European countries are ever-more focused on driving sustainable renewal. In manufacturing, they have struggled to replace declining industries with higher-tech variants. Shipbuilding is a case in point: many European shipyards that once hummed with activity have now fallen silent. And Belgium has not been immune: despite its world-class ports, large-ocean-vessel shipbuilding itself has all but disappeared. Yet this may soon change. The country has embarked on one of the world’s most advanced unmanned MCM programmes. It offers a unique opportunity to embed expertise and technology in Belgium for the long term—and forge a Belgian shipbuilding sector fit for the 21st century. But, while the government has defined detailed expectations for the project’s social dividend, the quality of the strategy pursued by the selected programme provider will determine the actual return.
A clear plan to catapult ship construction back into Belgium
The Belgian consortium, Sea Naval Solutions (SNS), has responded to this call with a clear strategy. Central to the delivery of the programme’s new motherships is Engine Deck Repair (EDR). With a 37ha shipyard in Antwerp—being fully refurbished in partnership with public-sector authorities—its facilities are unrivalled. EDR already works closely with SNS partners Chantiers de l’Atlantique (CDA) and Socarenam. And, when the starting gun fires for the first mothership, the transfer of technology and skills from these leaders will be immediate and intense. First, EDR personnel will base themselves at CDA for rigorous upskilling in fields like naval architecture and vessel design. A second phase will see them work seamlessly with Socarenam’s teams, gaining essential expertise on hull construction while fully handling parallel project steps such as fitting the ship’s electrical distribution system.
Belgian shipbuilders in the lead
Then, back in Antwerp, EDR will become the lead player in a third phase: the entire construction and fitting out of the mothership’s superstructure. This includes deeply-technological command and control equipment, complex weaponry, and highly skilled cable and electrical installation. EDR will also lead the construction of specialist MCM items, such as the patented launch and recovery system (LARS). While this unique design was invented in France, it will be entirely constructed and integrated in Belgium. Belgian shipbuilding leadership will extend to the MW toolkit too. For example, local company Sobelcomp has upgraded its facilities and contracted to manufacture sophisticated hulls for the programme’s Halcyon-class unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), and numerous other local players will be involved.
Systems integration: the high-tech icing on the cake
A final fourth phase will tie the previous three together. Here, EDR will work with Thales Belgium to complete the mothership’s “brain”—a task of almost eyewatering complexity that will see all the integration of the unmanned MCM toolbox and the creation of an overall “system of systems”. The net result? Not just a revitalised Belgian shipbuilding industry, but one capable of handling ship construction from scratch, command and control needs, and requirements for cutting-edge communications. Such a capability offers a fitting return on the investment in Antwerp’s new state-of-the-art shipyard: it would act as a hub of future hi-tech shipbuilding, with spokes extending to all corners of Belgium.
Fit for the future—and facing outwards to the world
SNS’s partners have already agreed to operate their partnership for the long term. This opens the road to a pipeline of international contracts for EDR, unmanned vehicle manufacturers, and a raft of local players. In fact, the synergies and close working created to date within SNS have already resulted in active consideration of other projects in the field. What’s more, with SNS, Belgium would maintain its leading MW position. New centres of excellence in Ghent, Tubize, and Liège, and a network of Belgian universities, will feed the development of rapidly changing unmanned MCM technology—ensuring the entire high-end ecosystem constructed around this revitalised shipbuilding industry remains fit for the future and ready for both national and export programmes.