SINGAPORE - The Republic of Singapore Navy's unmanned surface vessels (USVs) have proven their ability to neutralise sea mines, and are now mission-ready.
Using such platforms is expected to yield a significant reduction in human labour, as well as time taken to detect, and dispose of, sea mines.
The two USVs - with an expendable mine disposal (EMD) system controlled remotely from shore - successfully neutralised an underwater target on Jan 29 in waters off the Southern Islands.
Ms Siow Chengxin, a senior engineer from the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA), told reporters on July 16 that the firing exercise was one of the final steps to verify that the USVs could perform well.
"It's a significant milestone validating our engineering effort on executing control of the K-STER C vehicle... wirelessly and safely," she said.
K-STER C refers to a lightweight EMD vehicle from French manufacturer ECA Group. It is loaded in a canister that is mounted on an USV.
The validation means that the USVs used for mine countermeasure (MCM) operations can now identify and neutralise underwater threats, a world-first capability.
Colonel Wong Chng Tong, commander of the 6th Flotilla, which leads the development of unmanned capabilities for surface and underwater craft, said the use of unmanned systems is the next frontier for maritime operations.
The deployment "enables navies to conduct operations more effectively with less manpower and at lower cost", he added in an e-mail interview.
It also reduces servicemen's exposure to threats, such as underwater explosives or improvised explosive devices, he noted.
Col Wong said sea mines laid by aggressors were the primary underwater threat that impeded safe transit in the past. The dangers have evolved to include improvised explosive devices that can be easily deployed by terrorists.
The Singapore navy began experimenting with the deployment of USVs more than a decade ago. The USVs with the EMD system were introduced in 2018, with the ability to identify but not neutralise mines.
The EMD system on manned MCM vessels needs a crew of 33, but the USV needs only two - one operator to control the vessel, and the other the EMD system console.
The manned Bedok-class MCM vessels are still in service, after completing a mid-life upgrade in 2014.
The navy operates two types of MCM USVs - one with the EMD system, and the other with sonar equipment, called the towed synthetic aperture sonar system.
A third USV variant is used for coastal patrols.
These USVs can be operated remotely, either on shore or potentially on another ship.
Typically for mine countermeasure missions, a USV with the sonar system is deployed to conduct underwater scans.
Once the threat is located, another USV with the mine disposal system is activated. The EMD system is lowered into the water to close in on the threat for identification and neutralisation.
Ms Siow, 36, who is from DSTA's Naval Systems Programme Centre, said the operation of the K-STER C is almost instantaneous.
With just the press of a button, an operator can launch it from its canister, she added. On a manned MCM vessel, it takes four people about an hour to deploy the K-STER C into the water - from a storage area to an open deck, and then by a crane.
The project was not without its challenges, including those from the Covid-19 pandemic. It took four months to prepare for the live firing day, said Ms Siow, who has been with DSTA for 13 years.
"I still can recall the moment when we successfully fired off the second shot. We were all overjoyed, and felt our efforts had paid off and were worth it," she added.