At the dawn of the third millennium, the regional and world geopolitical scenario is characterized by ever greater tensions that could determine situations of instability and danger for maritime communication routes with great impacts on national strategic interests.
The naval mine, an ancient threat
Among the threats to free maritime transit that posed by naval mines has distant roots in time and has always been differentiated from the others by its asymmetrical component which combines physical damage with a strong psychological impact so that the mere fact that one has knowledge of their possible presence can cause the blocking of sensitive areas for merchant traffic, causing greater economic damage than physical damage.
In the collective imagination, naval mines are represented by spheres with protuberances which, when in contact with enemy hulls, caused their detonation. In reality this type of naval mines, called moored as they are generally anchored to the bottom, are only a part of the existing inventory. Although they are antiquated systems, they have proved to still have their validity if adapted to the modern world. The reason for their "success" lies in the very low cost and simplicity of construction. Their last known use is in Yemeni waters where the Houthis used them against Saudi naval units.
Another highly insidious type of mines are bottom mines, which can be placed by naval, aircraft or submarine units on the sea floor. This type of mine also dates back to the XNUMXth century but they have enjoyed an update of the activation systems which makes them highly selective. In particular, the fact of lying on the bottom of the sea, sometimes muddy under a layer of sediment, entails the possibility of becoming difficult to discover in the acoustic search by sonar.
The last tools similar to mines are i Water Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (WB-IED), low-cost rudimentary devices and technology that can easily be made even by terrorist groups (photo).
A specialist component of excellence of the Italian Naval Team
The Italian Navy, as part of the naval team, has a complex specialist command (MARICODRAG) responsible for the management of the mine countermeasures forces (CMM) which includes a naval force, composed of class minesweepers Lerici Series I and II, and a ground command responsible for component training and development.
In order to respond to the challenges of the third millennium, the Italian Navy has always kept this type of threat into consideration, building on the experiences gained in the various theaters of the world from the post-war period to today.
One of the most important lessons learned is that the asymmetry of this form of war fits perfectly with their use by non-regular factions but also by terrorist and criminal organizations.
Although these tools are generally very simple and inexpensive, what makes the difference are the mine activation logics or those devices that give consent to their fire circuits. The digital evolution has made available to manufacturers systems of relative low cost that can allow a longer operational life and highly sophisticated target-selective capabilities. Also, the use of materials stealth (i.e. invisible to search and discovery sonar) and, the ability of modern mines to counter even CMM units, notoriously invisible to mine sensors, are factors of sure concern.
National development of the Operational Concept of Mine Countermeasures Operations
Over time, the Italian Navy has continued to invest in tactics and weapon systems optimization studies, earning a level of excellence in the NATO field. The experiences gained have helped to define a CMM asset acquisition program that will enable future threats to be faced with greater confidence.
Since the subject is very vast, in a nutshell, the Italian Navy, in a vision shared with the other European navies, envisages the use of two types of platforms in the field of future mine warfare operations:
- naval units (minesweepers and minesweepers) able to operate safely in a minefield and in areas where the presence of dangerous devices for navigation is suspected;
- non-specialized naval units which, although not in possession of autonomous CMM capabilities, are able to transport autonomous vehicles capable of operating remotely (concept stand off) in order to mitigate the risk for transit.
A slow but steady journey
This vision originated in the 80s when the Italian Navy, on the basis of operations carried out in the Red Sea, commissioned Intermarine, an Italian company world leader in fiberglass technology, the first four class minesweeper units. Lerici. These minesweepers were made using a new construction technology called FRP (Fiber Reinforced Plastics) which, due to its peculiar technical characteristics, was used by many western navies. For example the US class minesweepers Osprey and those of other foreign classes, both African and Asian, were built by Intermarine or under its license. This material technology made it possible to fully satisfy two priority needs for a minesweeper: the absolute non-magnetic (in order not to activate mines with magnetic activation sensors) and an elevated one anti-shock resistance in the event of a close explosion of a device.
the class Lerici it actually replaced the class Wood, now at the end of its long operational life, and included two wire-guided vehicles (ROVs) for underwater inspections, a team of mine deactivation divers (SDMs) and specialist CMM personnel.
The success of the first series, confirmed by the operations in the Persian Gulf, led to the construction of a second series, the class Gaeta, which differed substantially in a general increase in the size of the hull, the upgrading of the engine system, the installation of an autopilot for the automatic maintenance of the position during the search and discovery of mines (initially it was the responsibility of the officer of guard maintain his position by acting on the controls of the three thrusters) and the adjustment of all components hardware e software of the combat system.
On 30 April 1988, another 6 minesweepers were ordered, with a second order in 1991, bringing the final number to eight. A winning choice as, in over three decades, the class units Lerici I and II series have distinguished themselves in numerous national and international operations, conducting reclamation operations in areas with the presence of dangerous devices for military navigation but above all for that of merchant traffic.
I briefly recall the operations in the Persian Gulf and, last but not least, the reclamation of the bombs in the Adriatic, where the mine hunters carried out, in just two months, a campaign to search for bombs on a sea surface equivalent to 20000 football fields, carried out with a navigation accuracy of less than 5 meters.
Furthermore, the CMM units have operated and still operate in numerous tasks of a dual nature in support of other State Bodies and the civil community such as the recent Operation Cerboli Pulita in favor of the Civil Protection Department, making a great contribution to the community aimed at restore the environmental balance of the seabed of the Gulf of Follonica.
The future is around the corner and it cannot wait
The physiological obsolescence of the vehicles in service required urgent and no longer available modernization interventions. While the first two units of the I series have been decommissioned, the Half Life Modernization (AMV) program of the Gaeta class is currently underway, a palliative pending the entry into service of the so-called New Generation Minesweepers (CNG) . The AMV program, still in progress, concerns, among other things, the modernization of the units' equipment with the following systems:
a VDS (variable depth sonar) perhaps the THALES 2093, replacing the now old AN / SQQ 14 IT, capable of operating at depths of 300 meters, already in use on the Hunt class of the UK RN
- Integrated communications system, with resident SATCOM capabilities
- new version of the C2 system as a further evolution of the ERICA system
- new containerized hyperbaric chamber
- structural changes in the aft area with the creation of a covered area for vehicle maintenance
- technical improvements and renewal of the systems of the platform apparatus.
Let us now look to the future
The futures New Generation Minesweeper (CNG), whose entry into service is hoped for in the next ten years, will have to have high ability to conduct CMM operations in order to operate in areas with the presence of even non-conventional bombs. The multidimensionality of the threat will require means with marked modular capabilities and different underwater autonomous systems in order to operate simultaneously with the mother ship.
It should be understood that the use of different autonomous means is not linked to a simple redundancy factor but represents an important multiplier of effectiveness, allowing the use of complementary techniques in the same area to maximize remediation capacities and reduce operating times.
In line with similar future projects of other Western Navies, the CNGs could therefore meet the following characteristics:
- larger dimensions:> 60 meters long -> 13 meters wide
- displacement around 1000-1100 tons
- two shaft lines for transfer navigation and two azimuth systems for minesweeper
- units fully integrated into offshore components in complex scenarios;
- greater autonomy and transfer speed (18 knots);
- potentiality Expeditionary (logistic and operational) to be able to operate for prolonged periods in operations outside the area;
- support for amphibious operations even outside the area;
- availability to embark autonomous vehicles with different operational configurations (research or neutralization) capable of operating in swarm simultaneously;
- launching of the aft means;
- wire-guided remote control vehicles (ROVs) for localization, identification, neutralization, with intelligent capabilities for underwater manipulation, usable both by the CNG Unit and by autonomous surface vehicles.
As far as autonomous systems are concerned, the possibility of using them in a modular way would allow 3D capability to CMM operations with differentiated systems in the three dimensions:
- AUV (Autonomous Underwater Vehicle) of different types, capable of operating in CMM configuration up to altitudes of 3000 meters. Equipped with different types of sonar sensors, including SSS and SAS, for the discovery of ordnance, in the future they could be placed side by side in swarm with small AUVs in configuration one shot killer (OSK).
- USV (Unmanned Surface Vehicle): autonomous surface vehicles (image), which in CMM configuration could conduct both minehunting or dredging operations with influence (also in Jamming) or mechanical, or transporting other means (AUV or ROV) effectively becoming a "system of systems".
- UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle): autonomous aerial vehicles which, in CMM configuration, could contribute to the discovery of mines adrift, surfacing or near the surface, or operate as radio relay to communicate with other autonomous means (AUV and USV) in mode stand off.
When will the creation of a dedicated ship for the complex support of CMM operations?
The lack of a dedicated support unit for CMM OPS has always represented an important capacitive gap for the Italian MM, partially covered over time with different types of units.
It is desirable that the Navy confirms the construction of a complex support unit that will have to assume an even greater role in the future than the one previously implemented, becoming a fundamental C4I operational hub to operate in a fully integrated manner in real-time with the units of the high seas.
In the future, with the entry into line of the first CNGs, it will therefore be necessary to have this type of unit in order to be able to operate for prolonged periods of time in complete integration with a CMM task group even in remote operational areas such as choke point strategic.
This capacity will allow the complete integration of the national CMM capacity in the offshore components, accentuating the expeditionary potential and guaranteeing adequate support to the Strike Group and amphibians outside the area. Last but not least, its greater transfer speed would allow it to arrive in the area before specialized vehicles and start operating with autonomous systems in stand off. But future tasks may not be limited to traditional, so to speak, activities.
The challenges of the third millennium will require the fulfillment of increasingly demanding tasks with a strong impact for the protection of civil maritime infrastructures. For example, the monitoring and protection of underwater communications networks (where internet data flows travel, among other things) and the oil and gas pipelines necessary for the sustenance of Western economies. Last but not least, the protection of future activities for the exploitation of minerals on the ocean floor which represents a new challenge in a world of continuous industrial development in which today is already yesterday.
It is hoped that these mine warfare development programs will be pursued on schedule, reminding us that those who have no memory of history are alas often destined to relive it.
Images: US Naval Institute / The Daily Grind / Navy / Intermarine / web