It must be said the Royal Navy has a robust mine countermeasures capability and contributes to counter IED efforts as well. However, things do not stand still and there is a project in the early stages called the Future Mine Countermeasures/Hydrographic/Patrol Vessel (FMHPV) that seeks to define a replacement for the existing Hunt and Sandown specialist vessels, some of the hydrographic vessels and the patrol vessels.
The project will look at delivered effect and not be platform centric, so instead of creating a specialist vessel to carry out the task it will look at a number of means of delivery, not necessarily a dedicated vessel.
Mines represent the most likely method that will be employed to deny access to critical choke points and littoral environments. They are very difficult to counter and relatively cheap, a classic asymmetric weapon.
The IED of the maritime environment
Despite their effectiveness and the probability of us encountering them, the whole MCM area has received only a relatively small investment in comparison to others. This must change and MCM forms one of the ‘Capability Plus’ areas of the Think Defence proposal.
The general theme of combining patrol, hydrography and MCM has been in circulation for some time, culminating in the C3 concept. Many people have proposed a well armed vessel that is more patrol and less survey/MCM with resultant designs using a mission bay and modular equipment to fulfil these latter requirements. Jed wrote a good post on using the Spanish BAM as a C3, here
The problem with this is that if it looks like a warship, the Treasury will question the value of the C2 and ask some uncomfortable questions hence the RN dropping the C3 title and proposing anything that doesn’t look too fighty!
I also think that using a small frigate/large OPV design also misses the opportunity to really add capacity, the number of MCM specialists and amount of mission equipment they would be able to carry would not provide much of an uplift over the traditional dedicated vessels.
There is also a great deal of expertise in mine countermeasures in other European naval forces, the legacy of two major conflicts means that even today, sea mines in European waters remain a very real threat to shipping and sailors.
Current plans seem to point to a single class of vessel about 100m in length and between 2,000 and 2,500 tonnes displacement. These will deliver on the MCM, survey and patrol requirements using a range of off board systems like USV’s, UAV’s and UUV’s. This concept recognises the synergies between survey and mines countermeasures and desirability of unmanned systems. The RN is not alone in moving in this general direction, many nations are travelling the same road; the US Navy, Royal Australian Navy and French Navy (Système de Lutte Anti-Mines – Futur (SLAM-F)) all have similar projects and with the recent Anglo French defence cooperation treaty it is likely that a joint project of some sorts will emerge. France is the lead in an eleven nation European Defence Agency project on Maritime Mine Countermeasures; perhaps a consensus could be reached to harness the undoubted collective expertise in this area within European nations.
The emergent specification for the afloat component would seem to fit neatly around the Spanish BAM design.
The survey mission is vitally important to submarine operations as well as general navigation and a nice sideline in selling Admiralty Charts!
The 13,500 tonne HMS Scott is built around a very large, multi beam sonar, for deep-ocean surveys and I wonder if this role is ready to be replaced with UUV’s just yet.
The project is therefore seeking to replace the Hunt, Sandown, Echo and River classes.
The Mine Threat and Mine Countermeasures/Survey Missions
When looking at the mine countermeasures capability it is important to start with mission requirements and threats.
Expeditionary Missions, mines are a basic sea denial weapon, their objective is not necessarily to sink ships but deny movement. Clearing Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) and supporting amphibious operations are the most common expeditionary requirement. The objective may not always be the complete neutralisation of all mines but to provide assured access or an acceptable level of risk.
Accurate surveys will be required for most expeditionary operations, especially amphibious.
National Missions, when looking at this subject we should not forget the legacy of old sea mines and other unexploded ordnance. Any new capability must still be able to counter these old fashioned but no less deadly threats. In addition, harbour and port clearance are national missions.
Accurate ‘charting’ is essential to safe navigation and operations for both surface and sub surface equipment. This mission is carried out on a routine (the sea bed is constantly changing) and reactive basis.
Threats, the diversity of mine threats creates a significant challenge.
Environments include the surf zone, very shallow water, shallow water and deep water.
Types of device include surface, anti invasion, buried, partially buried, moored contact, bottom influence, moored influence, floating contact and rising influence. These can range in sophistication from very simple WWI vintage devices to the latest mobile intelligent devices that use a variety of initiation methods.
With the rapid advance in unmanned underwater vehicle technology the need for dedicated and specialist vessels is diminishing, it is a trend that is being seen across all spectrums of defence, separating the useful bits from the means of their transport.
Much of the research and technology is dual military and civilian use, the increasing search for and exploitation of underwater natural resources is driving the need for novel technologies such as synthetic aperture sonar which offers a number of benefits over traditional side scan sonar.
This crossover between survey and mine detection presents obvious opportunities and the synergy between the military survey and mine countermeasures capabilities have been recognised for some time. Mine jamming, co-operating autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) and laser bathymetry are also starting to mature.
Classification of mines, once detected, can be a time consuming process.
A significant problem is that of false target detection. The sea bed environment of any large port is likely to be cluttered with all manner of debris and this dramatically increases the false target rate. This problem was encountered in clearance operations around Um Qasr where only the super human efforts of UK, US and Australian teams managed to work through the problem.
Research on the automated classification of threats continues to improve false target discrimination rates and speed the process up significantly but this might be an insurmountable or extremely expensive problem to resolve.
A wily enemy would exploit this classification slowness to slow down amphibious operations for example, by liberally seeding the sea bed with dummies.
Once detected and classified the device has to be destroyed and this is still largely carried out by clearance divers. Although there are guided systems these are expendable or one shot and very expensive. Stocks would be rapidly depleted, especially against dummy devices, so there is a great deal of effort to find autonomous stand-off systems that can deal with multiple devices and reduce human intervention.
The traditional approach of picking an amphibious landing location, surveying and clearing boat lanes to shore is being replaced with Rapid Environment Assessment where the whole point is to land where mines aren’t and wherever possible, where enemy forces aren’t. Autonomous underwater vehicles, possibly launched from submarines or larger unmanned underwater vehicles; can covertly generate a rapid obstacle and underwater topography picture. Classification, nuetralisation or the mapping of safe lanes may take place, or another location might be selected. This is an environment where survey and MCM are obviously one and the same.
It is a sector of rapid technological change.
Configuring and Equipping the Force
The current fleet consists of the Sandown-class (single role mine hunting) with the variable-depth multi-mode 2093, and the Hunt-class (sweeping and mine hunting) fitted with the hull-mounted 2193. Supporting NATO operations, amphibious operations, securing Sea Lines of Communication, providing harbour defence and clearing legacy munitions the current fleet (even accepting recent minor small reductions) is highly effective.
Recent introductions include the Hydroid Remus 100, Remus 600 and Atlas Elektronic Seafox C unmanned systems. The Hydroid systems support detection and classification whist the Seafox C is a compact disposable one shot neutralisation UUV. Ultra Electronics delivered the Seafox system in partnership with Babcock for the Royal Navy. Seafox was instrumental in the clearance operations for Operation Telic around Umm Qasr. Another UOR was the Shallow Water Influence Minesweeping System (SWIMS) designed to operate in the small rivers and waterways in the south of Iraq. SWIMS consists of a towed magnetic and acoustic source, a tow/power delivery cable, a power conditioning and control subsystem, and an external or palletised power supply. Its small size and reduced weight require minimum handling equipment, and it is deployable from a helicopter or surface craft by two personnel. 12 QinetiQ modified remote controlled Combat Support Boats (CSB) were also used to tow Australian Defence Industries (ADI) Mini Dyad System (MDS) and Pipe Noise Makers (PNMs) ahead of the RN minehunters as part of the SWIMS payload. It is worth noting that the system demonstrator was available within 3 weeks of order placement, a truly remarkable feat.
The Remus 100 is remarkably low cost, less than a quarter of a million pounds each and is seen as a derisking stepping stone towards the future capability.
The last combined influence sweep system deployment was in 2005 (the link provides a great rundown of the history of RN mine countermeasures)
The Hunt/Sandown fleet is not due out of service for some time so any replacement programme has some time yet but incremental improvements have been, and will continue to be made.
Looking forward though, systems and their means of transport should be separate
This leads to a requirement for deployable set of survey and mine countermeasures systems that can be hosted by any number of UK or other vessels.
Systems, it is difficult to say anything sensible about systems because the pace of change is amazing. The emerging research trends point to a removal of manpower from high threat locations, greater autonomy and high capacity data processing to support rapid environmental assessments to be made.
Diver detection, ship/installation inspection and harbour/installation protection would also be a sensible inclusion. It is an area that needs greater emphasis an attack against offshore installations and harbours would have a significant impact to the UK.
The data rates and total data size generated by unmanned vehicles and sonar systems can be significant, number crunching at high speed will provide many practical benefits and the system deployed could take advantage of modern containerised data centres, easily upgradable as technology improves. This large data storage and processing capability also enables extensive post mission analysis. Sorry, couldn’t resist a container based solution!
The US Littoral Combat Ship modules have had rather a chequered history but the MCM module seems to be the diamond in the rough, although a number of its component parts are some way from maturity.
Given the rapid fielding of SWIMS and the availability of rapidly maturing off the shelf systems from a variety of manufacturers including Kongsberg, Atlas Elektronic, Hydroid, Saab and Kokums we should be careful about creating an overly complex and long lived project that will inevitably deliver less than expected for more than expected.
A series of gap filling projects, leveraging multinational NATO and EU projects, might be the most sensible way forward, taking advantage of differing rates of technology maturity across the different capability areas.
Lets take advantage of the commercial market/collaborative projects, lets not be too ambitious and lets not rely on too much advanced technology to replace expertise.
Vessels, although the systems might be deployable by air and use local ships or operated from shore locations having an afloat component is obviously a requirement.
Instead of creating a new class of specific to role vessels I propose to simply reuse the commercially derived Forward Presence Ship design in order to drive down costs by hull and equipment commonality. It is lightly armed and un warlike in appearance so is not going to be confused for a C2 by anyone.
Crucially, it is a design that is built around economic, high endurance operations. Instead of a fleet of smaller vessels that will need RFA logistics support they will be able to operate in singles or groups without extensive support. The large size and hull configuration means it can operate in high sea states or transit oceanic distances.
Their large accommodation and mission space also means they can carry a large number of mission modules, small craft, unmanned systems, accommodation containers, diver support equipment and even a helicopter or two. The mission bay is significantly larger than for any offshore patrol boat derived design and this space means that complex system integration is avoided and systems changed, replaced and upgraded over time.
Previous operations have seen the RFA Dilligence or HMS Scott or an Echo Class supporting the smaller Hunt and Sandown MCM vessels, acting as a mothership and providing command and control and logistic support. In some way, the FP Ship becomes its own mothership but instead of supporting lots of specialised manned vessels, it supports lots of specialist unmanned systems and their operating crew.
The Forward Presence Squadrons will cover the patrol function and an additional number of Forward Presence Ships, 6 of, can be obtained to cover the survey/MCM role. It would also be possible to surge additional systems and operators onto repositioned FP Ships should the need for an ‘all hands to the pump’ arise.
If a short response were required, the crews and equipment could be flown forward to the FPS location and operated from the FPS Ship. This could be reinforced by the main force if required at a later date. Early intervention may be necessary.
One would always be allocated to the NATO standing mine countermeasures task in European waters and the others could be forward deployed in singles or as a group, depending on training and maintenance schedules. The operational capability might also be deployed independently of the ships in some circumstances.
Although the C3 term is now no longer used it is as good a description as any for the Forward Presence Ship, combining patrol, security, MCM and survey roles.
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