Ana Carolina de Oliveira Assis
The Royal Navy, which is one of the main international protagonists in naval mine countermeasures, announced on July 13th 2021 a pioneering news for its naval force: the crew of HMS Shoreham became the first to migrate to the new autonomous minehunters. The concern about the activity of detecting and destroying mines in conjunction with attention to the safety of his crew led to the deployment of a state-of-the-art technological system still used by few navies around the world: The autonomous minehunters - see Figure 1(UNITED KINGDOM, 2021b).
Figure 1- Autonomous Minehunter
Source: (UNITED KINGDOM, 2021a, p.1).
First of all, for the reader who is not an expert in this type of equipment, it is necessary to clarify in advance what naval mines are. This artifact is an armament installed in water for the purpose of limiting freedom of navigation and/or destroying surface ships or submarines. The conception and initial use of this technology dates back to the Civil War in the United States of America (USA), however, it became more popular internationally with the First and Second World Wars. As an example of the abundance in the use of this artifact, according to the U.S. historical archive, during World War II, more than 12,000 naval mines were deployed in the communication routes and ports of Japan, which led to the destruction of approximately 650 Japanese vessels, harming their maritime transportation and consequently, the country's economy (UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, 2020).
Within the broad classification of naval mines, there are different sub-classifications that distinguish the types of devices used. These differentiations are related to: the way mines are positioned in the water; the manner in which they are deployed; their form of detonation; among others. For the purpose of clarifying these classifications, see Figure 2 with some types of naval mines, emphasizing that this categorization is not final and with the advancement of new technologies, new types of artifacts are being created (UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, 2020).
Figure 2 – Naval Mines Types
Source: Elaborated by the author based on information obtained in United States of America, 2020.
Even with the creation of new technologies, what remains constant is the fact that naval mines are a major challenge and threat to navies around the world, whether to warships or to merchant ships. Since they are cheap, destructive and easy to be employed, the number of low-tech as well as high-tech naval mines may increase over time. All these factors together have attracted the attention of countries such as the United Kingdom and France, whose governments launched in 2015 a Maritime Mine Countermeasures programme (MMCM) with the aim of operating sophisticated systems in a few years, such as Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs), Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) loaded with SAMDIS sonar and Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) (THALES, 2019a; 2019b).
In United Kingdom case, Defence Secretary Bem Wallace announced the investment of £184 million in the MMCM programme. This project encompasses three types of equipment: Autonomous Vessels (vessels operated from a base or mother ship), Towed Sonar (sonars built into the vessel to locate artifacts) and Mine Neutralisation System (system comprising a remotely operated underwater vehicle to neutralise the naval mine) (UNITED KINGDOM, 2020). For visual details see Figure 3.
Figure 3 - Royal Navy Autonomous Minesweeper System
Source: (UNITED KINGDOM, 2018, p.1).
The £13 million investment planned for the contract with Atlas Elektronik shown in the image covers the ATLAS Remote Combined Influence Minesweeping System (ARCIMS), which is responsible for detecting naval vessels and mines. This system has a platform of 11 metres, can reach a maximum speed of 40 knots (74 km/h) and has a payload capacity of four tonnes (ATLAS ELETRONIK, 2018). Regarding function against mines, according to former UK Defence Procurement Minister Guto Bebb (2018):
“This autonomous minesweeper takes us a step closer to taking our crews out of danger and allowing us to safely clear sea lanes of explosives, whether that’s supporting trade in global waters and around the British coastline, or protecting our ships and shores. We are investing millions in innovative technology now, to support our military of the future.” (ATLAS ELETRONIK, 2018, p. 4).
In this way, autonomous naval minehunters, in addition to not necessarily requiring operators (because there is the possibility of operating with a crew on board), can be deployed and operated by a small team in a short period of time even in complex naval mines scenarios. Thus, they assist in maritime security both for military purposes and also for the defence of important maritime lines of communication, which are vital for international trade (ATLAS ELETRONIK, 2018).
Given the advantages of this new technology, it is expected that in the future other navies will employ the system to carry out mines countermeasures. Currently, autonomous vessels technology is already being built, acquired and/or coveted by several countries (such as USA, Japan, United Kingdom, China and Israel). These technologies include Remotely Operated Submarine Vehicles, Unmanned Surface Vehicles, among others. In the Brazilian case, the company Holos Brasil has already developed an autonomous electric boat (called C-400). This vessel besides not needing a crew still has photovoltaic panels that enable its applicability with solar energy, can be used both for civilian and military use - demonstrated through the interest for this technology by the Brazilian Navy and Petrobras (SILVA, 2020).
Beyond the security advantages listed above, there is also the issue that autonomous vessels can reduce the cost of operations and maintenance, increase cargo capacity (since the vessels would be lighter without crew members), reduce the chances of human error with the use of Artificial Intelligence and also contribute to the environment, since there is the possibility of using alternative energy sources to fossil fuel. However, as disadvantages, the use of autonomous systems can still be very expensive for the navies, as well as can be the target of cyber attacks (in addition to conventional kinetic attacks), which opens space for new discussions and improvements in these projects.
ATLAS ELEKTRONIK. Autonomous Minesweeping Capability. 2018. Available at: https://www.atlas-elektronik.com/solutions/mine-warfare-systems/arcims.html. Accessed on: 18 july 2021.
SILVA, Silvio Cesar Couto da. O Emprego de Meios de Superfície não Tripulados. Revista Passadiço, Niterói, n. 40, p. 50-55, 2020.
THALES. Meeting Navies' Needs for Next-Generation Mine Warfare. 2019a. Available at: https://www.thalesgroup.com/en/group/innovation/magazine/meeting-navies-needs-next-generation-mine-warfare. Accessed on: 15 july 2021.
THALES. The Maritime Mine Countermeasures Programme: the french and british navies blaze the trail towards a global first with their revolutionary autonomous system. 2019b. Available at: https://www.thalesgroup.com/en/worldwide-defence/naval-forces/magazine/maritime-mine-countermeasures-programme-french-and-british. Accessed on: 16 july 2021.
UNITED KINGDOM. Ministry of Defence. Royal Navy gets first unmanned minesweeping system. 2018. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/royal-navy-gets-first-unmanned-minesweeping-system. Accessed on: 18 july 2021.
UNITED KINGDOM. Ministry of Defence. Autonomous Minehunting Systems: protecting sailors on the frontline. protecting sailors on the frontline. 2020. Available at: https://medium.com/voices-of-the-armed-forces/autonomous-minehunting-systems-protecting-sailors-on-the-frontline-276df95cf81f. Accessed on: 17 july 2021.
UNITED KINGDOM. Royal Navy. Royal Navy to receive world-class autonomous minesweepers. 2021a. Available at: https://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/news-and-latest-activity/news/2021/january/29/210129-autonomous-minesweeper. Accessed on: 15 july 2021.
UNITED KINGDOM. Royal Navy. HMS Shoreham’s crew become first to convert to new autonomous minehunters. 2021b. Available at: https://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/news-and-latest-activity/news/2021/july/13/20210713-shoreham-autonomous. Accessed on: 15 july 2021.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC). Naval Mine Warfare. 2020. Available at: https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/exploration-and-innovation/naval-mine-warfare.html. Accessed on: 14 july 2021.
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