Tony Carruthers spent 8 years as an officer serving in Royal Navy minehunters. Here he articulates some of the concerns about exchanging crewed mine countermeasures vessels for autonomous systems.
The future for manned, low vulnerability and highly survivable, mine countermeasures vessels (MCMVs) in the RN looks set to draw to a close as they are exchanged for autonomous or remotely controlled systems. the decommissioning of HMS Blyth and HMS Ramsey on 4 August, RN minehunters now number just 11, these vessels have been in constant demand and regularly updated to maintain the RN’s justifiable reputation as a premier league player in the mine warfare environment.
NATO allies are taking a more pragmatic approach to future mine countermeasures. The RN, it appears, are currently putting all their eggs into the autonomous basket, while the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway and Italy, all of whom have an excellent MCM pedigree, are retaining manned platforms from which autonomous systems may be operated.
The RN’s pioneering of autonomous mine warfare is to be welcomed, but “taking the sailor out of the minefield” entirely is perhaps just too ambitious. A more balanced approach is required over a much longer transition period. The ambition to minimise personnel exposure to risk is well-founded but there will always be operational and tactical reasons that will require ships, sailors and marines to get up close and personal with the mine threat.
Budget pressures over the last 25 years have seen a ‘salami slicing’ approach taken when it comes to the RN’s MCMV fleet. Several of the Hunt class vessels were initially converted into RN patrol ships and then sold off and the Batch 1 Sandown vessels were prematurely retired and sold on to other allied navies. The majority of vessels remain in active MCM service, a testament to the resilience of the GRP hulls and their ability to be upgraded to meet current and future threats.
The revised manning model that sees MCMV crews rotated has allowed the RN to maximise their availability, especially in the Gulf where a permanent presence has been sustained since 1987. Although the effort in the Gulf is a fine achievement, the reduction in hull numbers has driven a major decline in the RN’s traditional MCM deployment closer to home and reduced participation in NATO standing mine warfare groups.
The mothership gap
Despite the UK’s apparent ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’, the RN presence in the Persian Gulf is likely to be maintained with the US reliant on the availability of a credible British MCM capability. Considerable investment has also been made recently in the infrastructure and support systems in Bahrain. Any autonomous systems deployed there will need some means of transport to cover a wide geographic area. The Littoral Response Group (South) will be based in Duqm, Oman and may also need MCM support, either embedded with the force or readily available. The Bay class LSDAs will be central to the new Littoral Strike Groups but, with only 3 available, will have limited availability to act as MCM motherships.
The Baltic is another region that the new mine warfare capability will need to be deployed and then supported in theatre if current tasking is taken as a guide. The future Type 26, 31 and 32 frigates will have mission bays that can be used to carry autonomous systems. This modular approach offers a flexible way to extend the frigate’s capabilities and tailor their equipment fit to the mission. However, it may not be as straightforward as advertised. The challenges of force generation, crew training and the practicalities of constant disembarking and embarking from host vessels have been something of a failure when applied to the US Littoral Combat Ships. The flexibility of having a mix of permanently crewed and assigned MCM assets as well as autonomous systems looks like a more attractive option.
MCMVs – more than just one capability
Public Visibility. MCMVs can get alongside easily in comparatively small ports, providing a presence people can see and understand. Port visits by ships play an important role in personal engagement with local organisations, the general public and in support of defence diplomacy. The impact of a converted or charted merchant ship with a payload of shipping containers and small boats on the upper deck is not quite the same. Even less so, when the RN presence is reduced to the small grey boat arriving on the back of a lorry.
Emergency Tasking. Whether it is responding to vessels in distress, EOD incidents or reports of a missing aircraft, MCMV’s when operating around the UK have long been utilised to deal with emergencies. The MCMV can use its sonar, divers and ROVs in any search operations, for example, if seeking wreckage on the seabed or dealing with the disposal of historic ordnance hauled up in a fishing vessel’s nets.
Patrol/Constabulary Duties. The MCMVs can take on a wide variety of patrol tasks when other units may be unavailable. They are occasionally called in to monitor the presence of Russian naval units transiting close to the UK. HMS Pembroke was called into service for just such a task recently while on passage to the Baltic.
Route Survey. Strategic ports around the UK are well charted to allow safe passage along vital pre-planned routes, such as the Clyde in support of the UK’s Continuous At Sea Deterrent (CASD). This process ensures that there is less chance of suspicious objects going unnoticed on the sea bed. There are real concerns globally at the prospect of clandestine and deniable undersea activity increasing, including in waters around the UK.
Repetitive Route Surveys appear to be an ideal fit for autonomous systems, especially in UK waters, and far cheaper than deploying an MCMV but weather conditions and endurance may limit their time on task. ’Autonomous’ vehicles sometimes require crewing. While they can be quickly transported by air or road, there are no significant crew facilities onboard which mean for anything other than short periods as manned platforms, moving between tasking or urgent maintenance, becomes difficult.
Leadership and Professional Training. A typical ‘legacy’ MCMV carries at least 5 or 6 junior warfare branch officers on board. The Commanding Officer will usually be a Lieutenant Commander and it will usually be his or her first command. MCMVs have provided the first opportunity for many for junior warfare officers to get used to working in an operations room. As useful preparation for the Principal Warfare Officers (PWO) course, they gain an understanding of the ops room environment and the principles of synchronising operations above and below the waterline while working with other units, very often on a multi-national basis.
The rest of the wardroom will be made up of Lieutenants and Sub Lieutenants. They are given more responsibility for leading their own departments than might be the case on larger warships. MCMV’s frequently operate in task groups, unlike the traditional singular tasks of Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs). That means junior officers learn practical ship handling in close company, the rudiments of exercise planning, co-operation between units and gain early experience working with NATO and coalition partners. This is critical seamanship and warfare experience that autonomous systems cannot fully replicate.
Defining the concept of operations. There are some deeper complexities to consider around the potential interactions of autonomous vehicles vessels with other people, systems and vessels. Work is needed to define if they should be counted as a weapon in their own right, or are they part of a weapons system? In the asymmetric world of maritime warfare frequently seen in the Gulf and elsewhere, how vulnerable are they to emerging threats? In the July 2021 allied MCM exercise in the Gulf, manned platforms, with close-range weapons, were tested in terms of self-defence against swarm attacks by fast armed craft. It is unclear if uncrewed assets can be properly defended at range to prevent them from being sabotaged, attacked by drone or simply removed by adversaries.
While there are many positives in the Defence Command Paper for the RN as a whole, pursuing one option, and only one option, when it comes to dealing with the mine threat in the future may be putting too much faith in autonomous systems too soon. There are still considerable trials, testing and development work to be done before they can be relied on as operational assets ready to be deployed across the globe. There is a legitimate fear amongst the mine warfare community that the Royal Navy will be relegated from the MCM premiership if the pace of change is too rapid.