During September and October, the Wilton Industry Show and Experiment for Mine Counter Measures (WISEX) was held in the Clyde approaches. This was an opportunity for industry to further demonstrate autonomous mine-hunting equipment and software.
The RN’s Mine Hunting Capability (MHC) programme is an incremental project to transform mine warfare from manned to autonomous platforms. The first increment (Block 1) saw the delivery in 2018 of a new minesweeping capability by Atlas Elektronik (AEUK) using the ARCIMS USV. The 11-metre vessel, HNMB Hussar carries a power generation module and tows magnetic, acoustic and electrical influencers mounted on three coil auxiliary boats.
Also as part of Block 1, under the Anglo-French Maritime Mine Countermeasures (MMCM) programme, Thales is scheduled to deliver 3 autonomous minehunting systems by the end of 2022. This comprises USVs equipped with SAMDIS high-resolution synthetic aperture sonar, and the Multi-Shot Mine Neutralisation System (MuMNS) and Portable Operating Centres (POC). In parallel, project Wilton has delivered a UK-based autonomous route survey capability, providing a low-risk pathfinder for the RN while establishing a small cadre of autonomous MCM experts (See previous article for more details). The Wilton team are also mandated to support further trials and experimentation such as WISEX.
Ahead of investment decisions for MHC Block 2 in 2024 which will comprise the main expenditure on the project, WISEX is an opportunity for industry to showcase new systems for consideration. During trials on the ranges in Kilbrannan Sound off Campbeltown, equipment was assessed by Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) and RN mine warfare specialists. A series of dummy mines were laid on the range and the MCM systems under trial then tasked to detect them. There will be a further round of WISEX trials running between March – September 2022 when the weather is more favourable.
Although there have been limited details of the trails made public, Raytheon and AEUK partnered to demonstrate the AQS-20C advanced minehunting sonar system launched from their ARCIMS boat. A bespoke launch and recovery system (LARS) for the Raytheon sonar has been installed on RNMB Halcyon.
AQS-20C is already in service with the US Navy and is used as part of the modular minehunting capability for the Littoral Combat Ships (LCS). The system features four separate sonars in a compact, lightweight and hydro-dynamically stable towed body. These comprise two synthetic aperture side scan sonars, a forward-looking sonar for volume search of the water column and a gap-filling sonar for coverage directly beneath the towed body. This eliminates the areas that are not covered by side-scan sonars, surveying more of the water space in a shorter space of time than competitor systems. The sensor package features signal processing that produces identification-quality acoustic images. This technology enables real-time detection and classification against the full spectrum of threat mines including bottom mines, buoyant mines, and near-surface mines simultaneously.
The Raytheon sonar is clearly a mature product and provides another attractive ‘find’ option for RN minehunting. Its performance will likely be measured against the Thales Towed Synthetic Aperture Multiviews (T-SAM) vehicle and its Synthetic Aperture & Mine Detection Imaging Sonar (SAMDIS) already under contract as part of the MMCM programme.