Why are the French recognised as the world's most efficient anti-mine warfare specialists? Luc Cahier-Bihoreau, business development manager at the mine warfare business unit of Thales Under Water Systems, and Lt-Commander Mathieu Cherriere, commander of the Verseau mine clearance ship, agree that it is not so much the technology they have available as the accumulated experience of the French navy's mine clearance personnel.
“Mine clearance officers are like the 'golden ears' on submarines: no technology can replace experience and when you have someone who's spent 10, 15 even 20 years as a mine clearance officer he has learnt to recognise every shadow for what it is: an oyster or a mine,” Cahier-Bihoreau told me aboard the Verseau. In other navies mine clearance personnel don't generally stay that long "and when they go into another job, well, they take their experience with them and soemone else has to learn from scratch," he said.
Thales Underwater Systems earns €70 million a year, 80% of which is in exports : “France's reputation was made after the first Gulf War when the allied navies cleared the Gulf of 1,200 mines which were largely found by France. So, for example, when Pakistan was looking for mine clearance systems they just totted up how many each had cleared in the Gulf and went for the winner,” he said.
I have to confess that I knew absolutely nothing about mine clearance prior to my visit aboard the Verseau : to show us how important shadows are we were shown a screen of what appeared to be a series of echo blobs on a grey background. Add the shadows in and you saw that the blobs were camels in the desert and, as Cahier-Bihoreau said, “the smallest blob which you might have disregarded turns out to be the most dangerous because we now see that it's a human with a rifle.” Obviously none of this is underwater but it illustrates the importance of shadows.
Everyone agrees, he said, that the future of mine-clearance lies in “an intensive use of unmanned vehicles, but there is a big problem of their doctrine of use; no navy as really decided on how we're going to use them.” The idea is to get man out of the loop, not for interpreting the sonar echos but for the verification and destruction phases.
Colonel Jean-Yves Bruxelle of the DGA French procurement system told us that current mine clearance equipment will be obsolete within the next 20 years. “So we are now preparing the future and our goal is to develop a modular concept making widespread use of robotics to be put aboard dedicated and non-dedicated ships.” Because mine-clearance ships do only that...the Verseau was built in 1987 or the Belgian navy but was transferred to the French one in 1997 as the Belgian's couldn't afford to keep it...