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

“S” is for Safety, but also for SeaFox

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In the past, mine hunting, identification, and removal tasks were accomplished by explosive ordnance disposal divers or expensive, bulky robots. While divers are still used in identification and removal, new underwater vehicles are supporting these tasks by lightening the workload on divers, eliminating some risk for deep or repetetive dives, and serve as a quickly deployable and recoverable replacement for a heavier, more expensive submersible the U.S. Navy previously used.

To talk more on this is the executive officer of USS Gladiator (MCM 11), Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Gleason.

-Fleet LT

8785963966_8f688b2e78_zMine hunting is the mission. Identification and neutralization is the method. Maintaining open, safe sea lanes is the goal. In the past, these tasks were accomplished by explosive ordnance disposal divers or the antiquated SLQ-48 Mine Neutralization Vehicle. While these units fit the bill and accomplished the mission, the Navy is always looking to complete tasks and missions more quickly, cheaply, and safely.

Enter the SLQ-60  Surface Mine Neutralization System — SeaFox.

Using cuing from the ship’s sonar, the investigation variant of SeaFox can identify possible mines using its onboard sonar and camera, feeding live data via fiber-optics to a display in the Combat Information Center. That information is then compared to the ship’s variable depth sonar sweep of the area to determine if the UUV and ship’s sonar operator are looking at the same object. This entire process can be accomplished in 10 to 12 minutes, much more quickly than employing a dive team or using the legacy MNV.

8747200332_ae6efc249b_zIf a mine is visually identified, a Combat Round can be prepared to destroy the threat. Using this one-shot solution to neutralize a mine threat is safer than deploying divers less time consuming that re-arming a MNV for neutralization.

As a MCM executive officer, having SeaFox aboard adds a more robust hunting capability to our innate sweeping capability. Overall, this is a very capable system that my crew and I are proud to have aboard and train with.

Seafox: Multi-purpose, Multi-use, Force Multiplier.

– Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Gleason, Executive Officer, MCM Crew Reaper.

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

A Terrible Thing That Waits: Mine Warfare and the Global Mine Threat

To go along with the IMCMEX overview that Vice Adm. John Miller provided last time, today we address a series of important questions: Are mines really that big a deal? If so, how do we protect ourselves? To answer those questions, and many more you didn’t know you had, our subject matter expert on mine warfare, Capt. Andrew Elvin RN, Captain UK MCM (Bahrain), is here to talk about mine warfare and the global mine threat.

Capt. Elvin, Sir, thanks for coming.

-Fleet LT

2f63710acb2944c189ed10c1fb78f9f4-576x324Mine Warfare (MIW) is traditionally seen as the strategic, operational and tactical use of sea mines and their countermeasures as part of a nation’s defensive or offensive military capability. MIW has two disciplines, mining and mine countermeasures (MCM).

Mining, a sea mine is a self-contained explosive device placed in water to damage or destroy ships or submarines; a contact mine requires a ship to come into contact to detonate, an influence Mine requires a ship to change the localized magnetic/acoustic/pressure influences to detonate. A contact mine will generally cause a breach in the hull where the mine comes in contact (USS Tripoli). An influence mine creates an expanding gas bubble which will cause structural fractures in the hull and internal damage to equipment throughout the length of the ship (USS Princeton).

3369528071The sea mine can be used in support of naval warfare to help shape the maritime environment by denying freedom of movement through an area, funneling maritime traffic, protection of infrastructure/recourses and the attrition of other nation’s forces. As increasing numbers of regimes fail and political instability spreads, access to sea mine stocks can become available to state and non state sponsored terrorist organizations.

The use of sea mines and maritime improvised explosive devices, by a state or terrorist organization, can challenge a traditionally stronger military capability and return significant impact from a relatively small investment. The sea mine can remain an enduring threat once laid, allowing the perpetrators the advantage of being indiscriminate and a certain degree of anonymity/plausible deniability.

In order to counter the threat of sea mines, the problem can be broken down into four phases:

8015035846_155d9bb277_cMonitor – Track the design, manufacture and distribution of sea mines. Profile the designers, builders and potential users.

Deter – Increase international pressure to reduce the proliferation of sea mines. Provide a credible global response capability that will minimize the impact from the use of sea mines.

Prevent – Ensure international legal support to allow political and military interdiction of the sea mines before they get in the water.

Remove – Enable international partners to contribute to a mine countermeasures capability that can operate seamlessly throughout the global waterways, irrespective of individual nation’s capability or capacity

MCM focuses on the Prevent and Remove phase and is further refined as:

Offensive MCM (Stop the mines before they get in the water) – Destroying mine storage facilities, transportation routes, loading facilities and the mine layers.

2488449707Defensive MCM (Once the mines are in the water) – Locate the mines and avoid by rerouting, where rerouting is not an option, picking the best path through the area and reducing the threat by looking for the mines and destroying them. This is done by hunting with sonar to locate and then disposing by explosive charges, cutting the cables of mines in the water column by mechanical sweeping and then disposing of them by explosive charges on the surface, or activating the mines by simulating maritime targets acoustic, magnetic and pressure signatures by influence sweeping.

Mine countermeasures operations are like a three-dimensional chess game with all the pieces off of the board and the other player gets the first move. By having the right pieces (MCM techniques), understanding how the game is played and the environment, it is a challenge that can be won. The development of an integrated multinational, multidisciplined, MCM capability will allow freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce. IMCMEX is addressing the Deter and Remove phases by allowing the international community to transcend pre-established organizations and boundaries, by coming together and providing unique skills and techniques that contribute to the delivery of MCM.

– Captain UK MCM (Bahrain), Capt. Andrew Elvin