eye-catching device on display is a yellow drone from the Toulon-based defence manufacturer ECA’s IT180 range. Valentin Hanns, ECA’s export sales director, says it would cost a buyer up to €300,000 for the basic model, adding: “What you pay above that depends on what kind of payload you want fitted.”
Beyond their value in conflict zones – a camera system with powerful zoom can identify enemy troops at a range of 600 metres – IT180s can be used in survey missions in mining and on pipelines and power lines and are proving an effective tool in firefighting.
At the naval air base of Hyeres, a short drive east of Toulon, Lt Bernard Bastien is happy to talk about the Panther Standard 2 helicopter he flies.
The aircraft is classically used for naval missions, either in conflict or in combating drug trafficking and piracy at sea. Gulf Armed Forces deploy several of the aircraft.
A reliable workhorse with a history stretching back more than 20 years, the Airbus-built helicopter has undergone significant upgrades to give it, in the words of the makers, a second youth. “We do not carry arms but act as the eyes of the frigate in any operation,” says Lt Bastien, 31, who serves with the French navy’s 36 Squadron or Flottille 36F.
“Previously, it could be like flying blind at night, with just radar, so we were able to detect what was there but not identify it. Infrared night visibility has made a huge difference; it’s as if we are flying in daylight.”
The Euronaval exhibition will also showcase developments in systems to counter cyber threats.
As Jean-Michel Orosco, senior vice-president in charge of cyber security for DCNS, puts it, “it comes down to trying to stay a step ahead of the bad guys”.
At the company’s new site in Ollioules, just outside Toulon, Mr Orosco says cyber attacks can be mounted for reasons of espionage or for use as a weapon or in organised crime.
“Just think about any major country in the world being without electricity supply for several weeks, as a result of state, terrorist or criminal cyber attacks,” he says. “It would be a nightmare.”
DCNS, which employs 13,000 people in 10 countries including Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and India, is currently building six Fremm-class frigates for the French navy, all to be delivered by 2019. It prides itself on its “cyber resilient” ships.
But as if to demonstrate the need for constant vigilance – that need to outsmart the assorted enemies mentioned by Mr Orosco – DCNS is currently embarrassed by a huge data breach concerning six Scorpene-class submarines it is due to supply to the Indian navy later this year.
The technical information targeted by hackers was handed to an Australian newspaper, which published extracts from the 22,000 pages reportedly leaked.
The technewsworld.com website says the episode raised questions about an Australian deal to buy 12 submarines from DCNS.
It echoes previous cyber attack on contractors who were in the running for the Australian deal.
No DCNS official was willing to comment beyond confirming that the leak was being investigated – and that the Australian contract was still considered on.
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