A vision for maintenance—a critical factor in long-term mission readiness
As mines proliferate, leading navies are embracing next-generation mine countermeasures (MCM). These comprise toolboxes of high-tech, unmanned vehicles—often operated from a mothership. Such a “system of systems” represents genuinely uncharted territory, where no record of operational experience exists. Given the design challenges involved, it may be tempting to leave maintenance issues for the future—but this would be a fundamental error. An MCM mothership may have a design life of decades; long by today’s standards, even for highly engineered assets. This, compounded with the fact that drone technology is advancing at pace, means that the mothership and toolbox may need to be upgraded several times over the system’s lifetime. As a result, whole-life maintenance is a paramount consideration—something that demands a clear and dedicated vision. Mission success is as critical in the last year of operation as the first, and a failure to guarantee it could put lives and valuable assets at risk.
Trust and partnership: the building blocks of successful through-life maintenance
But this vision can’t be developed in isolation. While navies operate maintenance management teams, most work is outsourced. The maintenance provider plays a key role: that of a trusted partner, able to jointly develop and share a long-term vision for maintenance with the naval client. In turn, navies must have a high level of confidence in the provider, enabling IT systems to be shared and maintenance to be jointly planned. The quality and availability of the maintenance provider’s management are what count here, as well as a strong local presence. Senior staff must be able to form a core team with their naval counterparts, guarantee the right technical expertise (often in new or highly-specialised areas), and ensure sufficient resources and facilities to be able to work around unplanned missions or offer rapid repairs—all while providing value for money.
Why a maintenance mindset is essential from the start
This role of trusted partner is especially significant in next-generation MCM. With a greater emphasis on upgrades, the system must be designed with this in mind—right from the start. Suppliers must be selected not only for the quality of their equipment, but also their readiness to share how it functions, and therefore facilitate maintenance. They must also be carefully assessed for their ability to deliver retrofits and upgrades as well as offer dedicated training on new equipment. Here, the advice of an expert and experienced maintenance provider is essential at the early stages of design: making poor supplier choices could lead to vital components being installed as “black boxes”; their failure resulting in a tortuous process of repair; and, ultimately, a lack of mission readiness—with all its associated costs.
Ongoing training: the enabler of effective maintenance in unmanned MW
Training, then, is a central concern both for naval and maintenance staff in the new world of unmanned MCM. The template for success is identical to that for maintenance: proximity, close working, and a jointly-defined plan implemented at an early stage. Training should begin before system commissioning and continue seamlessly after, with experts spending time at sea to ensure naval personnel can rapidly develop competence. With this in place, it must continue over the system’s life, through a mix of channels including classroom, hands-on, video, and simulator-based platforms.