Surface Forces: January 11, 2004


The U.S. Navy, which has long avoided dealing with it's greatest danger; naval mines, believes it has found the answer. Instead of the current system, where a small force of mine clearing ships and helicopters are kept in readiness at a base in the United States, new mine clearing equipment will be on warships at all times. Currently, it can take days or weeks to get mine clearing equipment to ships overseas that need it. In addition, more intense mine clearing, the current two dozen mine hunter ships will eventually be replaced by LCS (Littoral Combat Ships) carrying mine hunting and clearing equipment. 

But the most important innovation is the portable mine hunting gear that any warship can carry and use. One of the these new mine hunting systems, the RMS (Remote Minehunting System) has already been tested, and will join the fleet next year. RMS is a miniature robotic submarine (23 feet long, four feet in diameter) that runs just below the surface, with only a mast (for getting air to the RMS's diesel engine and to hold radio antennas and a video cam that looks out for obstacles on the surface) above the waterline.  The front of the RMS holds a sonar that helps with navigation by looking for underwater obstacles. RMS tows an AQS-20 variable depth (it can change it's depth to get better coverage) sonar. This system maps an area, showing where objects, that might be mines, are. RMS carries enough fuel for 24 hours of operations at a speed of about 20 kilometers an hour. RMS can be set to survey an area and return to the ship that launched it. A controller on the ship can give RMS specific navigation commands, or change earlier ones. In many cases, the RMS survey will show areas free of any suspected mines, and this allows friendly ships to go where they want to go. The AQS-20 is being upgraded to include an underwater camera that will broadcast back to the ship high resolution images of underwater objects. 

But to destroy bottom mines (which sit on the seabed), another system is used. Based on equipment developed in Germany, SeaFox is a small (55x16x8 inches), battery powered sub that has a fiber-optic cable connecting it to a hovering helicopter. There, the controller can move the SeaFox close to a suspected mine (using a small sonar unit to assist navigation), then turn on a spotlight for a video cam to examine the object and determine if it is a mine. If it is, SeaFox gets closer and detonates a shaped charge explosive, sending a shaft of hot plasma through the mine destroying it (and the SeaFox, which is meant to be expendable.) 

For moored (floating just below the surface and kept in place by a cable attached to an anchor) mines, ALMDS (Airborne Laser Mine Detection System) is carried by a helicopter. Using a LIDAR (a laser like detector) to precisely locate a mine just under the water (down to 20-30 feet), a 30mm machine-gun then fires special bullets that go down that far in the water and destroy the mine. SeaFox and ALMDS are also entering service in the next two years. The helicopters carrying SeaFox and ALMDS can be operated off any ship that can handle choppers, although in the future, the LCS will carry it and all the mine hunting equipment. In the next four years, several other new mine hunting systems will be entering service. USV (unmanned seagoing vehicles) are seen as ideal for mine hunting. One is being developed that can be operated from a nuclear submarine. Naval mine technology isn't standing still, though, as new designs are proposed that come equipped with weapons to defend themselves against the new generation of mine hunting gear. But in the next decade, the mine hunters will have an edge they have not had for decades.


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