The long-delayed SEA 1905 mine countermeasures and sea survey program is a step closer to achieving an outcome with the shortlisting of Saab Australia and Exail. While not officially confirmed to APDR, it seems clear that the loser is Thales, who have been unexpectedly dropped. It will probably take Defence another 12 months to select a preferred bidder.
The decision is a little surprising because in industry circles the offers from Saab and Thales were considered the ones most likely to get up. This is no reflection on Exail, just that the other two are well established in Australia and both have a proven track record of delivering systems and services to the RAN.
While Exail are strong in Europe – especially France – they are less well known here. The company was created in 2022 through the merger of iXblue with the ECA Group. Both companies have a history in underwater robotics, navigation and survey. Exail has around 1,500 employees and a turnover of $400 million.
It is a bit too early to speculate on why Thales Australia were eliminated. Created in the 1980s to deliver the ‘Scylla’ sonar suite on the Collins submarines they went on to expand their activities by also providing the underwater warfare system on the Anzac frigates. For a couple of decades, they were the dominant force in Australian naval underwater technology, sometimes to the discomfort of smaller industry players.
This decision will undoubtedly hurt the company, particularly as it follows hard on the heels of the unannounced Defence decision to spend $310 million on a fully imported US towed array system called SURTASS. APDR has called this decision scandalous – a view apparently shared by the entire Australian underwater technology sector, which has the capacity to do the work locally.
It could be that Thales were underbid. Or it could be that Defence took the view that there was some technical overlap between the bids from Saab and Thales, meaning that eliminating one of them made sense. Whatever the reasons, they are unlikely to be ever shared with the public.
PHOTO: Crew members of HMAS Gascoyne launch a Double Eagle Mine Disposal Vehicle during Exercise OCEAN RAIDER. (DoD photo)