British ship transformed into mine-hunting drone base off Virginia in experiment with US Navy
By BROCK VERGAKIS | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: March 28, 2019
NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — A large British ship that's typically used to respond to natural disasters in the Caribbean was transformed into a mine-hunting drone base off the coast of Virginia this past weekend as part of an unprecedented experiment with the U.S.
The Royal Fleet Auxiliary Mounts Bay served as a hub for operations that involved Norfolk-based helicopters, underwater drones and an unmanned surface vessel. The experiment was managed by a Virginia Beach-based explosive ordnance disposal unit that has spent the past two decades largely focused on clearing land-based bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also is trained to clear underwater explosives.
The idea behind the unusual pairings was to see if the U.S. Navy could successfully operate from what it calls a "vessel of opportunity" rather than traditional warships. Using a variety of ships for mine-hunting could allow allies to cover more territory, respond faster to world events and free up other ships for different missions or maintenance.
The Mounts Bay is a civilian-crewed landing ship dock that can transport troops, helicopters and other cargo and is primarily used for humanitarian relief. But handling the unmanned surface vehicle was a challenge because it's larger and heavier than the cargo the ship typically places over the side into water.
"This was a level of complexity that was some way above standard, so we had to take a little bit of a step back and make sure we're all lined up," said Capt. Jed Macanley, the Mounts Bay's commanding officer.
Sailors from both nations had to learn to safely work together with equipment and vessels the other wasn't familiar with. They also had to make sure their communication networks in the air, on the water and below the surface didn't interfere with each other. They brought along some unspecified "new and novel equipment" to test out their networks.
"This was the first time to take some kind of emerging technologies ... combine them with some advanced communication systems that allowed us to stay connected to shore and get data from the helicopters when they returned and integrate an overall picture of what's happening," said Cmdr. Jon Haase, commanding officer of Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit Two.
Mine countermeasures have "traditionally been done by helicopters, it's been done off of small boats, it's been done by underwater vehicles before. But to embark all of those players onto one platform — an allied platform none the less — and to integrate all of those from a central hub ... is the contribution and difference."
The experiment was designed by the Norfolk-based Navy Warfare Development Command. Haase said it also proved that the Navy's use of newer technologies like underwater drones could keep sailors safer.
"From my perspective, what we've done is we've reduced the risk associated with having people in the middle of that minefield," Haase said.
The Navy is also developing an Unmanned Influence Sweep System. That's a minesweeping unit that would be towed by an unmanned surface vehicle like the one used this past week to perform missions in support of littoral combat ships.
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