How a growing naval mine threat upsets the Royal Navy
Image credit: Dreamstime
The Royal Navy’s existing mine-hunting fleet is expected to go out of service in the next decade. The government wants to replace the vessels with new autonomous technology, but it isn’t clear when that will happen. As the threat of naval mines grows and ships age, the government may need to rethink its position.
It happened just before midnight on 3 October. The Aframax transport tanker Syra is sailing quietly along the Yemeni shores near the Bir Ali crude offshore single point mooring station, some 30km west of the industrial port town of Balhaf when the unthinkable happens. The 100,000 tonne and 228.6m long crude oil tanker hits a sea mine that blows a giant hole into the ship’s hull. What happens next isn’t clear, but when E&T reviewed Planet Inc. satellite images for a day later, a large oil spill is visible. By then the ship had continued at least 100km throughout the Gulf of Aden (see map).
Intelligence sources told E&T that the incident was likely to be a symptom of tensions involving the separatist Southern Transitional Council, a secessionist body in Yemen. The tension didn’t subside and October 25, a subsequent attack on an oil pipeline was carried out, spilling oil on land near where Syra was damaged. More commercial tankers could have suffered similar fates this year. North of the important shipping route Bab el Mandeb Strait, three naval mines were destroyed only one kilometre offshore, near the major Yemeni port city of Al Hudaydah.
What has the UK to do with all this? The Royal Navy maintains strategic mine-hunting defence forces in the area. That’s because the location around the Gulf of Aden is of strategic importance to Britain. The Royal Navy says 95 per cent of Britain’s economic activity depends on the sea and a vast amount of global trade passes through the choke point of the Bab al-Mandeb Strait.
Sea mines constitute a growing threat. Incidents in the Gulf of Aden may only be the tip of the iceberg. Analysts and the Royal Navy agree that the problem is growing: “There is concern that there is a significant mine threat out there”, says Nick Childs, senior fellow for naval forces and maritime security at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). “The Navy has maintained a very capable, but small and in recent times, dwindling capability, just under a dozen mine counter measures vessels”.
The ‘dwindling’ aspect of Britain’s mine-hunting worries insiders. Few serving Navy personnel dare to speak out. Unapproved contact with the press can be career-ending. Tom Sharpe, an ex-Royal Navy commander and defence commentator wrote about his concerns that the government’s current plan on the future of Britain’s mine-hunting fleet could backfire if the transition to new technology isn’t managed well.
Sharpe says he knew he was onto something when his worries were confirmed by an inside source, a senior staff member at the Royal Navy, who is “both senior and current enough to be able to talk about mine-hunting, authoritatively”.
Sharpe’s concerns rest on the fact that the government pledged in 2019 to build autonomous mine-hunters that will help to remove the human from the minefield. However, ageing mine-hunting capabilities may not be replaced in time to adequately counteract the growing threat.
Potentially hundreds of mines still float or are newly laid in or near key shipping routes – areas Britain and its allies have sworn to protect. The Arab Coalition reports it destroyed 137 sea mines up until early February this year, when the US Department of Transportation Maritime Administration issued a sea mine warning alert for an area in the Southern Red Sea, between Saudi Arabia and Yemen (see illustration).
In November 2018, the Arab Coalition found and demolished 36 naval mines in a single week (13 on a single Sunday). The main mine planter in the territory is the Houthi rebel group in Yemen.
Since 2015, the rebel movement has attacked ships with naval mines. Some came from old Yemeni arsenals. Others were newly produced, repurposed or cheaply imported from external supporters like Iran.
The area in and around Bab Al-Mandeb Strait (see map) and south of the Red Sea is increasingly unsafe. If other large oil tankers – which provide the war-torn area with a lifeline – or international military ships – which maintain peace in the area – encounter these mines, the consequences are unthinkable.
Presently under Operation Kipion, the Royal Navy maintains four British ships, the mine-hunting vessels HMS Penzance, HMS Chiddingfold, HMS Shoreham and HMS Brocklesby. They use highly trained mine clearance divers and SeaFox, an unmanned mine disposal system.
An inconvenient age gap
Yet the Gulf-stationed vessels are close to retirement. For instance, HMS Brocklesby was commissioned in 1983, long before the iron curtain fell, while the recently returned HMS Ledbury dates back to 1981 and is the oldest of the Hunt-class vessels, carrying the daring motto ‘Mors Mina’ or ‘Death to Mines’.
The Royal Navy currently has six Hunt Class mine counter measure vessels (MCMVs) and seven of the newer Sandown Class. With refits and upgrades, they are expected to be capable of operating into the early 2030s, but the future is uncertain.
The government has not announced any plans for new ships to replace existing mine-hunting vessels in support of new autonomous technology. Yet the 2019 National Audit Office report into the 2019-2029 Equipment Plan pointed out that by 2030, the Royal Navy will lose its mine-hunting capabilities. No funding is planned “to extend or replace this [mine-hunting] equipment”, the report says, though it does note that there is up to £31m available “to explore a potential new way of delivering this capability”.
To clarify whether the transition timeline is feasible, E&T sent five questions to the Ministry of Defence (MoD). It included queries such as: whether new mine hunting capabilities match existing ones, shortcomings of new-generation autonomous mine hunting equipment, and when it will be operational. The MoD barred E&T from publishing its response, but we ran it past Tom Sharpe, who said two of the answers were “incompatible” and MoD’s non-specific response is a testimony that the government body has no specific answers to those questions.
Childs commented: “I think there is a concern if the [defence] capability in some way is reduced in the years ahead, if the [mine-hunting] ships currently operating are not sustained or a replacement is not provided in time”. Planning time is short in supply. There might be less than 10 years before the existing Hunts retire and then new tech must be ready.
One ship down with a single mine
One must go back in time a little to understand the full-blown threat sea mines pose to ships. The Gulf War is a prime example of how low-cost sea mines make an effective sea-denial weapon, US Navy Lieutenant commander David A. Morris wrote in his 1997 exposé, ‘The Mine Warfare Cycle’. The USS Tripoli (LPH 10) and USS Princeton (CG 59) were struck down by mines off the coast of Kuwait in 1991.
Since then, the cost of building naval mines has dwindled to a few thousand dollars. Simple contact mines may be craft-produced (self-built), or can cost as little as $2,000, according to a 2017 Royal Military Academy academic paper. For notoriously underfunded rebel groups looking for trouble, sea mines constitute an affordable option if they are after asserting control and spreading fear in local waters.
Another risk is when mines take down expensive defence assets. In October, the government expressed an ambition to revive its domestic ship-building industry to build up warship capabilities – three fleet solid support (FSS) ships are planned. Sharpe says the three FSS don’t create a need for more mine countermeasure capabilities on their own, but the FSS plus new frigates, submarines, aircraft carriers all do. The government may see a chance to save some cash with a new nimbler (and potentially cheaper) mine-hunting generation.
Growing ubiquity of mines due to falling costs isn’t the only concern; the sophistication of new sea mines calls for a prudent response. For example, the BAE Systems Stonefish is a naval influence mine which has a computerised fuse and contains acoustic, magnetic and water pressure displacement target detection sensors. It also has a 100-600kg aluminised polymer-bonded explosive warhead.
Existing mine-hunters know how to deal with mines like this and are comparably cheap to sustain. Sharpe finds 12 replacement ships equals roughly the costs of a single Type 26 frigate like the HMS Glasgow, which entered its final phase of construction in June and is expected to launch in 2021. Such a ship could be deployed anywhere.
Then there is the new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth. In early 2019, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson floated an idea to send the HMS Queen Elizabeth to an area where China had been involved in an ongoing dispute over navigation rights. The UK needed to be ready to “use hard power”, he said. Yet China’s high-tech naval mine inventory worries experts. In 2018, China flexed its muscles by executing one of the largest mine warfare exercises. 100,000 naval mines were estimated to be in the country’s demonstration a decade ago. It’s reasonable to assume it added more since 2010 – some could be placed in the Taiwan Straits, South and East China Sea if worst comes to worst. Strategists at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) wrote that the region now faces a much greater mine threat than ever before, “with most of our mine-hunting capability in decline”. Britain and Australia may sit in the same boat. Australia’s navy has pledged to build new mine counter-measures capabilities.
Technical details on what the UK’s existing mine-hunting fleet will be replaced with are largely missing. What’s clear is that new mine-hunting technology is expected “to be quite different”, MoD says. Much will be automated and Andy Ashfield-Smith, an MoD spokesperson, explains that in the future, it’s possible a dedicated vessel that deals with [mine-hunting] will follow. Such a mothership may have multitude of capabilities. “I’m not going to give you much beyond that”.
Others confirm the mothership theory. Authors at Save The Royal Navy speculate that “there will almost certainly be steel-hulled mine warfare ‘motherships’ to deploy [mine-hunting] capability, such as cheap second-hand merchant conversions like oil rig support ships, but these are mere speculations. As procurement may only be begin in 2026 or even later, the public won’t know until it might be too late.”
Other EU national defence forces show Britain the way to go. Both Tom Sharpe and Nick Childs are impressed by the Belgian-Dutch mine hunter programme. It’s carried out by the Belgium Naval & Robotics consortium and hit a new milestone in May to supply 12 mine-hunters equipped with computer networks, electrical installations, propulsion or combat systems, and drones.
Ashfield-Smith told E&T that technology contracts for future Royal Navy mine-hunting capabilities have not been placed. The government is in a pre-announcement stage, he added. “We’re working towards what [these new capabilities] are going to be. We are still doing the technology investigation”. At present, the only way to gauge progress is by judging public projects and statements by companies involved.
The unmanned mine-hunting and surveying operations that started at the beginning of the year (see images) is one such effort, under the umbrella of Project Wilton. This project, which promises to introduce “cutting-edge technology into the Royal Navy”, is carried out by a recently formed Maritime Autonomous Systems (MAS) team that is part of the First Mine Counter Measures Squadron (MCM1).
But this fails to impress experienced Navy commanders like Sharpe: “That little boat there is not going to do defence engagement in, for example, Oman. It's not going to take divers who are part of the operation, it’s not going to form a key element of round-the-clock operations in Bahrain. What works on the Clyde may not work so well in a contested environment where it could get jammed…or simply stolen”.
There are also efforts by Thales group, a French firm that provides electrical systems and services for aerospace, defence, transportation and also serves the Royal Navy’s mine-hunting technology development, together with BAE Systems.
In an October update, Thales senior systems engineer Neil Coleman spilled the beans on the firm’s website. Major trials are due to kick off for autonomous mine-hunting systems: two trials off the coast of Plymouth for the Royal Navy and two off the coast of Brest for the French Marine Nationale. The system developed by Thales will be tested in “finding, identifying and simulating the destruction of 70 mines of various types and sizes”. Trial one will be hunting mines in an area of 14 square nautical miles (around 46km2), two-thirds the size of Manhattan. The second trial covers 25 nautical miles (around 86km2) or half of Liechtenstein.
Planners are not short of ambition and even Sharpe is not doubting that the new mine-hunting tech will eventually do a better job than the existing mine-hunters when it comes to just hunting mines. Still, whether it will be ready and operational in time to take over from the retiring minehunters is unclear.
The latest manoeuvre by the government to limit the Integrated Review to only one year instead of three, mainly down to Covid-19, won’t help to do the sort of long-term planning required, experts say.
In the short term, Tom Sharpe deems it poor planning if the government is keen to send a brand new £3bn warship into the Gulf, while questions on how to protect it from naval mines are unanswered. “One mine kills one ship,” he says. His hope is the government does not ‘spoil the ship for a ha’porth of tar’.
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