While conventional minehunters have a long and distinguished history, the future of mine warfare undoubtedly belongs to unmanned systems. Drones have gripped the public’s imagination, with the widespread belief that they are capable of anything. But what are the realities at sea? And what are the benefits and risks of using drones in mine warfare?
Drones offer a raft of benefits
An overarching benefit is the sheer flexibility of unmanned systems. The set of autonomous assets selected— Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs), Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs), Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs), and towed sonar—can be tailored exactly to each mission. And deployment is swift: vehicles can be rapidly flown to the operational zone—a marked difference from the days when missions stopped while minehunters steamed steadily to the rescue. Next, the benefits for naval personnel. Unmanned systems mean they’re no longer obliged to work in potentially lethal danger zones and can be freed to focus on decision-making and other high-value tasks. And last, but not least, more discrete missions. As naval operations shift increasingly to coastal waters, smaller, unmanned and underwater vehicles are far more likely to pass undetected.
But the stakes are high
Making the transition to drones is far more complex than simply ordering the equipment and reaping the benefits. The risks of getting it wrong are high. First, drones must be launched and recovered, at the shore or using a mothership, often in challenging conditions—something that requires exacting electronic and mechanical expertise. And highly autonomous assets require a strong degree of systems engineering: groups of vehicles, configured for collaborative autonomy, may have to redefine their own missions: if one experiences a failure—an ever-present risk—the others may have to take over its duties. Classification carries risks too: a drone-based assessment of an area must be completely robust if a commander is to have the confidence to then deploy high-value assets to the zone. Such systems engineering is increasingly deploying Artificial Intelligence, enabling drones to learn and become ever-more autonomous. In addition, vehicles must communicate seamlessly with each other and the command station, as well as being totally cybersecure. An oversight in any of these areas risks a seven-figure cost in lost equipment and the capture of vital data.
Partnership is vital
A partnership approach is vital to a successful transition to drone-based mine warfare. What’s needed is a solid blend of expertise and experience—and a genuine ability to develop a system that meets your specific needs. Expertise needs to be broad: a partner must be capable of assessing the market—possibly worldwide—to assemble the right system architecture and autonomous assets. It needs to be deep too: the ability to robustly engineer a “system of systems”, ensuring your missions succeed and costly assets are kept safe, as well as the ability to embrace the possibilities offered by AI and the digital revolution. And such expertise must be underpinned by solid experience: of mine warfare and its complexities, in developing autonomous systems, and in demonstrating them in real and demanding conditions.