Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Mine Warfare Gets a Boost From Drones

Royal Navy Sailors display a SeaFox UUV.
It is common knowledge that mines have damaged more U.S. Navy ships than any other weapon since World War II.  During the same period, however, the Navy's focus on Mine Warfare has waxed and waned.  The looming possibility of Iranian mines closing the Strait of Hormuz has once again put mine-countermeasures (MCM) on the upswing.  The Navy's future MCM force will be based on the Littoral Combat Ship and her MCM mission package which has yet to be deployed operationally.  In the meanwhile, the venerable fleet of Avenger Class minesweepers will provide the bulk of this important capability.  Four of the fiberglass-sheathed, wooden-hulled MCMs arrived in the Gulf in June to bolster the four ships already forward deployed to Bahrain.  Although the average age of these ships is over 23 years, their hull, mechanical, electrical, and combat systems suites were recently modernized.  The installation of new unmanned systems are another way the Navy has chosen to enhance the aging ships' capability.

The Avenger's obsolete and prone to break-down AN/SLQ-48 Mine Neutralization System (MNS) is being replaced with the Expendable Mine Neutralization System (EMNS), based on BAE Systems' Archerfish mine neutralization system.  The fiber-optically guided EMNS uses a high frequency sonar and low light video camera to detect mines, which are then neutralized with a shaped charge.  Replacing the legacy the MNS with EMNS will also save over 15 tons in weight on each ship.


Archerfish Mine Neutralization Vehicle
 
IMCMEX Op Areas (U.S. Navy FIFTH Fleet Graphic)
By January 2013, three Avengers will be outfitted with Altas Elektrik's SeaFox UUV, capable of destroying a mine with a built in shaped charge.  The SeaFox already serves in the Gulf and is currently launched by rigid hull inflatable boats.  MK 18 Swordfish systems were also part of the package to bolster the Navy's Persian Gulf mine defenses.  Swordfish is a derivative of the Hydroid REMUS UUV and used for shallow water MCM. Later this month, these new MCM capabilities will be show-cased along with those of 26 other countries during the Navy's FIFTH Fleet hosted International Mine Counter-Measures Exercise (IMCMEX).  IMCMEX operations will take place in Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Oman, and Persian Gulf.   Americans aren't alone in leveraging new unmanned systems for mine warfare. The Royal Navy's HMS Ramsey (M110), a Sandown class minehunter participating in the IMCMEX, also employs the SeaFox.  For decades now, Germany's Troika system, China's Futi, and other remotely operated surface vessels have reduced the risk to sailors with a stand-off minesweeping capability.  Other European navies have embraced newer combinations of autonomous and remotely operated MCM systems, such as France's Evaluation de Solutions Potentielles d’Automatisation de DĂ©minage pour les OpĂ©rations Navales (ESPADON) solution, which employs a ship operating in concert with two USVs and AUVs. 

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