Naval Mine Countermeasures

Manta mine

A diversion from the shabby goings on elsewhere.

The sea mine is the IED of the maritime environment, cheap, easy to deploy and with a tactical and strategic effect out of all proportion to the resources expended.


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 11 May 1973. It is one of two standing mine countermeasures forces maintained by NATO. Area of operations includes 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, Dutch Commander Herman W. Lammers took command of SNMCMG 1 from the Polish Navy.

In March this year HMS HMS Brocklesby joined the rest of SNMCMG1 (ships from Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Poland) for Exercise Noble Mariner around the Straits of Gibralter. 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 is the most recovered by any ship in SNMCMG1 during this exercise, MCM really is an RN speciality.

SNMCMG 1 currently consists of the following units: ORP Kontradmiral X Czernicki (Flagship- Poland), HMS Brocklesby (UK), BNS Narcis (Belgium), FGS Datteln (Germany) and HNLMS Haarlem (The Netherlands).

On conclusion of Noble Mariner the next task for SNMCMG1 was Operation Active Endeavour

On April 21, 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 14 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 31 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 Friday 29th May the Dutch Ministry of Defence announced that HNLMS Haarlem was commencing mine countermeasures in the waters off Misrata;

As of today, HNLMS Haarlem will start searching for mines in the waters off the coast of Libya. Any detected mines will be destroyed by the Dutch minehunter. The deployment takes place at the request of NATO.

On Friday 29 April, a number of sea mines were discovered in the approach to Misrata by a French frigate, causing humanitarian shipping to be obstructed. Two of these mines have been cleared in the meantime. The search for the exact location of the third mine that was observed is still under way. HNLMS Haarlem will join the search for this explosive device as soon as an order to this effect has been issued by the Commander of the NATO mission.

Unified Protector

Although HNLMS Haarlem is only now joining the sea-mine detection and clearing effort, it had been in the area for some time. The Dutch government decided on 22 March that the Netherlands would participate in the NATO enforcement of the UN arms embargo against Libya. The minehunter has been deployed in this operation, which is called Unified Protector, since 28 March.


HNLMS Haarlem will hunt for mines by mapping the area with the aid of hull-mounted sonar. When a mine is detected, it can be detonated by the Seafox Combat, a remote-controlled mine-destruction charge.

Minehunters of the Royal Netherlands Navy can be deployed worldwide for the detection and destruction of explosive devices which obstruct the safe passage of shipping. In addition, they are frequently called upon to clear explosives from the First and Second World Wars.

On May 3rd the Guardian newspaper in the UK reported that no aid vessels had been able to enter or leave the port area.

“We know the only way to keep Misrata alive is to keep the harbour open,” said Hafed Makhlouf, the controller and ship pilot of the port. “Gaddafi realises this too, and knows that the only way to extinguish the revolution is by starving the people.”

According to Makhlouf, the rebels had received a tip on Thursday from Zleten, a town 30 miles west of Misrata, that three small microbuses had been spotted dropping off a crew of frogmen near the harbour. Makhlouf said he passed on the warning to the two Nato warships stationed off Misrata.

At 4.30am on Friday, while he was asleep on the chair in his office, his radio crackled to life.

It was Nato, saying it had spotted four small dinghies approaching Misrata at speed.

“I asked Nato to act as I was sure it was a plot to destroy the warships, or other ships coming into Misrata,” said Makhlouf.

He was right. The loyalist naval team was carrying several floating sea mines aboard two of the dinghies, which they sank about 1.5 miles offshore, directly in the shipping lane to Misrata.

Nato said it had intercepted three mines, and disposed of them.

The MoD released a news story about HMS Brocklesby clearing a Libyan mine.

Using her sonar and underwater mine disposal system, Seafox, HMS Brocklesby successfully located and destroyed a buoyant mine just one mile (1.6km) from the entrance to the harbour.

The mine, containing more than 100 kilogrammes of high explosives, had been crudely placed by pro-Gaddafi forces using an inflatable dinghy to transport it out to sea.

The combined efforts of the mine countermeasures vessels from (HNLMS Haarlem, HMS Brocklesby and BNS Narcis) have effectively countered this port denial activity allowing the humanitarian aid ship Red Star One to deliver 180 tons of aid and rescue around many migrant workers from the city.

Lieutenant Commander James Byron, Commanding Officer of HMS Brocklesby, said,

In helping to keep the port of Misrata open we are ensuring the continued flow of essential medical assistance and allowing the evacuation of innocent civilians from the country. This is exactly the kind of operation my crew have trained for: dealing with live mines posing a threat to legitimate shipping within sight and range of shore bombardment. My team have handled themselves superbly in the execution of this mission reacting stoutly to the very real threat posed by rockets and artillery ashore.

A job well done I think but this video shows the complications of not having a joined up anti denial strategy, held back by political restrictions the port remains in peril.

Another report on HMS Brocklesby here at BFBS including footage of Seafox in action and an image of the mine/inflatable combo below.

Libyan underwater mine
Libyan underwater mine

A second mine was disposed of by another NATO vessel, either HNLMS Haarlem or BNS Narcis.

Royal Navy Mine Countermearures Vessel HMS Brocklesby.
Royal Navy Mine Countermearures Vessel HMS Brocklesby.

HMS Brocklesby returns home

Current Capabilities

The current RN MCM 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 reductions) is highly effective.

Recent introductions include the Hydroid Remus 100, Remus 600 and Atlas Elektronic Seafox C unmanned systems. The Hydroid systems, the larger Remus 600 is called the Recce UUV, 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.

Seafox Mine Disposal System
Seafox Mine Disposal System

Another UOR was the Shallow Water Influence Minesweeping System (SWIMS) designed to operate in the shallow waters 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 very 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)

A good account of mine countermeasures and survey operations, including information on SWIMS and Seafox, in Iraq here, here and here.

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.

The Royal Navy also maintains a permanent presence in the Gulf

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.

Emerging Trends and a Look Forward

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.

The diagram below shows the modular and containerized approach of Atlas Elektronik.

C-IMCMS (Containerised Integrated Mine Countermeasures System)
C-IMCMS (Containerised Integrated Mine Countermeasures System)
Atlas Elektronik Modular MCM control container
Atlas Elektronik Modular MCM control container

The mine hunting system uses a combination of the Sea Otter autonomous underwater vehicle for detection and classification and the Sea Fox C for disposal.

The small SeaFox C can be launched using lightweight equipment but the larger Sea Otter will require a more capable system. The Kongsberg Remus systems come with a containerised Launch and Recovery system but again, the offshore market has many suppliers of launch and recovery systems that can launch tethered or autonomous systems from the aft or sides of the ship.

If an area needs to be swept the concept uses the Kockums Self Propelled Acoustic Magnetic Sweep system or SAMS.

This is an impressive system and when deployed in multiples can rapidly clear large areas or reduce risk for entry. It can also be used to reduce the number of devices so that the more sophisticated detection and disposal activities can proceed at a quicker pace.

The two systems are complimentary.

The survey ship fleet has often been used in the MCM Support capacity providing logistic support, personnel facilities, planning and command spaces.

We should also not forget diver support systems that might include storage, recompression chambers and gas storage.

The UK company DIVEX are the acknowledged world leader in professional and military dive systems and they produce a range containerised dive support systems.

The MoD’s Maritime Combat Systems Team is responsible, through the Underwater and Electronic Warfare delivery team, is responsible for maritime mine countermeasures. Capability programmes evolve and the Future Mine Countermeasures Capability and Future Auxiliary Combatant project has evolved into the Mine Countermeasures Hydrography and Patrol programme that is seeking to replace a number of vessels, the clue of course, being in the name!

SDSR confirmed the commitment to MHPC and continuation of operating the existing fleet of Hunt and Sandown MCM vessels, together with the survey vessels. The initial programme budget is £1.4 billion although what the final figure will be is anyone’s guess and it is programmed to deliver roughly in time for Future Force 2020, conveniently about the time the existing vessels approach their out of service date.

Linking the hydrographic and mine countermeasures capabilities makes perfect sense, mapping the sea bed is essential for many disposal operations for example. Unmanned and survey technologies are rapidly converging and many of the skillsets are the same.

Having an intimate understanding or picture of the sea bed supports change detection, or noticing if anything is amiss. A significant element of MPHC is fusing data from multiple sources and sharing that common picture across any number of platforms.

With the rapid maturing of unmanned and autonomous underwater systems the ability stand off from the danger zone and conduct reconnaissance, classification and disposal becomes possible, thus removing valuable personnel and ships from danger zones.

Although the BAe Talisman UUV design was not selected as part of the MHPC demonstration activity BAe Mission Systems have continued to look at other avenues within the MHPC programme and recently signed a cooperation agreement with SeeByte of Edinburgh to pursue various aspects of the programme, especially an open architecture MCM mission system. Of course, with Talisman not being selected the system will be vehicle agnostic.

SeeByte create mission software for both manned and unmanned underwater systems so the synergy is obvious with BAe concentrating on the command and control glue that binds multiple systems together.

SeeByte have some very interesting white papers on change detection and mission planning systems, have a read here and here.

Atlas Elektronik have also demonstrated a fully integrated system comprising, from Atlas or Shepards

The C-IMCMS (Containerised Integrated Mine Countermeasures System) consists of a port-able combat management system as well as the analysis software CLASSIPHI for post mis-sion analysis of side-scan sonar data, the unmanned surface vessel (USV) FAST, the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) SeaOtter Mk II and the mine disposal system (ROV) SeaFox. The system was deployed from the shore; operations on board various ship types are also possible.

MHPC is likely to move to the assessment stage next year according to Shepard’s, click here to read more.

The existing Fleet Unmanned Underwater Vehicle Unit (FUUVU) operate the Hydroid Remus 100 and 600 systems together with the Atlas Elektronik SeaFox C one shot disposal vehicle. A number of developments are currently being worked on including deploying the SeaFox from unmanned vehicles and separating the warhead to turn it into a multi-use system.

This last development is important because a wily enemy might simply seed an area with that many dummy mines that running out of disposal systems becomes a very real risk, as Imentioned above.

Unmanned surface and airborne systems are also being studied as part of the programme.

One particular unmanned surface vessel of interest is Flexible Agile Sweeping Technology (FAST).

Evolving from the work done as a UOR for Iraq (mentioned above) a consrtium of QinetiQ, Atlas and ITT, from Jane’s

The FAST (Flexible Agile Sweeping Technology) system is being developed by an industry team led by Atlas Elektronik UK, and has completed an Interim Design Review for a mine countermeasures (MCM) Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV) demonstrator system under development for the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD). The Atlas-QED industry team also includes EDO Corporation and QinetiQ. The consortium won a GBP4.3 million (USD8.6 million) contract from the UK’s Research Acquisition Organisation in May 2007 for the two-year Technology Readiness Demonstrator (TRD) programme, known as Flexible Agile Sweeping Technology (FAST). The FAST programme is intended to demonstrate the technical maturity of a projected new USV-based influence minesweeping capability for the UK Royal Navy (RN). It will also help determine the capability required and facilitate the transition of science and research into the UK’s supplier base. The MoD’s Directorate of Equipment Capability (Under Water Effect) plans to fund a replacement for the obsolete Combined Influence Sweep (CIS) by the end of the decade as part of the Future Mine Counter Measures Capability (FMCMC). The decision was taken in 2005 to remove the CIS from the eight remaining Hunt-class mine countermeasures vessels (MCMVs). The RN has stated that the CIS should be replaced by an unmanned influence sweep system, initially to be hosted aboard the Hunt class. FAST is intended to ensure that the risks to any follow-on acquisition programme, as part of FMCMC, have been mitigated and minimised.

A good overview can be found here

The UK and French Governments have formally agreed to work together in a number of areas including mine countermeasures so we can expect to see some interesting developments in the next few years as programmed converge and technologies mature.

It seems the direction of travel at the minute is to mature systems in parallel with existing systems and create a platform agnostic capability that can be rapidly deployed on a number of vessels.

The future is also clearly containerisation, mmm.

So we have the Royal navy demonstrating their peerless capability on operations and a rapidly maturing technology programme, grounds for optimism I think.

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