The Knifefish unmanned underwater vehicle that will be added to the Littoral Combat Ship's mine countermeasures mission package in 2017 has entered into the engineering and manufacturing development phase after completing a critical design review in January that included significant risk-reduction measures, the program manager said last week.
The Navy and the Knifefish contracting team put it through extensive component and subsystem testing leading up to and as part of the CDR to reduce risk in key pieces of technology, such as the propulsion system in the tail cone and the Low Frequency Broadband synthetic aperture sonar, Capt. Duane Ashton, unmanned maritime systems program manager in the program executive office for LCS, told Inside the Navy in a March 13 interview. "It's all part of trying to identify risk areas and then coming up with strategies and potential testing to mitigate that risk to ensure success in the end," he said.
The Knifefish will hunt for buried mines and mines in a high-clutter environment using the Low Frequency Broadband synthetic aperture sonar, which provides improved probability of detection, classification and identification compared to older sonars, as well as a lower rate of false alarms. Knifefish would launch from the LCS, search for and map mines and then return to the ship with its data, keeping sailors out of the minefield.
The sonar system in particular required more attention and additional testing because, aside from being pivotal to the UUV's mission, it was a prototype developed by the Office of Naval Research and the Naval Research Laboratory. Ashton said the research and development community has been working on the technology for about a decade now, but the assurance of having a little extra testing under their belts made a big difference when examining the vehicle's overall risk -- particularly for such a leap-ahead technology, which replaces, among other things, mine-detecting mammals.
"As we move forward out of the preliminary design review, this is one area we want to make sure we get right," Ashton said. "So everything that we learn now gives us an opportunity prior to putting the full system together as part of that engineering development model in 2014, so we're actually ahead of the game if you think about it." He said there were no real surprises during the component and subsystem testing, which included tests on propulsion and steering, sonar receivers and transmitters, the lithium ion battery, and the data conversion and storage system.
The program is beginning to order long-lead items, and by fiscal year 2014 prime contractor General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems will have constructed three Knifefish UUVs and accompanying equipment for support, storage and operations.
Formal testing and low-rate initial production of four more systems is set for 2014 through 2017, at which point the LCS mine countermeasures mission package Increment 4 -- with Knifefish as its centerpiece -- would reach initial operational capability and would be delivered to the fleet.
Between now and then, Ashton said that he, along with the mission modules and seaframe program offices in PEO LCS, would continue to work on the concept of operations and employment for Knifefish and the MCM mission package. The UUV's capabilities development document has already been completed and that PEO LCS was now digging into some complex issues such as launch and recovery, which affects all the unmanned vehicles for the mission package.
Ashton said both variants of the LCS seaframe had separate vehicle launch and recovery systems that would have to operate with several unmanned underwater and surface vehicles. "How do we go about doing launch and recovery that minimizes the cost to the mission module, minimizes cost to the seaframe, but allows us to be able to move forward?" Ashton said. "So that concept of employment is a critical part."
Those issues will all be open for discussion until the Increment 4 mission package reached initial operational test and evaluation in several years, he said, adding that he hoped to get Knifefish out to sea and into the hands of sailors before the final CONOPS is written.
"Whatever we do and learn there helps us continue to develop and tweak" how to operate the Knifefish, he said. "The thing that amazes me the most is when we get these systems into the hands of the warfighter, they think about how to employ these things in much more dramatic and robust terms than us guys sitting at our desks can think about, so that's kind of fun."