In recent years, dependence on subsea infrastructure has increased on a global scale. There has been a focus on subsea cables, which are vital for the global economy and for communications. Seabed warfare therefore involves a major risk of sabotage to subsea infrastructure.
Attacks and threats in recent years have demonstrated the need to protect subsea infrastructure. This is about protecting vital assets such as cables linking Europe with the American continent, hugely important for any inter-continental communications. All countries are investing in their own deep-water capacity to respond to current and future threats, known as ‘seabed warfare’.
Strong market growth
In the spring of 2022, France presented a new Seabed Warfare Strategy. This sought to expand the French Navy’s ability to anticipate and take action at depths of up to 6000 metres using autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). According to the study ‘Global Undersea Warfare Systems Market Analysis 2021-2031’, the remotely operated and autonomous system segment is likely to demonstrate the highest growth rate over the next ten years or so. Remotely operated underwater systems are generally used for payload transportation, observation, surveillance, and mine clearing. This increase is also due to rising demand for stealth seabed warfare systems and the growing use of AUVs for deep sea warfare. According to the same study, market groups will most likely also be affected by the increased acquisition and operation costs of attack submarines and the operational complexity associated with unmanned underwater systems.
Underwater IEDs (improvised explosive devices): a global terrorist threat
Saab’s Sea Wasp represents a significant improvement in underwater operations against IEDs and similar threats. Designed to be operated by a small EOD/IED team (two people), the system can easily be configured to meet the specific requirements of any mission. Transportable over land, Sea Wasp can be deployed from harbour walls or the beach. It can also be fitted to surface support vessels and has the flexibility to be loaded into multiple types of boat. The Sea Wasp is piloted using a control console or from a vehicle on dock, via a fibre-optic tether.
The vehicle’s exceptional manoeuvrability allows the operator to work in confined conditions and difficult environments. The ROV’s sensor and navigation suite is primarily designed to locate targets that may have been placed on a ship’s hull, harbour wall or the seabed. The Sea Wasp uses a range of tools and techniques to identify the nature of the threat and the best way to eliminate it.
When ready, the operator uses Sea Wasp’s powerful thrusters to lock it into position on a ship’s hull or harbour wall. Using the five-function manipulator arm, a tool kit can be positioned beside the target, ready for detonation. The Sea Wasp is returned to the surface for retrieval and the target is neutralised.
In April 2020, the Netherlands became the first European country in NATO to opt for Saab’s Sea Wasp. The complex subsea environment is not limited to combating improvised explosive devices (IEDs): other government agencies such as the coastguard, customs, the police or rescue services are also seeing an increasing need to perform safe and effective underwater operations in similar environments. Although the operational profiles of these different agencies may vary, their fundamental needs regarding subsea capacities remain the same. The Sea Wasp can be used for a wide range of civil and military operations, with numerous benefits for users. Thanks to its small size and footprint, its manoeuvrability, and its relatively low weight, Saab’s ‘Sea Wasp’ subsea system is perfectly designed to meet any challenge.
Combating maritime mines – MuMNS
Another relevant area is operations in a coastal environment conducted from unmanned platforms, such as wind farm surveillance or mine clearing. With its ultramodern detection and mine clearing system MuMNS (Multi-Shot Mine Neutralisation System), Saab is playing a role in the Franco-British Maritime Mine Counter Measures (MMCM) programme in partnership with Thales. The MuMNS is designed to identify and eliminate mines.
It is operated from a mother ship (LCS), the data/images from the ROV’s sensor are displayed to the operator on the multifunctional console, and the detailed data/video can be retrieved in order to publish the mission. In the future, this system will be operated from surface vessels without a Royal Navy or French Navy crew. The Saab MuMNS system delivers a new generation of mine neutralisation and immunisation in a powerful, modular system based on proven Saab technology and mine countermeasures (MCM) solutions. It delivers unparalleled operational capability with greater flexibility that significantly improves operational tempo, and reduces the cost of MCM operations and risk to personnel. The vehicle is remotely launched from its support vessel and piloted, automatically or manually, to a specified waypoint at speeds of up to four knots. It then relocates the target using its on-board sonar and cameras, and the pilot manually controls the final approach to the target.
Subsea operations face a wide range of challenges that call for vehicles with multi-role capacities and cutting edge technology. This inspired Saab to create the ‘Sabertooth’, combining military technology with Saab’s commercial ROV/AUV technology. With deep water capability, long excursion range, advanced AUV functionality and six degrees of freedom, Sabertooth is the perfect example of Saab’s pioneering spirit in action.
Sabertooth is a very powerful but lightweight inspection, maintenance and repair (IMR) platform. The vehicle is housed at the docking unit where its batteries can be recharged. This unit allows data to be uploaded to the surface and new instructions to be downloaded. Its small size, tether-free operation and manoeuvrability ensure easy and safe access inside and around complex structures. This makes it ideal for offshore survey work and autonomous IMR of subsea installations and tunnels. Sabertooth can swim autonomously to the docking unit and remain there 24/7 and, when using a “garage” on the seabed, for up to six months without maintenance, eliminating the cost of surface vessels. This deep-water hovering hybrid AUV/ROV benefits from 360° manoeuvrability with six degrees of freedom, interfaces for sensors and auxiliary equipment. It also utilises advanced autopilot functionality.
Experts anticipate that military operations designed to protect critical infrastructure on seabeds will have similar requirements to those of the commercial sector. In May of this year, Saab – working in conjunction with the British Royal Navy – shared its experiences from current operations with industry and the academic world, and offered an overview of their future.