The Integrated Review confirmed what had been rumoured for some time – the RN will gradually replace its remaining 13 minehunters with remotely operated or autonomous systems based on small boats. This in-depth article considers the developments that are underway and the advantage and risks that come with this innovation.
The plan at present is for the six surviving Hunt class MCMVs to be retired between 2029 and 2031 while the seven Sandown class will be phased out sooner, although more gradually between 2023 and 2031. However, the pace of ship retirements could be accelerated if Maritime Autonomous Systems (MAS) exceed current expectations.
The RN’s Mine countermeasures and Hydrographic Capability (MHC) programme is a complex project that began in 2014 with the intention to deliver fully autonomous minehunting by 2033. The future of the hydrographic vessels is unclear although the intention is that autonomous surveying systems will be deployed on the SVHOs (HMS Echo and Enterprise) from the mid-2020s. There is also an aspiration to replace the survey ships, probably in the early-mid 2030s, although the Defence Command Paper does not mention this. MHC has adopted a cautious, phased approach, to reduce risk using a series of technology demonstrators, trials and studies and has two core programmes; project WILTON and MMCM.
Initially tasked with delivering a UK-based autonomous Route Survey (RTSV) capability, the Wilton team are part of the First MCM Squadron based at Faslane and will provide a low-risk pathfinder for the RN using MAS. This will initially be deployed on the Clyde but the system is road-transportable and able to cover the whole of Scotland and the north of England. RTSV involves regular mapping of the seabed in detail so that any newly laid object can quickly be spotted and investigated. The approaches to the Clyde are especially sensitive, being the entry and exit route for the nuclear deterrent submarines. RTSV is an ideal first task for MAS, being predictable, repetitive and much cheaper than employing crewed vessels. Wilton is equipped with 3 boats that can carry REMUS 100 and 600 small-medium UUVs, Side-scan sonars and M500 ROVs.
The Wilton team is small, numbering around 15 mine warfare personnel and once operational, are expected to provide 100 days of RTSV tasking and a further 60 days of trials per year. The unit is also tasked with developing organisational structures, doctrine and establishing standard operating procedures as well as supporting trials and evaluation for future RN MAS.
Besides RTSV, the RN now has an autonomous Combined Influence Sweeping (CIS) capability. Unlike legacy ’sweeping’ which involved towing wires to cut mines adrift from the sinker units that held them on the sea bed, modern sweeping uses electronic means to deceive mines to activate by simulating the acoustic, magnetic, pressure or electrical signatures of a ship.
The ATLAS Remote Combined Influence Minesweeping System (ARCIMS) was delivered to the RN in 2018 and provides this capability. The USV can tow a variety of effectors including; 3 x Coil Auxiliary Boats (CAB), a magnetic electrode sweep, a hydrosounder wideband sound source, an acoustic source generator that uses water flow to create noise and an echo repeater that simulates active sonar echoes from a ship’s hull. Collectively these form the Sweep Module which can be used in either Target Setting Mode (TSM) or Mine Setting Mode (MSM). The system is portable in 4 ISO containers that store the USV, Sweep Module and Portable Operations Centre (POC). Based on RNMB Hussar, the RN’s Maritime Autonomous Systems Trials Team (MASTT) has conducted cold weather trials with the system in Halifax Canada (Jan 2020) and hot weather trials in the Gulf (Oct 2020).
The centrepiece of the RN’s moves toward autonomous mine hunting is the Anglo / French Maritime Mine Countermeasures (MCMM) / SLAMF (Système de Lutte Anti-Mines Futur) project. A consortium led by Thales Underwater Systems, BAE Systems, ECA (France) and L3Harris, Wood & Douglas and SAAB (UK) was awarded the contract in 2016 for the demonstration and assessment phase. This was successfully completed ahead of schedule and a joint manufacturing contract worth £184M was awarded in November 2020. Each navy will receive 4 sets, the first complete system being due for delivery in late 2022 for evaluation prior to achieving Initial Operating Capability.
Each set comprises 4 main elements.
- A Thales Portable Operation Center (POC) including Mission Management System and Mi-MAP software for post-mission analysis. Up to 3 systems deployed at sea can be controlled from the POC simultaneously. Control is exercised at all times via a secure Man In The Loop (MITL) communications channel.
- Two Thales / L3Harris 12-metre USVs.
- The USV will deploy a Towed Synthetic Aperture Multiviews (T-SAM) vehicle carrying a Synthetic Aperture & Mine Detection Imaging Sonar (SAMDIS), to detect, classify and locate mines. SAMDIS has a low-power requirement and its performance is theoretically equal or better than the much larger sonars used by the Sandown and Hunt class MCMVs, and provides Automatic Target Recognition (ATR).
- The Multi-Shot Mine Neutralisation System (MuMNS), is used to visually locate and dispose of mines. It can be armed with up to 3 disposal munitions, This is an improvement on the single-shot Sea Fox ROV system currently in service with the RN (can be enhanced with a COBRA head for two shots).
Advantages of autonmomy
The bold move to embrace MAS implies many risks and there is a wide range of issues that will have to be addressed. However, pioneering this approach clearly has some attractions.
Safety. The most important reason is to fulfil the long-desired aspiration to remove the man from the minefield. Using robots to dispose of mines, reduces the risk to human life, a MCMV and its crew no longer has to enter a potential minefield. It also removes the need for a ship to conduct a slow and painstaking activity in an area that may also be under threat from air, missile or surface attack.
Cost. This is undoubtedly another big factor in the decision process. Requiring a much smaller number of people and removing the need to replace very expensive minehunters is a big attraction for a navy trying to balance limited resources. The Sandown class with their specialised low-signature equipment fit are said to be the most expensive vessels ever built for the RN when calculated by cost per tonne. A very crude estimate would be that replacing the RN’s 13 minehunters with modern equivalents would cost at least £1Bn. The MMCM sets cost around £20M each, and the unit cost may fall if further with further UK, French and export orders. Even allowing for the investment in development, the capital costs of the autonomous systems are probably around 30% of crewed alternatives and through-life costs are even lower. Potentially the RN could choose to invest in many sets, including specialist RTSV, CIS and MMCM allowing much greater coverage than the 13 ships could ever provide.
Agility. The mine threat is rapidly evolving as they become smarter and able to distinguish between targets, resist countermeasures and even relocate themselves depending on pre-set conditions. The USV payloads and software can be adapted and evolved quickly to meet new threats. Displacing very little, the USV is inherently more stealthy than a manned MCMV. The RN claims its new uncrewed MCM systems have already proven to be dramatically faster in operation and can find mines, even in the worst conditions, “five to 10 times faster than current ships”.
Portability. The new autonomous MCM systems are small enough to be either air-portable or fit into the adaptable mission bay of the Type 26 (and probably eventually the Type 32) frigates. This offers a major tactical and even strategic advantage. Future RN task groups can include their own organic MCM capability that could be launched and controlled from a frigate or other platform. If there is a known potential mine threat, instead of either taking a big risk pressing on or waiting weeks for an MCMV to arrive, USVs can be sent ahead of the force and hunt and clear mines right away. Provided there is a friendly airfield and port available, the systems can also be flown out to anywhere in the world to rapidly deal with an emerging mine threat.
A new set of challenges
while the assessment and demonstration phases have provided great confidence that MAS can perform the basic mine detection, classification and destruction functions, there are accompanying drawbacks. Some of the issues are universally applicable to uncrewed and remotely piloted systems of all types and some are specific to mine warfare.
Lack of presence. An MCMV with its ship’s company provides visible presence and in addition to its core mine warfare tasking, may also be used for patrol duties. Without air or surface assets in close support, which rather negates many of its advantages, the USV is much more vulnerable than a crewed vessel. While many conflicts remain in the threshold below open warfare it would be attractive and relatively easy for adversaries to destroy or simply steal the USVs. There have already been examples of drones being destroyed without dramatically escalating conflicts in the way that attacking an inhabited vehicle would imply. The USV simply lacks the perceived importance and the self-protection capability of an MCMV.
Reliability. Any vessel that puts to sea operates in a hostile environment and is prone to breakdown. However well engineered, inevitably some aspect of the USV may malfunction on occasions. Something that might be relatively simple for a sailor on the spot to repair will render the system useless and may even impede its return to base. The LARS on the back of the USV will have to be exceptionally reliable – the sonar bodies and ROV must be streamed and recovered without mishap every time. Although the remote operator is fed back images to help with decision making, there may be occasions when the ROV is no substitute for the experience, instincts and dexterity of a naval diver.
The global requirement for MCM implies the USV itself and its mechanical systems must withstand snow and ice, high winds, extreme heat and even sandstorms. Foul weather may temporarily impede or stop an MCMV from its work but it can remain in theatre and ride out the storm. To avoid being completely lost or damaged beyond repair, the USV must return to base or its mothership in the event of bad weather
Jamming. To exercise control of the USV and retain a man in the decision-making loop, requires unhindered access to the electromagnetic spectrum which may not always be available. Theoretically, an MCM USV in the Gulf or Baltic could be controlled via satellite data link from the UK. More commonly control will be exercised by radio data links from a ship or somewhere ashore, closer to the area of operations. Adversaries are working hard to deny these communication channels via jamming and potentially destroying satellites as well as attempting cyber intrusions. In the event that contact is lost, the USV has sufficient autonomous decision making capability to return to base but its mission would likely be aborted. Improvements in AI may offer the opportunity to field entirely independent systems in future but there is great reluctance to ‘go kenetic’ without human control, including placing explosives on suspected mines.
Unlike its European counterparts, the RN has no published plan at present to provide motherships for its mine warfare MAS. The assumption is that they will either operate from bases ashore, be carried by frigates or perhaps on other ‘vessels of opportunity’. There is a very strong case for obtaining two or three MCM motherships, even if a very basic merchant ship conversion or lease. A Bay-Class auxiliary will probably act as the first operational mothership next year, forward-deployed in the Gulf. The plan for two Littoral Strike groups from 2024 would suggest all three of these vessels will be needed for their core amphibious role.
It does not make sense to tie down a frigate for sustained MCM operations, although the ability to temporarily embark the capability is a great advantage. A dedicated mothership can self-deploy wherever needed, be self-supporting in-theatre for some time, close to the area of operations but at a safe range. It can embark mine warfare specialists, the containerised POC and as well as maintainers and a stock of spares. It would also restore some of the valuable naval presence that lost by deleting the MCMVs.
Capability is ultimately more important than platforms but the implications for the RN of the loss of 13 hulls will be considered in a future article.
Am I incorrect in thinking T32 looks intended to fulfill the MCM Mothership role, when required? Albeit T32 is still some way off so something temporary may be needed in the meantime.
Think the 31 vessel technology and innovation (Venturer) from
Ships to inspire – names of Type 31 frigates revealed (mod.uk)
Simple answer: we don’t know. The concept phase hasn’t been launched yet. Nothing has changed since this was published in November 2020.
No one knows at this stage. The RN has said part of its capabilities will be to support unmanned systems of some sort. What sort of system and what other capabilities the T32 will have is unknown and unlikely to be confirmed in the next year or two.
It is a reasonable prospect that the T32 will end up providing some or all the deployable MCM capability for the RN as one of its tasks. Crews have to be found somewhere and retiring specialist MCM ships is as good as option as any.
MCM closer to home, if remote MCM fulfils it potential, could operate from shore, crafts of opportunity, or any available government vessel with deck space and lifting capacity..
The important thing to remember is that if unmanned MCM works there will be no need for the ‘mother ship’ to enter mined water except through bad luck.
Mine Warfare could just be the next big thing. If you think about it, every type of Warfare is advancing but the basic Mine seems to me to be stuck in a bit of a time warp. Just my mind wondering a bit I guess !
Mine technology has advanced considerably. The basic mine remains the same yes but there are examples of extremely sophisticated mine systems that remain cheap when considered on a value for money or, relative cost basis.
Mine Warfare has always been a thing and the RN has quietly been at the forefront of MCM for decades.
A buoyant contact mine with horns, on a tether wire, is as basic as it gets and there are still thousands of the things in the Baltic from both world wars. Every year NATO MCMV forces exercise in the area and destroy hundreds of the things.
Then you can have a Ground Mine that sit on the sea bed, can bury itself or be camouflaged with marine growth (which they are surface treated to encourage) They can also be mobile and move around the sea bed to make locating them more difficult.
Captor mines have homing torpedoes that they release to attack targets which is bad news for Subs.
Moored mines don’t need contact horns they can have electrode wires that float out from the mine. A sub or ship touching the wire would set it off.
There are also remote control mines that can be detonated, activated or deactivated by command wires from a control point.
Activation of any mine can be by a single or combination of sensors. Contact, pressure, acoustic, electrical, magnetic, changes in overhead light. Then you can add in the sneaky stuff fitted to them like counters and anti handling devices to deter divers. Mines are a complex and difficult foe to overcome. They are relatively cheap, easy to deploy and completely deniable.
Imagine the chaos from a couple of ground mines in the Gulf.
Who put them there ?
Everyone would suspect the usual culprits but it could be a black flag operation by one nation to drop another nation in it.Prove it otherwise.
Everyone would deny responsibility and it would be very difficult to prove who did it…unless you used CDs( Clearance Divers) to physically recover one that was found and did not go off .
Autonomous systems will undeniably be vastly cheaper and more flexible to operate and it can only be a good thing that the Royal Navy is leading the way in this field.
That being said whilst it’s great a range of existing/future surface vessels will be able to deploy them I still think we can’t completely get away from the perennial argument that ships cannot be in two places at once and already have their core roles to focus on – whether it’s a Bay which are sorely needed in the amphibious role or frigates that will need the freedom to conduct sonar sweeps, perform shore bombardment or act as anti-air pickets etc.
Sure, close to a friendly port and in benign waters deploying autonomous mine-hunters direct from shore will be absolutely fine and avoid tying down a valuable platform but for operations that require persistence, range and may contain a degree of risk I still think roughly 6 cheap and cheerful mother-ships in the Venari or SD Northern River mold will be important.
It would be interesting to hear the reasoning behind the Dutch/ Belgian decision to order bespoke motherships. They each have a major international port to protect, but a combined coastline about 5% of the UK.
RN minehunters have been used as patrol vessels. If they are not replaced and the River 2s are permanently based overseas, protection of UK coastline and territorial waters will become even more feeble than it is now.
Fine to have global ambition if and only if home territory is properly defended.
My guess is that most of the B2 Rivers will be supplanted by T31’s as forward-deployed assets, and returned to UK waters to replace the B1’s. Ideally, long term I’d like to see something like the Venari-85 to replace the B2 Rivers as patrol ships and to act as minehunter motherships, maybe 6-8 in total.
Ermmm ? What ? theT31’s are being built to keep the numbers up not in addition to the 13 T23’s , ( OK 9 now) How does the Maths add up in all that ? T32 is still an unknown and as far as I can tell the River 2’s were built because they were needed.
No, the B2 Rivers were built as HMG had a contract to provide a minimum amount of work each year for the BAe yards on the Clyde. At the time there was no agreement in prospect on the exact scope and cost of the T26. The B2’s were a quickly available design that could be used to fulfil the contract.
I think you’re right- the plan to forward deploy T31 was mentioned in one of the recent defence papers.
I too like the look of Venari which could cover other roles as well. The Dutch/. Belgian mothership is bigger and the 12 vessels plus equipment are reported to cost€2b.
Whilst I see the advantage mentioned in the article of frigates being able to host remote minehunter boats on occasion, relying mainly on such scarce ships for routine minehunting seems wrong.
I suggest another way to look at it is that we have options. We might use a frigate as a mothership, say off a hostile coast or in a hostile region where shore based attack or FIAC are a threat. But we might also deploy off a civilian ship or RFA ship where there isn’t that threat, say around the coast of the UK. We tailor our solution for what is required, with most peace time roles not requiring a frigate.
For me ships like our current MCMV, the Venari and the Dutch-Belgian ships are neither one thing nor the other. They carry the expense of a warship but have no anti-air capability and only a single 30/40mm gun to give them very expensive (and slow) OPV functionality, if used in that role. So they are either more than is required or significantly less.
I agree, autonomous MCM systems can give RN considerable flexibility, and are better in some respects than dedicated vessels.
MCMV already get deployed alongside a T23 and/or RFA where required due to threat level, or for support. So putting MCM capability on the escort vessel(s) using autonomous kits doesn’t really diminish availability in these circumstances – Kits could be airlifted, or sent by civilian cargo, to forward deployed RN & RFA vessels, which allows rapid MCM deployment and/or reduced transit costs.
And like you said civilian vessels (of which there are plenty available) can be used in less demanding situations. For benign costal application, I guess kits could also be deployed from onshore, using trucks etc. which is obviously much cheaper than any kind of ship.
It is arguably a compromise, in that it appears RN are using the crew numbers and budget savings from retiring the dedicated MCM fleet, to bolster escort fleet numbers, but that seems to me like a reasonable decision. Whatever form and spec T32 takes, it will surely be a much more versatile asset – multi role, faster, better armed, and able to operate globally with much less support – vs the Hunts/Sandowns.
One of the challenges IMO will be reorganizing MCM specialists into teams that can be deployed with their autonomous kits, without being tied to a particular vessel, and for these teams to be able to work cohesively with different vessel crews as required. This will require good people skills, and a very different mindset for MCM specialists, who currently work in small, close knit crews, on the MCMV.
Agreed. Your last point is a valid one though.
I also see additional opportunities with MCM as a deployable team. It may allow the RN to complement full time RN teams with teams from the reserves. Training of reserve teams might be rotated through a single civilian vessel or even predominantly land based, no need to tie up more vessels, or worse, tie up a naval vessel. Greatly reduced requirement to insert reserves into a full time crew to get training and experience. As long as we have enough of the kits then we could rapidly scale up MCM capability using reserves this way, basing them on STUFT or OPVs. This could provide significantly greater MCM capability and flexibility than we have now.
A similar approach might also be used for littoral ASW teams deploying with modules. With a lot of the UK’s future energy likely to come from off shore wind, energy security is probably going to have to be stepped up to protect it. That might be a mix of UUVs augmented by surface vessels using ASW mission modules.
Another benefit is being able to rotate equipment sets through service and maintenance in a warehouse, independent of a ship’s schedules.
Regardless of how far we take the options, deployable modules are also very personnel friendly, helping with retention. Particularly for those with families, where much of the time the teams will be UK based unless deployed, since it is so relatively easy to fly them to the other side of the world with little notice.
You right, it looks like we are only going to have 3 River B1s to defend UK waters. All the B2’s deployed abroad. So MoD will have to call on a full frigates which maybe a diversion from a ASW taskings, to intercede a fishing dispute in Jersey?
Maybe the MoD may need to procure corvettes in the end, to forward deploy abroad?
I believe the intent is to ditch the B1s by the end of the decade, redeploy the B2s back to the UK for fisheries protection and have the T31s take over the overseas role for which they will be better equipped. So yes, the end result is the loss of the B1s when all is said and done. There is a lot of smoke in the defence review. In reality it seems that, yes, frigate numbers will eventually grow but simultaneously all the MCMVs and B1s will go at the same time.
The T31s are supposed to replace the 5 T23 GP’s.
Sure, and they will. My only point is that 13 MCMVs and 3 B1 Rivers will go at the same time. Once you introduce the 5 T32s – likely as MCM “motherships” – you still have a net loss of 11 hulls.
I agree, we need to replace the River B1s with something.
I also think, some of the mothership hulls could be fiberglass to operate close range MCMV’s.
Don’t think there is any money for that. The autonomous MCM systems will likely operate from the T32s and T31s it seems.
Autonomous system’s are more costly but safer.
Agreed. I can see no reason why the likes of SD Northern River could not be used as a command and control centre. There’s always a lot of nonsense talked by politicians etc about friendly ports and airfields, and nonsense it is.
All of this should be framed in terms of manoeuvre from seaward. That is why states have navies after all. That’s why this move makes no sense without ships to house these systems.
The RN will be developing the Type 32 frigates to house those new systems.
You seem to suggest they are Not?
It is nonsense to suggest otherwise!
It looks like, I may need to learn a new language to understand you!
The first MCMV’s are highly likely to be deployed and housed by a Bay Class LSD. They are bigger enough to house them!
But SD Northern River as a primary
submarine rescue vessel, needs to be prepared to be dispatch to any sub emergency rescue, so would need to down tools quickly if on a temporary MCM operation.
So a unsuitable vessel for this kind of tasking.
Excellent update article but I’m not really buying some of those challenges as being material. They seem a bit forced in order to come up with some cons for article balance.
Correct – in fact we just bought a whole new flotilla of ATLAS SEA dive support workboats as part of project VAHANA, so we can assume that each MCM package will still include divers.
Yes but they will be remotely controlled !!!!!
Are these boats commissioned? And are they added to the total number of RN vessels?
By ‘boats’ do you mean UUVs? That would be really scraping the barrel to make fleet numbers look better than they really are.
I’m on about optionally manned boats. Other nations have many hundreds of vessels the RN Have barely 75. In terms of numbers it acts as a deterant also.
The removal of the MCMV vessels and their replacement will benefit the surface fleet in quite a few ways.
Interesting times ahead in the MCMV world.
Perhaps we could do the same with other systems? Missiles and radars in containers and just deposit them on what hulls there are available. Seems like a plan to me.
The containerise systems of missiles and raders would need to have had fixtures and fittings integrated into the vessel beforehand simler of the Iver Huitfeldt mission modules. And of cause the safety of electric cables etc.
You cannot dump any container system on any vessel and hope it works!
This site is a level playing field for dialogue and free speech.
You do Not have to respond to my comments, your choice.
You would turn this site into a one sided Monologue of Yourself, if you had your way!
1: Can the “L3Harris 12-metre USVs” be carried on T26’s mission bay?
2: Can there be (regardless of L3Harris or Atlas/ARCIM) a ASW version of drones? We know ARCIMS has a version carrying LFAPS ASW sonar, but we do not hear much about it these days.
I “guess” in shallow water, active pinging from drones will make the mother ship more safe, and multi-static ASW sonar analysis will enable batter detection of SSK in the shallow water?
A T26 could carry a USV/UUV TAS sonar, and deployed ahead of ship a few km as like a TAS. It would need to be in comms’ range, or by fibre optic cable.
No reason why a L3Harris could be carried, on a T26 with a 20m beem.
(after some web survey)
There are (may be) three candidates,
1: L3Harris “Halcyon”, which is 10.8m long, 3.5 m wide
2: Atlas “ARCIMS”, which is 11.2 m long, 3.4 m wide
3: ECA “Inspector 125”, which is 12.3 m long, 4.5 m wide
We know T26’s mission bay can carry 2x 20ft ISO containers in a row. But, the size of its side-door is not clear if it can handle “12.3 + m” long boats. I understand ARCIMS and Halcyon is OK.
So, sorry but self-corrected.
Are there any plan to adopt ECA “Inspector 125” for RN? And then, is it T26 capable?
This must be the original question…
Is a permanent mothership necessary? Surely it would make sense to airlift the equipment as needed to a nearby friendly port and install it onto the closest available ship with a mission bay? Seems like it would be much faster than a dedicated ship.
Just who has decided that the Royal Navy is leading the world in the provision of effective autonomous systems for mine detection and destruction systems? These boats are unmanned targets, nothing more. Without a crew at all they can be sunk at will with no come -back to the nation involved in the destruction. The Chinese could knock out 1000 remote controlled plastic boats to its allied nations, especially in the Gulf and take these USV,s , whatever, out with no risk to diplomatic relations whatsoever.
Is there going to be a firm commitment by the Government to order six of these systems by 2035, maybe reduced to five, with more to follow when we can afford them, as with the F35b. Any time before 2050 would be just fine, and will these craft be designated as warships to swell the number of ships available as with the plastic University boats. The only surprise here is that some person associated with this latest manpower reduction scheme hasn’t declared that these systems will not be affected by a COVID pandemic.