“De-Platformizing” the Counter-Mine Mission


Or The Future of Maritime Robotics

Every Battle Fleet going in harms way knows that a single submarine in unrestricted warfare can really ruin their day. The action’s taken by the Royal Navy sub, the HMS Conqueror, in sinking the Argentine Cruiser General Belgarano in the Falkland’s Campaign was a significant data point for modern war at sea.

However, even the threat of mines can turn around a USN Fleet after.-“Sighted sub sank same!” was a pithy WWII comment.

However, with Iran misbehaving in the Middle East, the entire world economy better hope the Captain of a surface combatant protecting the vital sea lines of the world oil trade  does not have to say “Sound General Quarters we just hit a Mine” or even worse from the radio call from the  Bridge of a SuperTanker- is made saying “Oh Darn—or much stronger language-we just hit a mine.”

The Ranger UUV from iRobot. The 15A Ranger is the general development platform for small UUV capabilities. Credit Image: iRobot

In an interview with Paco Santana, now with iRobot, but earlier with the USN and a counter mine expert, the Second Line of Defense team discussed the evolving impact of maritime robotics on the counter mine mission.

Santana is Director, Maritime Systems Applications at iRobot.

SLD: Could you give us a quick look at your background?

Santana: I started in the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) community in 1989 and have been a diver ever since. After I got out of school, my first deployment was Desert Shield and Desert Storm. If you remember back then, we had issues with mines in the Northern Arabian Gulf. There were threats not only from bottom mines but also from floating mines in that operation, and they posed a direct threat against the deployed Amphibious Ready Group (ARG).

To remind the reader about a significant mine warfare engagement by the US Navy during Desert Storm the combat action of the USS Princeton in that campaign  is illustrious of a nasty and still current threat-from the ships history;

During Operation Desert Storm USS PRINCETON provided air defense for a MCM group including the USS AVENGER (MCM 1), USS LEADER (MSO 490), USS TRIPOLI (LPH 10) and other Naval Forces.

During the sweeping of Iraqi mines, USS TRIPOLI hit a moored contact mine in 30 meters of water.

USS AVENGER and USS LEADER attempted to assist the damaged warship while USS PRINCETON still provided air defense.

At 0715 USS PRINCETON hit a Manta mine in 16 meters of water. A sympathetic actuation of another mine about 350 yards from USS PRINCETON occurred about three seconds later. These mine blasts caused substantial damage to USS PRINCETON, including a cracked superstructure, severe deck buckling, and a damaged propeller shaft and rudder.

As damage control teams overcame fires and flooding aboard USS TRIPOLI and USS PRINCETON, the minesweepers USS IMPERVIOUS (MSO 449), USS LEADER, and USS AVENGER searched for additional mines in the area. The minesweeper USS ADROIT (MSO 509) led the salvage ship USS BEAUFORT (ATS 2) toward USS PRINCETON; USS BEAUFORT then towed the damaged warship to safety. USS PRINCETON restored her TLAM strike and Aegis AAW capabilities within two hours of the mine strike and reassumed duties as the local AAW commander, providing air defense for the Coalition MCM group for 30 additional hours until relieved by the USS VALLEY FORGE (CG 50).

A few crewmembers suffered injuries as a result of the mine blasts.

In recognition of the superior and arduous work the crew put in to keep the ship in war-fighting status, USS PRINCETON and crew were awarded a Combat Action Ribbon.

SLD: What you’re really capturing here is, in your lifetime of experiences, you jumped in a high threat environment to get up close and personal with a mine to blow it and that’s how we fought that war.

Santana: That is what we were doing at the time.

SLD: You dealt with mine destruction but how were you being informed of where the mines we located?

Santana: We would receive intelligence or visual spotting from helicopters about location. We weren’t doing any underwater searches at that time.

SLD: So you were the instrument of destruction of it, and intel was putting sensing out, giving you tasking and then your team responded to the tasking.

Santana: Correct. We did not have organic MCM (Mine Countermeasures) capability within the ARG itself. We were being fed info from our helicopters and sources outside of the ARG.

SLD: Today what is the evolving approach to developing and using robotics to perform the MCM role?

Santana: The US Navy has funded various types of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). While the blue water Navy is mainly talking about large diameter UUVs in deep water, the EOD community and Navy Special Warfare community have had smaller UUVs in mind, for use in very shallow water close to shore. I’m talking less than nine-inch diameter vehicles. We were travelling with a small team in rubber boats, so the space is at a premium, and we had to handle the UUVs by hand.  Currently, there is a more capable one that is about 12¾ inches in diameter that can perform searches, but the original  UUVs used to conduct very shallow water searches were small diameter ones.

The US Navy doctrine differentiates among very shallow water, shallow water and deep water. Small UUVs are designed for very shallow water, and these UUVs have been in use for just under a decade.

SLD: A key element of managing the MCM mission is risk mitigation. What role can UUVs play in risk mitigation approaches and calculations?

Santana: UUVs can help to both minimize risk and the amount of time it takes to go through a choke point or a minefield.

Robots are something that can speed up the process and help keep people out of harm’s way. There still might be steps along the way where it is necessary to put people or vessels into dangerous areas, but the technology is there to reduce the risk.

SLD: The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS ) is being talked about in an MCM role, but isn’t the potential impact of robotics to de-platform the capability and to perhaps provide organic capability to the fleet INDEPENDENT from specific ships to perform the MCM role?

Santana: Absolutely. With the LCS, the Navy is going to put a robotics module on the ship to perform the MCM mission. Can that module be moved somewhere else? I don’t see why not.

Operationally, once you put the UUV in water, their role is the same – to provide information to the users – wherever they might be.

SLD: The challenge obviously is to get the information back to the operators and to allow those operators to make informed decisions about risk mitigation and management.

Or put another way, the first driver of evolution of capabilities is what we talked about earlier, which is the performance of the vehicle in identifying correctly the threat or not threat in a cluttered environment and the operators get confidence in that tool.

The second part of this is the ability to get information from the tool back to the operators, and the communication packages could come in varieties of ways. They could be coming back to the ship; they could be going to intermediate above, maybe above water or underwater.

Santana: If you could search, locate something, ID it correctly and then download this information – that is clearly the baseline capability you are shaping with respect to robotics.

Then, if you have confidence in this information, you could send something else, like a robot, out to acquire or confirm the ID. You could also send an expendable neutralizer out to neutralize the threat. Now, if you could do this in a single pass, where one single vehicle can search, ID and neutralize a target, all while people remain at a safe stand-off distance, that’s probably the holy grail of the underwater robotics revolution.

This evolution would allow the ability to proliferate across platforms, rather than needing a specialized MCM platform.

A modular type of UUV could be deployed from a wide range of platforms – an air guy could use it, or a ship or submarine guy could use it – all depending on the mission.

For earlier discussions with iRobot on robotics see the following: