Tactical Employment of Drone Motherships

As discussed in an earlier post, dynamics between unmanned naval systems and the platforms that carry them are changing rapidly to accomodate new technologies and tactics.  Arguably, various types of drone motherships have the potential to transform mine countermeasures more than any other warfare area and the evolution in mine-countermeasures tactics towards the mothership-unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) partnership is already underway.  One of the first major demonstrations of this concept occurred last summer during 5th Fleet's International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX) when a number of UUVs were tested from large amphibious motherships including USS Ponce ((AFSB(I)-15).

Essentially, the Navy is moving from dedicated MCM ships such as the Avenger class minesweeper, to a trio of platforms: a Generation I mothership, carrying Generation II platforms (a RHIB specially modified to carry UUVs; seen below), and the UUVs themselves. The Gen I mothership provides the endurance and sustainment to the package. The RHIBs take the mine-hunting or neutralization payloads off-board to minimize danger to the larger mothership, and the payloads - in this case, high resolution imaging sonars - are delivered to the target area via a small UUV.  Drones carrying drones, or Gen III motherships, such as the Littoral Combat Ship's (LCS) Fleet-class Common Unmanned Surface Vessels (CUSV) and French Espadon, are another option for getting the sensor/sweeping delivery systems to their operating area. 

Another example of an innovative drone carrier was revealed during the January 2013 Surface Navy Association's annual meeting, when Major General Timothy C. Hanifen, USMC, Director, of OPNAV's Expeditionary Warfare Division (N95) discussed how the U.S. Navy will demonstrate the forthcoming MK VI Coastal Patrol Boat to carry and launch UUVs for mine hunting and neutralization. 

There are likely a couple of reasons for this movement towards alternative motherships such as USS Ponce and smaller platforms like the MK VI to carrying MCM drones.  Clearing an area of mines is a complicated, methodical operation.  Simply described, mine clearance involves getting equipment (sonar, sweeping gear, and/or neutralization charges) on target to locate, classify, and neutralize mines as rapidly as possible in a port, shipping lane, or other expanse of water.  Generally, more sensors moving, more quickly over a wider area will complete the mission in less time, which is why airborne mine-sweeping and hunting operations have proven so important.  Deploying smaller manned and unmanned craft from a larger ship, each carrying more than one mine-hunting or mine-neutralization vehicle will get more mine-hunting equipment in the water.  A single minesweeper can utilize one sonar and moves slowly through the water from mine to mine.  The mothership/drone combination multiplies the number of sonars in the water by several times.  This unconventional platform experimentation is also likely a response to the technical problems and delays in deploying a viable mine warfare mission package on the Littoral Combat Ship, especially with the RMMV. 

The Chief of Naval Operations' push for "payload over platforms" will lead to additional experimentation with other mothership/drone pairings.  Expect to see new combinations of unmanned vehicle carriers expanded into other warfare areas, including anti-surface, anti-submarine, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconaissance.
U.S. 5TH FLEET AREA OF RESPONSIBILITY (Aug. 27, 2012) Civilian mariners aboard Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) Ship USS Ponce (ASFB(I) 15) lower an 11-meter rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) to conduct tests on two M18 Mod 2 Kingfish Unmanned Underwater Vehicles. Ponce, formerly designated as an amphibious transport dock (LPD) ship, was converted and reclassified in April to fulfill a long-standing U.S. Central Command request for an AFSB to be located in its area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Blake Midnight/Released)


  1. How will a UUV be launched & recovered from a Mk VI PB? Which UUV is N85 referring to?

  2. Not sure exactly which UUV, but would surmise the MK 18 MOD 1 or 2. http://www.navaldrones.com/Remus.html
    Also not sure on the launch/recovery mechanism. The davit system on the RHIB in the above video wouldn't appear to work in a craft with a higher freeboard like the MK VI.

  3. the above photo is of a B&A crane lifting a Navy RHIB. While cranes would be more flexible than davits, their capacity has to be sufficient to lift the Mk VI PB. I have not been able to find its weight but would suspect that to be over 20 tons.

  4. MK VI will displace 82 tons, so it looks like it will be limited to operating from well decks (or shore).


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