PARIS — Nexter Systems and Thales have released the final design for a new 40 mm naval air defense system, expecting deliveries to the French Navy to begin in the next few months.

The companies presented an at-scale mockup of the final design for their RapidFire system at the Nexter booth during the biennial Euronaval trade conference, taking place here Oct. 18-21.

The gun system has been in development since 2019, Olivier Lequeux, Nexter’s turret market director, told reporters Tuesday on the show floor. Developed for the French Navy, the RapidFire is designed for low-layer ground-to-air defense – particularly anti-drone warfare – and can protect ships, land units, or bases against a wide range of threats such as jet skis, boats, loitering ammunition, swarms of unmanned aerial systems (UAVs), light aircraft or missiles up to 4,000 meters away.

The gun system is based on the 40CTA (40 mm Cased Telescoped Ammunition) cannon co-developed 25 years ago by Nexter and BAE Systems under the joint venture CTAI. The cannon is in use on the EBRC Jaguar armored reconnaissance vehicle, developed for the French and Belgian armies, and will also be installed on the Ajax armored fighting vehicles in development by General Dynamics for the British Army.

The initial program of record is to deliver four RapidFires to the French Navy, which will equip its new tanker vessels – known in French as batiments ravitailleurs de force, or BRF – with two systems each. The first system is scheduled to be delivered in late 2022 or early 2023, Lequeux said. The first two systems are currently undergoing testing and evaluations.

The companies expect to ultimately deliver over 40 systems to the navy, to equip other vessels including the service’s ocean patrol vessels, and future mine warfare vessels. The RapidFire could also serve as secondary artillery for France’s first-rank frigates and carriers, said Norbert Cadapeaud, product line manager at Thales Land and Air Systems.

Thales and Nexter developed a road map for the air defense system over a decade ago, when the two companies began to identify the need to detect and track very small and very fast targets, Lequeux said.

“To have the capacity to engage a swarm of drones is completely new for this type of system, and for us it was very important,” he said.

Incorporating a panoramic sight on the turret was also critical, as was the development of new ammunition – the Anti-Aerial Airburst (A3B) round dedicated against air targets. Nexter is currently undergoing two years of internal qualifications with the A3B round, which must then be tested and qualified by France’s military procurement office, the Delegation Generale de l’Armement.

The RapidFire will be equipped with five different types of ammunition, including the A3B. The ammunition can be automatically identified and selected to counter the designated threat, Cadapeaud noted. The optronic sight is capable of operating independently from the gun or connected to the command management system, and the turret operates passively when not in firing mode, he added.

The companies’ roadmap includes adding guided munitions to the turret, per Nexter’s Lequeux.

The RapidFire includes some adaptations from its land-based variant, such as to account for the different munition weights, he added. But the land and naval versions will be assembled on the same production line, with modifications occurring only at the very end of the process.

Nexter is on contract to deliver 40 CTA cannons under the French army’s Scorpion modernization program for the next four decades, meaning the RapidFire can be produced for equally as long, Lequeux noted.

Thales and Nexter expect a number of export opportunities for the RapidFire as well, but declined to offer specifics.

Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.

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