Navy Invests in New Mine Warfare Technology (UPDATED)

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

iStock illustration

Sea-based mines are a constant concern in naval warfare. Like their land-based counterparts, they offer adversaries a low-cost means of inflicting potentially catastrophic damage. To counter that, the Navy is developing several new countermeasure platforms.

One of the top global mine threats comes from China, said Seth Cropsey, director of the Center for American Seapower at the Hudson Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. It has been estimated that Beijing has as many as 100,000 such weapons.

Those “range from the old-fashioned moored contact mines … to include mines that have rocket-propelled weapons and target detection systems,” he said.

In the event of a conflict with China, the United States is unlikely to approach warfare from the land, he said. “That leaves us with the seas as the place of where conflict is most likely to play out.”

Beijing would likely concentrate on creating choke points in areas such as the archipelagos that separate East Asia from the Middle East and the South China Sea, he said. That means that sea control and navigating around China’s anti-access and area denial capabilities will be crucial.

“It’s reasonable to expect that the Chinese would use mines there, reasonable to expect that they would use mines if they decided to use force against Taiwan,” he said. Moving through those straits is crucial and being able to clear them of mines is equally important, he said.

Russia would be another formidable foe, Cropsey said. Moscow likely has a larger and more varied mine warfare capability than the United States, but specific details are hard to come by in the public domain, he added.

Iran is another country that could pose a major mine warfare threat, Cropsey said. Tehran has non-magnetic and remote-controlled mines. It is also likely that it has Russian- and Chinese-built systems.

“It fits the Iranian style of warfare,” he said. “It’s relatively low in cost and it could be used in large numbers.”

Cropsey compared it to Tehran’s use of fast-moving, swarming boats. “You think of swarming boats — think of swarming mines,” he added.

Despite increased threats, the Navy needs to invest more in mine warfare, Cropsey said. “Mine warfare has been a neglected child of the Navy,” he said. “That didn’t begin this year or last [year] or 10 years ago. It’s an old, old story.”

While the Navy has traditionally employed expensive, manned aircraft and ships for mine clearing, it is now working on a slew of new robotic systems that can sweep, detect and neutralize the weapons as part of a countermeasure package that will be deployed off the service’s littoral combat ship.

One such system is Northrop Grumman’s AQS-24C mine hunting system, which builds upon the company’s AQS-24B that was introduced into the Navy’s fleet in 2017 and has been used from the MH-53E helicopter and an unmanned surface vehicle platform.

The towed payload has reached a number of performance milestones, said Gene Cumm, director of international mine warfare at the company.

For example, the system was successfully towed at 400 feet from a boat in October, he said. The company also completed improvements to the platform’s optical sensors, which gives it increased laser power and an improved light filter.

Additionally, Northrop recently completed initial in-water testing of a next-generation deploy-and-retrieval payload from the AQS-24, according to a company press release.

“Achieving this important milestone demonstrated reliable unmanned mine hunting operations, while using operationally representative hardware from the LCS MCM mission module,” said Alan Lytle, the company’s vice president of undersea systems. “This allows the program to begin preparation for further at-sea testing of the system for extended duration missions in rigorous conditions.”

Northrop has delivered a total of 31 AQS-24 systems to the U.S. Navy and to Japan’s navy, Cumm said. That includes four A variants, 25 B variants and two C variants. Northrop is working on developing upgrades to give customers new capabilities, including ways to speed up mine clearance.

“When there is a mine threat, it’s all about how fast that threat can be erased, and the shipping lanes reopened for commerce,” he said in an email. “Systems that work at eight or nine knots are better than surface ships at two or three but can’t compare to ours at 18. That advantage is what is key to the warfighter and improving the ability to perform at that speed is our focus.”

Capt. Danielle George, program manager for mine warfare under the Navy’s program executive office for unmanned and small combatants, said AQS-24C will offer the Navy rapid detection of moored mines. Fielding of the platform to the fleet is slated for 2020, according to George’s presentation slides at the Surface Navy Association’s annual conference in Arlington, Virginia.

Another platform the Navy is working with is Raytheon’s AQS-20 mine hunting sonar for the LCS mine countermeasure package.

The system features four separate sonars in a compact, lightweight and hydro-dynamically stable towed body and can provide real-time, computer-aided detection and classification against mines, according to the company.

The program of record for AQS-20 on the mine countermeasure package includes 24 systems, said Wade Knudson, senior director of undersea warfare systems at Raytheon.

The AQS-20, when coupled with Raytheon’s mine neutralizer Barracuda system, gives the service a way to destroy mines much faster than legacy platforms, he noted.

“We can tow the AQS-20 at high speed and at depth. We can find the mines and then in real time we will ... deploy a Barracuda in the water that will then swim up to the mine and autonomously neutralize the mine,” he said. “That will all happen 10 times faster than today’s methods.”

The Barracuda, which is the size of a sonobuoy, has been through preliminary design review. Raytheon is now preparing for critical design review, Knudson said.

The Barracuda is a low-cost mine clearance capability that will be able to provide rapid reacquisition, identification and neutralization capability against near surface sea mines, according to George’s presentation slides. The program is currently in Milestone B and the Navy is commencing a detail design of the neutralizer vehicle.

Raytheon has so far delivered 40 AQS-20s to the Navy, including 10 of its latest C-variant which includes the latest synthetic aperture sonars and forward-looking sonars, Knudson said. The plan is for each ship carrying the MCM package to have two of the platforms.

The AQS-20 is being integrated onto the Navy’s mine countermeasure unmanned surface vehicle, Textron’s common unmanned surface vehicle, or CUSV, he added.

“The Navy’s in the middle of integrating and testing not only the MCM USV but towing the AQS-20 behind it,” he said. The primary work surrounds the integration of the platform to show that it can tow the AQS-20 autonomously from the littoral combat ship.

Both the AQS-20 and AQS-24 will be towed by the CUSV platform, and both are in initial integration and testing phases in Panama City, Florida, said Zach Bupp, program director for unmanned surface vehicles at Textron. Contractor testing is expected to wrap up in 2020, he added.

The common unmanned surface vehicle has an endurance of more than 20 hours, a range of about 87 miles, and a towing capacity of 4,000 pounds of force at 20 knots, according to the company.

The craft — which the Navy calls the unmanned influence sweep system, or UISS — completed development tests and operational assessments in November 2019, Bupp said.

The platform reached a Milestone C decision with the Navy in March. The Navy is now putting on contract three low-rate initial production craft and three sweep payloads, he added.

Current sweeping missions are conducted by aircraft, and while servicemembers are not operating from the surface of the water, there are still risks, Bupp said. Part of the benefit of the CUSV system is that it keeps sailors out of harm’s way, he added.

“It keeps people at a safe distance from that minefield and is designed for a detonation event to occur and then continue on with its mission set,” he said.

An initial operational test and evaluation event with the Navy is scheduled for the platform this summer off a littoral combat ship in San Diego, Bupp said.

Meanwhile, Northrop is seeing international interest in the AQS-24 system grow, Cumm said.

“The international market for small craft MCM is emerging quickly, and the AQS-24 is a great fit for many of these emerging requirements,” he said. “The high-speed capability of the system, 18 knots, coupled with the integrated mine ID capability at high speed — 10 knots — make the system ideal for high performing small surface vessels.”

The Australian navy is interested in the platform and the system has participated in two exercises in Australia over the past two years, Cumm said. The system is under consideration for a new mine countermeasure ship currently being developed, he added.

Northrop has begun to manufacture components of the AQS-24B variant with Marand Precision Engineering at its Moorabbin, Australia, facility.

“The main reason to build parts of the system in Australia is to help ensure that the system can be best sustained after delivery,” Cumm said. “The best way to sustain a system in a country is to build a high percentage of the key components there. With Australia being so far away, having the system come back to the States for repair, upgrade or overhaul is unrealistic when trying to maintain a high operational availability.”

Knudson noted that Raytheon is also looking to expand the market for the AQS-20 internationally and is eyeing allies in Europe, Australia and East Asia.

“We’re certainly talking to them and I think there’s an interest in trying to use some of this investment because they also recognize how dangerous this threat is,” he said. 

 Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify that a total of 31 Northrop Grumman AQS-24 systems have been delivered to the U.S. Navy and Japanese navy, two of which are C-variants.

Topics: Maritime Security

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