New tech can transform naval mine countermeasures
Detect and engage.
Do it quickly and safely. Don’t make critical decisions when they're based only on fuzzy data.
In January 2019, U.S. Marine Corps Major General David Coffman, the U.S. Navy’s director of expeditionary warfare, said the Navy wanted to accelerate the development of automated and unmanned systems as part of mine countermeasures.
The mission was clear: Rapidly identify and neutralize mines at sea to protect the surface fleet. The solution was in a transformative concept called “Single Sortie Detect-to-Engage.”
SSDTE combines the search-detect-identify and neutralize elements of a mine countermeasure mission on a single platform executing a single outing, or sortie, so mine detection and neutralization can be conducted in a single pass of an area.
“What used to take weeks or months will soon be done in a matter of days or hours,” said Randy Brandenburg, Seapower business development executive at Raytheon Missiles & Defense, a business of Raytheon Technologies. “Being more efficient makes all the difference.”
PASS IN ACTION
Here's how it would work: An unmanned surface vehicle launches from a Littoral Combat Ship. In tow is a sophisticated sonar that can spot mines from any angles, and in high definition.
The towed pod, known as AN/AQS-20, incorporates four separate sonars in a compact and lightweight body. It uses advanced imaging sonars, signal processing and computer algorithms to provide real-time, computer-aided detection and classification against the full spectrum of mines. In other words, it pinpoints mine-like objects and provides a visual image.
If an object is determined to be a mine, a number of actions are available, including detonation. In the future, this could be done with an innovative mine-neutralization system called Barracuda.
“One problem with mine countermeasures the Navy faces is the expensive cost of the neutralizers,” Brandenburg said, adding that the goal is to lower the price while remaining effective.
The Barracuda is a semi-autonomous, unmanned, underwater vehicle that identifies and destroys near-surface, volume and bottom sea mines. It can operate in shallow water, using an expendable, modular neutralizer with a kill mechanism, propulsion, sensors and communications buoy, which transmits wirelessly back to the host ship. Initially, it will be launched from an unmanned surface vessel operating from a Littoral Combat Ship, but in the future, it could be launched from almost any platform with an A-sized sonobuoy launcher.
Raytheon Technologies won an $83 million contract for the design, test and deployment of the Barracuda mine neutralization system. If options are exercised, the total contract award could be $363 million. The mine neutralizer successfully completed a Navy Preliminary Design Review in June 2019 and is scheduled for a Critical Design Review in early 2020.
Raytheon Technologies' single sortie technology was on display at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center’s 2019 Advanced Naval Technology Exercise, also known as ANTX.
“Through the recent ANTX demo, we were able to precisely show we’ve made a tremendous leap forward in mine clearance when you couple our mine-hunting and neutralization capabilities with unmanned vehicles,” Brandenburg said.
Raytheon Technologies' demonstrated two future unmanned technologies at ANTX. First, the company demonstrated its AQS-20C mine-hunting sonar, paired with its Barracuda mine neutralizer, which worked together to detect and engage an object designed to mimic undersea mines. Also demonstrated was the Unmanned Common Control System, which autonomously controlled several simulated unmanned surface vessels. CCS is designed to manage multiple unmanned systems, including surface and air vehicles, from a single control station.
FIRSTS AND FUTURE TECH
The demo showcased the Navy’s vision of semi-autonomous, single-sortie, detect-to-engage mine clearance, which Raytheon Technologies supports. The success of the ANTX 2019 SSDTE demo, including the autonomous engagement by a neutralizer, is a real turning point because it signifies a number of firsts, including:
- The first end-to-end engagement of both bottom and volume mines
- The first shipboard use of the automated AQS-20 Deployment and Recovery capability from a unmanned surface vehicle surrogate
- The first implementation of Barracuda communications buoy, as well as acoustic tracking and navigation
- The first implementation of a common control system architecture for mine countermeasure command and control
- The first fully integrated MCM capability conducted from a surrogate unmanned surface vehicle
Looking forward, Raytheon Technologies is working with the Navy to advance SSDTE based on the recent demonstration results. And there are plans to further enhance mine hunting and neutralization through the application of machine learning to advanced Automatic Target Recognition.