Sunday, May 6, 2018

Towards unmanned, stand-off maritime mine counter measures

The MOD has announced that the first unmanned minesweeping system has been accepted by the Royal Navy. This welcome development comes after years of tests, experiments and also delays. It is the result of 3 years of work following a contract announced in march 2015 and is just a step, however important, within a much larger enterprise.

RNMB Hussar in action, towing the Combined Influence Sweep package 

UK-only development; Combined Influence Sweep replacement

12 October 2005 was an historic day for the Royal Navy, because the Hunt class minesweepers HMS Middleton and HMS Ledbury conducted the last evolution at sea involving sweep gear, both the Oropesa mechanical wire system and the combined influence sweep equipment. The Royal Navy at that point had already operated unmanned, remotely controlled sweep systems in 2003 during waterway clearance work in Iraq, notably the opening of Umm Qasr. Under a UOR, a number of Combat Support Boats with remote controls were used to tow the Mini Dyad System (MDS) produced by Australian Defence Industries (ADI) and Pipe Noise Makers. Called Shallow Water Influence Minesweeping System (SWIMS), they were sent ahead of the RN minehunters as precursor sweeps against ground influence mines. The future of MCM was taking the path of stand-off action through unmanned systems and it was felt that the more than 100 years of manned ships sweeping were at an end.

The replacement for the sweep equipment was to come through the Flexible Agile Sweeping Technology, or FAST. The idea was to put two unmanned surface vehicles on the Hunt class vessels by modifying their open, capacious stern area. FAST, however, proved anything but fast, and even though a contract was signed in 2007 by the MOD with the Atlas-QED consortium, comprising Atlas Elektronik UK, QinetiQ and EDO Corporation, the resulting Technology Readiness Demonstrator never made it on the Hunt class. FAST became a test platform that spent the following years doing all sort of trials and demonstrations. Initially intended only for towing sweep kit, it ended up testing remote deployment and recovery of Sea Fox unmanned underwater vehicles, demonstrating that stand off clearance of minefields was possible.

The above photo, from Mer et, show FAST during tests involving the launch and recovery of Sea Fox at range. The Sea Fox UUV is visible on the launch arm to the right. 

Atlas Elektronik UK continued to work with the MOD and on its own, and eventually developed in-house the ARCIMS (ATLAS Remote Combined Influence Minesweeping System) system, which has enjoyed a first export success in an unnamed Middle East navy and has gone on to become the much delayed replacement for the Hunt’s sweeping capability within the Royal Navy.
An ARCIMS seaframe, but manned, was delivered to the Royal Navy in 2014 for trials and development purposes, and remains in service with the Maritime Autonomous System Trials Team (MASTT) of the Royal Navy as RNMB Hazard.    
On 6 march 2015, Atlas received a 12.6 million pounds order from the MOD for a first ARCIMS-derived system, in the unmanned configuration, configured to tow sweeping equipment. The system has now been accepted, and according to MASTT, which has already trialed it extensively, the new boat is called RNMB Hussar.

The RNMB Hazard, manned precursor to Hussar, is used in tests since 2014 
Redeployability directly from the shore after being transported by air, land or sea is a major advantage of the unmanned, stand-off MCM solutions. Here, Hazard is being moved.  

The 2015 contract for this system included the groundwork for two further “Blocks” of work, to be confirmed and funded later. Block 2 covers the integration with the Hunt class vessel: a refit will be necessary to clear the stern and add an A frame for launch and recovery of the 11-meters unmanned surface vehicle. A dedicate Reconnaissance Unmanned Underwater Vehicle Hangar is also envisaged. Block 2 is not yet under contract, nor is Block 3, which would consist of the acquisition of further systems. In 2015, four were envisaged.

This old image from the early phases of FAST shows the look of a modified Hunt turned into FAST mothership. The general arrangement is unlikely to change much with Hussar and MMCM, but the modifications to the Hunt class are not yet under contract, at least as far as i know

In late 2017 the First Sea Lord gave a speech in which he announced that the unmanned MCM project would be “speeded up” to deliver a workable system for “routine mine clearance” in UK waters within 2 years. The 2015 contract was always meant to last 3 years, so there is not an evident schedule change for the better; nor there is any evidence of rapid progress on Block 2 and 3. The unmanned system can be launched directly from the shore, so its use in UK waters probably does not require the modification of a Hunt. In other words, I’m not sure the 1SL speech is something to be happy about, or really a cut worded nicely.
In light of the coming of MMCM next year, Block 2 and Block 3 might never take place as originally envisaged.

MMCM; working with France

The Royal Navy is working on a second and much more ambitious programme, which is the Maritime MCM (MMCM) system jointly funded and developed alongside France. The contract for the manufacture of two full prototype systems, one for each country, was signed at Euronaval in October 2016, and next year the system should be delivered for trials.
The MMCM system-of-systems consists of multiple unmanned / remotely operated elements that will enable stand-off detection and disposal of mines up to 30 miles away from the mothership. The system is centered on a 11-meters Unmanned Surface Vehicle which will be used to tow a Synthetic Aperture Sonar and to deliver a Remotely Operated Vehicle for mine disposal. A large, autonomous underwater vehicle is also included, for reconnaissance of minefields.

Thales is tasked with delivery of the integrated Portable Operations Centre (POC), which will use a command & control solution jointly developed by Thales and BAE Systems. BAE Systems will provide the Mission Management System, the virtual visualization and experimentation suite. The BAE NAUTIS command and control system is expected to be at the core of the MMCM solution. NAUTIS is already operational on the RN minesweepers and in service in several other countries, from Turkey to Australia.

The Royal Navy in the meanwhile has been repeatedly using the Autonomous Control Exploitation Realisation (ACER), a containerized command post, complete with sensors, able to receive and fuse data streams from multiple unmanned air, surface and underwater systems. The ACER was successfully demonstrated at the Unmanned Warrior 2016 event, where it integrated data from 25 different unmanned systems supplied by 12 different organizations. For the occasion, it was embarked on the SD Northern River. It has also been used from the shore at the British Underwater Test and Evaluation Centre (BUTEC) range, and it was well visible on the flight deck of RFA Tidespring during exercise Joint Warrior 2018.
Whatever command system the MMCM employs, it will be important to integrate lessons from the ACER experience to ensure that integration of new unmanned vehicles, including eventually the rotary wing UAS that the Royal Navy hopes to put in service in the 2020s, is smooth.

ACER on the cargo deck of SD Northern River during Unmanned Warrior 2016 
ACER seen on the flight deck of RFA Tidespring during the recent Joint Warrior (thanks to RFANostalgia on twitter) 
Another ACER node seen again on SD Northern River while she plays prey to HMS Montrose's boarding team in recent exercises

ASV Ltd was selected to deliver the Unmanned Surface Vehicle, which will be a development of their Halcyon USV, an exemplar of which has already been used by the Royal Navy during various trials and experiments. The ASV will be similar in size to the ARCIMS / Hussar, and in theory a modified Hunt could carry two in tandem.
One interesting question going ahead is whether the RN buys further ARCIMS hulls in addition to the ASV Halcyon Mk2, or if it standardizes on one of the two. It is unfortunate that two virtually identical USVs are being procured, as having a single fleet would no doubt ease logistic considerations.

Halcyon is visible to the right, ahead of RNMB Hazard, during Unmanned Warrior 
Halcyon deploying a ROV 

The Halcyon USV that the Royal Navy has already employed has a displacement of over 8 tons and is capable of carrying a 2,5 tons payload at ranges in excess of 300 nautical miles. The vessel is 11.5 m long, has a beam of 3.5 m, is 2.9 m high, and can achieve a top speed of 29 kt (25 kt when fully loaded). It features a full navigation suite comprising GPS, radar, AIS, compass, and chart plotter; forward-looking EO cameras; a pan, tilt, and zoom camera; mission planning and mission management system; and a payload management system. The MMCM USV derivative will not dramatically depart from these dimensions, meaning that deployment from a Type 26’s mission bay will be another possibility.

The Hussar is similarly sized: 11 meters long, with a beam of 3.2m and a draft of 0.5m and a payload of around 3 tons. Propulsion is on two engines with water jet, giving an unladen max speed of some 40 knots and a speed of up to 15 knots while towing the sweep gear.
Atlas Electroniks and Rolls Royce have recently completed a demonstration campaign with an ARCIMS fitted with an autonomous collision avoidance system.
It will be interesting to see how the Royal Navy moves in the future in regards to the unmanned surface vehicle element.

The autonomous underwater vehicle will be a derivative of the French ECA A-27M.  With a speed of 6 knots and an endurance of 40 hours, the A-27 can dive down to 300 meters while carrying a suite of sensors which will include the Thales SAMDIS advanced syntheric aperture sonar, first demonstrated during 2014.
The SAMDIS, but in towed form, will also be streamed by the Halcyon-derivative USV, and will be the primary mine detection sensor.


The mines will be destroyed thanks to a multi-shot, reusable Remotely Operated Vehicle provided by SAAB. The Multi-Shot Mine Neutralisation System (MuMNS) could, in other words, replace the current Sea Fox, which was born as a one-shot system. There are two drones under the Sea Fox name: one, reusable, is used for reconnaissance, while the disposal system is sacrificed in the explosion that removes the mine. In more recent times, an add-on mask known as “COBRA” has made Sea Fox reusable by introducing the possibility of detaching the disposal charge and sail away, but the MuMNS is born with this concept of operation already in mind. The ROV can be operated down to 300 meters depth, and thanks to its “storm” magazine can actually carry other payloads in alternative to the mine disposal system.


Wood & Douglas is responsible for the communications between the elements of the MMCM system.

Currently, the main unmanned underwater vehicles employed by the survey and MCM flotilla are the REMUS 100 and 600 by Hydroid. Recently, the MOD has contracted an extension of support arrangements to ensure that these systems remain operational at least out to September this year, while a replacement contract is negotiated.
The REMUS 100 is used for Very Shallow Waters reconnaissance and its capability has been expanded in 2012 with the addition of extra sensors. A dozen systems should be in operation.
REMUS 600 can dive down to 600 meters for reconnaissance, lasting up to 70 hours. It can be reconfigured to dive down to 1500 and even 3000 meters. Additional sensor modules are added at the front. The basic payload suite consists of dual frequency Side Scan Sonar, CTD (Conductivity, Temperature and Depth) and pressure sensor.
Obviously, these systems are very important to the MCM mission and their extension in service and / or replacement will have to operate alongside the sweep and MMCM modules, and eventually possibly “become one” with said systems. The sweep payload itself would become just a component of the wider MCM system of systems.  

REMUS 100 
Deploying REMUS 600 

Both Hunt and Sandown are being life-extended and upgraded. The Hunt class is receiving new Caterpillar C32 diesel engines that replace her old Napier Deltics; and the Sandown class underwent the the Sandown Volvo Generator Programme (SVGP) that replaces the ageing Perkins CV8 diesel generators with more efficient Volvo Penta D13 Marine diesel generators. The first vessel to receive this upgrade was HMS Bangor, during a dry dock support period at Rosyth undertaken by Babcock in 2014.

Hunt class engine replacement 

Hunt class: the open stern is reconfigurable with relative ease, unlike on Sandown vessels. Note the white dome of the Satcom, added in the last few years, and the minigun positions, standard op Kipion fit 

The sonars fitted to the two classes have received significant updates: the Hunt class, with the hull-mounted Type 2193 sonar, are extremely good at detecting mines in shallow waters, down to 80 meters. The Sandown, with the multifrequency variable depth sonar system Type 2093, can hunt mines down to 200 meters depth. Both sonars have been improved with wideband pulse compression technology which allows for long-range detection and classification of low target echo strength mines by optimising performance against reverberation and noise simultaneously.
The capability of these sonars will have to be replaced though unmanned vehicles as part of the future solution going into the post-MCM ship era.

US Navy unmanned assets are often found in the Gulf on board RFA Cardigan Bay 

With the coming of MMCM, where do Block 2 and 3 of the Sweep technology contract sit?
Block 2 is arguably more necessary than ever, but the Unmanned Vehicles Hangar and launch and recovery equipment should not be just Sweep-focused, but more widely focused on the whole package.

Going ahead with a single USV type would be desirable, so the Sweep module should go on as a payload to be towed by whichever of the two USVs prove more successful.
As a consequence, Block 3 could have to include the migration effort and the delivery of more sweep modules but perhaps not more ARCIMS boats.

HMS Echo, a survey ship, has spent months as NATO MCM Squadron flagship. Here she is in La Spezia, Italy, in September 2017, embarking unmanned vehicles, training mines and other equipment. A sign of things to come. 

There is no telling what the Royal Navy is currently planning to do. Information is extremely scarce, but already in 2014, in the Naval Engineer magazine, the Sweep module was indicated as a component in the wider solution. Both Hussar and the incoming MMCM are, once more, prototypes, and it will be important to bring them together and harmonize the two programmes into one.

Motherships, not minehunters
The successful delivery of the whole future MCM package will transform the way mine clearance operations are carried out. If all goes well, in the new year the Royal Navy will finally be able to abandon its last reservations about the viability of stand-off mine clearance and begin crafting the course for the post-dedicate minehunter hull era.

France has already decided that it will no longer build dedicate, expensive, amagnetic hulls for the MCM mission. The latest Military Planning Law included funding to procure the first twonew-generation motherships by 2025, with two more to follow. The mothership will be large, steel-hulled, and flexible enough to cover other roles as well as MCM. Two designs are being considered: the NS 04 is a SWATH (Small Waterplane Area Twin Hull) complete of flight deck and hangar for medium helicopters as well as a large cargo / mission space in the stern for storage, launch and recovery of the unmanned vehicles.
The second design is a catamaran, with the same base characteristics. Other vessel designs, including more traditional monohulls, have been proposed. BMT in the UK has recently put forward the Venari, and years ago had proposed the Venator. These vessels all bring capabilities commonly found in OPVs, making them suitable for constabulary tasks as well as specialized MCM and hydrographic missions.
France’s future MCM programme (SLAMF, in French) intends to replace the current flotilla of Tripartite MCM vessels with 4 motherships, with another four vessels for Divers support, replacing four existing ships. Numerically, the contraction from 11 Eridan-class minehunters to four motherships is quite impressive, but the new vessels will be multi-role, and more easily deployable. Further units could be built if the same hull is selected for the new survey vessels to be ordered in the early 2020s.


The designs being considered for the french mothership 
BMT Venator 90 proposal 

Above, the BMT Venari proposal for a future mothership

Their pre-MMCM demonstration project, the ESPADON, launched in 2009, delivered an impressive optionally manned catamaran, the Sterenn-Du, displacing 25 tons, 17 meters long and 7.5 meters wide. Launched in 2010 and then employed in a vast range of tests, the Sterenn-Du is equipped with a launch and recovery “cage” between its two hulls. When the unmanned underwater vehicles return to the cage, they plug into connections that enable to downloading of the data collected. The Sterenn-Du was remotely operated in sea state up to 4, successfully carrying out launches and recoveries at range. The French navy does not exclude the possibility of using such large USVs again in the future, even if for the MMCM programme they have adopted the british approach of using a smaller platform.
For France, the ESPADON project removed all hesitations about the future of MCM being unmanned and stand-off.

The impressive Sterenn-Du, head on (above) and from the stern (bottom), seen with the launch and recovery cage lowered in the water, in this photo by mer et 

Despite years of work with FAST, the Royal Navy has instead not formally closed the door to the possibility of building a novel class of MCM-specific hulls, but this is looking more and more unlikely. According to current timelines, in any case, there will be plenty of time not just to evaluate MMCM and put it into service, but also to see the first French motherships enter service. The Royal Navy does not expect new vessels for the MCM mission before 2028, although a decision on the design will have to happen quite a lot earlier than that, considering how horrendously slow the british procurement and shipbuilding efforts can be. If ten years for delivering a Type 26 are any indication, the 2028 date for the first next generation mothership might actually end up proving to be hopelessly optimistic.

The programme that will deliver the future capability is known as MHC, MCM & Hydrographic Capability and deliberately envisages the replacement of not just Hunt and Sandown but of the survey ships Echo and Enterprise as well. Until late 2013 it was MHPC, with the P standing for “patrol”, but this was dropped after the order for the River Batch 2 vessels had been signed.
It would be extremely shortsighted to not take note of the multi-role capability of these new motherships and make sure they can adequately cover the “patrol” function as well. The removal of the P from the programme acronym is a most unwelcome development which is to be hoped will be reversed, because to not grasp the full range of advantages of having a new class of deployable ships would be criminal.
The unpleasant sensation, common to many other areas across the MOD, is that planning is so constrained by short-termism that the relationship between programmes is regularly misunderstood or deliberately ignored. From the small to the huge things, it seems like project offices are unable to talk to each other and ensure that the overlap, where it exists, is of the good rather than of the bad kind. Was it truly impossible to avoid developing two USVs for the same role? Was it intentional as a form of “parachute” in case of issues with one of them?
At a far greater scale, why is the relationship between River Batch 2, Type 31 and MHC so confused? The Royal Navy risks to move from a fleet of virtually only “ships of the line” escorts to a fleet with no less than 3 low-end, constabulary capable classes more or less overlapping each other. Worse, it might deliberately handicap the MHC mothership to artificially eliminate the overlap with River B2.
The Royal Navy needs to put order in its ideas, and ensure that the three programmes work together, not one against the other.

Earlier french designs for the mothership as shown by Mer et Marine

Until the new motherships arrive, the unmanned systems (both the Sweep and the MMCM kits) will be used initially in home waters, probably directly from the shore. Deployment at sea can happen from a multitude of different vessels, and we can reasonably expect to see SD Northern River’s capacious deck filled up with these systems in a future Joint Warrior.  
The interim mothership, however, should still eventually be the Hunt. It will be extremely interesting now to see if, when and how the first Hunt vessel is modified for the new era. The Hunt class, unlike the Sandown, has an essentially open stern where the sweep equipment used to be carried and operated from. For over a decade the RN has planned to modify this open space, but the project has been constantly delayed and, in a surprise move, in December last year two Hunt vessels had their refit and life extension cut short by early decommissioning as part of budget cuts.
The SDSR 2015 mandates that a third vessel will eventually bow out before 2025, leaving 12 between Hunt and Sandowns, and further cuts could reduce this number even further.
From the outside, the early decommissioning of HMS Quorn and HMS Atherstone looks symptomatic of the gravity of the crisis the MOD is constantly drowning into. The loss of two of the “reconfigurable” ships is in antithesis with over 10 years of work, plans and experimentations. I can’t know what the exact reasoning was behind the closed curtains of the MOD, but their hasty cut smells of pure desperation.

Is the unmanned future of MCM “speeded up” as the MOD claims? It doesn’t look like it at all. The delivery of the first sweep system is a major step in the right direction, but Hussar alone is just a beginning, 13 years after the legacy sweep capability was lost.
The modification of the first Hunt isn’t yet in sight; the procurement of other sweep systems might or might not happen. More information is needed on what the plan is, and we all know how helpful the MOD is when it comes to explaining itself.
It is really a bittersweet picture. A step has been moved, but it is extremely hard to share the triumphalism of the MOD press release.


  1. Thanks for setting this out. Why not skip the creation of a new class of mother ship and ensure the MCM functionality can be delivered in container format from a type 26 or 31 or opv or RFA vessel? Rather than replacing 12 MCM and 2 survey vessels, the navy could buy more row 31 to bolster East of Suez presence and release type 26 for dedicated carrier ops and standing NATO group dutues.

    1. That goes hand in hand with the apparent inhability to come up with a coherent long term programme. If Type 31 has room for 2 containers, it cannot carry enough equipment. If Type 31 and MHPC had been turned into a single programme, that could have worked out. I wish that had been the approach.

  2. Thank you Gabriele for an interesting post on an otherwise Cinderella subject.

    In terms of non-expeditionary employment do you think that something along the lines of the old channel command might be reestablished to provide, amongst other things, C2 of MCM ops between Britain and continental Europe?

    1. I doubt we'll see any new command of that kind. The new systems will be managed by the Portsmouth and Faslane MCM fleets, i'd guess, without any real need for another layer.

  3. Not MCM but still a naval topic - according to the BBC the 7th Astute SSN is to be called HMS AGINCOURT and not HMS AJAX as many, including Wikipedia, had predicted. Then again this too could be a bluff in the run up to the announcement. See Nuclear submarines to get £2.5bn boost


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