A massive surface ship and submarine maritime attack in enemy waters near hostile territory needs to accomplish a number of dangerous operations: penetrate defended areas, identify enemy weapons and move quickly to succeed. Lives hang in the balance of time.
Any such assault, the results of which might largely depend upon the speed of undersea and surface movement, could quite likely encounter highly-dangerous minefields. These mines would be in place to explode approaching platforms or deny any ability for attackers to conduct offensive operations in vital combat areas.
Enemy mine threats, increasingly becoming both more pervasive and complex, span a large sphere of operational areas to include both shallow-water littoral and deep, or “blue water” attacks. Should an attacking force come under heavy fire, enemy mines would need to be found—and destroyed or neutralized—quickly. Some mines are buried beneath the ocean floor, simply tethered to the bottom or merely suspended in different parts of the water column.
The growing modern mine threat is so significant, that the Navy has been fast-tracking a wide range of new countermine attack and defense strategies. The approach is focused on both littoral minefields as well as higher-tech deep water mines associated with threats posed by great powers as well, according to senior service leaders.
“We have significant gaps in our capability to defeat one hundred thousand Russian and Chinese mines which will not be laid in shallow water,” Maj. Gen. David Coffman, Director of Naval Expeditionary Warfare, told an audience in 2019 at the Surface Navy Association Symposium.
All of these dangerous warzone dynamics amount to the simple reason why the Navy and Northrop Grumman are engineering what developers call the “fastest” mine-hunter of all time. Called the AQS-24, the technology merges sonar with laser mine scanning and human command and control to sustain high-resolution countermine sensing and identification at speeds as fast as 18-knots.
“We are working on AQS-24C, which will bring volume search capability and greatly increase the timeline for searching. It will, among other things, provide rapid detection of moored mines,” Capt. Danielle George, Mine Warfare Programs Manager, said in January at the 32nd Surface Navy Association Symposium, Arlington, Va.
George said the Navy plans to deploy the AQS-24C as soon as this year; the AQS-24C, described by George as a Volume Search Sonar, is an upgrade to existing “A” and “B” variants. The first two “C” variants were delivered in 2018 through a Navy deal with Northrop Grumman, George added. The existing “B” system was first fielded with MH-53E squadrons in 2017. AQS- 24B systems have “over seven hundred hours towed in 2019,” George said.
The AQS -24 system leverages an integrated combination of technologies to include Synthetic Aperture Sonar (SAS) and Laser Side Scanning built into a cylindrical vehicle towed through the water beneath an Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV). USVs, quickly becoming more autonomous, can be remotely operated by a ship or shore station miles away.
“The AQS-24C is designed to keep the man out of the minefield at speeds up to eighteen knots—which means it is the world’s fastest minehunter. This means you can get out there, find mines in the field and get things done quickly, making the mine mission go much better,” said Dave Allan, International Business Development Manager, Undersea Systems, Northrop Grumman. “Having an integrated laser for identification brings safety to the fleet. It finds bottom mines, closely tethered mines and some volume mines.”
Kris Osborn is the new defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.