Unmanned Systems Set to Replace All Royal Navy Mine Warfare Vessels

The SWEEP autonomous minesweeping system (Atlas Elektronik)

Published Mar 24, 2021 7:05 PM by The Maritime Executive

The UK's sweeping integrated defense review proposes deep changes to the structure of the nation's armed forces, including a scaleback of ground units to pay for a growing naval fleet. But not all of that fleet will be growing: the Royal Navy's minesweepers will be going away altogether, to be replaced by unmanned and autonomous systems. 

Mine countermeasures (MCM) checks all of the boxes for an unmanned systems application: it is dull, dirty and dangerous work, ideal for replacement with automation. Small, unmanned MCM platforms are cheaper to build and intrinsically safer for human operators. The Royal Navy says that its unmanned MCM systems are also dramatically faster in operation.

"The new systems find mines, even in the worst conditions, five to 10 times faster than our current ships do," said First Sea Lord Admiral Tony Radakin in a speech on the review. "We will stay the best minehunters in the world by starting to swap ships for drones. First the Sandown and then the Hunt-class."

The time, safety and cost advantages may make the Royal Navy's 15-strong MCM fleet the first class of vessels ever to be fully replaced by unmanned systems. 

Last November, the UK announced a $250 million investment in a joint French-British Maritime Mine Counter Measure (MMCM) program, which will create new high-tech systems to combat sea mines. Thales and BAE Systems have been contracted to produce three system prototypes, with ASV Ltd. (L3Harris) providing the autonomous surface vessel component. 

In a separate deal announced in January, the UK Ministry of Defence ordered three new autonomous minesweeping systems from Atlas Elektronik. The $34 million deal for three production units of the Combined Influence Minesweeping (SWEEP) system will give the Royal Navy its first autonomous minesweeping capability. It is based on the successful ARCIMS development program.