Mammals, Drones and Darts: The future of protecting critical infrastructure in the Gulf

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Technological advances make life better, more interesting, more sustainable, more defensible, and what have you. Advances, from my perspective, come from building on established ideas and filling a need (new or re-invented), or mimicking observable phenomenon. In today’s post, I aim to discuss a few of these types of innovation, examples in technology, and a few notes on why this matters from a Navy and global community perspective.

Sound like a lot to cover? Yeah, to me too, so let us get started.

Mimicry

One of the biggest idea generators is the world around us and our desire to explore it. The desire to fly as birds do led to manned flight. Sure, the first flight lasted less than a minute, could only hold one person (a bicycle mechanic), and was powered by a buggy motor; but thousands of years of desire and failure were quenched by a few equations, an internal combustion engine and a few very big dreams. Want to see what’s going on underwater? Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. Want to see what’s on the sea floor? Submarines and unmanned underwater vehicles. Investigate things that are too dangerous for people? Robots.

Enduring FreedomWhile people are able to duplicate useful systems like sonar for echo location, the ability to send and receive multiple tonals with the same device and analyze the data in seconds becomes a complicated problem. Add in the small size and agility of a dolphin or a porpoise, and the level of sophistication required is daunting.

Why not just train a dolphin to do it? Good question. Fact is the U.S. Navy does train marine mammals to perform tasks that would take a team of well-trained people to do, and possibly several days to do it. Dolphins are very intelligent animals and are capable of quickly identifying underwater objects and people, deftly maneuvering in tight spaces to reach them, and can repeatedly dive deeply without the dangers of decompression sickness.

Robert Simmons, Navy Underwater EOD Assistant Program Manager, said during IMCMEX 13 MIP Symposium, “Mammals are particularly well suited for precision location in a cluttered acoustic environment.” He went on to say that mammals are also the “only asset capable of detecting, marking and neutralizing partially buried or buried mines.”

2dudes and a dolphinThe use of mammals is not new, but with mine countermeasures re-emerging as a global focus, these agile, capable animals may again become a staple of our identifying and marking potential subsurface hazards. Additional information on the mammals used and the mandates that govern their treatment can be found on NNMP’s data-rich website.

Filling a Need and Re-purposing

Items like remote controls and toasters are good examples of things made convenient by decreasing the effort of achieving a result. While toasting bread over a fire or on a pan achieves the same result as resistance heated coils in close proximity to bread that is time limited by a heat sensitive thermocouple. The difference lies in the rheostat that adjusts the heat/time limit based on the signal sent by the thermocouple, allowing people to “set and forget” while still getting made-to-order toast.

8779354149_53ea5cacbe_zUUVs in relation to mine hunting serve a similar role: increasing convenience and safety while decreasing effort. The REMUS UUV was developed in the late 1990s by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. The U.S. Navy calls REMUS the MK 18 UUV, an underwater autonomous surveillance and reconnaissance vehicle that operates on a pre-programmed path for hours and surfaces at a set time at a set location with an enormous data packet on the acoustic survey of a harbor or waterway. This allows a small boat with 2 or 3 crew members to do in a day what it would take a team or two of divers a month to do. Sure, divers (or specialized submersibles) are still needed to identify suspicious targets and neutralize threats, but the amount of man hours needed to search an area is drastically reduced.

Additionally, the Navy is developing Knifefish, a heavyweight Surface Mine Countermeasure (SMCM) UUV that is designed to hunt for buried mines and mines in high clutter environments with high confidence and low false alarm rates. Knifefish Flight 1 is equipped with low frequency broadband side scan sonar and operates in the littoral regions as part of the Littoral Combat Ship MCM Mission Package.

e6d625bbd7b14cad9425bdb4a22a074f-0x0Want a robot to visually identify and make a threat go boom? We’ve got those too (and so do other nations). SeaFox is a mine neutralization submersible that has been adopted by the U.S. Navy and is being tested to replace/augment the older mine neutralization vehicles that are much larger and less sophisticated. The SeaFox system can be used to visibly identify and neutralize objects of interest, previously located by sonar from ships or other UUV systems.

Sailors are still a part of this equation, whether piloting the Sea Fox with more fidelity or analyzing the data transmitted, but this remote system provides an enhanced level of convenience and safety during mine hunting operations that have become integral to the way the mine countermeasure mission is accomplished.

Innovation

Innovation has been described many different ways by people far more educated than I am. That being said, I am going to talk about a common concept and attack it from a different direction. Take the 90’s and 2000’s wave of making cell phones smaller, easier to text, etc. The team at Apple, made phones bigger and turned them into interactive personal computing devices that happen to make phone calls.

How’s that for left field? The story’s been told enough times that it’s commonplace, but the innovation of that team is undeniable.

As for mines, and mine neutralization, we focus on approaching the problem mainly with surface and subsurface assets and technology (some mentioned above). Aside from the sweeping and hunting gear that an MH-53 helicopter drags through the water, there isn’t much of an air-based MCM capability. Until now.

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Researchers are developing air-dropped munitions that can neutralize mines in the surf zone, and even inland. The aerial Assault Breaching System (ABS) Countermine System (CMS) deploys dart-like projectiles that can render mines ineffective while naval forces and shipping vessels wait a safe distance away. This system also has the potential to neutralize other targets.

The Horizon

Cool things are in the works all the time. Rail guns and Lasers at sea have gotten some attention lately, but for MCM and MIP, unmanned vehicles and airborne response options are where it’s at. 41 countries from all over the world gathered for the sixth Maritime Infrastructure Protection Symposium this year, and got to talk with technology representatives about new systems and new developments with old systems like the ones mentioned above. This conference is held every 18 months and is a critical forum to exchange ideas so that infrastructure protection and mine countermeasures can outpace the capabilities of hostile actors.

Hope you enjoyed the not-so-terse tour of tech.

–Fleet LT

A Fond Farewell to IMCMEX

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Greetings Readers. As the end of International Mine Countermeasures Exercise 2013 has past, and exercise staffs have turned in their reviews of what went wrong and what went right, it’s time to reflect on what the exercise accomplished.

8779354149_53ea5cacbe_zThough ships operated in fewer geographical areas this year, international forces operated in more locations performing a wider variety of missions. Although IMCMEX 12 set a tough standard–more than 30 nations, three widely disparate operating areas–a new year rose to the challenge by widening our objectives and perspectives.

As we have said on multiple occasions, 13 brings us industry participation with very large crude carriers, an increased number of patrol coastal ships from many nations to support infrastructure protection and maritime security operations for naval forces, industry shipping, and at-sea oil terminals involved in exercise events.

8785831850_e72cab684a_zA relative footnote on the serial list, but a major undertaking none the less, were the two casualty drills. As a Navy, we drill medical readiness and responses regularly to ensure that trained personnel are prepared to respond with life-saving speed and expertise. IMCMEX 13 included a seriously cool mass casualty drill where a simulated mine attack on a commercial ship caused extensive damage where mariners were severely injured and needed evacuation to a medical facility. The closest stabilizing facilities were aboard RFA Cardigan Bay and USS Ponce. The cool part comes in where the simulated wounded were made-up to be gruesome in accordance to their simulated injuries.

Any time international navies meet, techniques are developed, best practices are learned, and knowledge is broadened for the betterment of the international community. In this case, it is truly important we take these lesson and continue to apply them to future exercises. Because, it is not one country who benefits from mine countermeasure, maritime security and infrastructure protection proficiency, but all of them. All rely on sea-going commerce after all.

8764812494_1332e2ba31_zThis post isn’t intended to be a re-cap of the exercise, we’ve done that, I’m here to bid a fond farewell to an exciting, complex exercise that embraced a myriad of separate events and knitted them together in a quilt of participation and expertise. Sure, a RHIB broke down here, some computers had trouble syncing up, and some events didn’t get finished due to environmental and safety concerns; but these lessons are the thread that stitches this year’s exercise with future iterations of International Mine Countermeasures Exercise.

So long, biggest little exercise in the world, we’ll see you next time.

-Fleet LT

Adding Industry to a Military Exercise is Good for the Environment

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IMCMEX is a multinational, defense-based military exercise aimed to address and counter threats in the maritime environment. Industry operates a crucial energy trade and 30% of the world’s crude flows through the 5th Fleet area of responsibility. So how could military and industry combining efforts be good for the environment? Teamwork of course.

FactoryEmerging and established economies the world over have an energy dependency on fossil fuels, some less than others, but the fact remains that with such a large demand these energy sources must be carried in large volumes to help keep operating and transport costs low. Nearly 1/3 of all energy consumed comes from oil or refined oil products, and in 2012 reached 88 million barrels per day (1 barrel = 42 U.S. gallons). With all of this oil being pulled from the ground, all over the world, and transported to the countries that require it, there are remarkably few accidents, spills or explosions throughout the process.

effectofoilspillMany would say that even one incident a year, a decade is disastrous to the environment, and they would be right. Though an industrial scale accident, or losing a supertanker to a mine or similar attack, would affect oil prices somewhat; the price of one tanker (aprox. $120M ship + $55M in oil) is relatively inconsequential to the global oil trade (aprox. $9bn/day). The environment is not so lucky.

NOAA_oilspill_1The international shipping community has significantly reduced the number of marine spills over the last decade. Even with this dramatic reduction the prevention of these events must remain a priority. One tanker full of oil can be devastating to coastal and marine wildlife in the short-term, and can change entire ecosystems if not addressed and rectified. There can be many contributors to a spill, be it accidental, malfunction or an act of violence; and several can be prevented. This is why industry training with global militaries is good for the environment.

8267579164_4e311fb809_cA significant portion of IMCMEX 13’s agenda is focused on maritime security operations, to include a commercial shipping escort through a simulated mine field. While mines are not the only form of attack these merchant ships are vulnerable to (waterborne IEDs, explosive laden small boats, piracy, etc.), it is a demonstration of the preventable disaster that would adversely affect the environment. Similar events are being held at offshore oil stations as part of a maritime infrastructure protection focus against violent extremists damaging or controlling important infrastructure in the region.

It is far easier to prevent an environmental disaster than to clean it up, and the Oil Spill Response Seminar and table-top exercise during IMCMEX was designed to address protection and prevention concerns, and how to mobilize an effective response to an oil spill should prevention efforts fail.

oil-spill-clean-up-2Alex Walker, a representative of industry for the exercise, led the Oil Spill Response discussion. During the multiple presentations, agencies like a UK-based Oil Spill Service Center based, Navy Coordination and Guidance At Sea and the Maritime Liaison Office; leaders covered international policy, safety of life at sea, communication challenges between militaries, agencies and industry, and what mariners can do at each level of the problem to preserve life and minimize the effects that a damaged crude carrier would have on the environment and other shipping.

Walker went on to comment during an interview that any response effort is about the safety of people and the environment. “The Navy has always taken environmental concerns very seriously,” Walker said. “This forum gives us the opportunity to explore that aspect in more detail.”

Oil spills are complicated. Their behavior relies on  surface tension of the oil product, specific gravity of the product, the viscosity and multiple environmental factors (an overview of behavior and effects).  To make things harder, oil characteristics and environmental factors dictate what response options would be most effective in treating the crisis (a simple interactive guide). These responses take a great deal of cooperation and coordination and Oil Spill Response discussions like in IMCMEX 13 are crucial to an effective, international, military and industry combined response.

While safety of mariners is paramount, concern for how we are affecting the environment is ever-present.

More information about oil spill response is available via the U.S. EPA and NOAA  response pages, as well as International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation and many other pages.

-Fleet LT

The Benefit of Big Meetings: MIPS

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Meetings are designed to share information. Whether its superior to subordinate to give direction and orders, subordinate to superior to upload finished tasks or issues to the higher eschelon brain space, or even to generate a communal thought through brainstorming and collaboration; these are all part of an information exchange process that has occured since earliest life developed ways to communicate and work together.

dispersants7Big meetings, like those between corporations, agencies and militaries are no different. At their base level, they are an information exchange, but on a massive scale. True, these types of gatherings tend toward the brainstorm and communal thought area of exchange, but that is a great thing when it comes to military and inter-agency meetings. Sharing best practices, techniques, and technology for endeavors like Maritime Infrastructure Protection leads to a general increase of knowledge and ability across assembled participants.

While world militaries are not best known for sharing, for concerns like piracy and Infrastructure Protection; a coordinated, multinational response is vital to protect commercial and military assets from threats in the maritime environment. This need for cooperation and coordination are what drive gatherings such as the Maritime Infrastructure Protection Symposium (MIPS).

mmsThis year marks the sixth MIPS here in Bahrain, and this year 130 participants from 41 countries and multiple industry’s attended from 13 – 15 May, as part of International Mine Countermeasures Exercise. Information, best practices and technology were shared via presentations, static displays and expert panels. Presentations included Liquid Natural Gas Shipping and Safety Concerns, unmanned underwater vehicle developments, Cyber Threats to Maritime Infrastructure, Law of Naval Mining, Marine Mammal Systems, and Oil Spill Response: Security Considerations and Overview of International Response Systems to name a few.

AXR_0816The panel of senior leaders included Vice Adm. John Miller, commander, Naval Surface Forces Central Command, U.S. 5th Fleet, Combined Maritime forces; 2 GCC navy officials and 2 representatives of industry participants. They primarily discussed the importance of maritime cooperation at sea; oil spill response and threats to energy carriers; and information exchange between military, agency and industry partners to enhance the effectiveness and timliness of coordinated efforts.

AXR_0601While no physical forces were moved, no rounds fired, and little money spent; Symposiums and large-scale meetings bring to light national and international concerns, act as a venue for adressing them, and pave the way for solving them should concerns become a reality.

Meetings don’t have to be tedious or boring. When the international community meets to discuss security concerns, they certainly have my interest.

-Fleet LT

Afloat Forward Staging Base: One year on Station

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Good day readers! Just got back from being underway on USS Ponce (AFSB(I) 15) for two days and had the opportunity to see some impressive events, such as “pouncer” ops where divers are dropped from a helo to put a fake charge on a practice mine shape; scan eagle deployment; and a sea fox mission to find a practice mine shape to calibrate sonar for the day.

Despite the interesting capabilities that I saw during my short time aboard, the changes in the ship and the crew, since I was aboard during the last IMCMEX, were profound. Much of the civilian and Navy crew had changed out on thier regular rotaion cycles, but the teamwork and integration between the two elements of crew were more evident.

Here to speak today about the afloat forward staging base,  and what he has seen during the year that he has been the commanding officer, is Capt. Jon Rogers. Thanks for the embark opportunity Sir.

-Fleet LT

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With IMCMEX 2013 underway, I hope this blog connects our partner friends, share thoughts and answer any questions about The Proud Lion’s new life as the Navy’s first dedicated afloat forward staging base.

7895208222_6d025c9ccd_bIMCMEX 2012 was a real treat for Ponce’s crew because we met so many people from different cultures and worked with their technologies and equipment. We also exchanged thoughts on the noble mission of mine countermeasures and the importance of removing the indiscriminate mine threat from our planet’s waters. We intend to take this year’s performance to another level.

Beyond just IMCMEX, as I reflect on this past year, Ponce has brought many proud achievements for my personal commanding officer’s log. My fondest memories are observing first hand the incredible talents, resourcefulness and hard work of our salty military and civilian mariner crew that brought a ship destined for decommissioning back to full operational capability. Ponce has awed many visitors – each with a genuine curiosity and some misperceptions of this “thing” called an afloat forward staging base.

I wrote this blog to satisfy that curiosity, clear the misperceptions and share information about Ponce, her crew, her concepts and her mission.

Here are five facts about USS Ponce (Pon-say):

1. Ponce is a USS ship commanded by a U.S. Navy captain and is manned by 55 Sailors and 165 civilian mariners. The average crewmember’s age aboard Ponce is 43 years old.
2. Ponce will celebrate her 42nd birthday July 10, 2013. Thanks to all who have sailed aboard Ponce throughout the years!
3. When Ponce was commissioned in 1971, she had a core crew of 508 personnel. When she was re-designated as an afloat forward staging base on April 16, 2012, her crew totaled 360. Today, she sails with 220 Sailors and civilian mariners.
4. Ponce’s Navy crew consists of individual augmentees with seven-, nine- and 11-month rotations.
5. Ponce has stand-alone Wi-Fi in the ship’s Internet café.

130514-N-JL506-109Intel Specialists Make Waves Aboard Ponce

Ponce takes great pride in recognizing the outstanding accomplishments achieved throughout the year. Intel Specialist Chief Cedrick Thomas, soon to be Chief Warrant Officer Thomas, and his two intelligence specialists, IS2 Billy Kingry and IS3 Joshua Emanis, are the sole reason Ponce earned the prestigious Surface Force Intelligence Excellence Award for 2012.

The award recognizes Pacific and Atlantic Fleet ships that contribute significantly to afloat intelligence readiness. This is a real Navy success story for Thomas, Kingry, Emanis and their families! I hope their families realize how significant their achievements have been on the home front and battlefront!

The successes of Ponce during her first year rest entirely upon the shoulders of her crew. I could not be more proud to be her commanding officer.

-Capt. Jon Rodgers, USS Ponce

Old, but not outdated: Mine Countermeasures

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In a world of high-tech missiles, radars, stealth design and navigation systems, the simple mine is often seen as an archaic throwback to the Second World War, Vietnam and other 20th-century conflicts.

8267579164_4e311fb809_cCheap, easy to produce, and horribly effective, naval mines are still a staple armament of non-state actors, terrorist organizations and states around the globe. The rumor of a mine in a restricted area of water can mean the complete closure of that waterway, and if deployed in one of the vital maritime choke points – the Malacca Straits or the Suez Canal, the Straits of Hormuz or the English Channel – the consequences for maritime trade could be huge.

Mine countermeasures operations do exactly what it says on the tin: they allow navies to detect and defeat the threat posed by all types of naval mines. From active minehunting weapons like Seafox and Pinguin to defensive measures like hull degaussing, mine countermeasures is an ever-developing and ever more vital field of modern naval warfare.

7787643722_46b373226d_c8018935001_37d21281b2_cWarships that are designed to partake in mine countermeasures are split roughly in to two camps: Minehunters and minesweepers. Both these types of warship engage in active countermeasures – that is, they seek out and destroy or disable mines. Mine sweepers use wires dragged behind them to either set off or cut loose mines that they pass near, whilst mine hunters use sophisticated sonar and other equipment to detect individual mines before destroying them with the aid of either divers or unmanned underwater vehicles.

The Royal Navy’s Hunt-Class Mine Countermeasures Vessels (MCMVs) HMS Atherstone and HMS Quorn are first-rate examples of minehunting vessels; equipped with the Seafox unmanned underwater vehicle and a time of highly-trained Mine Clearance Divers, they are effective against almost all mine types. Using their Type 2193 sonar, the crew of the MCMV can detect mines up to a kilometer away. Once detected, the Hunt-class will either dispatch Seafox – an autonomous, fire-and-forget minehunting drone that can both locate a target and blow it up with an explosive charge – or a team of human divers to disable or destroy the mine, clearing the way for commercial shipping to pass safely through the area.

Even ships without an active minehunting or sweeping role can adopt mine countermeasures to help protect themselves when passing through threatened waters. Passive countermeasures are the name given to techniques ships can use to make themselves less likely to set off or attract mines. Degaussing, for example, involves passing an electric current through a ship’s steel hull to reduce the vessel’s magnetic signature and thus making it less likely to set off a magnetically-activated mine; many MCMVs take this to the extreme and remove their magnetic signature almost entirely by building the hull itself out of wood or glass-reinforced plastic.

7975956599_5bf030d93e_bOther forms of passive countermeasures include specialist non-acoustic propulsion systems such as the Votih-Schneider propeller, which limits the vessel’s sound signature and makes the MCMV much less vulnerable to acoustic mines – mines activated by the sound of a ship passing overhead.

IMCMEX brings together the mine countermeasures capabilities and experience of around 40 different nations, and is one of the world’s foremost exercises for practicing cooperative anti-mine warfare. Through exercises like this, the international community is able to ensure that it is ready to respond to a mine warfare threat anywhere in the world.

– Luff, RN

Heavy Lift Helos Pulling Sleds for a Good Cause: Global Commerce

minesweeping2Though the majority of mine countermeasures (MCM) missions are accomplished at sea, the ‘Blackhawks’ of Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron 15 (HM 15) and the MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters they employ are paramount to the success of these missions.

mh53%203_jpgThe MH-53E is the largest helicopter in the U.S. inventory, with a maximum takeoff weight of 69,750 pounds, overall length of 99 feet, and a rotor diameter of 79 feet. It is capable of carrying over 50 passengers, 25,000 pounds of cargo, and flying over 700 miles without refueling. The U.S. Navy routinely uses this heavy lift capability for humanitarian relief missions and the MH-53E is the only aircraft that can conduct MCM operations by capitalizing on thier increased time-on-station capabilities and utilizing various towed devices including mine hunting sonar and mechanical minesweeping gear.

HM 15’s mission is “To maintain a world-wide 72-hour airborne mine countermeasures (AMCM) rapid deployment posture and a four aircraft forward-deployed AMCM and vertical onboard delivery (VOD) capability in the Arabian Gulf,” and will focuses on Airborne Mine Countermeasures (AMCM) during IMCMEX. They will also be conducting logistics/vertical onboard delivery (LOG/VOD) support, to include personnel and material transfer.

MH-53-Sea-Dragon-helicopter-030_previewAMCM operates in tandem with surface mine countermeasures (SMCM) and underwater mine countermeasures (UMCM) to provide a complete MCM effect. Each platform has particular advantages; however, the major value that AMCM adds is speed and range of operations. The MH-53E is capable of flying over the horizon at 150 knots, providing MCM support more immediately than any other platform. Once on station, aircraft tow the devices at speeds up to ten times faster than surface ships, allowing AMCM to provide a rapid, effective response to any threat around the world.

– in-vesTED