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26 NAVY NEWS, DECEMBER 2010 Remote-controlled future

TODAY the Royal Navy relies on its flotilla of specialist Mine Countermeasures Vessels (MCMV) and people, along with some newer technologies, to keep the seas its ships operate in safe from the threat posed by a hidden, silent, dangerous and effective weapon:

sea mine, writes Cdr Martin Mackey, mine warfare desk


officer at the MOD. A demonstration day at

Bincleaves on the south coast allowed the Royal Navy to run through its plans to make the best use of unmanned vehicles and future vessels in the fight against these deadly waterborne weapons. A weapon that has been

deployed on countless occasions since it was first used during the American Revolution in 1776. Its devastating effect has a huge psychological impact on those who have to operate in the face of them caused by the fact that many ships and lives have been lost as a result of sea mines since they came into being.

The US has lost more ships to sea mines than to any other weapon since 1950. And, the damage caused to US Ships Tripoli and Princeton during the 1991 Gulf War are just two examples of the effect that such a relatively simple, cheap and easily-deployable weapon can have on the most modern yet unsuspecting warship when operating in areas that have not been cleared by the efforts of the mine-warfare experts. The threat of Iraqi mines was

ever-present in the second Gulf War in 2003 as well and – as with 1991 and on many other occasions since the World War 2 – the UK’s MCM flotilla and its people were the vanguard of clearing the waters that others relied on.

This position has not changed.

Today the RN has four MCMVs deployed in the Gulf operating alongside their US minehunting counterparts. The threat of sea mines used in

a conventional manner by a state or by terrorists will not go away. Mines are becoming ever more complex and ‘clever’ and our means to deal with an evolving weapon that is readily available on the open market needs to keep apace.

The requirement for the UK to maintain its own ability to deal with the threat of sea mines was recognised in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).

The SDSR stated that as part of the Future Force 2020 the RN will have: 14 mine counter-measures vessels, based on existing Hunt and Sandown-class ships. In addition there will be a replacement programme which will also have the flexibility to be used for other roles such as hydrography or offshore patrol. This will provide a significant

level of security and protection of the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Future

Force 2020

coincidentally marks the time at which the RN’s current flotilla of MCMVs will have started to reach their planned retirement age. The replacement programme to which the SDSR refers is the £1.4 billion MCM, Hydrographic and Patrol Capability (MHPC) project.

The project aims to manage the change-over from the RN’s current ships to something new in the future, while maintaining its ability to deal with the constantly- evolving mines.

threat posed by The Hydrographic and Patrol

part of the project recognises that whilst the capabilities needed to deliver all three elements of the project will be different, the ship could potentially be one of the same class.

This ship is commonly referred to as the MHP Vessel (previously known as the Future Surface Combatant C3 variant). Additionally,

assessment is that there is a number the MOD’s

New technology is bringing whole new approaches to combat the mines that threaten the world’s seas and waterways. By the time the next generation of British minehunting ships appear, unmanned underwater and surface vessels could be the tool of choice for blasting away the threat with its operator safely enconsced away from the danger-zone. The Royal Navy is honing its plans for the Future Force 2020, and demonstrated some of its methods at Bincleaves.

of activities that the hydrographic and MCM communities already do that in the future could be fused together. For example, a considerable amount of


countermeasures activity is about mapping the seabed. The purpose of this is to get a good underwater picture and identify all the contacts that are already there

so that if mines

are subsequently laid, it will be much easier to detect those mines against a background of contacts that have already been surveyed and identified. This is survey work, something

that the Hydrographic specialists do routinely.

Indeed there is a strong impetus to align the work that both communities do today so that a piece of seabed only needs to be looked at once and the data collected meets the requirements of the different users.

The MHPC project seeks to

ensure that data collection sharing by the Navy’s minehunters and the wider maritime community can be improved.

With the planned retirement of

the current ships expected towards the end of this decade and into the early part of the next, the MOD has been assessing how to replace the MCM capability delivered by its MCMVs and the Fleet Diving Squadron.

The need to find the most efficient, effective, safe and swift means to deal with sea mines in the future has meant a greater emphasis on improved awareness of the operating environment, a greater understanding of risks, and a wider choice of options to tackle the threat.

There are a number of concepts the MOD is considering that are expected to meet the demands of future commanders in dealing with mines. The current frontrunner is one

that relies on stand-off; off-board capabilities. The MOD has been considering this method since 2005. It is not alone in looking at it as many other nations are considering

similar particularly the US.

The concept relies on the use of unmanned vehicles delivered from a variety of platforms and locations with technology providing certain levels of automation or autonomy in the off-board systems. Ultimately, when faced with

the threat of the sea mine, these systems will keep people and ships out of harm’s way whilst the unmanned vehicles detect, identify and destroy the mines.

Much wider areas can be

covered by these vehicles than can be achieved by MCMVs, with rapid advancements in technology being the powerhouse behind the changes taking place.

Key to all of this is the ability

to provide a commander with improved levels of intelligence and it is this activity where the HM and MCM communities’ efforts will be joined up.


The RN is already using unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) which enables it to meet some of its capability challenges particularly in shallower waters. Using these unmanned vehicles

now also helps safeguard the future by giving operators the opportunity to get their hands on the kit. To look for mines the Fleet Unmanned Underwater Vehicle Unit (FUUVU),

Portsmouth, has in its inventory the REMUS 100 and REMUS 600 – very shallow water and recce variants.

Additionally, the Fleet Diving

Squadron also uses the very shallow water REMUS and, when combined with clearance divers, offers the full range of search to destroy functions.


Both these units are supported by members of the hydrography, meteorology and oceanography branch (HM) who, all together, are learning the value of these systems in improving the RN’s ability to conduct a number survey and mine neutralisation tasks more effectively. The Recce vehicle has also been

operated from the Hunt-class with plans to deploy from one of the survey ships soon. On the MCMVs, the prime

weapon system used to destroy mines is the Seafox one-shot mine disposal system. The size and portability of Seafox open the possibility of the system also being operated from boats in the future. Work is currently under way to look at deploying the Seafox rounds from an Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV). As well as the equipment already

in service, the RN is undertaking concept demonstration work looking at the increased use of off-board unmanned systems particularly in a minefield. The demonstration day at

Bincleaves, Weymouth, allowed the wider utility of unmanned systems to be put on show to a US, Australian and wider MOD audience.


The Littoral UUV, vehicle

that a can

operate both in the open ocean as well as in ports and harbours, was in the water along with one of few vehicles in the world that has the ability to tow an influence minesweeping system. The

Flexible Agile Sweep

Technology (FAST) comprises a large glass-reinforced plastic boat, a power pack, navigation systems and the tow modules. It can operate with or without people on board.

Whilst not the final product, approach,

what FAST, and in particular the boat, demonstrates is the utility of unmanned boats and vessels. The unmanned boat is expected to be the work horse of the RN’s ability to deal with mines in the future being able to deploy and recover UUVs that will search for the mines as well as the systems that will destroy them – whether by one-shot mine disposal vehicles or by towing influence sweeps and side-scan sonars.

The RN also has a plan to

use Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to carry out survey and MCM tasks. Over the coming few years, the stand-off, off-board concept will be put to the test by the UK. Recognised as one of the

world leaders in MCM and HM, the challenges the UK faces in meeting the capability needs of the future are not unique and it is not alone. Many nations are facing the same question: do we keep what we have for longer; replace like with like; or go for something completely different? The UK is working closely with the US, Australia and a number of other nations to answer those complex questions.

Recently the UK and French based in

governments formally agreed to work more closely on defence and security matters with MCM being one area where both nations will join together to assess what MCM systems they need in the future. All nations dealing with this

understand that ships are likely to form just one part of the answer to delivering what needs to be seen in a much wider context: delivering capability.

● Farewell to the minehunter as we know it? HMS Walney (right) decommissioned earlier this year, but her sister ships in the minehunting fl otilla are due to be kept busy for the next decade – however the future for minehunting might be remote-controlled or autonomous unmanned vessels (REMUS and Sea Fox are pictured left) operated from ships that combine the minehunting, survey and patrol roles.

Pictures: LA(Phot) Keith Morgan, LA(Phot) Pete Smith, PO(Phot) Ian Arthur RNR

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