Rising tensions in the Persian Gulf, coupling increasingly bellicose actions by Iran with pointed American warnings, have left international navies thinking hard about how to keep the Strait of Hormuz open for oil traffic. Naval mines, which can be laid by submarines or boats, remain one of the most difficult and inconvenient threats to counter. That was true during the last set of armed clashes between the USA and Iran in the 1980s. It remains true, and the USA has weakened its position by retiring its modern Osprey Class minehunter ships. Some are available for reactivation in an emergency, but their place was supposed to be taken by the MH-60S helicopter’s Airborne Mine Counter-Measures (AMCM) system.
The USA is looking to bolster its defenses in the Straits, but AMCM isn’t quite ready yet. That leaves them looking elsewhere for urgent operational buys. While countries like China counter mines using unmanned ships, the US Navy is turning toward a widely-bought German UUV…
Oct 16/12: ATLAS North America announces a follow-on Urgent Operational Requirement contract by the US Naval Surface Weapons Center (NSWC) for more SeaFox systems, along with installation, integration, testing, training and lifecycle support services over 1 year. Amounts aren’t given, but the FBO.gov justification and approval give a figure of $9.3 million in FY 2012-13 (N00174-12-C-0031).
The US Navy has already acquired the SeaFox and Surface Mine Neutralisation System (SMNS) as part of ongoing mine countermeasure ship upgrades, while the Airborne Mine Neutralisation Systems (SeaFox AMNS) are deployed onboard Sikorsky-built MH-53 Sea Dragon helicopters. The portable SeaFox mine neutralisation systems (PMNS) can quickly be added to a variety of platforms, including surface combatants and support ships, and can even be deployed with assistance from small RHIB boats. That could create an interesting USV/UUV combination, if the Navy elects to pursue it. Atlas North America | FBO.gov.
Feb 17/12: Lockheed Martin Maritime Systems & Sensors in Syracuse, NY receives a not-to-exceed $45.6 million cost-plus-fixed-fee, firm-fixed-price contract for operational “AN/SQQ-32” Airborne Mine Neutralization System-SeaFox (AMNS-SF) refurbishment and overhaul; Shipboard Mine Neutralization System-SeaFox (SMNS-SF) integration, testing and production; and Atlas SeaFox neutralizer rounds. $15.1 million will expire at the end of the current fiscal year.
The Pentagon’s use of “SQQ-32” in its release is confusing. That designation refers to an active mine hunting sonar provided by Raytheon and Thales, and which equips MCM ships like the Osprey Class.
EADS/TKMS subsidiary Atlas Elektronik’s Seafox C mine-hunting UUV is deployed by 10 nations, and can be launched from ships or helicopters. An integrated homing sonar helps the UUV re-locate identified objects of interest, and the fiber optic tether sends camera pictures back while taking operator commands. The Seafox contains a large shaped charge warhead, which can be used to destroy targets at the operator’s discretion. A Cobra attachment can be used to improve its effectiveness against floating or drifting mines, which Iran has used often in the past.
The MH-60 AMCM system’s AMNS/Archerfish is similar, and is in early production, but it does not have the same flexibility against drifting mines, and is not yet fielded in numbers. Seafox’ approach also allows the US Navy to use a combination of helicopters and serving ships, for a more widely distributed response.
This contract was not competitively procured, as Lockheed Martin is the sole designer, developer, and producer of the SMNS-SF and AMNS-SF systems that integrate Atlas Elektronik’s Seafox with American equipment. That makes them the “only source capable of upgrading and integrating systems with the Atlas SeaFox neutralizer onto the host platforms in the time required to meet urgent operational need.” US Naval Sea Systems Command in Washington, DC manages the contract (N00024-12-C-6306).