Unmanned Systems Take the Sailor Out of the Minefield

Originally posted By George Galorisi at Defense.info

During the past several months, NATO has been flexing its mine-countermeasures and engaging commercial companies to deal with mines and other unexploded ordnance, much of it dating back to World War II. Indeed, as part of this process, NATO has constituted its 1st Standing Anti-Mine Squad and the Baltic Minesweeper Squadron (BALTRON).

As previously reported in Second Line of Defense, in November 2019, NATO MCM ships cleared more than fifty mines from the Baltic Sea.

More recently,  the Estonian maritime security company, ESC Global Security, won a Polish tender worth four million euros for clearance of approximately the sea bottom of old mines on the route between several ports.

Few would disagree with the statement that mines represent one of the most vexing military challenges, and the fact that NATO nations are keen to clear mines that have been on the sea floor for over seven decades is telling regarding just how challenging the MCM mission remains to this day. Sea mines are perhaps the most lethal form of these weapons, as they are hard to find, difficult to neutralize, and can present a deadly hazard to any vessel—even those ships specifically designed to hunt them. These “weapons that wait” provide almost any adversary with an effective means to thwart even a major naval power.

The threat of mines can stop any naval operation dead in its tracks. The use of sea mines adjacent to maritime choke points presents a threat that is at once ubiquitous and deadly. Further afield, sea mines have broader repercussions for global maritime trade routes as well. Sadly, western nations have given insufficient attention to dealing with the threat sea mines pose to naval and merchant activities worldwide.

This mission is of vital importance to the United States as well as to many other nations. As reported in USNI News: “The Navy’s mine warfare community is putting together a comprehensive plan to lay out the investments required for a successful transition from legacy mine countermeasures systems to more advanced capabilities.”

The same article pointed out the urgency of the situation:

“The early-1980s Avenger-class MCM ships and the mid-1980s MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters will be on their way out next decade, and a mix-and-match system of sensors, offboard vehicles and platforms will take over the mission. Though Navy leaders knew the transition was coming – and though it’s been pushed back due to delays in developing capabilities within the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program – decisions related to retiring the legacy systems have now come into the near-term planning window for the service, requiring a coordinated path forward on the transition.”

“While the United States and many of its NATO and other allies are laying up and “sun-setting” their mine-countermeasures (MCM) capabilities, peer competitors are enhancing their MCM inventory.  In late 2019, Russia christened a new Alexander-Obukhov-class minesweeper, adding to their already substantial fleet of Aleksandrit-class and Natya-class minesweepers. China added new Wozang-class mine-countermeasures vessels in 2016 (Rongcheng and Donggang types) and in 2017 (Rudong type).

The Ongoing Challenge to Instantiate Effective Mine Countermeasures

Today, especially given the tensions between the United States and Iran, U.S. and allied military professionals are evaluating the ways that Iran could threaten the west. Many think that the most serious threat is that Iran could mine the Strait of Hormuz. The mines themselves would not only take an extended period to clear, but the minesweepers could only do their work once the Iranian navy was sunk and its anti-ship missile sites destroyed.

Beyond the Iranian threat, the challenge posed by potential adversary mining capabilities is real and growing.  The number of countries with mines, mining assets, mine manufacturing capabilities, and the intention to export mines has grown dramatically over the past several decades.  More than fifty countries possess mines and mining capability.  In addition, the types, sophistication, and lethality of the mines available on the world market are increasing.

This threat is not lost on Navy and Marine Corps leadership. During the November 2019 NDIA Expeditionary Warfare Conference, Vice Admiral John Miller, former commander of Naval Forces Central Command, noted that developing MCM capability is critical as the Navy faces increased mining threats from adversaries worldwide.  During this event, Major General David Coffman, Commanding General of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade noted, “The threat of mines is growing globally.  It is an asymmetric advantage that our enemy is trying to leverage and directly affects our maneuverability and our assets.”

It falls on the U.S. Navy to provide the MCM capability to enable the Joint Force to operate forward in support of United States’ interests, as well as those of our allies and friends. Indeed, the U.S. Navy’s strategic document A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0 (Design 2.0) articulates the profoundly challenging strategic environment where peer competitors such as China and Russia and lesser, but more unstable, powers such as North Korea and Iran, have large inventories of naval mines.  Design 2.0 notes that, “It has been decades since we last competed for sea control, sea lines of communication and access to world markets.”  The threat of naval mines is one of the key challenges that drives our emerging need to once again compete for freedom of movement on the world’s oceans, as well as in the littorals.

Mine Countermeasures (MCM) is one of the most difficult and time-consuming missions for navies to successfully execute. The U.S. Navy’s MCM capabilities are little-changed today, even after decades of “aspirational” intentions to enhance the Navy’s MCM posture. While the U.S. Navy has made some important strides, such as the MCM package aboard the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), the significance of the MCM mission provides both the impetus and opportunity to do much more. And the time to do so is now.

The platforms that embody the U.S. Navy’s primary MCM capability—the MH-53E AMCM aircraft and the Avenger-class minesweeper – are scheduled to sunset by 2025. As Captain Chris Merwin of the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) pointed out at a military-industry event in October 2019, the Navy’s follow-on MCM capability, embodied the MCM package aboard the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), is not coming on line as rapidly as anticipated, and initial operating capability is not scheduled until 2023 – a date Captain Merwin described as “optimistic.”

This is not a new issue for the U.S. Navy, but one it has struggled with for decades.  While there are many reasons why the U.S. Navy has not yet developed a more effective MCM capability, most would put technology at the top of the list. The mission is complex and all of today’s technological solutions still put the Sailor in or near the minefield. New technologies are urgently needed.

Unmanned Maritime Vehicle Technologies Are Evolving Rapidly

Today, one of the most rapidly growing areas of innovative technology adoption by military forces worldwide involves unmanned systems. In the past several decades, the expanding use of military unmanned systems (UxS) is already creating strategic, operational, and tactical possibilities that did not exist a decade ago.

While unmanned systems show great promise, most military professionals are keenly aware of the importance of not embracing every tool a technologist thinks might be of value to those in the fight. Employing unmanned systems in an ongoing series of exercises, experiments and demonstrations is a proven way of separating promising, but immature, technologies from those that will actually wind up in the hands of a warfighter as a proven capability.

Given today’s compelling mine threat, as well as the age of current MCM force, to say nothing of the rapidity with which current MCM systems are sun-setting, it may be time for naval professionals to shift to a new technology paradigm and focus on technologies—often commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies—will likely deliver an MCM capability faster than traditional acquisition processes.

For all navies, there is only one way to completely, “Take the sailor out of the minefield,” and that is to leverage unmanned technologies to hunt and destroy mines from a distance. The severe damage done to U.S. Navy ships, USS Samuel B. Roberts, USS Tripoli and USS Princeton by simple sea mines is something that can be avoided in the future. In the past, unmanned vehicle technologies were not mature enough to be considered to take on the complex mine-hunting and mine-clearing task. They are today.

Other navies can capitalize on the work that the U.S. Navy has already conducted as it has explored ways to use emergent COTS unmanned technologies for the MCM mission.  Given the severity of the mine threat, all navies would be well-served to leverage and build upon mature technologies that have been examined by commercial and other government agencies in the United States, and tested extensively in exercises, experiments, and demonstrations to field a near-term MCM capability.

Leveraging U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Experience

Earlier in this article I quoted both a U.S. Navy admiral and a U.S. Marine Corps general, both of who spoke of the severity of the mine threat as well as the challenges of fielding an effective and affordable MCM capability. This was not a set of random quotes, but rather an indication that the Navy and Marine Corps are united in their mutual efforts to deal with the worldwide mine threat to naval expeditionary forces.

The reason for this unity of effort is clear: Navy-Marine Corps expeditionary strike groups operate in the littorals close to shore, often on a coastline that the adversary defends with mines. That is one of the reasons why,  over the past several years, in a series of U.S. Navy and Marine Corps events as diverse as the Ship-to-Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation and Advanced Naval Technology Exercise (S2ME2 ANTX), the Battlespace Preparation in a Contested Environment, the Surface Warfare Distributed Lethality in the Littoral demonstration, Dawn Blitz, Steel Knight, the Bold Alligator exercise series, and Valiant Shield, operators have field-tested wide range of emerging technologies, many of them adaptable to the MCM mission.

One of the technologies that performed well in these events was the MANTAS unmanned surface vehicle (USV).  Over the course of the events described above, the MANTAS was scaled-up from a six-foot, to eight-foot, to twelve-foot version. During Exercise Valiant Shield, MANTAS was tasked with re-supply mission, carrying cargo to the troops ashore. As a result of that mission success, U.S. Navy and Marine Corps officials have asked MANTAS’ manufacturer, MARTAC Inc., to scale-up the MANTAS further and design a thirty-eight-foot version.

It is this USV—one that approximates the size of an eleven-meter RHIB used by many navies—that can be combined with surface and subsurface mine-hunting and neutralizing equipment to provide an over-the-horizon “single sortie detect-to-engage” MCM capability that takes the sailor out of the minefield and provides a potential solution for this challenging mission. While there are any number of USVs and UUVs that the U.S. Navy is testing, leveraging one that has been thoroughly wrung out for hundreds of hours during years of Navy exercises, experiments, and demonstrations provides the most important building block for a comprehensive MCM capability.

Combining COTS Technologies to Achieve a Near-Term MCM Capability

The essential building block for a commercial-off-the-shelf technology MCM solution is a scaled-up version of the twelve-foot MANTAS high-speed catamaran proven in the events listed earlier. This USV—nicknamed the T38—is virtually identical in size to an eleven-meter RHIB carried by many naval ships.  The T38 can operate in up to sea state five, has a cruise speed significantly greater than that of an eleven-meter RHIB, and a range four times greater than the RHIB.

One of the most important attributes of this building block is the fact that the T38 has an aft-mounted twin tow station which houses both a mine-hunting sonar system and a mine neutralization remotely-operated vehicle (ROV). These towed subsystems are installed on two rails aft.  The catamaran hull enables the MANTAS to conduct an angled submergence of the stern tow station. This unique configuration results in a flooded well-deck that facilitates a straightforward launch and recovery of the tows.

The first key component of a commercial-off-the-shelf technology MCM solution is a towed-body-mounted sonar.  A sonar for this mission must have a resolution sufficient to search for mine-like objects (MLOs).  Such a sonar is also programmable for obstacle avoidance, bottom following and terrain referencing.  Another important feature is automatic target recognition to identify likely MLO anomalies.  At this stage, an operator can verify the MLO designated as such by the MANTAS sonar.  Verified MLOs are then added as a waypoint for validation.

The second component of a commercial-off-the-shelf technology MCM solution is a Mine Neutralization System (MNS) Remotely Operated Vehicle.  Mine-like objects that have been verified will be continuously updated.  Once this is complete, the system will recommend a route for the MNS ROV.  This route can be changed as needed as priorities shift or the tactical situation evolves.  Once the area search is complete, the T38 transitions from hunting to neutralizing by conducting a well-deck recovery of the towed-body. This is followed immediately by the launch of the tethered MNS ROV.

The Mine Neutralization System Remotely Operated Vehicle then performs the work previously conducted by various classes of ships as it provides real-time video validation of mine-like objects.   The MNS ROV autonomously executes the MLO route for final classification and man-on-the-loop validation of each MLO.  As this is taking place, the T38 shadows and supports it as an over-the-horizon communications link.  This process is repeated until the field is cleared.

This operational solution exists today in the commercial subsystems that can be delivered far more rapidly than anything the traditional acquisition system can provide.  MARTAC is already completing the design and fabrication of the T38 MCM variant prototype for potential demonstration to the Navy as early as this summer.  The time is right to embrace an unmanned COTS solution to deal with deadly mines.

The Navy Must Take Action Today to Address the MCM Challenge

Because ships and sailors operate daily in harm’s way, The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps—and by extension other allied navies—need to accelerate their efforts to deal with deadly mines. The essential components for such a system exist today, and a robust COTS MCM solution can reach fruition in the near-term.

It is time to put a near-term solution in the hands of the U.S. Navy’s sailors.  While programs of record are developing next-generation technology, the Navy should invest in parallel-path solutions that leverage mature subsystems ready to provide speed-to-capability today.  Once the Fleet sees the COTS solution that can be delivered with the system described above, the U.S. Navy—as well as other navies with the foresight to embrace such a system—will have an effective way to defeat today’s deadly mine threat.

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