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Singapore Navy Deploys Unmanned Surface Vessel to Detect Sea Mines

Sea mines are a constant source of concern in naval warfare. They, like their land-based counterparts, provide adversaries with a low-cost means of inflicting potentially disastrous damage. Sea mines have been used in every armed conflict with a naval component for decades. Some self-neutralise after a certain period of time, and many have been cleared. However, all it takes is one to sink a ship. And there are still plenty of live mines in our seas, unseen, unknown, and ready to detonate.

The Singapore Navy is also evaluating the emerging technology in tests and combat-like scenarios. The unmanned surface vessels (USVs) of the Republic of Singapore Navy have proven their ability to neutralise sea mines and are now mission ready. The use of such platforms is expected to result in significant reductions in both human labour and the time required to detect and dispose of sea mines. On January 29, two USVs equipped with an expendable mine disposal (EMD) system controlled remotely from shore successfully neutralised an underwater target off the coast of the Southern Islands.

Senior engineer at the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA), told reporters that the firing exercise was one of the final steps to verify that the USVs could perform well. “It’s a significant milestone validating our engineering effort on executing control of the EMD vehicle wirelessly and safely,” she said.

Due to the validation, USVs used for mine countermeasure (MCM) operations can now identify and neutralise underwater threats, a world-first capability. The use of unmanned systems is the next frontier for maritime operations, according to the commander of the 6th Flotilla, which leads the development of unmanned capabilities for surface and underwater craft.

The deployment “enables navies to conduct operations more effectively with less manpower and at lower cost”, he added in an e-mail interview. It also reduces servicemen’s exposure to threats, such as underwater explosives or improvised explosive devices, he noted.

More than a decade ago, the Singapore navy began experimenting with the deployment of USVs. In 2018, USVs with the EMD systems were introduced, with the ability to detect but not neutralise mines. The EMD system on manned MCM vessels requires a crew of 33, but the USV only requires two – one to control the vessel and the other to operate the EMD system console.

The navy operates two types of MCM USVs – one with the EMD system and the other with sonar equipment, called the towed synthetic aperture sonar system. A third USV variant is used for coastal patrols. These USVs can be operated remotely, either onshore or potentially on another ship.

For MCM missions, a USV equipped with a sonar system is typically used to conduct underwater scans. Once the threat has been identified, another USV equipped with a mine disposal system is activated. The EMD system is lowered into the water to get a better look at the threat and identify and neutralise it.

An operator can launch it from its canister with the press of a button, she added. It takes four people about an hour to deploy the EMD vehicle into the water on a manned MCM vessel – from a storage area to an open deck, and then by crane.

Unlike traditional systems on dedicated mine hunting and sweeping ships, the entire tech solution can be packed into containers and deployed anywhere in the world in a matter of hours. It can also be used in groups and in conjunction with allied forces to clear a path through a minefield faster and safer than ever before.

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