The ability to successfully locate and then destroy enemy mines at sea is an important role and requirement of all modern navies. To enable it to achieve its mine countermeasures functions the Royal Australian Navy has, since 1986-87, commissioned two Bay class fibreglass reinforced plastic catamarans, H.M.A. Ships RUSHCUTTER and SHOALWATER. The two MHCATs both carry a pair of remote controlled mine disposal vehicles, the PAP 104, which are used to identify and then destroy mines by placing an explosive charge next to the offending weapon. Minehunters need to be sufficiently silent in their operations, so as to not activate magnetic or acoustic mines.
History Of Royal Australian Navy’s Minesweepers
Each of the catamaran’s hulls is three metres in width with an additional three metres between the two hulls. Top speed is ten knots with a range of 1200 nautical miles. Power for each vessel is provided by two diesel engines, driving two independent propulsion and steering units.
To provide a supporting force to the purpose-built Bay class catamarans the RAN recently acquired the auxiliary minesweepers (AMSs), BANDICOOT and WALLAROO in August 1990. Built in Singapore as tugs in 1982, the 242 tonne vessels were outfitted as large auxiliary minesweepers to tow influence and mechanical sweeps. Top speed is ten knots with a range of 6300 miles.
Two additional small auxiliary minesweepers, SALVATORE V and KORAAGA, were acquired as part of the Craft of Opportunity Programme (COOP) in February 1988 and February 1989 respectively. Both vessels can tow a magnetic body and acoustic noise makers for influence sweeping, a wire sweep for moored mines and a side scan sonar for surveillance.
New Generation Of Minesweepers Technology Provided By Thales Australia
Driven by the need to organically protect maritime Task Groups from the threat of sea mines, the Royal Australian Navy is embarking on a technological leap through the introduction of a deployable Mine Counter-Measures (MCM) capability under Project SEA 1778.
Under Project 1778 Phase One, Australian Mine Warfare Team 16 (MWT 16) was commissioned to operate a suite of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV), unmanned surface vessels (USV), expendable mine neutralisation systems, and MCM support craft.
The Team is paving the way to the future by introducing into service this new MCM technology, which is revolutionising Navy’s approach to maritime mine warfare.
The first ‘roll out’ of equipment will be the man-portable ‘Bluefin-9’ AUV, which MWT 16 are undergoing pilot training on at Sydney’s Pittwater area.
Commander Mine Warfare, Clearance Diving, Hydrographic, Meteorological, Oceanographic and Patrol Force (COMMHP), Captain Bryan Parker, said the Task Group MCM capability aimed to provide a tactical capability essential to reducing the hazard of mines in the littoral maritime domain for Navy’s deployed Fleet, whilst aiming to minimise the direct exposure of its personnel to dangerous sea mines.
“By its very nature, MCM operations are a time consuming task and conventional Minehunters have a relatively slow speed of advance compared to our other Warships. We are aiming to provide an MCM capability in-stride with, or in some cases ahead of, deploying maritime task groups to effectively speed up the time taken on this important function and enabling maritime manoeuvre,” Captain Parker said.
There’s a global up-swell of interest and enthusiasm in what we’re doing with the use of remote and autonomous systems (with potential for significant embedded Artificial Intelligence) because of the diversity and complexity of sea mine types available, the dangers they pose to our current and future fleet, and the need to ensure the safety our people involved in MCM operations.
“It is intended that the lessons learned from the introduction and use of the Project 1778-1 equipment will help inform development of future ADF MCM capabilities,” he said.
The Commanding Officer of MWT 16, Lieutenant Commander John Sutherland, said Navy’s joint commitment to training with Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG) and industry partners such as the Australian Maritime College, was bolstering the team’s capacity to hit the Initial Operating Capability milestone.
“We’ve been working with partners to upskill our people in the operation of AUV technology and provide them with invaluable underpinning AUV knowledge required to execute activities,” Lieutenant Commander Sutherland said.
“At the present time this involves running a training period to conduct a pilot Thales and General Dynamics Bluefin-9 AUV equipment application course, and to work with DSTG to operate their Teledyne Gavia AUV,” he said.
Lieutenant Commander Sutherland said the new autonomous and unmanned technologies will allow Navy to search for, classify, identify and dispose of sea mines more safely and efficiently and limit the danger factor presented when personnel are directly involving in mine removal and destruction.
“There’s a lot of training, testing and trialling involved, but we’re all aware of the significance of this new generation of technology, the team are making an important contribution to Navy’s leading edge capability and mission to fight and win at sea,” Lieutenant Commander Sutherland said.
MWT 16 will officially commence receiving their new technology suite later this year which will include four Bluefin-9 AUVs, three Bluefin-12 AUVs, two Unmanned Surface Vessels for remote influence minesweeping, three MCM Support Boats, and the Seafox Expendable Mine Neutralisation System.
The need for leading edge sea mine countermeasure technology is a stark reality for Australia as a maritime nation, which is heavily reliant on sea trade.
According to the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communication, 99 percent of Australia’s exports are via sea trade.
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