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UUVs as Potential Mine Warfare Solution
Recent advancements in autonomous technologies have validated the feasibility of using UUVs to support naval operations. With the ability to enter challenging environments and perform dangerous tasks, unmanned systems are rapidly becoming serious contenders for future maritime defense solutions.
One area of interest is mine warfare. Hunting, sweeping and disposing of ordnance to allow safe passage of vessels has long been conducted using dedicated platforms, but this is costly and puts humans in the direct vicinity of mines. The most dangerous tasks, i.e., mine removal, are left to unprotected divers. Using UUVs would allow a ship and its crew to remain at a safe distance from the minefield while retaining full operational command and control. This would significantly change the way operations are conducted. While present operations already require the fusion of information from numerous sources to understand and mitigate the mine threat, future operations would add the command responsibility to ensure safe and secure operation of UUVs at significant ranges from a ship.
The key to this would be sufficient situational awareness to ensure operational effect within legal, safety and security frameworks. At least for the foreseeable future, the maritime regulations associated with the safe operations of UUVs would require a human for many key decisions. Providing the user or command team with enough information would require collating information from not only UUVs but also ship-based sensors; intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance assets; and local maritime data.
Combat-system enhancements are needed, including the ability to perform pre- and in-mission planning for the tasking and retasking of offboard assets. Integrating data from UUVs would require communication architectures for real-time information transfer from remotely located vehicles under- and above water. There are already several candidate communications technologies of sufficient maturity that could deliver the required links, e.g., radio frequency for line-of-sight communications above-water and underwater acoustic communications. In the case of the latter, encryption, low bandwidth and operational range are the existing technical issues. Several technologies of lower maturity could develop in the timescales of these naval programs, such as laser and electrostatic mediums for underwater communications, whose present ranges are typically below acoustic and unsecure.
Mission data from UUVs would need to be fused in the wider tactical picture to support threat identification and mitigation decisions. Post-mission assessment of the residual risk of the static underwater threat to task groups or civilian vessels would rely on the accuracy and fidelity of the systems' sensors, while in-mission, local situational awareness data would help identify operational risks to UUVs.
Essential technologies require maturation in the near term. More automated data processing and interpretation would minimize manual processing of large sets of raw sensor information. Data interpolation and cross-verification techniques must be developed to manage gapped data sets and improve target recognition. Sensors must be created to collect information in environments with high clutter and poor water visibility. Acoustic and nonacoustic sensors, including electro-optical/infrared and lidar, must collate information about contacts in the area with acoustic sensors for bathymetry profiling. Environmental sensors such as water profilers may also be required to collect information for sensor and vehicle performance prediction. Vehicle technologies for survivability in hostile and constrained conditions would also be essential.
Successful implementation of the above would enable UUVs to minimize the risk to crew and enhance mine warfare capability. Significant development in offboard technologies over the past few years, driven by the offshore oil and gas industry, e.g., to enable standoff at significant range, remain unproven and will need to mature in the next five to 10 years to fulfill this vision.