The US Navy needs to get better at hunting sea mines. The Royal Navy needs to get better at robots. So the two fleets are joining forces off Scotland in what the Brits are calling “the largest demonstration of its type, ever,” Unmanned Warrior 2016, with “more than 50 unmanned vehicles from over 40 organizations.” The US Office of Naval Research is a major partner in Unmanned Warrior, contributing ten different technologies for testing, from mini-subs to laser drones.
A major (albeit not exclusive) focus for the exercise is mine warfare. As Breaking D readers know, the US Navy has long neglected the unglamorous and grueling work of minesweeping, relying heavily on allies like the UK. Today the U.S. has just 13 operational minesweepers (the Avenger class), for example, while relatively tiny Britain has 15 (seven Sanddowns and eight Hunts). But the US got a loud wakeup call in 2012, when Iran started threatening to mine the Strait of Hormuz. The US Navy responded by hurriedly mobilizing experimental minesweeping systems, many of them robotic (and many originally slated for the troubled Littoral Combat Ship). While robots remain too inflexible for fast-paced combat, they’re ideal for missions that are “dull, dirty, and dangerous,” and mine clearing can be all three.
The 10 systems the Office of Naval Research sent to Unmanned Warrior include seven directly related to mine warfare:
- Mine warfare platoons, the current gold standard in Navy mine warfare, operate Mark 18 unmanned mini-subs off rigid-hulled inflatable boats.
- Rapid Environmental Assessment sends unmanned underwater vehicles to survey the sea floor and underwater environment, creating the kind of detailed picture particularly useful to mine hunters.
- Slocum Gliders are long-range underwater drones that can spend months mapping the underwater world.
- Seahunter is a small unmanned aircraft carrying a lightweight laser sensor (LIDAR) to map shallow waters where traditional sonar struggles.
- MCM C2 (Mine Counter-Measures Command & Control) combines multiple robotic systems: Unmanned mini-subs transmit data back to an unmanned mini-helicopter, which in turn relays reports to and orders from a manned ship at a safe distance. An unmanned boat acts as the mini-copter’s floating base.
- The ongoing Hell Bay trials continue in Unmanned Warrior, this time focusing on coordinated operations among allied drones — including a kind of underwater traffic control — and by multiple unmanned vehicles acting as an autonomous unit.
Unmanned Warrior, which is happening for the first time this year, is part of the much larger and long-established Joint Warrior exercise involving all three UK services and their NATO allies. As Russia becomes more bellicose, such large-scale wargames are increasingly important, both as practical preparation for the worst case and deterrent signaling to prevent it.