November 15, 2007

Underwater Killers

By Wagner, Breanne

Navy's mine-hunting technologies wait for the Littoral Combat Ship THE NAVY HAS A NEW SUITE of anti-mine technologies designed to roll on and off a ship as needed. It just doesn't have the ship yet.

In September, the service unveiled a transportable "mine warfare mission package" that will one day replace current minesweeping boats, which are scheduled for retirement in 2016.

The new mission package is slated to go aboard the littoral combat ship. But it is not yet clear when exactly the LCS will enter service. The program so far has been beset by cost overruns and schedule delays.

The Navy's ability to deploy the new mine warfare technology is tied to the fate of the LCS. The ship's current troubles, Navy officials insist, will not leave the fleet ill-prepared to tackle mine-sweeping missions in the future.

The possibility that LCS may not be ready by the time the minesweeping ships are decommissioned in 2016 is not currendy being considered in future planning, said Gary Humes, the Navy's mine warfare program manager.

He said he is confident that LCS vessels will be in the fleet before 2016 or 2017. "The timeline right now for mine countermeasure decommissioning and the ramp-up of LCS marries quite well," Humes said in an interview.

Yet the LCS program schedule stands on shaky ground. Original plans called for 55 of these new ships to be operational in 2013. But the Navy is now struggling to keep the program afloat, following a decision to cancel one of the two prototypes that were to be built by Lockheed Martin. A competing design is being built by General Dynamics. Analysts project that the LCS will fall further behind in the next two years.

The mine warfare package was delivered as scheduled in September. It includes a suite of sensors, weapons and unmanned systems - bundled in a rectangular container that is sized to fit only on LCS. It is one of three different mission packages that the Navy wants to deploy aboard the ship. The service plans to buy up to 24 mine warfare systems, which are designed to locate and destroy sea mines floating in deep water or planted in shallow water and surf zones.

"All we're waiting for is a sea frame," Humes said.

One of the components of the mine warfare package - the remote mine-hunting system - was installed on the USS Bainbridge (DDG-96) destroyer in August.

The ship crew has no specific plans to test die RMS, but may conduct impromptu exercises if time allows, Humes said.

The Navy does not intend to buy anti-mine systems for the DDG class, he says, but since LCS is not ready, the technology was put on Bainbridge to "keep the crew proficient in the operations and maintenance of the system."

While the whole mine warfare mission package cannot be installed aboard a destroyer, separate components can be tested, said Humes. The remote mine-hunting system is the only piece that is capable of going on DDG destroyers.

The airborne components of the mine warfare package are being tested, Humes said. They operate from a MH-60S mine-hunting helicopter.

Officials said that the completion of the mission package marks a notable advance for the Navy's mine warfare program, which for nearly a decade has struggled to produce deployable technologies.

Each LCS mission package will cost $68 million, according to Navy estimates.

The service decided in the early 1990s to give up its dedicated minesweeper ships and transition to "organic" anti-mine systems that could be deployed aboard destroyers as part of carrier battle groups. Budget cuts and technology hurdles slowed the program in recent years.

The remote mine-hunting system was one of the troubled technologies, and eventually was redesigned by the manufacturer, Lockheed Martin Corp.

In 2004, the Navy decided to rethink its whole mine warfare concept of operations. Under the revised plan, the anti-mine systems would be moved to LCS small combat vessels.

The LCS is better suited for mine-clearing operations because it is designed for coastal warfare, Navy officials contend. Future enemies are more likely to mine the waters near the coast to prevent U.S. forces from landing ashore.

Development of organic mine-hunting technology solved two problems for the Navy: Getting the sailor out of the minefield and reducing the time it takes to find and clear mines, said Humes.

These systems allow sailors to conduct mine reconnaissance from safe distances, says Brad Hines, director of business development at Lockheed Martin.

The remote mine-hunting system is composed of five parts, one of which is an unmanned submersible that transmits images to its host ship over a data link, Hines explains

The airborne component of the new mine warfare mission package allows operators to stay a safe distance from a mine as it's being neutralized, says James Normington, program manager at the Raytheon Company, which makes the helicopter-based sensors. "Mine warfare used to be more primitive," he explains. "Soldiers would be looking in the water, holding a machine gun." The mine warfare package includes two different technologies for neutralizing a mine by operators inside the MH-60S helicopter. They are the rapid airborne mine clearance system and the airborne mine neutralization system.

AMNS is used for targets in deep water. It is carried on the mine hunting helicopter and is deployed in a small, unmanned underwater vehicle. The UUV locates the mine using the AQS-20A sonar. Information transmitted from the sonar is then used to deploy AMNS to a specific location and destroy the mine. A camera is also affixed to the front of the vehicle so an operator can search. When the operator flips a switch, explosives are fired into the mine, Humes said. Surface mines are shattered with a 30mm Bushmaster gun mounted on the helicopter.

Sonar can find mines in what the Navy calls "deep water" - classified as 30 to 40 feet under the surface. The AQS-20A system comprises five sonars that look at the ocean floor.

Raytheon is under contract to build 11 sonar systems, and has delivered 10 so far. Changes have been made to reduce the cost.

These technologies have also significantly reduced the timeline between detection and destruction, said Humes.

But the Navy can do better, he added. "That's where the effort needs to continue. I believe, over the next 10 to 15 years, we will be continually working to reduce that time-line even more."

When mines on the bottom of the ocean floor can't be detected by using sonar or laser, the Navy uses a technique called mine sweeping.

"Mine sweeping is a technique of simply creating a magnetic or acoustic source in the water to trick the mine into thinking that [sound] is a surface ship or submarine," Humes said. It addresses the problem of detecting mines where ocean floors are rocky or cluttered with other objects.

The organic airborne and surface influence sweep system, or OASIS, is towed from a helicopter and creates a magnetic field in the water, as well as generating acoustic noise, he says.

Additionally, operators may use an unmanned surrace vehicle to sweep areas in ways that OASIS can't, Humes says. OASIS can't operate in darkness and has coverage limitations because it's towed by the MH-60S, which has a small fuel tank. The unmanned vehicle, on the other hand, can operate at night and can cover a much larger area.

These technologies, said Humes, are "much more sophisticated than a lot of the systems we've developed in die past." They require advanced software and computer processors.

Navy engineers will have to worry about obsolescence as technology quickly evolves. That will require more research and development, Humes said. Future R&D plans will need to address processing, communication between remote systems and host ships, as well as changes in unmanned vehicle technology.

Research funding has declined over the years, Humes said, but only because most of the new systems are completely developed. The Navy currently spends about $100 million a year on research and development of mine warfare technology.

ABOVE: The remote mine-hunting system was deployed aboard the USS Bainbridge.

BELOW: The remote mine-hunting system searches for underwater mines.

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Copyright National Defense Industrial Association Nov 2007

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