Mines can be incredibly effective weapons, not only can they destroy shipping they can deny large areas of sea to all traffic, choke off ports, restrict the flow of traded goods and generally have impacts wholly disproportionate to their cost, a cost which is usually measured in peanuts.
In 1991 for example, an Italian made Manta mine laid by Iraqi forces that cost the princely sum of $25,000, put a billion Dollar US Navy Aegis destroyer, the USS Princeton, out of action.On the same day, the USS Tripoli was very nearly sunk by another. In the Iraq, the delay caused by mines to making Umm Qasr operable was considerable.
Whether the objective is to clear mines for safe passage of ships offshore or in support of a port opening or amphibious operation the equipment used is likely to be the same.
In a maritime context, all ships will be vulnerable and so the distinction between what might be termed combat breaching and assured clearance is rather academic. Some higher level of risk may be tolerated (San Carlos in 1982 for example) but in general, cleared safe lanes with a high level of confidence will be the main requirement.
The Royal Navy has traditionally placed a high value on its MCM capabilities, it is rightly considered as one of the leading organisations in the field, if not the leader. It is also easy to forget that the Royal Navy has maintained a permanent MCM presence in the Gulf with an RFA LSD(A) ship operating in a ‘mothership’ or MCM Command role for quite some time, doing their work with little fanfare or recognition.
Minesweepers are an enduring image of the battle against mines but the last combined influence sweep system deployment was in 2005, the MCDOA provides a great look at this, click here to view. The Mine warfare and Clearance Diving Officers’ Association has a wealth of great information about the subject in general and you can lose many hours on their great website. 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.
Before the conflict, the port of Umm Qasr was responsible for two-thirds of the United Nations Food for Oil programme imports into Iraq, but as a port, it had seen better days. Much of the infrastructure was neglected, many of the approach channels had silted due to lack of dredging and wrecks littered the general area.
It was functional though, and so formed part of the operation, considered to be vital in maintaining the flow of basic commodities like food and medicine following the initial combat phases. The port itself was divided into North, Middle and South with 22 berths and a range of cargo handling and storage facilities.
Before the port could be trafficked, two fundamental mine clearance problems remained; the port, and its approaches.
Clearing the Port
The composite force for port clearance consisted three teams, one each from Australia, the UK and USA. They drove into the port on the 24th of March, with security provided by USMC and Polish forces.
Australian Clearance Diving Team 3 (AUSCDT 3) was the only coalition unit with established harbour clearance SOP’s so they were tasked with clearing the berths and associated facilities at Umm Qasr to enable berthing of vessels. The Australian force also noted that US Navy MCM forces arrived without ammunition or explosives so had to be sustained by the Australian force. The US Navy team did not have any NBC equipment either.
The port was a difficult environment, strong tidal currents and extremely poor visibility being the two main problems and because of the extremely cluttered sea bottom environment, conventional detection using sonar was almost impossible.
It often came down to touch.
To provide some sense of the problem of demining a busy port as opposed to a pristine beach this quote from an Australian Army spokesman, Lt Col Pup Elliot;
One of the first finds was a sunken PB40 minelayer with four LUGM mines still aboard. The US dive team set to work removing as much of the vessel as possible to allow the mines to pulled clear and disposed of on land. Because of the time pressure and potential for booby traps any suspicious contact was usually just exploded in situ, just in case.
The team were also involved in clearing the port buildings and disposing of all manner of munitions and on one occasion destroyed a cache of 25 mines found outside the town.
Port clearance at Umm Qasr also saw the operational debut of the REMUS 100 autonomous underwater system, brought with them by the US Navy team.
The combined team used the REMUS 100 to conduct 10 missions, surveying 2.5 million square metres and identifying 97 contacts using on-board sensors, thus enabling the clearance divers to concentrate on other more difficult contacts.
The Remote Environmental Monitoring UnitS (REMUS) was developed by the US Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in the early nineties and subsequently manufactured and further developed by Hydroid Inc., now Kongsberg. REMUS 100 is a compact device, weighing on 39kg and 1.6m long but it can operate for 14 hours before needing to be recovered to be ‘re-charged’
Clearing the Approaches to Umm Qasr
In parallel with port clearance activities, the Royal Navy led the approach channel mine clearance operation in conjunction with US Navy and US Coast Guard assets.
It was a considerable volume of difficult water to clear.
Safe lanes were cleared by a multi-vessel group as per the diagram below.
Leading the column were a pair of SWIMS unmanned clearance boats being controlled by operators on HMS Brocklesby. USS Dextrous acted in the role of Command MCMV, gathering data from the others and plotting likely seabed contacts for interrogation by the other MCM vessels.
The cleared channel was then gradually widened.
HMS Roebuck also provided invaluable survey capabilities and was in fact, the first Royal Navy vessel to dock at Umm Qasr.
Commenting on the task, HMS Roebucks commander said;
Clearing the waterways involved a range of UN and USN forces, everything from the rapidly introduced SWIMS system and One Shot Mine Disposal System to the hugely impressive CH-53 Sea Dragons, even the famous US Navy dolphins played a part.
The Shallow Water Influence Minesweeping System (SWIMS) was designed to operate in the shallow waters in the south of Iraq and was obtained as an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR)
Australian Defence Industries are now Thales Australia and this system has evolved into a comprehensive package called the Australian Minesweeping System (AMS).
SWIMS comprised two main components, the towing boat and payload.
The towing boat was a rapidly modified Combat Support Boat, in service with the Royal Engineers and Royal Logistic Corps. Modifications included telemetry and remote control equipment and additional power generation and power distribution equipment.
The SWIMS payload consisted of multiple towed bodies in an array that was designed to simulate the acoustic and magnetic signature of a ship, and would thus, fool the mine into detonating, possibly destroying the unmanned system rather than a real ship. In addition to floats and connecting equipment, the payload array consisted of two towed bodies, a Pipe Noise Maker and Mini Dyad. Pipe Noise Makers are simple and robust systems that do pretty much as the name suggests, make noise. Mini Dyads sound small, but at 7.7m long and weighing in at 1.6 tonnes, they are not. They are simply a steel tube containing multiple steel and ferrite disc magnets with multiple Mini Dyads arranged to simulate different magnetic signatures
The MoD selected the ADI system because it was the only one available that did not need additional power and could operate in shallow waters. The system was ordered in late December 2002 and delivered in late January, they were hired for 12 months and the acoustic generators purchased outright. One complete array comprised 2 Mini Dyads and 2 Pipe Noise Makers.
The clearing of the port of Umm Qasr and its approaches was a less well known part of the 2003 operation but it was a superb example of multinational co-operation and demonstration of the operational art of mine countermeasures.
Umm Qasr demonstrated three critical factors for the future of MCM.
First was the increasing convergence between survey and MCM, second, the maturing of unmanned systems and that those systems were increasingly civilian in origin.
And third, the clearance of a busy port with lots of bottom debris demanded a high level of throughput in detection, classification and where applicable, false alarm rejection.
It was also quite clear, future operations at this scale would be joint and multinational affairs.
Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group 1 (SNMCMG1), formerly known as Mine Countermeasures Force Northern Europe (MCMFORNORTH), and before that, as Standing Naval Force Channel (STANAVFORCHAN) was formed in Ostend on 11th May 1973. It is one of two standing mine countermeasures forces maintained by NATO. Area of operations include the waters of Europe from the North of Norway to the Mediterranean and from the Irish Sea to the Eastern Baltic Sea, although it has also operated beyond these boundaries.
As with most NATO forces, operational command rotates through the contributors to the force, these being Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, and United Kingdom (providing ships on a continuous basis) and Denmark, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as other commitments permit.
On the 4th of February 2011, Dutch Commander Herman W. Lammers took command of SNMCMG 1 from the Polish Navy. In March 2011, HMS HMS Brocklesby joined the rest of SNMCMG1 (ships from Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Poland) for Exercise Noble Mariner around the Straits of Gibraltar. Noble Mariner involved 20 warships from 11 different NATO countries and was designed to test a task group sent to keep sea lines of communication free in disputed waters. HMS Brocklesby identified and recovered five dummy mines in her area of operations, which was the most recovered by any ship in SNMCMG1 during this exercise, MCM really is an RN speciality!
On conclusion of Noble Mariner the next task for SNMCMG1 was Operation Active Endeavour
On April 21st 2011, SNMCMG 1 entered the Port of Alicante, marking the end of its participation in NATO’s anti-terrorist Operation Active Endeavour for ORP Czernicki and FGS Datteln. The duty period had begun five weeks earlier when SNMCMG1 left the port of Malaga, March 14th for the Central Mediterranean, sailing along the North African coast and contributing to OAE by compiling a patterns-of-life picture. Following a period in mid-March establishing Maritime Situational Awareness in the Central Mediterranean the initial strength of SNMCMG1 was changed as the nations decided to transfer Hr. Ms. Haarlem, HMS Brocklesby and BNS Narcis to participate in Operation Unified Protector.
However NATO decided that SNMCMG1 would continue to participate in the important OAE mission so on 31st March, FGS Datteln and ORP Czernicki, resumed Operation Active Endeavour along the North African coast. Apart from a maintenance visit to the Port of Palermo, SNMCMG1 dedicated the rest of its assigned time in OAE surveillance operations and patrolling the maritime approaches to North Africa. The two ships also carried out extensive training programmes at every opportunity.
On April 29th, a French frigate, spotted four small boats laying mines in the approach to the port of Misrata, at that point, key to humanitarian aid flows, using a crude system of inflatable boats. HMS Brocklesby detected and destroyed one of the mines (a derivative of the Soviet era PDY-3M) with a Seafox, shown below.
The MoD press release described the operation;
Lieutenant Commander James Byron, Commanding Officer of HMS Brocklesby, said;
The video below shows the sequence and destruction of the mine.
The operation was carried out less than a couple of miles from the coast and under constant threat of enemy fire.
Of the four mines, three were destroyed and it was assumed the fourth washed up onshore.
On Friday 29th May the Dutch Ministry of Defence announced that HNLMS Haarlem was commencing mine countermeasures in the waters off Misrata;
On the 9th of June, the Royal Navy deployed HMS Bangor to Libya, to relieve HMS Brocklesby.
HMS Bangor’s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander Neil Marriott, said;
This three-part documentary on HMS Brocklesby released in 2011 provides a good overview.
Fundamentally, MCM has two mission definitions;
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 MCM requirement. The objective may not always be the complete neutralisation or disposal of all mines but to provide assured access to an acceptable level of risk. Accurate surveys will be required for most expeditionary operations as well, especially amphibious and port operations.
National Missions; e 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 seabed is constantly changing) and reactive basis
The threat from mines is often expressed in terms of their environment and type, the diagram below is from a USN publication and provides a good overview.
What this diagram does not show, however, is the potential for mines in port areas and IED’s in and around port infrastructures such as quays, buoys, warehouses and slipways, whose clearance would likely be more akin to conventional IED and landmine clearance.
The current RN MCM fleet consists of two classes of vessel, the Hunt and Sandown class
- HMS Bangor
- HMS Blythe
- HMS Grimsby
- HMS Pembroke
- HMS Penzance
- HMS Ramsey
- HMS Shoreham
- HMS Quorn
- HMS Middleton
- HMS Ledbury
- HMS Hurworth
- HMS Chiddingfold
- HMS Cattistock
- HMS Brocklesby
- HMS Atherstone
Three each of the Sandown class are also in service with the Estonian Navy and Royal Saudi Navy. Two each of the Hunt class are also in service with the Hellenic Navy and Lithuanian Naval Force.
The Sandown class are equipped with the sophisticated variable depth multimode Thales Sonar 2093 which is designed to detect mines through the water column to a depth of 200m.
The Hunt class are fitted with the hull mounted wideband Thales Sonar 2193 which detects and classifies small mines up to 80m depth.
Both also have the NAUTIS 3 combat management system.
In 2015, the Royal Navy contracted with Thales for a £33.5m for the Sonar 2093 Capability Sustainment Programme. Taking technology evolved from the hull mounted Sonar 2193, the new wideband pulse compression technology allows detection and classification at much greater ranges, even against low target strength mines.
Both classes can embark low magnetic Mine Clearance W525 Workboat that has been designed to comply STANAG 2985 that can also be used for general purpose ROV launch and recovery.
The most recent trends in MCM has been the convergence with survey and the development of unmanned systems. The Royal Navy can deploy a number of unmanned systems in support of the mine countermeasures mission.
Remus 100; After observing the Hydroid Remote Environmental Measuring UnitS (REMUS) 100 in Iraq the Royal Navy, via QinetiQ, obtained two in 2004 to enhance the then emerging research effort into very shallow water unmanned operations. The Royal Navy at the time had nothing that could operate in very shallow water, the ECA Robotics PAP 104 Mk 4 and 5 underwater vehicles being too large.
After a round of successful trials another 10 systems were purchased. The Remus 100 is very low cost, less than a quarter of a million pounds each, and was seen as a cheap de-risking stepping stone towards the future capability. The Royal Navy contracted with Kongsberg to upgrade the 12 in service REMUS100 systems to include a BlueView Technologies 3D MicroBathymetry system, Kongsberg Geoacoustics GeoSwath interferometric sonar, modular endcaps and digital ultra short baseline (USBL) acoustic positioning systems. Some were also fitted with an Inertial Navigation System. The Remus 100 is used for shallow water identification and search and most recently has also been upgraded with new sonar systems from Seebyte.
Remus 600; The REMUS 600 (RECCE) Underwater Unmanned Vehicles (UUV) came into service in 2009, complementing the smaller REMUS 100 UUV’s that entered service a few years early.
REMUS 600 is generally used for larger volume search, detection and classification in waters between 30m and 200m.
Seafox and COBRA; after the two REMUS vehicles have detected and classified the mine it is the job of the Seafox to get rid of it. The Seafox is a one shot mine neutralisation system, simply put, it swims to the mine and blow itself and the mine up. In 2003, to support operation in Iraq, the Royal Navy leased a handful of Seafox vehicles and supporting systems from Atlas Elektronik for use in Iraq with HMS Blyth and HMS Bangor modified to operate them.
Seafox has been continually developed by Atlas and now comes in two variants (plus a training version), Combat and Inspection. The Combat variant is armed with a 1.4kg shaped charge, the Inspection variant isn’t. They can be distinguished by colour, black = combat and orange = inspection. Launching is carried out using a crane attached cradle and recovery uses a basket, again attached to a crane.
It is a very simple, robust and effective system. The Mk II variant introduced a capability to destroy floating mines and the latest version has a safer fuse system if it needs to be recovered without being fired. The inspection variant has a 360-degree sonar and internal navigation system for autonomous operations.
Also in 2012, the COBRA neutralisation charge was introduced to service. COBRA is a demountable EOD disruption device designed to be placed in close proximity to a mine or unexploded munition and the launch vehicle withdrawn to a safe distance. A buoy is released with an RF receiver that receives the firing signal from an operator, up to 22km away. The charge is initiated by a number of other methods including shock tube and acoustic. The COBRA makes a lot of sense given the cost of the Seafox, instead of being a disposable one-shot system, Seafox is now capable of being reused, much cheaper to blow up a COBRA than a Seafox. Read more about COBRA at ECS Special Projects, the people who developed it.
These unmanned systems have also been continually upgraded
Clearance Divers; the unmanned systems are designed to reduce the need for clearance divers but they cannot be used for everything. Clearance divers use a range of specialist equipment from low metal fins to the ordnance recovery system, mostly supplied by Divex in Aberdeen, it is a highly specialised trade.
A relatively new system is the Clearance Diving Life Support Equipment (CDLSE), a closed circuit rebreather design.
Both the Royal Navy and Royal Engineers have clearance diver trades.
Supporting NATO operations, amphibious operations, securing Sea Lines of Communication, providing harbour defence and clearing legacy munitions the current fleet (even accepting recent reductions) is highly effective. Bahrain is the main operating location and the Royal Navy has four mine countermeasures vessels in the area supported by reasonably sized battle staff and a Bay Class LSD(A) acting as an Afloat Forward Staging Base.
The vessels have had a series of communications, protection and environmental upgrades applied before operating in the area and the two types of vessel/sonar complement each other in the high ambient water temperature and salinity of the Gulf. This permanent presence started in 2006 and has progressed through a couple of operational phases.
It would be remiss not to mention that the battle staff make use of ISO container based workspaces that can be transferred to the LSD(A) or operated from the shore!
These systems have been subject to various upgrades and support contracts.
The image below shows HMS Quorn and HMS Atherstone inside the Minor War Vessels Centre of Excellence at Portsmouth being upgraded under the 2014 Maritime Services Delivery Framework (MSDF) contract with BAE Systems. The scope of the upgrade package is broad, everything from new air conditioning and engines to galley systems.
The Under the Oceanographic Reconnaissance Combat Architecture (ORCA) project is an upgrade for the NAUTIS 3 command system for both Hunt and Sandown class of MCM Vessels.
Recent trials have also been carried out to improve self defence capabilities.
In addition to the incremental improvements in existing systems described above, the Royal Navy has been, and is, involved with a number of research projects and development programmes to examine future concepts for sweeping, detection and destruction of mines in the maritime environment.
The rise of unmanned systems to counter mines has come about for a number of reasons but primarily, the desire to remove sailors and divers from the mined environment as much as practicably possible and increase throughput against potential enemies that might make extensive use of decoys.
QinetiQ and ADI put together the SWIMS system in record time for Iraq, but obviously some refinement was needed. In 2007 QinetiQ, Atlas Elektronik and the EDO Corporation (Atlas Consortium) were awarded a £4.3m contract from the MoD to develop;
Shortly after contract award, EDO Corporation was acquired by ITT, and eventually, the defence business was spun out to Exelis. Work continued but in 2009 QinetiQ sold its interests in this sector to Atlas Elektronik for £23.5m. Hamilton Waterjets published a short summary of FAST in 2009, including a nice visualisation of a pair of FAST boats on the deck of an RN MCM Vessel. Hamilton Waterjets provided the propulsion systems for Combat Support Boats and it was a modified Combat Support called a Logistic Support Boat that formed the basis of the FAST boat. Similar information was also found in the June 2008 issue of Marine News.
Atlas showed how FAST would fit within their wider systems approach
As FAST matured, the Royal Navy defined a more ambitious programme.
The Future Mine Countermeasures Capability (FMCMC) accurately predicted that the future of MCM would use portable, off board, and dedicated systems, POD for short, able to carry out recce, hunting, sweeping and disposal tasks. This was aimed at addressing issues such as speed of deployment and cost where it was supposed to operate from the then proposed C3 class of vessels (Ocean Capable Patrol Vessel) in the Sustained Surface Combatant Capability (S2C2) / Future Surface Combatant programmes. It was intended that FMCMC would be demonstrated using existing MCM vessels and matured, before transitioning to the C3.
In 2009, The Future Mine Countermeasures Capability (FMCMC) was absorbed into another programme, Mine Countermeasures, Hydrographic, and Patrol Capability (MHPC).
The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) confirmed that the Mine Countermeasures, Hydrographic, and Patrol Capability (MHPC) would eventually replace the existing MCM and Survey vessels.
In addition to FAST, other technology demonstrators were intended to inform MHPC; Littoral Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (LUUV), a combined command system and the Tactical Maritime Unmanned Air System (TMUAS) for example.
By 2011, Atlas had evolved the system into something called the Containerised Integrated Mine Countermeasures System (C-IMCMS)
Some components of C-IMCMS are already in service with the Royal Navy, Seafox and the Classiphi software, for example, others not, the Sea Otter.
Despite a number of technical and operational differences, the UK and France have similar requirements and following the 2010 Lancaster House Defence cooperation agreement the MoD and DGA began work on harmonising requirements in preparation for a joint programme.
In February 2012, at the next UK/French defence summit, an announcement was made regarding mine countermeasures;
By the end of the year, OCCAR had established a joint programme office.
The OCCAR managed Maritime Mine Countermeasures programme has four defined phases;
- Stage 1 – Study: definition and design stage culminating with a successful Critical Design Review for the Primary System.
- Stage 2 – Manufacture: development, manufacture and testing of individual sub-systems progressively and iteratively.
- Stage 3 – Qualification: demonstration of capabilities in order to qualify the system using realistic operational scenarios.
- Stage 4 – 24 month Operational Evaluation: delivery of systems to both the Royal Navy and the Marine Nationale together with contractor support during extended at-sea evaluation and development of concepts for use.
In October 2012, theOrganisation for Joint Armament Cooperation (OCCAR) announced five short listed candidate companies who would enter the next stage of the harmonised UK/French maritime mines countermeasures programme.
The short listed companies entered the ‘invitation to participate in dialogue’ phase. These were Atlas Elektronik, Thales, ECA Robotics, QinetiQ and Ultra. DCNS, Thales and ECA had previously partnered to work on the SLAM-F programme and produced the Evaluation incrèmentale de Solutions Potentielles d’Automatìsatìon de Deminage pour les Opérations Navales (Espadon/Swordfish) demonstrator that made use of a 25 tonne 17m vessel called the Sterenn Du (Black Star) that could launch and recover three smaller ECA unmanned vessels, each with a specific role called ALISTER 9, 18 and 18-TWIN.
Bluebird Electric have very good coverage of the SLAM-F programme, click here to read more.
The two the year 2012 Rotary Wing Unmanned Air System (RWUAS) Capability Concept Demonstrator (CCD) replaced the Tactical Maritime Unmanned Air System CCD project that was cancelled in 2011.
With the contract award to BAE for the RN new Offshore Patrol Vessels, MHPC became MHC.
Since then, competing manufacturers have demonstrated their entries for the programme.
The media below, from Thales, shows the general concept of operations for Halycon, operation from a shore location and using a Remotely Operated vehicle for inspection and disposal. The ROV shown is from Saab, the SeaEye Falcon, equipped with a multi-shot disposal system called the multimine neutralisation system, or MuMNS.
ARCIMS, from Atlas Elektronik, has been developed over quite a long period from the various systems such as FAST and SeaFox. Atlas teamed up with the makers of the Bladerunner speedboat, ICE Marine, to create the Motorboat Hazard. The small unmanned ROV is the Ocean Modules V8 M500 Intervention, click here for the brochure.
In April 2014, the winner was announced and a contract let to Thales.
The €22m 15-month contract covered the first design and definition stage. It also secured an agreed fixed price for Stage and 3, manufacture and support respectively. The Thales led consortium includes Wood and Douglas (Ultra) for the telemetry and data link, ECA for autonomous underwater vehicles, BAE for mission management and simulation systems, SAAB for remotely operated vehicles (ROV) and Autonomous Surface Vehicles for the surface vessel.
Each system will comprise a USV (Unmanned Surface Vehicle) equipped with an autonomous navigation system, an obstacle detection and avoidance sonar, a threat identification and neutralisation capability based on ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles), a T-SAS (Towed Synthetic Aperture Sonar) and AUVs (Autonomous Underwater Vehicles). The geolocated AUVs will use the latest-generation synthetic aperture sonar SAMDIS with multi-aspect functionality for improved classification. They will perform their tasks autonomously with control from a host ship or shore-based station via high-data-rate communication links.
Thales will develop a containerised portable operations centre (POC).
The image below shows the operating concept.
The ECA component will be developed from its A27-M, the largest in its portfolio, and will include the Thales Synthetic aperture Sidescan Sonar (SAMDIS) sonar.
One of the main outcomes from operational use of autonomous and other mine detection, classification and neutralisation systems was the realisation that they are slow. if the enemy were to deploy visually similar decoys in large numbers, or simply large numbers of actual mines, the clearance operation would simply be overwhelmed unless there were many systems working in parallel. Detection, identification and classification speeds are therefore key considerations.
The Thales Synthetic aperture Sidescan Sonar (SAMDIS) sonar has developed from the ESPADON work and uses three beams to increase coverage and speeds.
ECA will also be responsible for the launch and recovery system (LARS) which will enable non-specialised craft to operate the system in challenging sea conditions.
In addition to the joint UK/French mine hunting programmes the Royal Navy, with its positive experience from Iraq and SWIMS, has maintained and shown a renewed interest in combined influence sweep systems.
At the same time as the MMCM contract, another was announced, this one to Atlas Elektronik for the continued development of their FAST/ARCIMS system.
The £12.6m 3-year contract will lead to the full development of the solution that can be deployed from Hunt Class MCM vessels. Block 1 calls for the development of the prototype, Block 2, integration with the Hunt Class and Block 3, manufacture of a system developed as a result of trials activity. Jane’s reported that the final configuration is likely to include 4 unmanned systems housed in a Reconnaissance Unmanned Underwater Vehicle Hangar (RUUVH) on board.
Jane’s also reported;
When Atlas delivered the two ARCIMS launches to the Royal Navy they delivered them in two configurations, the first was in the form of the RN Motorboat Hazard, pictured above, and the second, with equipment for the combined influence sweep system.
In 2014, the MoD ordered three UUVs equipped with SeeByte’s SeeTrack Neptune software.
Saab announced a contract with BAE for the final design and development of their Multi-Shot Mine Neutralisation System (MuMNS), based on a new Saab remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV).
ASV have also showcased the Halcyon II, that will provide greater stability and payload as part of the MMCM programme.
In November 2015, the MoD awarded a £4.2m contract to QinetiQ for the development of a command and control demonstrator for the co-ordination of multiple unmanned vehicles.
In May 2016, the MoD awarded a £1m contract to QinetiQ demonstrate the integration of unmanned systems within the Royal Navy, from ADS
The UK/French project will result in a qualified system by 2019 and all the main contractors seem to be developing systems for marketing outside of the UK and France independently, Pathmaster from Thales for example.
Unmanned Warrior 2016 was a trials and demonstration event designed to offer over 40 manufacturers and research organisations an opportunity to showcase their systems in a realistic environment.
Commander Peter Pipkin, Fleet Robotics Officer, commented;
Unmanned Warrior, and the systems development and exploitation that underpins it, are not just about mine countermeasures, but there is no doubt, it will inform future approaches to it.
The breadth of Unmanned Warrior is significant, not only the Royal Navy but also academia, NATO partners and other services.
Thales showed their Halcyon system with the Saab ROV or T-SAS sonar, and Atlas Elektronik, with their ARCIMS, fitted with a Northrop Grumman AQS-24b towed mine detection sensor.
A Few Thoughts
Since Umm Qasr, the Royal Navy has evolved through a very carefully balanced and well thought through roadmap for mine countermeasures and we can observe a number of key trends.
First, existing systems have been kept up to date; broad enhancements to the MCM vessels, sonars, combat management systems and new clearance diver equipment for example. The general objective of removing personnel from hazardous environments has been met by introduced remote systems like REMUS and SEAFOX/COBRA.
Beyond new equipment, training and concept development have been reinforced with a commitment to active deployments in the Middle East and other locations.
This approach is a hedge against new autonomous technologies failing to deliver; the RN has certainly not bet the farm on technology working as per the PowerPoint’s.
Second, in parallel with the continuous development of conventional approaches, it has put time and money into developing new technologies and techniques that exploit the convergence between survey and MCM.
These promise to address the slow speed of existing systems through autonomy, and the high cost of maintaining separate specialised vessels by allowing them to be deployed from platforms of opportunity. Standing off some distance from the mined area will allow non specialised vessels to be the host, or even systems flown in and operated from shore.
Many challenges to this approach remain; bandwidth, software and fidelity of sensors to enable rapid false target rejection, to name just three.
In conjunction with France, an advanced off-board mine detection, classification and neutralisation system should be ready for a manufacture decision in 2019. The work with Atlas Elektronik will also inform decisions on combined influence sweep systems and various smaller programmes will also explore command and control, signature recognition and autonomy.
Within the next few years, the potential of this work will be realised.
Whether the future is conventional low signature MCM vessels, clearance divers and remote underwater vehicles, or autonomous stand-off unmanned equipment operating from platforms of opportunity remains to be seen.
The Unmanned Warrior trials have shown just how much similar technologies are being used for requirements beyond mine countermeasures and it is this that may result in a slower adoption of technologies for MCM as the possibility for wider exploitation opens up.
Who knows where this will go.
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