DUBAI - Sea drones are increasingly being thrust into the frontline of mine warfare in the Arabian Gulf by the US Navy 5th Fleet to keep regional waters safe. This could mark a shift from conventional minesweeping ships and choppers and could bring down dependence on navy sailors in the dangerous task of tracking and neutralising hidden underwater ordnance in one of the most strategic waterways in the world through which 40 per cent of the world’s oil transits.
Earlier this year, four mineweeping ships were deployed by the US 5th Fleet following threats by Iran to close the Strait of Hormuz if attacked over its nuclear programme. The US Navy has indicated that two of those ships could return to their home ports and more Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UVVs) with their sophisticated systems could be deployed for effective minesweeping operations.
The latest mine tracking vehicle is the Kingfish Mark 2 version, which was highly successful in recent exercises. The 5ft Fleet did not say how many vehicles are in operation, but more are expected to be inducted by February next year.
“The ability to sweep and clear mines is done with a mix of capable systems and platforms. We will ensure that we maintain the best array of mine countermeasures platforms and technology here in the region,” Lieutenant Greg Raelson of the 5ft Fleet based in Bahrain told Khaleej Times, without going into the specifics of the deployment. Technological advancements to sea drones are ongoing and the Kingfish Mark 18 Model 2 is an upgrade of the first model and was tested during the recent mine countermeasures drills in the region and came up trumps.
It is about 12-feet and resembles a torpedo. Guided by GPS, it also has a WiFi connection and can operate in the shallow waters of the Gulf and search a wide area and map them. There are three Kingfish vehicles in each system.
The system can be operated from a rigid-hull inflatable boat, giving naval forces more mobility and speed to locate and detonate mines. Lt Raelson said the system uses sonar to search the water column. “The area being searched will determine the time it takes to complete the search. Mk 18 Mod 2 (Kingfish) and an Averger Class Mine Countermeasure ship are completely different platforms that each offer distinct mine countermeasures capability.
You must remember, the ability to sweep and clear mines is done with a mix of capable systems and platforms.”According to reports, the Kingfish UUV has been deployed in the Arabian Gulf since July. It is an upgraded version of the Model 1 Swordfish UUV and is manufactured by Hydroid.
Another new deployment is the SeaFox mine disposal system. While Kingfish helps to detect mines, the SeaFox drone is sent out to put them out of action. They are being used on ships and MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters in the Gulf.
When asked if underwater mines still posed a threat in the region, Lt. Raelson said: “The international implications are obvious; the need to collectively prepare for that risk is clear as is the need to use a variety of tactical systems and technology to hunt, sweep, and neutralise mines to clear an area.”
He said the consequences of hostile mining include disruption of vital sea lanes and casualties to maritime vessels and crews. Mines would impair freedom of navigation in strategic waterways with significant economic impact that could threaten security in the region and beyond, he said.