Mine Warfare Unmanned Systems: US Allies are Moving Forward

By Dr. Franck Florin, CRUSER Member, VP International Technologies, Thales Defense & Security Inc.

During World War II, mines emerged as a major weapon and the British, German and American navies placed more than 215,000 mines in the seas (according to Chris Henry, Depth Charge, 2005). To date, despite constant clearing effort, more than 60% of the mines and unexploded ordnance from that period are still lying on the sea bed near European harbors and along major European navigation channels. In 2012 alone, the French Navy neutralized a total of 2,292 explosive devices in the country territorial waters (50% in the Channel between France and UK, 30% in the Atlantic and 20% in the Mediterranean Sea).

With tens of thousands of unexploded ordnances to clear and many international operations abroad to support United Nations peace keeping and NATO crisis management, the European navies need cutting edge technologies to support their Mine Warfare (MIW) effort. This was recognized by the European Defense Agency (EDA) in November 2008, when the agency initiated a Maritime Mine Counter Measures (MMCM) project with thirteen contributing Members (France, as lead nation, The United Kingdom (UK), Belgium, Estonia, Finland, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden and Norway). During a two year assessment phase, the nations shared military requirements and looked at available technologies enabling the replacement of existing Mine Hunting capabilities.

Moreover, for both France and The UK, MIW is essential to sustain SSBN forces. France and the UK have therefore assigned millions over the years in developing the most capable MIW forces. In 2010, France and The UK signed the Lancaster House treaty for defense and security cooperation, agreeing in particular MMCM collaboration and Unmanned Systems Research & Technology focus.

The Organization for Joint Armament Cooperation (OCCAR) is an international organization created by six European nations (Belgium, France, Germany, the UK, Italy and Spain), whose core-business is the through life management of collaborative defense equipment programs. In July 2012, EDA and the OCCAR signed an Administrative Arrangement, paving the way for a closer relationship and highlighting their common interest, especially regarding MMCM. The same year, UK and France aligned their plans regarding their future MMCM capabilities and decided to develop and realize prototypes of new MMCM systems based on unmanned technologies, under OCCAR program management.

OCCAR began immediately a European competitive process for a common assessment phase. On March 27, 2015, OCCAR officially awarded the MMCM contract to a Thales led consortium with BAE Systems on behalf of France and The UK. The MMCM program will develop autonomous unmanned systems for detection and neutralization of sea mines and underwater improvised explosive devices (IED). The first objective of the OCCAR-managed MMCM Program is to develop, manufacture, and qualify two prototype systems, combined to deliver agile, interoperable and robust MMCM capability. By defeating underwater mines and IED in stride, these systems will give strategic, operational and tactical freedom of maneuver to the forces. The four stage schedule includes design, manufacture, qualification, and will end with a 24 month operational evaluation (OPEVAL) by the Royal Navy and the French Marine Nationale.

Editor's note: Reprinted with permission from the Naval Postgraduate School's CRUSER News.


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