A pilot autonomous route survey capability, known as Project WILTON, became operational during 2020. Follow-on capabilities are being developed under the Mine Hunting Capability (MHC) programme, with the aim being to develop a scalable suite or ‘toolbox’ of mine hunting and sweeping capabilities that can be deployed from a range of maritime platforms, or from the shore.
The Royal Navy is acknowledged to be one of the most proficient MCM forces in the world. Its current capability is based on the Sandown class minehunters parented by the First Mine Countermeasures Squadron at HM Naval Base Clyde, and the Hunt class vessels of the Second Mine Countermeasures Squadron based at HM Naval Base Portsmouth. Two ships from either squadron are forward based at Bahrain at any given time.
The Sandown class are equipped with the Sonar 2093 variable depth minehunting sonar (now modified for wideband operation), while the Hunt class are fitted with the Sonar 2193 wideband hull-mounted sonar. Ships of both classes are currently being upgraded with the ORCA command information system (a variant of the Thales M-Cube product).
However, under plans set out in the recent Defence Command Paper, the RN will over the next decade pursue a phased transition to a new MCM model based on maritime autonomous systems. While still in its Assessment Phase, the MHC programme has evolved an incremental procurement strategy that breaks the programme into a series of stand-alone capabilities. As a result, initial capability insertion/operational exploitation – known as MHC Block 1 – is being delivered in parallel with continuing evaluations of technology and concepts.
The drawdown of the Royal Navy’s manned MCMV force began on 4 August this year when HMS Blyth and HMS Ramsey were formally decommissioned at Rosyth. Both vessels were subsequently handed over to Babcock for refit prior to transfer to the Ukrainian Navy.
The drawdown of the RN’s remaining five Sandown-class minehunters – HMS Penzance, HMS Pembroke, HMS Grimsby, HMS Bangor and HMS Shoreham – will continue through to 2025. Their retirement is aligned to the introduction of operational demonstrator systems being procured under the umbrella of MHC Block 1.
As part of MHC Block 1, a team led by Thales has been contracted to deliver three production standard autonomous minehunting systems based on the primary system developed under the French/UK Maritime Mine Countermeasures (MMCM) programme. The MMCM system architecture includes an unmanned surface vessel (USV) built by L3Harris, SAMDIS synthetic aperture payloads developed by Thales, and a Saab-supplied Multi-Shot Mine Neutralisation System.
MHC Block 1 also includes three Sweep systems to be provided by Atlas Elektronik UK (AEUK). This builds on an MHC Sweep demonstrator previously delivered by AEUK using an 11 m ARCIMS USV – named RNMB Hussar – configured with a power generation module and towed magnetic, acoustic and electrical influences, including up to three coil auxiliary boats.
Initial deliveries of MHC Block 1 systems are scheduled for late 2022. An investment decision point for MHC Block 2 – representing the main part of the MCM recapitalisation – is planned for 2024. The intention is that this will allow the remaining Hunt class vessels – HMS Brocklesby, HMS Cattistock, HMS Chiddingfold, HMS Hurworth, HMS Middleton and HMS Ledbury – to leave service between 2029 and 2031.
In advance of MHC Block 1 and Block 2, Project WILTON represents an important first step. Based at HM Naval Base Clyde, WILTON is a composite peacetime MCM route survey capability assembled from a mix of assets: these include manned and unmanned surface craft, autonomous underwater vehicles, remotely operated vehicles and side scan sonar equipment, plus a portable operations centre and associated communications.