With Piotr Sikora about minehunters of new generation, autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and remotely-controlled platforms operating on sea surface talks Łukasz Zalesiński.
Let’s imagine: a minehunter, while relocating on the sea, encounters a mine-row. Mine-clearing operation is launched. The seamen from beginning to end remain within safe distance. Modern machines are sufficient to conduct such a complex process of mine neutralization. Is it a dream or a near future?
Definitely the latter. Actually, autonomous underwater vehicles already make it possible to conduct such operation, although we’re still at the beginning of this long road. In the Navy Inspectorate of the Armed Forces General Command, we’re working on the concept of the development of the anti-mine forces for the Polish Navy. We invited to cooperation experts from various MoND institutions, as well as specialists from flotillas and divisions. We assume that we will be developing our capabilities within three projects. First, the state-of-the-art Kormoran minehunter. We have one prototype ship of this class in active service, and two another ones are being built. However, we would like more of these ships in the future for the Polish Navy, so they could be stationed both on eastern and western coast of the Baltic Sea. Second, there is also a project on the already mentioned autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). We have two very good systems – of Hugin and Gavia class. We’re just in the process of procurement of more such vehicles. Third is the project on unmanned surface vessels (USVs)…
…which we still don’t have.
Correct. We’ve been working on the concept within the so-called operational requirement designated “Kijanka.” Poland is no exception here. Almost all NATO states which have anti-mine forces, are thinking about similar systems. At the moment, the surface platforms for countermining are owned only by Denmark, and still these are machines of older generation. Onboard operators of the vessels of Thetis-class operate them. We cooperate with our allies within the EU’s PESCO. We have meetings, we share our experience, and we apply our joint ideas in Poland. In the future, the USVs will most probably play extremely crucial role, if it comes to capabilities of mine warfare conduct. Provided that, of course, they will prove their worth and reach their operational readability.
How will their operate?
We’re talking about the over-a-dozen-meter long unmanned and remotely controlled vessels which will operate in the coastal zone. They will be going to sea from the port to which they will be earlier transported. They will be operated by operators seated in special, located on the coast containers, which, if need arises, can be relocated from one place to another. It’s about ensuring a maximum mobility of the system. Kormorans will be adjusted to handle such vehicles. Obviously, the platforms of this class, differently than underwater vehicles, cannot operate secretly. However, one of their values is speed, in a very broad aspect. First, they are to relocate much faster than underwater vehicles, faster even than submarines. Second, we assume that while searching through the sea bottom and classifying underwater objects, they will be transmitting the image to operator in real time. As a comparison, such vehicle as Gavia records the image of the sea floor, and then returns to a ship or shore where the data is analyzed. Here, the operator can in much shorter time make a decision about launching the procedure of destroying enemy mines. Mine neutralization itself will also be conducted by an USV. For now, we’re analyzing different ideas, discussing advantages as well as weaknesses of specific solutions.
The Dutch and the Belgian, for example, are going to link remotely-controlled surface platforms for mine search, classification and countering with a guard ship, off which these platforms would be launched down to sea. Such guard ship would also serve as an operating spot for the platform operators. Such solution would obviously increase the system’s mobility, we should however still keep in mind that such ships are not adjusted to mine countermeasure. Their hulls are made of steel, and although they have reduced physical fields, still not as much reduced as those of anti-mine units. For that reason, there’s much greater risk they will ignite a mine fuze. Other issue is that while scanning the sea bottom, surface platforms will transfer in real time enormous masses of data to command posts to be handled by both, the system and the human. Which means that one operator may not be enough to analyze all of these data. A team of experts will have to be employed. Another issue: limitations related with platforms’ size. Small maritime units will probably have a hard time when they try to do their tasks when the sea state exceeds three degrees on a ten-degree Douglas Sea Scale. Both on the Baltic Sea as well as on the North Sea, such situations are not that rare. On top of that, there are also issues related to defense against enemy attack. It’s hard to imagine that these platforms are heavily armed. They will however operate within a coastal zone, to some extent they will be protected by either coast systems or other ships.
Many such issues are still waiting to be solved. Generally speaking, if it comes to mine warfare, the future belongs to unmanned platforms. Not only to platforms…
Let’s take a closer look at what we actually already have of this kind. Are we counting on our Gavias?
Definitely. Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) are another extremely important element of this puzzle. These vehicles also are part of the change in mine warfare conduct. Gavia was developed in Island. It’s over two meters long, 40-cm in diameter and has functions of a towed sonar. Gavia follows the route designed by its operator. Gavia’s images are of very high resolution, which significantly makes it easier to classify underwater objects. The vehicle can go even 200 meters down, and within the area as wide as 120 meters. The Polish Navy has been using two of such AUVs since the end of 2013. They were allocated to the 12th and 13th Minesweeper Divisions, and proved excellently in service. In the spring of 2015, during Operation Open Spirit at the coast of Estonia, the team of ORP Mewa with the help of Gavia put to sea off the ship’s board managed to detect and classify as many as 111 mines dating back to WWII. It took them barely 11 days. Our minesweeper turned out to be the most effective ship in the history of the SNMCMG1 [Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group One]. Now, we’re going further. First, we have modernized our Gavias…
What exactly has been done?
The vehicles have been complemented with a Blue-View 2250 module. It’s called a “gap-filler,” since it scans the seat bottom directly under the Gavia’s hull. Before, our vehicles didn’t have such capability, and we had to overlay images to find a gap in a sonar image. In other words, Gavia had to go over the omitted area in order to place itself within the range of the vehicle’s side-scan sonars. The new batteries make Gavia work longer – not three and a half hours, but as long as seven hours.
Two Gavias are actually not many...
Soon, surely our anti-mine forces will get new ones. It’s highly probable that such vehicles will enter the arsenal of two new Kormoran ships. The procurement procedures are ongoing. That’s not all. Our seamen will also have at their disposal the AUV of a different class: Hugin 1000MR, which is used by the team of ORP Kormoran. Other Hugins will probably go to serial Project 258 minehunter.
What’s the difference between Hugin and Gavia?
First of all, Hugin is larger. It can go down lower, work longer and scan largest area at one time. It has different devices, such as synthetic aperture sonars (SAS). To be brief, SAS works slightly differently than classic sonars. Obviously, they could also be installed on Gavia, but we didn’t want that. What we wanted was a mixture of various systems at our disposal.
Searching for mines is a complicated process. It often happens that a given water area, which had been searched through with the use of one type of sonar and marked green on the map as clean, when scanned again after several years, but with the use of different devices, turns out to be full of mines. The sea floor is working all the time, the lay of the sea bottom is changing, uncovering its secrets. It’s also about the use of different scanning methods. I don’t suggest that one is better than the other, but that it’s simply different and in certain situations can prove more effective. That’s why, when during Operation Open Spirit, the Lithuanian, Latvian or Estonian waters has been scanned by a Belgian vessel, it’s worth to send there, after some time, a vessel from Germany – all because it has a different equipment.
The Kormoran minehunters are an extremely important element of this puzzle. So far, we have only one in active service, but it is said to be one of the best vessels of this type in NATO. What’s so special about Kormoran?
This ship has many advantages: hull made from non-magnetic (austenitic) steel, silent powerplant, great maneuver capability. For me, the most important is that the ship has state-of-the-art sensors and effectors, except from the bow gun. The underwater vehicles allow not only for the mine search and identification, but also for their remote destroying. That’s the way the world’s going. We should keep in mind that ORP Kormoran is a prototype. The serial ships of Project 258 should be even better. We draw conclusions from qualification tests, we learn from exploitation and military experience, we look for optimum solutions. Surely, the next Kormorans will be equipped differently. It’s too early for details now.
Polish Navy is – roughly speaking – not in its greatest condition. The anti-mine forces however positively excel here. Is there any chance they get to NATO’s top?
When the next Kormorans enter service, the Polish Navy will surely gain a lot. Most of NATO states, who have anti-mine forces, in the nearest years will be introducing new vessels to service, including unmanned platforms. Such is the plan of the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Norway or Italy. We already have a new-generation ship. Plus, we have a team of experienced people, who learned a great deal during their service in NATO groups of SNMCMG1 and SNMCMG2. That’s a great capital we have. If we manage to implement the concept we’re currently working on, the Polish anti-mine forces should find its way to the NATO’s top.
Capt (N) Piotr Sikora is a Chief of the Naval Warfare Systems Division at the Navy Inspectorate of the Armed Forces General Command.
autor zdjęć: Marian Kluczyński