Wave-Rider

NATO’s Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation (CMRE) is operating unmanned vehicles as additional submarine hunters during the alliance’s Dynamic Manta exercise, taking place in the Mediterranean Sea.

Dynamic Manta exercise

Dynamic Manta is focused on advanced anti-submarine warfare (ASW) training, with nine NATO member states providing five submarines, four surface ships, and various rotary and fixed-wing aircraft to practice, demonstrate, and refine the alliance’s ASW capability.

Alongside these traditional assets, also present are several unmanned systems, some of which are provided by CMRE, the alliance’s La Spezia, Italy-based in-house research laboratory.

“The importance of participating in an exercise like this is for us to bring the science to the operator in his environment, and for the operator to be able to understand what these unmanned systems can do,” Dr. Catherine Warner, CMRE’s director, told a media briefing onboard the exercise flagship, the Italian Navy Bergamini-class FREMM frigate ITS Carabiniere.

“During the exercise, we are actually doing ASW,” said Dr. Warner. In and around Dynamic Manta and Dynamic Mongoose (NATO’s second ASW-focused annual exercise, based in the North Atlantic), CMRE unmanned vehicle use is usually based around trialling new concepts or compiling the real-time environmental picture. For Dynamic Manta this time, said Dr. Warner, “We will actually be doing just what the other ships are doing, and looking for submarines.”

Ocean Explorer with Liquid Robotics Wave Glider 

CMRE has deployed two Ocean Explorer large autonomous unmanned vehicles (AUVs) fitted with thin-line towed array sonar systems, along with Liquid Robotics Wave Glider unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) that are acting as communications nodes between the surface and sub-surface domains. CMRE has also fitted its own towed arrays to the Wave Gliders.

“The more sensors that are out there, the more probability of detecting something,” said Dr. Warner. The various unmanned systems, which can communicate with each other and conduct waterspace management with other sub-surface assets, are supported by and operating with NATO’s research vessel Alliance.

Anti-Submarine Warfare Game

For the operator, ASW “is a game in which the adversary in the undersea environment becomes quieter, and we need to bring in another set of tools to be able to overcome those technological advances,” said Rear Admiral Andrew Burcher, Commander Submarines NATO (COMSUBNATO).

“The goal of the submarine is to be as covert as possible. The goal of the people trying to find the submarine is to be able to eliminate that covertness; that’s where science and technology comes into play.” CMRE’s unmanned vehicles, said Rear Admiral Burcher, “bring an extra, added tool to the undersea fight”.

Unmanned systems can also bring something different to that fight, Dr. Warner explained in a follow-up briefing. “A lot of countries cannot afford high-end submarines and frigates, but they could certainly afford a fleet of unmanned vehicles with towed arrays. Compared to a larger, manned asset, such platforms are quiet, radiating less noise. They are also smaller, so have a reduced signature. They also can offer more persistence when dedicated to a task. CMRE’s Ocean Explorer AUVs can deploy for 72 hours for example,” Dr. Warner said.

by Dr. Lee Willet