The U.S. Navy plans to deploy fast, high-tech surface drones equipped with advanced wireless technology able to find, attack, and ultimately destroy underwater enemy mines, all while operating at safe distance from a larger, manned surface host ship, such as a Littoral Combat Ship, service officials said.
Naval Sea Systems Command is currently working with industry to develop, assess and analyze mine-neutralization technologies for its emerging Mine Countermeasures Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MCM USV) — a multi-mission surface drone countermine platform slated to be operational by 2019. Capt. Jon Rucker, Program Manager, Unmanned Maritime Systems, PEO LCS, told reporters recently at the Surface Navy Association Symposium.
"MCM USV will 'take the man out of the minefield' when it comes to Navy mine countermeasures operations," Alan Baribeau, spokesman for Naval Sea Systems Command, told Warrior Maven.
A German mine swept up in Australian water by an auxiliary minesweeper visible at center right. (Image from Naval Historical Collection)
The current exploration of mine-neutralization technology is happening alongside the ongoing integration of advanced sonar mine-hunting payloads onto the USV – the AQS-20 and AQS-24, Baribeau explained.
Overall, the MCM USV represents the next-iteration of surface-drone technology, extending beyond the mine-detecting Unmanned Influence Sweep System (UISS) now going through testing and builders trails, Rucker said.
"The UISS provides the Navy's first unmanned minesweeping capability and the MCM USV with towed sonars provides the Navy unmanned volume and bottom mine hunting capability," Baribeau said.
Textron Systems is now on contract with the Navy to integrate the AQS-20 and AQS-24, sonar payloads which will expand range and detection technology.
"UISS was foundational program that then migrated into expanding within the mine countermeasures technology," Wayne Prender, Unmanned Systems Vice President of Control & Surface Systems, Textron Systems, told Warrior Maven in an interview.
Building upon these efforts, the Navy is also planning for the MCM USV to incorporate an ability to "destroy" mines from USVs as well.
Neutralizing mines, once they are found, is the aim of this longer-term Navy effort to go beyond detection and succeed in destroying mines as well. As part of this effort, the Navy is now considering the Barracuda Mine Neutralization System — a technology described by a Navy solicitation as "a modular, low-cost, semi-autonomous, expendable neutralizer conforming to the A-size sonobuoy form factor."
Navy documents further specify that Barracuda will use wireless communications, therefore allowing for a "tetherless" operation for the MCM USV. Military & Aersopace electronics describes mine neutralizers as mini underwater drones armed with explosives which travel to an identified underwater mine – and then explode.
Barracuda will first be deployed from an LCS before potentially migrating to other surface or airborne platforms, Navy statements indicated.
Mine neutralization will naturally work in tandem with sonar systems which, Baribeau explained, can both send imagery data back to a host ship in real time through a line of sight connection or store sonar information for post-mission processing.
A port view of the guided missile frigate USS SAMUEL B. ROBERTS (FFG-58) in dry dock in Dubai, UAE, for temporary repairs. The frigate was damaged when it struck an Iranian naval mine while on patrol in the Persian Gulf. (Image Wikipedia)
Navy Surface Drone "Ghost Fleet"
Incremental steps forward with surface drone countermine technology is all unfolding within a broader strategic context for the Navy aimed at architecting a "ghost fleet" of interconnected, unmanned vessels able to perform missions in a synchronized fashion.
Pentagon and Navy developers are advancing this drone-fleet concept to search and destroy mines, swarm and attack enemies, deliver supplies and conduct intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance missions, among other things.
Swarms of small aerial drones, engineered with advanced computer algorithms, could potentially coordinate with surface and undersea vehicles as part of an integrated mission, developers have explained.
As communications and networking technologies continue to evolve rapidly, drones will increasingly be able to function in a cross-domain capacity, meaning across air, sea, land and undersea operations.
Aerial swarms, for instance, could detect an enemy surface vessel and relay information to unmanned surface vessels or undersea drones to investigate or even attack. All of this could operate in a combat circumstance while needing little or no human intervention.
The Ghost Fleet effort involves a collaborative venture between the Office of Naval Research, the Pentagon's Strategic Capabilities Office, and the Navy.