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

“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.

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