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Jane's International Defence Review: ECA Group outlines vision for unmanned MCM operations

Tuesday, November 25 2014
ECA is in the process of working up a concept of operations (CONOPS) for the the French DGA's ESPADON programme, senior executives at the company have announced that such an MCM mission module capability could be easily integrated onto military and commercial vessels. Speaking at the IQPC Mine Countermeasures conference in London, mine warfare business manager at ECA Group, Dominique Mallet, told IHS Jane's that the concept was in its infancy but stressed that it was entirely possible and would require negotiations with navies and shipyards in order to discuss how best to integrate the mission modules.
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However, a source at Babcock International, which is involved with the design and development of
future vessel designs, said that many existing ships including frigates were already "tightly
packed" with equipment. "The only way to get something on board would be to take something
off," he warned.
The French MoD is due to begin an operational assessment of its Système de Lutte Anti-Mine
Futur (SLAMF) programme in 2016, an effort that has evolved from the ESPADON concept first
unveiled at Euronaval in 2012. A preferred bidder is due to be selected in 2015 from DCNS, ECA
and Thales with the UK also expressing an interest on the back of increasing Anglo-French
defence co-operation.

ECA Group has outlined a CONOPS designed to illustrate potential operational scenarios involving
autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), unmanned surface vessels (USVs) and Expendable Mine
Disposal Systems (EMDSs) for MCM missions. Mallet explained the concept, "How can unmanned
maritime systems [UMS] with their specificities contribute to the change in MCM tactics and act as
force multipliers either increasing speed of MCM operations or reducing the ship's assets by a
collaborative approach between the UMS and legacy MCM equipment?"

Such a concept relies upon a frigate-sized vessel to host the MCM module, known as the MCMV,
which is capable of launching and recovering USVs, which in turn would launch and recover AUVs,
EMDs and Towed Side Scan Sonar (TSSS).
According to ECA Group, a typical MCM mission module could be fitted on board both "dedicated
and non-dedicated" vessels and would comprise a 10-tonne payload. This would include two USVs
stored to the aft of the ship with payload boxes for TSSS, Small AUVs, spares and two EMDS.
Furthermore, the module would include a 10 ft 2 container with between two and four control
consoles, antennas and electronic cabinets for data storage. The final element of the module
would include a container with 10 additional EMDs.
MCM operations can be classified into four phases: detection, classification, identification and
neutralisation. According to ECA Group's CONOPS, its Inspector MkII USV would be deployed by
crane (similar to those used to deploy RHIBs), playing host to several Alister AUVs and K-Ster
With a maximum range of 12 km, the USV would be capable of operating its own bow sonar
and/or TSSS as well as deploying Alister AUVs for the detection and classification stages.
Once positively identified, the USV would be able to deploy an EMD to the mine location in order
to neutralise it. The USV would then recover the AUVs and return to its host vessel.

"This is the next evolution of combined UMS for littoral MCM operations," said Marc Pinto,
programme manager for robotic systems at ECA Group, while highlighting such a capability could
also be air-transportable for more covert and discreet operations.

However, according to Pinto, the "key to this technology", is its capability to enable multiple
search areas and post mission analysis (PMA) to be carried out almost simultaneously. ECA
Group's CONOPS would see the USV launching an AUV in order to conduct a first search segment
while the USV utilises its TSSS and bow sonar in order to identify follow-on search areas. Once the
initial search area has been covered, the AUV can be retasked to a second search area while PMA
on the first is studied concurrently.

"Minehunter vessels are not designed for expeditionary missions and need a lot of support," Pinto
explained. "Navies are still requesting to make an MCM system to fill that role in a better way,
whether it be using a non-dedicated ship with full off-board system architecture with portable
consoles, or integrated vision with everything deployed from a USV.
"MCM modules will give ships an MCM capability. Nothing looks impossible for this type of concept
and we are talking with the shipyards to make this kind of ship. They will need space for the
modules but not too much."

ECA Group's solution is based on its Inspector MkII USV, of which it has already supplied eight to
the French Navy for counter-terrorism training missions. With a 12 km range, the MkII is fitted with interferometric sonar, synthetic aperture sonar with embedded automatic target recognition,
TSSS, electro-optical cameras and can also carry divers.

The Inspector carries the Alister AUV in 9 m or 18 m configurations - which is capable of covering
a 1 km 2 search box at depths of up to 200 m for a maximum period 20 hours - and the fibre-optic
controlled K-Ster EMDS, which has a 1 hour endurance and can deploy to a depth of 300 m with a
single shaped-charge explosive.

Andrew White

Copyright © IHS Global Limited, 2014

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