Unmanned Mine Countermeasures Update

Seafox Mine Disposal System

The Royal Navy released a news piece this week about ongoing trials of unmanned mine countermeasures systems.

The evolving development of such sophisticated unmanned underwater systems in support of survey and mine countermeasures has been a regular at TD towers, looking back there are nearly a dozen articles in the archives covering the subject.

So with the new information its time for a recap and update.

Background and Challenges

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, which is usually measured in peanuts.

In 1991 an Italian made Manta mine laid by Iraqi forces, costing 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. They are the IED of the sea.

The Royal Navy has traditionally placed a high value upon 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 Bay class ship operating in a ‘mothership’ 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 the last combined influence sweep system deployment was in 2005, the MCDOA provides a great look at this, click here to view. The Minewarfare 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.

The rise of unmanned systems to counter mines has come about for a number of reasons, primarily the desire to remove sailors and divers from the mined environment as much as practicably possible.

Royal Navy diver with Divex equipment
Royal Navy diver with Divex equipment

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 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. (I will touch this point later, the synergy between survey and mine countermeasures)

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 and so does the environment into which they are placed.

These environments can include the surf zone, very shallow water, shallow water and deep water.

Types of sea mineTypes of sea mine and environment classifications

Expanding these broad classifications based on water depth we might also include ports, offshore infrastructure and other man made environments.

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 with their Hertz horns to the latest mobile and intelligent devices that use a variety of initiation methods and means of detection to discriminate against low value targets, like minesweepers.

The ‘problem’ is therefore a bloody complex one.

The increasing demand for petrochemicals has driven the industry to exploit reserves in inhospitable environments and it is this has has created a sophisticated industrial and scientific community where one of the outcomes has been underwater robotics and survey technologies.

The mine countermeasures field both contributed to this and exploited it.

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.

One of the most significant issues is classification of mines, once detected, and can be a time consuming process.

A significant problem is that of false target detection.

The sea bed environment of any large port or well trafficked channel 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. Target recognition and being able to discriminate a discarded grain sack or can of Coke from a mine might be relatively simple for the human eye/brain but for an autonomous system, it is very far from simple.

A wily enemy would exploit this classification slowness to slow down amphibious operations or port access, for example, by liberally seeding the sea bed with dummies.

The increase in throughput by virtue of using multiple autonomous systems combined with intelligent target recognition software is one counter to this tactic, meeting brawn with brains.

Once detected and classified the device has to be destroyed or disposed of and this was generally carried out by clearance divers.

The desire to remove the diver from the mined environment, as much as possible, has created a class of disposable one shot systems like SeaFox (more on this later)

In general, it is a sector of rapid technological change.

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.

Royal Navy Mine Countermearures Vessel HMS Brocklesby.
Royal Navy Mine Countermeasures Vessel HMS Brocklesby.
Royal Navy Sandown Class MCM Vessel HMS Bangor
Royal Navy Sandown Class MCM Vessel HMS Bangor

This post is a look at the general subject but with a focus on the unmanned aspects but if the international rules governing maritime mining take your fancy, have a read of this excellent summary at SLD.

I think it is important to pause and recognise the tremendous work the personnel in this branch do on a day to day basis.

Recent Operations

Iraq (Operation TELIC)

Existing ports have transport infrastructure, storage, berthing for deep draft vessels, material handling equipment and often a pool of organised labour, they are an obvious objective for any force. In the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Operation TELIC, the port in question was at Umm Qasr. The port of Umm Qasr, before the conflict, was responsible for two thirds of the United Nations Food for Oil programme deliveries into Iraq, it was an important and somewhat unique location.

The port itself is divided into North, Middle and South with 22 berths and a range of cargo handling and storage facilities, some berths are also dedicated to bulk materials like grain. In to order to dock at Umm Qasr a ship would need to navigate 41 miles the Khor Abdallah waterway

Umm Qasr map
Umm Qasr map showing Khor Abdallah waterway
Umm Qasr port
Khor Abdallah waterway towards Umm Qasr port, Iraq

This presented a unique challenge, both inland and offshore waterways would need to be cleared before allied shipping and humanitarian relief deliveries could make use of the port. After many years of neglect and much of the damage from 1991 not repaired or cleared putting Umm Qasr and approach waterways at the centre of the logistic effort for the immediate aftermath of the invasion would present a range of big problems. One look at a map and the many of the problems with safe navigation, dredging and the sheer scale of the operation to make safe the area are obvious.

Complicating this already challenging task were brackish water conditions, variable tidal flows and poor visibility, hardly ideal mine hunting territory.

Operating in the area during this initial phase were two US Navy Cyclone Class patrol boats (USS Firebolt and USS Chinook) and two US Coastguard cutters (USGC Aquidneck and USCG Adak). Whilst on operations. all four spotted a number suspicious vessels and after holding them in place until daybreak decided to investigate, what they found was nothing short of incredible.

The tug Jumariya had a barge with carefully concealed mine storage and launching facilities and the Al Raya had disguised mines with a specially constructed stern flap for covert launching.

Tug Jamriyah and barge
Tug Jamriyah and barge
Barge Jumariya mine laying concealed doors
Barge Jumariya mine laying concealed doors
Barge Jumariya mine laying system
Barge Jumariya mine laying system

030324-N-1050K-025

The Al Rayiah had also been adapted for minelaying

Tug Al Rayiah
Tug Al Rayiah
Tug Al Rayiah
Tug Al Rayiah
3 Cdo Brigade Op Telic
3 Cdo Brigade Op Telic on another mine launching vessel, a small motor cruiser

A day or two earlier and the next phase may have been very different.

Once the area had been secured the task of clearing the port and approach waterways commenced, the original plan called for the port to be clear and available for use within 72 hours, a significantly overoptimistic target, it would take just under ten days before first access.

Driving up from Kuwait was a combined force of Australian, British and US mine clearance specialists.

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, again unlike the Australian and UK forces.

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;

If they find a can of soft drink on the bottom, they have to deal with that, look at it and make an inspection and at times they’ll find stuff that they may not be able to identify

Read more about the exploits of AUSCDT 03 at the RAN Clearance Divers Association here

The MCM Task Group consisted of 10 vessels, 5 from the UK On Call Force, 4 from the US MCM Division based in Bahrain and RFA Sir Bevidere in the MCM Command support role.

Whilst mine clearance work commenced at the port, the approach waterways would also need clearing.

Clearing these waterways involved a range of UN and USN forces, everything from the rapidly introduced SWIMS system to the hugely impressive CH-53 Sea Dragons

Mine Sweeper

Even the famous dolphins got a look in although there was (and is) much debate about their effectiveness.

Safe lanes were cleared by a multi vessel group as per the diagram below, with HMS Brocklesby leading and controlling SWIMS boats in front.

Umm Qasr lead through
Umm Qasr channel clearance

USS DEXTROUS acting in the role of Command MCMV plotted and reported seabed contacts to other vessels in the group who then investigated until the channel was widened.

HMS Roebuck would provide invaluable survey capabilities and was in fact the first Royal Navy vessel to dock at Umm Qasr

Rayal Navy Operations at Umm Qasr. Just outside Umm Qasr, on the Az Zubayr river, The Royal Navy continue to Minesweep and secure the area. Involved in the Operation, Minesweepers, Coastal Survey Vessels, LCVP's From HMS OCEANs' 9 Assault Sqn RM's and Rigid Raider fast boats, from 539 Assault Sqn RMs..There efforts have allowed RFA SIR GALAHAD to go alongside in Umm Qasr to deliver much needed stores and Aid..Pictured here, HMS ROEBUCK, a Coastal Survey Vessel, Patrols the river
Just outside Umm Qasr, on the Az Zubayr river, HMS ROEBUCK, a Coastal Survey Vessel, Patrols the river

Commenting on the task, HMS Roebucks commander said;

The last charts to be made in the area were over 40 years ago, so our biggest problem was to find out how accurate they were. The first few weeks work were very slow indeed because we tow our sonar behind us, so we don’t want to be the first to find a wrecked ship

Seafox, a UOR called  the Shallow Water Influence Minesweeping System (SWIMS) and the Royal Navy were instrumental in the clearance operations for Operation TELIC around Umm Qasr.

This initial channel and port clearance activity took only 4 days, investigated 450 seabed contacts and cleared 15 mines (which clearly illustrates the challenge involved with distinguishing bottom debris in a busy waterway with actual mines)

Once the mines had been cleared to an acceptable level of risk, it was time to open the port.

Although 12 tonnes of supplies reached Umm Qasr by truck, overland from Kuwait, the bulk of humanitarian supplies would be through the port and the delay in clearing the port and its approaches was contributing to rising tensions in the city. The first ship to dock was RFA Sir Galahad, Berth 5, with 232.3 tonnes of humanitarian supplies, gifted by Kuwait.

Leading the way for RFA Sir Galahad was the Royal Navy MCM Vessel HMS Sandown.

The Royal Fleet Auxiliary, Landing Ship Logistic RFA Sir Galahad (L 3005) arrives in the Iraqi port city of Umm Qasr delivering the first shipment of humanitarian aid from coalition forces. Sir Galahad, with a capability of carrying approximately 400 troops, with a beaching capacity of 3,440 tons, is the first ship to deliver coalition humanitarian supplies in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It is currently loaded with 232,300 Kg. of supplies for the people of Iraq. Operation Iraqi Freedom is the multi-national coalition effort to liberate the Iraqi people, eliminate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and end the regime of Saddam Hussein
The Royal Fleet Auxiliary, Landing Ship Logistic RFA Sir Galahad (L 3005) arrives in the Iraqi port city of Umm Qasr delivering the first shipment of humanitarian aid from coalition forces.

Joining SWIMS and Seafox unmanned systems, the REMUS 100 also played a role in operations around the port, supporting clearance divers, although these were not obtained by the Royal Navy until 2004. These initial operations using REMUS 100 were carried out by the US Navy

REMUS Umm Qasr
REMUS 100 Umm Qasr

Iraq in 2003 might reasonably be called the coming of age for unmanned mine countermeasures, more on SWIMS, Seafox and REMUS 100 later.

Soon after, the Fleet Unmanned Underwater Vehicle Unit (FUUVU) was established to develop the use of unmanned systems in shallow and very shallow water, leading into the Mid Term MCM Coherency package to upgrade the command systems on the Sandown class vessels and integrate the unmanned systems across both fleets.

Libya (Operation ELLAMY)

8 years after Operation TELIC unmanned systems had matured a great deal, Seafox and REMUS 100 were still in service with the Royal Navy, MHPC was moving forward and the REMUS 600 had been introduced a couple of years earlier.

Operation ELLAMY, Libya, was to prove to be another opportunity for the Royal Navy to demonstrate unmanned MCM.

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 2011, Dutch Commander Herman W. Lammers took command of SNMCMG 1 from the Polish Navy. The month after, 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 is 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

There was obviously a great deal of capability being exercised and trained in the Mediterranean at around this period, which would come in handy!

On the 4th of May 2001 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 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.

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 then released a news story about mine clearance off Libya.

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, HNLMS Haarlem, HMS Brocklesby and BNS Narcis, had effectively countered the Libyan port denial activity allowing the humanitarian aid ship Red Star One to deliver 180 tons of much needed aid and rescue many migrant workers from the city.

Libyan mine discovered off Misrata by the Royal Navy
Libyan mine discovered off Misrata by the Royal Navy

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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.

HMS Brocklesby, one of the Royal Navy’s Mine Counter-Measures Vessels, has destroyed a mine laid by pro-Qadhafi forces in the port of Mistrata on the Libyan coast.  Image shows the Seafox Under Water Mine Disposal System being launched from HMS Brocklesby.  HMS Brocklesby is the fifth of the Royal Navy's eleven Hunt Class Mine Countermeasures Vessels (MCMVs) and is a member of the Second Mine Countermeasures Squadron based at Portsmouth.  HMS Brocklesby’s primary role is mine-hunting.  Her hull and most of the superstructure are constructed from GRP that is both non-magnetic and strong enough to withstand the explosive shocks likely to be encountered in a mine environment.  The ship's noise signature has also been reduced to a minimum by tuning and matching all the main machinery and by taking great care with all resilient mountings.
HMS Brocklesby, one of the Royal Navy’s Mine Counter-Measures Vessels, has destroyed a mine laid by pro-Qadhafi forces in the port of Mistrata on the Libyan coast. Image shows the Seafox Under Water Mine Disposal System being launched from HMS Brocklesby.

A second mine was disposed of by another NATO vessel, either HNLMS Haarlem or BNS Narcis, and one remained at large for a short time.

BFBS released a great video covering HMS Brocklesby’s return to Portsmouth after operations off Libya.

The Royal Navy minehunter HMS Brocklesby has returned to its home base at Portsmouth, after spending six months clearing mines off the coast of Libya. The vessel was initially deployed as part of a NATO mine countermeasures group before it was deployed to Libya. At the end of April, Brocklesby found and destroyed a buoyant mine laid in the port of Misrata by pro-Gaddafi forces in a bid to stop humanitarian aid from reaching the port. The efforts meant that the MV Red Star could enter the port and evacuated more than 700 civilians injured during the fighting. A navy spokesman said that Brocklesby’s actions were the first time that a Royal Navy minehunter had been involved in live mine clearance operations within range of hostile artillery and rockets since the campaign off the Al Faw Peninsula in 2003 during the second Gulf War. He added that it also saw the first operational use of the Seafox Mine Disposal System against live ordnance during conflict. The minehunter then spent its last few weeks patrolling and mine hunting in the waters off the Misrata coastline as the threat of mines and waterborne IEDs remained high, the spokesman added. The role has now been handed over to Faslane-based HMS Bangor

HMS Bangor was also to deploy later, the video below from NATO provides a good overview of both UK and Dutch capabilities.

These videos demonstrate the evolving role of unmanned systems but clearly, the emergent technology demonstration programmes are promising more.

It also demonstrated that MCM operations sometimes need to be carried out in hostile environments with a real threat of shore based attack.

Programmes

The Future Mine Countermeasures Capability (FMCMC)

After the UOR infused MCM operations in Iraq had concluded a programme to look at the next stages of MCM was launched.

When almost every programme had to be prefixed with the word future, mine countermeasures was no different. The Future Mine Countermeasures Capability (FMCMC) accurately predicted that the future of MCM was portable, offboard 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.

Mine Countermeasures, Hydrographic and Patrol Capability (MHPC)

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. Subsequent agreements with the French have also seen a commitment to a joint programme.

It also became clear around this time, as the FMCMC had suggested, that mine countermeasures would be about removing the need for clearance divers as much as possible, reducing the need for dedicated platforms and increasing deployability.

I think it also signalled the end for highly specialised, low magnetic, quiet and ultra expensive MCM vessels, maybe not soon, but definitely on the horizon.

These goals pointed to compact deployable set of equipment that could be operated at stand off distances from any vessel, within reason.

Despite this, many concentrated on the Patrol aspect of MHPC, suggesting small warships such as the Austal Multi Role Vessel (MRV) and BMT Venator.

The approach by the Royal Navy was (and is) one of sensible conservatism and low risk

Ofboard and unmanned systems would be developed, proven and deployed from existing specialised MCM vessels whilst still retaining the capabilities of those specialist vessels, hull mounted sonars for example.

If offboard systems could be proven as effective from any vessel then the platform from which they were operated from could be considered seperately.

It also recognised that now matter how unmanned and autonomous systems developed the skills of the clearance diver would still be needed in some circumstances and the tremendous advantages of the human eye/brain would take some time for a machine to best.

Finally, MHPC recognised the convergence of MCM and Survey, much of the equipment used in MCM operations had been developed for offshore survey and engineering, the REMUS 100 being a very good example.

October 2012 saw the Organisation for Joint Armament Cooperation (OCCAR) announce five short listed candidate companies to enter the next stage of the harmonised UK/French maritime mines countermeasures programme. For the French, it is the Système de Lutte Anti-Mines – Futur (SLAM-F) and the UK, Mines Countermeasures, Hydrographic, and Patrol Capability (MHPC).

Although these two existing programmes had differences there was thought enough commonality for a joint approach, managed by OCCAR and agreed during the recent Anglo French defence accord.

Both are concentrating on creating a system of systems that will support off board detection, classification and neutralisation of a range of mines.

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 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

This programme is still ongoing.

ESPADON
ESPADON

Bluebird Electric have very good coverage of the SLAM-F programme, click here to read more.

Further technology demonstrators that were being used to inform MHPC were Flexible Agile Sweeping Technology (FAST), Littoral Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (LUUV), a combined command system and the Tactical Maritime Unmanned Air System (TMUAS).

TMUAS
TMUAS

Underpinning these demonstrators is work to provision bandwidth and the enabling command and control infrastructure.

The original goal was for a new class of vessels to be in service from 2023 but unsurprisingly, this no longer the case.

It seems the current objective is to reconfigure and life extend the 8 Hunt class vessels (their large aft deck lends itself well to reconfiguration). A series of trials and demonstrations will be a precursor to refitting the Hunt class from 2018 onwards.

It would also appear that a new future platform is even further away, the last I read indicated a class of eight 90m steel hulled vessels for MCM and another two similar vessels for survey. Both would have a speed of 18-24 knots and space for up to 21 mission packages, those mission packages being, of course, ISO container based.

We do of course have one or two elections and defence reviews between then and now so as ever with future programmes, nothing is certain.

[UPDATE: With the recent patrol vessel order it would seem it is now just MHC]

Equipment

Shallow Water Influence Minesweeping System (SWIMS)

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)

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.

Australian Defence Industries are now Thales Australia and this system have evolved into a comprehensive package called the Australian Minesweeping System (AMS)

SWIMS Iraq 2003
SWIMS Iraq 2003

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. Modifications included the telemetry and remote control equipment, 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.

Pipe Noise Maker
Pipe Noise Maker

Mini Dyads sound small, 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 mutiple Mini Dyads arranged to simulate different magnetic signatures

ADI Mini Dyad
ADI Mini Dyad

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.

Telic SWIMS
Telic SWIMS

REMUS 100

After witnessing 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 existing ECA Robotics PAP 104 Mk 4 and 5 underwater vehicles being too large.

[Click here to see ex RN PAP Mk1 for auction and here for an amusing story of ‘one of our yellow submarines is missing’]

After a round of successful trials another 10 systems were purchased.

This video from 2012 shows Royal Navy personnel using a REMUS 100 on exercise in the Gulf

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.

Hydroid are now owned by Kongsberg, click here for datasheets and further information

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 interferrometric sonar (datasheet), modular endcaps and digital ultra short baseline (USBL) acoustic positioning systems.

Some were also fitted with an Inertial Navigation System.

Seafox

The Seafox is a one shot mine neutralisation system, simply put, it swims to the mine and blow itself and the mine up.

Seafox Mine Disposal System
Seafox Mine Disposal System

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.

Seafox recover
Seafox recover

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 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

Read more about Seafox here

REMUS 600

2009 saw the introduction of the larger REMUS 600 Underwater Unmanned Vehicles (UUV), the news release

Hydroid, LLC, a leading manufacturer of Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), announced today that it was awarded a multi-system, multi-year contract by the UK Ministry of Defence to supply the Royal Navy with REMUS 600 AUVs. The contract specifies for the supply of two REMUS 600 systems complete with operating, deployment, recovery and support equipment, and training and associated logistic support. The contract also exercised options for two additional vehicles and ancillary equipment. The REMUS units will greatly enhance the Royal Navy’s mine countermeasures capability within the littoral area, providing a detailed maritime survey, mine detection and classification capability in the 30m to 200m depth range.

Hydroid has teamed with Babcock Design & Technology (BD&T), a business unit within Babcock Engineering Services, a U.K. based leading Support Services company with offices in Rosyth, Scotland and Weymouth, Dorset. BD&T will assist Hydroid by providing programme and risk management, trials support, ship installation design and safety assessment as well as assistance in providing U.K. based training and logistical support for the five year duration of the in-service support phase.

“The proven technology of Hydroid’s REMUS system will greatly enhance existing Royal Navy MCM capability,” said Phil Jenkin, Mine Counter Measures Project Manager of UK Ministry of Defence. “Rather than replace existing systems, the REMUS 600 AUVs will add new capabilities and act as a force-multiplier, allowing existing assets to conduct operations independently. Hydroid offered the Ministry of Defence the highest confidence in meeting the Royal Navy’s technical requirements and achieving the best acquisition and whole life value with its REMUS 600 vehicles.”

With both the REMUS 100 and REMUS 600 system in service a two tier capability was evolving, the two vehicles working  together, one in shallow water and one, deeper.

The video below shows the different methods of launch & recovery and a good overview of general capabilities, launch and recovery of unmanned systems is one of the main development areas of MHPC, improvements to allow operations in higher sea state have obvious benefits.

Transitioning the system safely through the splash zone is far from a trivial task.

The Royal Navy opted for a simple and robust crane and cradle launch and recovery system but whether this remains in the mature system is open for debate.

Hydroid REMUS 600 MCM Recce UUV Launch and Recovery systems model
Hydroid REMUS 600 MCM Recce UUV Launch and Recovery systems model
Hydroid REMUS 600 MCM Recce UUV Launch and Recovery system on board RN MCM Vessel
Hydroid REMUS 600 MCM Recce UUV Launch and Recovery system onboard Royal Navy Hunt Class MCM Vessel

By this stage it was clear that this kind of technology was relatively easily integrated with existing vessels, transportable and with the potential for being platform agnostic, much of the promise and PowerPoint was actually being realised.

Hydroid REMUS 600 MCM Recce UUV System Components
Hydroid REMUS 600 MCM Recce UUV System Components

COBRA

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 shocktube and acoustic.

COBRA Mine Countermeasures
COBRA Mine Countermeasures
COBRA attached to a Seafox
COBRA attached to a Seafox

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.

Fast Agile Sweeping Technology (FAST)

QinetiQ and ADI put together the SWIMS system in record time 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;

A mine counter measures (MCM) flexible agile sweeping technology (FAST) technology readiness demonstrator (TRD) that will ultimately enable MOD to put a combined influence sweep (CIS) replacement into service using FAST Technology. Key objectives for this programme include de-risking the key technologies for a unmanned surface vessel based MCM influence capability and the development of technology and system integration maturity, using a design and build TRD programme. Quantified mine sweeping performance and effectiveness against mine threats in a realistic scenario will be demonstrated along with deployment, recovery and capture of a FAST unmanned surface vessel from an MCM. The development of an open architecture approach to the FAST components and the transfer of MOD mine sweeping research knowledge to the UK industry supplier base are also important.

Shortly after contract award EDO Corporation was acquired by ITT, 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, click here to view.

After a critical design review trials took place in 2011.

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By 2011 Atlas had evolved the system into something called the  Containerised Integrated Mine Countermeasures System (C-IMCMS)

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.

C-IMCMS (Containerised Integrated Mine Countermeasures System)
C-IMCMS (Containerised Integrated Mine Countermeasures System)

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.

Atlas Elektronik Integrated MCM System with FAST
Atlas Elektronik Integrated MCM System with FAST

Another sweep system was also considered, 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. 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.

It is not clear what sweep technology FAST used, the Excelis Modular Advanced Remote-controlled Surface Sweep System or those from Thales Australia.

Modular Advanced Remote Controlled Surface Sweep System
Exelis Modular Advanced Remote Controlled Surface Sweep System

The ADI (now Thales Australia) Advanced Minsweeping System combines acoustic, magnetic and  Electric Potential (UEP) / Extremely Low Frequency Electric (ELFE) sources that produce ship like signatures.

AMAS Combined Sweep Schematic
AMAS Combined Sweep Schematic

AMAS Towed Body Generator 01 AMAS Towed Body Generator 02The towed bodies generates power for the acoustic and electrical sources so no additional power generation is required.

Modern mines have the ability to distinguish older non combined sweep signatures, an acoustic signal with no accompanying magnetic signature is immediately detected as a sweep system and given a good stiff ignoring. Combined influence systems solve this by carefully tuning all sources into a single signature, very cunning.

Recent Developments

DSEi 2013

In September 2013 at the DSEi exhibition in London two of the short listed companies showed off their offerings, Atlas Elektronik and Thales

Both manufacturers seemed to have similar approaches, small craft that could be operated in either manned or unmanned modes and both able to launch and recover a range of unmanned underwater systems for sweep, recce and disposal of underwater explosives and mines.

Thales showed the HALYCON system and Atlas Elektronik, ARCIMS.

It must be said that these system did not suddenly appear and have been the product of many years evolution.

Atlas Elektronik

Atlas Elektronik showed ARCIMS. ARCIMS 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.

ARCIMS
ARCIMS

The datasheet for ARCIMS is here

ATLAS Elektronik Offboard Systems showing ARCIMS
ATLAS Elektronik Offboard Systems showing ARCIMS

As can be seen from the graphic, Atlas envisaged ARCMIS having the ability to tow sweep equipment and deploy its own unmanned systems (note the slight change from above, where the small craft looked like FAST)

Note also, the lack of MCM vessel.

An autonomous means of launch and recovery of small unmanned underwater systems or ROV’s was absent, unlike the more mature Thales Halycon although during the show, Atlas hinted at undisclosed customers trialling the system soon, no prizes for guessing this would be the Royal Navy.

Thales Halcyon

Thales had partnered with Autonomous Surface Vehicles in 2012, a UK company specialising in unmanned surface craft.

The Royal Navy also buys surface targets from ASV and their C-Sweep was seen as an integral element of the Thales solution

ASV C-Sweep Thales HALCYON
ASV C-Sweep Thales HALCYON
ASV C-Sweep Thales HALCYON under way
ASV C-Sweep Thales HALCYON under way

The C Sweep datasheet can be found here

The video above, 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.

Saab SeaEye MuMNS
Saab SeaEye MuMNS

Both Halcyon and ARCIMS showed the concept of a small boat, able to operate at distance and deploy its own system. At a distance, does not necessarily mean at a distance from a minesweeper, it could be the shore or any vessel.

Contracts

In February this year the MoD issued a £1.5m contract extension to Kongsberg (who now own Hydroid) for the maintenance and support of the Royal Navy REMUS 600 (RECCE) Underwater Unmanned Vehicles (UUV) out to 31st March 2016.

Whether this March 2016 date is significant or not is not clear but the obvious inference is that it is post SDSR 2015  and may indicate contract awards for MHPC.

September 2013 saw the Royal Navy purchase SeeTrack Military and SeeTrack Neptune licenses from SeeByte.

SeeByte’s SeeTrack Military software is an open-architecture platform solution enabling mission-planning, monitoring, post-processing and reporting of off-board assets such as UUVs and diver hand held system; it is now the tool of choice for sixteen of the world’s navies. SeeTrack Neptune provides a payload control architecture and real time autonomy engine for UUVs to plan and execute well known patterns of behaviour that expedite and optimise single vehicle and multi-vehicle operations. In other words, the operators plan for what to do and SeeTrack Neptune decides how to do it.

Read the  SeeTrack Military brochure here

SeeTrack software can be extended with modules, Change Detection operates in a similar manner to change detection software used in Iraq and Afghanistan to analyse changes in terrain features that might indicate mines. The Automatic Target Recognition (ATR) module automates the process of sifting through masses of information, recognising a mine and discarding seabed debris that is especially common in port areas or those with a lot of surface traffic.

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

In March this year the Royal Navy signed Memorandum of Understanding between it and the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) in Southampton to share research;

The Royal Navy does not currently have a mature UUV capability – but the work with the NOC will provide the basis for trialling and understanding how they can best be used. Plans are underway to launch two UUVs from Royal Navy warships – one will be launched from a survey ship in the South West Approaches near Plymouth and the other from a minehunter in the Mediterranean.

“We chose the survey ship and minehunter because they both work with similar equipment,” explained Nick Hammond, the Royal Navy’s Environmental Information Officer.” However the idea would be to have the UUVs on board the frigates which are the Navy’s anti-submarine warfare platforms. The information the UUVs provide would be essential to their operation and the aspiration from these trials is to demonstrate that UUVs would make a difference to anti submarine warfare.”

So although this article is primarily about mine countermeasures the agreement with the NOC is clearly being used to inform work on anti submarine warfare and the possibility of a Type 23 or Type 26 Frigate deploying underwater unmanned vessels in support of ASW is a glimpse into the future.

Latest News

The reason I have written this update was a news article from the Royal Navy that described the activities of the Maritime Autonomous Systems Trials Team (MASTT), known formerly Fleet Unmanned Underwater Vehicle Unit (FUUVU).

The motorboat Hazard – currently being put through its paces by a specialist team of sailors in Portsmouth Naval Base – can act as the ‘mother ship’ to an assortment of hi-tech remote-controlled and robot submersibles.

The article had two important things to note.

First, the craft is obviously the Atlas Elektronik ARCMIS, the one built by ICE Marine, that undisclosed customer really was the Royal Navy.

Motorboat Hazard
Motorboat Hazard

Second is the small ROV, although there is no autonomous launch and recovery system like the Thales Halcyon with its Saab Seaeye Falcon, the ROV shown is the Ocean Modules V8 M500 Intervention, click here for the brochure.

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The V8 M500 is a new design (2013) from Ocean Modules, a Swedish company that sell their products in the UK through Atlantas Marine in Somerset.

What is also interesting is that both the Atlas and Thales concepts use civilian ROV’s modified to carry disposal devices, in the video below, the V8 M500 is seen attaching an ECS Cobra device

Ocean Modules ROV and Cobra mine neutralisation device
Ocean Modules ROV and Cobra mine neutralisation device

The comments from one of those interviewed for the story are equally illuminating.

“What you can do with 40 men and women in a minehunter, here you can do with two or three sailors – and in a fraction of the time,” said CPO ‘Fingers’ Dumbleton, who’s spent more than 20 years in the mine warfare branch.

“It’s great that the Navy is taking a step in the right direction, looking at the technology out there, and seeing where we can use it in the future.”

The goal in the future is to fit this technology and unmanned sweep systems to a Hunt-class ship, but in the future the system could easily be run from any reasonable-sized warship, sent anywhere in the world in just 48 hours.

They will sit safely on the ship, or in a base ashore, and send unmanned surface vessels and their remote systems off hunting mines or gathering hydrographic data.

“The technology is proven. We’re taking it into the military realm. This will be the seafaring equivalent of the unmanned aircraft which have revolutionised aerial warfare,” said Lt Cdr Jack McWilliams, Officer in Command of MASTT.

“It takes the sailor out of the minefield, but we are not taking them out of the equation. You will still need individuals with specialist mine warfare and hydrographic skills, a human being to identify a contact, but they will be much safer, and this is a much more effective way of doing our job.

“This technology is fantastic – and we are right at the forefront of it. It is the future.”

All very interesting.

Summary

Unmanned systems are unlikely to completely remove humans from the mine countermeasures mission but the last decade has seen the technology advance to a level where we are now on the cusp of a genuine step change in the ability of naval forces to counter them.

The UK and other European nations have decided to concentrate on surface and sub surface systems instead of airborne  systems, many of which were US in origin and now largely stalled or cancelled. Across Europe, the USA and Australia there is actually a wealth of operational, scientific and engineering knowledge in the linked domains of hydrographic survey, autonomous underwater/surface vehicles, mine detection, classification and disposal. Many of these advances have been enabled by the civilian offshore exploration industry and looking at most current systems, especially for unmanned underwater vehicles, their origins are not military.

After a decade of development, multiple research projects and demonstrators, the Royal Navy is making solid progress towards an integrated mine countermeasures capability that can be rapidly transported to operational areas, deployed from non specialised vessels or the shore and operated at a stand off distance, thus, largely removing personnel from the danger zone.

In doing so, it has also created a UK industrial knowledge base that may well come into conflict with the OCCAR managed joint UK/French mine countermeasures programme. SLAM-F and MHPC may well have many common objectives but simply looking at the work done so far and the fruits of current demonstrators it is difficult to see much commonality in approach or component parts.

From a strictly UK perspective, what does seem to be emerging is a capability built around;

  • Two classes of autonomous Recce UUV’s, the REMUS 100 for very shallow water and REMUS 600 for shallow water/large volume search
  • A mixture of on-board and off-board data processing allied with powerful recognition and change detection software underpinned with high bandwidth communications networks
  • An air/road/ship deployable motorboat that can operate in manned or unmanned modes and used for both sweeping and localised detection from target ‘prospects’ being provided by the recce UUV’s and data processing engine
  • Neutralisation carried out using remotely operated tethered vehicles deployed from the motorboat such as Seafox, SeeEye Falcon or Ocean Modules V8 M500
  • Detachable and multi shot equipment like Cobra or MuMNS that do not demand the sacrifice of the unmanned system, i.e. the end of expensive one shot systems

With both the Thales demonstrator and the recent news article from the Royal Navy featuring offshore industry derived 6 axis ROV’s it begs the question of what might be happening with Seafox.

In the medium term it seems unlikely that the specialist MCM Vessel will go away, not least because they are flexible, multi-role and relatively cheap to operate. The hull mounted and dipping sonars in service from Thales, the newly implemented command systems and upgraded mechanical systems also point to a safe mid term future.

The graphic from Atlas Elektronik where ARCIMS and Seafox are operated from what looks very much like a Frigate is strictly ‘blue sky’

The Royal Navy has taken and will take a cautious approach, unmanned systems being integrated with existing MCM Vessels and most if not all the development money has been focused on this. Technology marches on however, the direction of travel is obviously platform agnostic and just perhaps, the days of the specialised MCM vessel are numbered?

It is encouraging to see just how far advanced the UK is when compared with other nations, the US included.

Whatever technology emerges, the real challenges will be with bandwidth, latency, mission planning, false alarm rejection, energy density for the platforms and getting all the systems to talk to each other, basic systems integration.

It must be remembered that the mine is not really the issue, it is the minefield. Defeating a minefield not only needs the technical ability to do so but to do so with enough confidence to reduce risk to acceptable levels. The definition of ‘acceptable’ is likely to change depending on mission, the risk appetite when dealing with a requirement to escort a civilian very large crude carrier might be completely different to that of conducting a small scale amphibious raid.

One significant challenge that is likely to emerge is the underwater IED, no longer do mines need to be made in sophisticated factories and one underwater IED in amongst a hundred oil drums/fridges/sacks poses a throughput issue only likely to be solved with multiple parallel detection devices, high power data processing and intelligent software that mimics the human eye/brain recognition capabilities.

It should also be noted that in all of these programmes, visions and technology fests, there is nothing apart from clearance divers for the surf zone, which means that UK Amphibious Operations could be hugely curtailed by a handful of surf zone mines or IED’s.

The reduction in manpower as described in the latest news article will no doubt be noted by many. With roughly 40 personnel per MCMV and 16 vessels, that is probably close to 2,000 personnel.

I think we can be confident the the Royal Navy will retain its cutting edge MCM capability in one form or another.

There are two other future trends to note, first, the convergence of MCM and Survey and second, containerisation of systems.

You didn’t think you were going to read a detailed Think Defence article without a container did you?

Atlas Elektronik Modular MCM control container
Atlas Elektronik Modular MCM control container
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