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They can be tethered to the ocean floor to explode on impact, linger just beneath the surface, buried beneath the bottom of the ocean and set to detonate by undersea soundwaves. Mines are as ubiquitous as they are dangerous, and often cheap for adversaries to acquire, yet they are also increasingly sophisticated and proliferating at a concerning rate.
While mines can of course cause casualties, destroy ships and present real “kinetic” threats, they are also used to simply “deny” access to a sensitive area or make the price of entry simply too high for manned vessels to operate. Therefore, it may seem almost too obvious to mention the growing importance of drones, sensors and unmanned boats when it comes to finding and exploding or neutralizing enemy mines.
AI-enabled, High-Tech Multi-Domain Mine Countermeasures
It is no surprise that the US Navy is fast-tracking a growing suite of AI-enabled, high-tech multi-domain mine countermeasures to include laser sensors scanning the top portions of the water column, small semi-autonomous mine-hunting drones such as Raytheon’s Barracuda or side-scanning AQS-20 towed synthetic aperture sonar lowered beneath highly maneuverable groups unmanned boats sending data to a manned host ship.
The Navy’s Program Manager for Unmanned Combat Vehicles Capt. Pete Small explained the importance of these kinds of synergies while updating programs at the 2022 Surface Navy Association symposium. Small talked about the value of integrating laser-mine detection with surface and undersea technologies to optimize mine hunting and neutralization.
“Laser mine detection systems have a capability to coordinate a surface, and the AQS 20 has volume. We're demonstrating a tactic to determine the overlap that we could achieve, so that we can make sure we don't have any gaps in mine hunting coverage,” Small said.
Perhaps of greatest significance, these kinds of countermeasures and technologies are increasingly networked to one another for the specific purpose of sharing time-sensitive threat data across an interconnected web of nodes to enable a high-speed, multi-domain countermine effort.
Small talked about the significance of this kind of networking through the lens of recent progress wherein multiple surface drones, mine-hunting technologies and command and control systems were networked to one another in Panama City, Fla.
“We did an experiment showing two USVs in an unmanned suite configuration…with another one in a mine hunt configuration…both out in Panama City. We had no problems with bandwidth and an ability to command and control those craft,” Small said. “One of the key capabilities that we're seeking to demonstrate is the ability to do multiple vehicles at the same time. And we hadn't done it previously.”
Raytheon’s AQS 20 Towed Sonar & Undersea Barracuda Mine-Destroying Drone
As an example of what Small referred to, the Navy has in recent years been working with a number of industry partners to develop and refine interconnected mine-hunting and neutralization technologies such as Raytheon’s AQS 20 towed sonar and undersea Barracuda mine-destroying drone.
When networked together, manned boats performing command and control can observe and benefit from a semi-autonomous mine detection and destruction progress wherein a lowered sonar system such as the AN/AQS-20C can work in tandem with the Barracuda to find, identify and wirelessly detonate otherwise touch to counter mine threats.
“Its processors are faster…..so it's an improvement to the system and an upgrade for the US Navy. We’ll start delivering these probably by 2023 or early 2024,” Frank Linkous, Raytheon, told Warrior in an interview.
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Linkhous explained that the upgraded AQS-20 will integrate onto a Textron Unmanned Surface Vessel to optimize the improved detection system. Faster processing can of course greatly expedite the PED process, involving Processing, Exploiting and Disseminating data. The faster a mine can be accurately identified with advanced detection algorithms and fast processing speeds, the more efficiently and safely it can be destroyed or avoided.
In operational terms, Small explained that a “computing environment” and multi-vehicle communication suite will allow you to command and control the sonar and the neutralizer.
The AQS-20 is a submersible cylinder-like system with four built-in sonars to find mines from the “sea-floor to the near surface in a single pass,” Raytheon data explains. It operates with side-scanning synthetic aperture sonars, a “wide-band” forward-looking sonar and a “digital gap” filler sonoar to surveill mines underneath. Using acoustic ID technology, the AQS-20 generates a high-resolution “rendering” or “image” of a threat object using advanced automatic target recognition.
The initial solicitation for the Barracuda Mine Neutralization System – from several years ago, describes it as “a modular, low-cost, semi-autonomous, expendable neutralizer conforming to the A-size sonobuoy form factor.”Navy documents further specify that Barracuda will use wireless communications, therefore allowing for a “tetherless” operation for the MCM USV. Military & Aerospace Electronics describes mine neutralizers as mini underwater drones armed with explosives which travel to an identified underwater mine – and then explode.
Barracuda will first be deployed from an LCS before potentially migrating to other surface or airborne platforms, Navy statements indicated.
Current Navy efforts, such as those described by Small and being pursued by Raytheon, seem to indicate a manifestation or execution of long sought-after goals identified by the Navy years ago. Leading Navy thinkers were indeed well aware of the mine challenge years ago and seemed to recognize it would likely increase. The essay from the Naval Post Graduate School in 2017, called “A ROADMAP OF THE FUTURE OF MINE COUNTERMEASURES,” articulates what it says are five key technology areas the Navy will need to advance to stay in front of the growing mine threat.
Interestingly the areas identified in the essay align very closely with the Navy and Raytheon efforts. Among the objectives cited in the essay is a clear emphasis upon improving the “number of autonomous systems working in a team,” essentially anticipating or calling for exactly what Small described.
The paper also calls for increased “sensor range and resolution, automatic target recognition and acoustic communications bandwidth,” all things entirely consistent with the aims of AQS-20 and Barracuda. Sure enough, the NPS study specifically anticipates that “improvements to sensor range and resolution can be achieved by utilizing synthetic aperture sonar,” which is exactly what the AQS-20 does.
These kinds of synergies represent the evolution of key innovations sought after by the services and industry to anticipate future threats. Often times, industry partners such as Raytheon will invest internal funds in an effort to meet, align with or anticipate Navy requirements according to emerging threats. “Side scan sonar, multibeam side scan sonar (MBSS), and SAS data was reviewed.
The data was used to develop exponential trend lines for both range and resolution. This yielded a resolution of 2.2 mm at a range of 100 meters in the year 2040,” the Naval PostGraduate School study writes. By referring to the ability of maturing technologies to reduce what it describes as the “detect-to-engage” timeline, the study seems to anticipate the decidedly modern push to massively truncate sensor-to-shooter time when it comes to mine neutralization, something a networked Barracuda and AQS-20 are specifically engineered to accomplish.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven - the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.