S'pore navy's unmanned ships able to find, dispose of sea mines

World-first capability means such ops can be safer and quicker, with less manpower, cost

Left: The Singapore navy's unmanned surface vessel was able to neutralise an underwater target in the waters off the Southern Islands. Defence Science and Technology Agency senior engineer Siow Chengxin (above) said the exercise was one of the final
Above: The Singapore navy's unmanned surface vessel was able to neutralise an underwater target in the waters off the Southern Islands. Defence Science and Technology Agency senior engineer Siow Chengxin said the exercise was one of the final steps to verify that the vessels could perform well.PHOTOS: MINISTRY OF DEFENCE, DEFENCE SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY AGENCY
Left: The Singapore navy's unmanned surface vessel was able to neutralise an underwater target in the waters off the Southern Islands. Defence Science and Technology Agency senior engineer Siow Chengxin (above) said the exercise was one of the final
The Singapore navy's unmanned surface vessel was able to neutralise an underwater target in the waters off the Southern Islands. Defence Science and Technology Agency senior engineer Siow Chengxin (above) said the exercise was one of the final steps to verify that the vessels could perform well.PHOTOS: MINISTRY OF DEFENCE, DEFENCE SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY AGENCY

The Republic of Singapore Navy's unmanned surface vessels (USVs) have proved 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 the waters off the Southern Islands.

Ms Siow Chengxin, a senior engineer at the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA), told reporters last Friday 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 a 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 midlife 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 MCM 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 due to 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 can still recall the moment when we successfully fired off the second shot. We were overjoyed and felt our efforts had paid off," she added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 22, 2021, with the headline 'S'pore navy's unmanned ships able to find, dispose of sea mines'. Subscribe