(First published in the July 1996 issue of the RN Minewarfare & Diving magazine)




Taking over his watch, Defence Systems Manager (Underwater)(Grade 3) Keanu Smith EMDF slid into the vacant right hand seat in the Unit Management Centre (UMC).  Some people still called it the bridge but the new term had been introduced when it had been demonstrated that combining the bridge (which by that time was almost a one-man operation) and the ops room resulted in greater efficiency all round.  If a jet fighter bomber could be flown, navigated and fought in three dimensions at Mach 2 from its cockpit, then surely a comparatively sluggish surface platform could do the same; it was just a matter of having the right technology including the latest innovations in data-fusion and integrated control systems with built-in redundancy, manual over-ride and back-up where necessary.


Smith plugged his personal Biophysical Preservation Equipment (BPE) umbilical into the receptor under his seat, strapped himself in and lowered his Environmental Visualiser Array (EVA) over his head together with its integrated induction loop communications.  He flipped down the view screen and instantly his eyes were presented with a clear electronically enhanced view of the night-darkened sea around his ‘ship,’ the European Maritime Defence Unit (EMDU) Triton.


After a brief exchange of words with the off-going watch-keeper, DSM(UW)3 Pierre Deschamps, Smith acknowledged responsibility for the watch and pushed his ‘smart’ Personal Identity Device (PID) into the reader on his console.  He stated, “I have unit control.”   This was for the benefit of the Authority Allocation System (AAS) which was currently in voice recognition mode.  He was now alone in the UMC.  If things got busy, the left hand seat, where all his systems were duplicated, would be occupied by another of the crew.  If things got really busy then the Boss’s seat, between and slightly aft of the others, would also be occupied.  There was no room for anyone else.


The European Maritime Defence Force (EMDF) possessed 25 such Minewarfare EMDUs and Triton (Pendant No. 2701) had been the first of class built at Kiel in 2026 after a long collaborative research and development programme.  Kiel and Brest now contained the only two major shipbuilding yards in the whole of the Confederation of European nations (CEN) since the demise of GEC-VT-Vickers in 2012.  Most new ships, including the latest million tonne articulated semi-submersible bulk and liquid carriers, were built in Chinese and Korean yards nowadays.  Japan still had the cash but lacked a cheap source of raw materials.


Triton displaced 500 tonnes and was constructed mostly of pre-ionised carbon fibre.  This gave her particular stealth attributes when required.  Her ultra-low emission diesel-electric power system drove water pumps to propel the ship via several vectored water jets distributed across the twin transoms of her surface effect catamaran hull whilst powering the vertical fans keeping her aloft on her semi-rigid skirt.  The main power system could also drive the four aerial propulsors or ducted fans which could be erected at each quarter.  Operationally, these were used for hovering in position or precise manoeuvring.  Currently, they were being used to keep her stationary while her two remote­ operated submersible drones were deployed on their missions.


Between the twin hulls was a pneumatically cushioned module containing the accommodation and control compartments for the crew of 10.  The ‘smart’ cantilevered calliper mountings fitted to transverse beams under the hull on each side of the pod were empty while the drones they normally held during transit were away on their mission.  Thin high tensile fibre-optic command cables led out through the bottom of retractable faired conduits protruding vertically beneath the vessel.  These passed data to and from the two vehicles roaming up to 10 nm away.  These cables were paid out from self-tensioning winches on board the mother ship and the drone.  This meant in theory that both were free to manoeuvre but in fact, it had been found advisable for the mother ship to remain stationary to reduce the risk of breaking the cable.  Since the implementation of more stringent MARPOL regulations governing maritime pollution, each cable contained a thin strand of mini detonating cord of insensitive explosive similar to that found in aircraft cockpit canopies.  When necessary, this cord could be terminated then detonated from each end, instantaneously transforming the command cable into millions of atomised particles no more hazardous than grains of sand.


Turning his head, DSM(UW)(3) Smith made a 360 degree sweep of the horizon and was reassured to see no surface or above water objects of any significance within 50 nm.  The declaration of an exclusion zone was working then.  Turning forward again, he detected the slight movement of a surface object at Green 30 range 5.3 nm and zoomed in on it only for the combined electro-optical (and optional centimetric radar) enhanced picture to show a large seabird resting on the water, bobbing up and down with the swell.  He moved the joystick on the side console of his marinised ejector seat and cursored the image of the bird.


When he pressed a button on the top of the joystick to acquire the contact, a synthetically produced white rectangle appeared around it.  He then pressed the button on his side console labelled IDENTIFY.  This interrogated the central database stored on multi-layer Compact Drum ROM for a match and nanoseconds later, a window on the Individual Data Processor (IDP) window (known to everyone as the ‘Scratch Pad’) of the large flat-screened main monitor in front of him flashed up a colour image of an impressive looking bird above the text ARCTIC SKUA...MORE?.  He pressed the CANCEL button on his console pad and the window cleared.


Smith had been interested in marine fauna even before entering the EMDF Academy at Greenwich. resurrected for the training of British EURODEF Maritime Defence personnel with an injection of Euro funds.  Of course, there were no officers and ratings these days.  Today’s EURODEF was a complete technocracy with everyone starting at the same baseline and graduating through the grade system according to their individual ability and experience.  Good technical skills could get you through as a System Manager on completion of initial training to degree standard (Grade 1).  At the age of 28, he was now at this stage of his career as a Grade 3 UW specialist of four years' standing.  He was hoping to take his Grade 4 exams (written and practical operations simulation) later that year.


A short message appeared: POSITION RECEIVED & VERIFIED.  This was a regular satellite transmission from HQ EURODEF in Brussels to indicate that they were still happy with his whereabouts from their monitoring systems.  It saved him sending out the old­style NAVPIMs.  He pressed the ACKNO button followed by the CANCEL button and the message disappeared.  It and his acknowledgement had been logged on board automatically.




Smith’s eyes roamed over the Mission Status Display (MSD) window of the main monitor and absorbed the information.  Threat states were all white.  ESM was lower than normal and there was nothing else of significance.  Drones 1 and 2 were 53% and 58% through their missions respectively.  These involved swath searches of the seabed, and beneath it, using acoustic, magnetic, laser line-scan and video sensors.  The drones were also conducting sub bottom profiling and sediment analysis.  Their data bases were already loaded with historical environmental and seabed contact information against which to check their findings for anomalies.  All their gleanings were being transmitted in real time back to the mother ship in constant stream of digital pulses through their umbilical cables.


Smith was relieved to see the Systems Status Display (SSD) indicators showing green against all systems for once.  Fuel was at 68% and there were ample quantities of other stores to complete the mission.  He switched EVA to UW mode and noted the local bathymetric and bathythermal data.  The VOS profile, provided by a string of sensors suspended beneath the vessel, showed a layer some 25m above the seabed.  This differed only slightly from the data relayed at half hourly intervals from the drones and meant reasonable ranges could be achieved within 20 metres of the seabed.  The acoustic propagation software also calculated the multi-path coefficients for various ranges and, by analysing the temperature profiles and measuring the particulate matter suspended in the water, worked out the amount of attenuation and scattering to be expected.  Using this information, the software continuously optimised and focused the multi-frequency variable bandwidth sonar for the best performance at various ranges of interest.  All seemed normal for the area and time of year and conformed with the electronic chart data shown in the Navigation Data section of the MSD.


Smith scrolled through the ranges from 500m to 10nm.  For the shorter ranges, his view screen provided an almost photographic aerial view of the seabed via the active VDS suspended far beneath his vessel but when he focused on longer ranges, he could only see the blurred streaks of a few shoals of fish detected in the water volume by the integrated active/passive LF arrays in the bows of the twin hulls.




A double bleep sounded in his left earphone which meant Underwater Intervention Vehicle (UIV) number 2, one of the drones, had detected something which did not comply with the data base it carried onboard. He called up the appropriate remote sensor display on the flat-screen multi-function console and dialled in his EVA for a 3-dimensional image of what the drone was seeing.


Both drones were following a pre-set pattern in a suspected minefield and navigated themselves using hydrosonic beacons laid by air some days previously.  The beacons had anchored themselves before each one launched a laser-gyro stabilised rocket that streaked to the surface where it instantly transmitted a brief coded pulse to signal its arrival to the circling aircraft before sinking once more to the seabed.  The aircraft had then plotted their positions using its own satellite navigation system and reported the geographical coordinates to Triton en route to the area.  The positions had been injected into the NAV processors of the drones together with the required search pattern and it only awaited a command from Triton for them to start hunting immediately they had been deployed to the search area.  If all else failed, e.g. their umbilical links were severed, the drones could navigate themselves with a modicum of accuracy using their inertial navigation systems and combined Doppler/seabed correlation log and return to a pre-programmed position for recovery.


As an alternative weapon system, the ship could control up to four remote minesweeping drones but these were too large to be carried to an area as payloads and had to transit separately.  On this occasion, urgency and the need for covertness had prevented their use although their capabilities were impressive against most threat mines, particularly where environmental conditions made hunting difficult for the sensors.


In his view screen, SMITH’s eyes were immediately drawn to a highlighted contact being relayed from the drone some 6 nm away. The contact itself had been detected by magnetic means about 20 metres beneath the drone which was now hovering above it awaiting his command.  Engaging master over-ride, SMITH made the drone descend to 10 metres above the seabed directly over the contact and flicked through the individual sensors in turn.




Although Computer Aided Detection and Classification were better than human senses, he preferred the personal touch to keep his skills fresh.  He came up with a big fat zero on video seeing nothing but undulating sand and mud with isolated patches of gravel.  The Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD) showed something small but computer enhancement indicated that it was a fairly sharply defined metallic structure of some sort.  The sub-bottom profiler also showed something anomalous interrupting the normal seabed strata.


“Time to call the Boss,” he thought to himself.  He punched the button for communications with his unit’s Management Team Leader.


“MTL,” came the drowsy response from his Boss, DSM(UW)5 Anna Maier, woken from her sleep by the comms buzzer beside her bunk. 


“Boss.  Drone 2’s holding a probable buried ground mine 6 miles to the northeast.   Request permission to neutralise or would you like me to call for the MIE Team?”


“Time’s too short,” replied the Boss, suddenly alert.  “Carry on and blow but we’ll send a TELEDAT off to HQ with the news first.  Pack all the sensor data with it.  Pass it to me for scrutiny and release.  I’ll monitor everything from down here.”


By that, the Boss meant she would watch everything as it happened on the personal display in her quarters.  She could even drive the ship from her cabin if she wanted.


Apprehensively, Smith activated the vertical VHF sonar and saw a smudgy outline with some internal resonance. It was enough for the system to hold so he cursored the object and punched the ACQUIRE button on his side console.  A white-coloured synthetic graphic rectangle appeared around the smudgy object.  By moving the drone horizontally whilst keeping the thin pencil beams of the parametric sonar ranged on the contact, computer wizardry built up a three-dimensional tomographic image of a cylindrical form some 2 metres in length and the best part of a metre in diameter.  It was lying horizontally with its upper surface buried about half a metre beneath the surface of the seabed.


He scrolled through the MSD for burial prediction information and discovered that there was a localised patch of soft sand and mud allowing 50% burial in 24 hrs and 95% plus burial in 5 days.  The item here looked suspiciously mine-like and had probably lain undisturbed for at least a week.  As a final check, he laid his cursor on the contact and pressed the ACQUIRE button on his joystick again.  The white rectangle turned red. Just one thing remained.  He pressed the IDENTIFY button and a graphic image with text flashed across his IPD.








He scrolled down through the familiar list of threat ground mines. None were sophisticated enough to cause a threat to his drone. “Now we’re cooking on gas.”


Smith scrolled through the TELEDAT formats and selected MINEFIND.  He cursored on the POPULATE command and the empty data fields were filled automatically with the appropriate data from his screens.  He also called up Drone 2’s sensor data for the past 10 minutes and appended it to the TELEDAT.  He checked over the finished product then remoted it to the Boss’s IDP.  Soon, it would be compressed and on its way to EURODEF HQ in a quick burst transmission bounced off a satellite.


There had been talk of a continuous link passing all real-time sensor information between EMDF units and EURODEF but the quantity of data and the burden of processing information had been considered too great to handle.  It was far better to be selective at grass roots level and only pass the useful stuff.  Still, nothing was lost and at the end of the mission, all the information would be downloaded to the central electronic archives for possible use later.




The drones were highly capable vehicles.  If necessary, they could settle on the seabed on their retractable skids and use their manipulators to perform quite complicated tasks.  They were loaded with specific payloads, including their batteries, for each mission.  These modular intervention packs, similar to aircraft cargo modules, could be exchanged whilst the drones were suspended in their mountings under the ship.  They were top loaded into bays in the midships section of each vehicle.  Munitions could include standard blast charge, expendable mini-ROVs like torpedoes but with a hovering capability and specialised warhead, and the explosive harpoon.


A non-explosive harpoon could also be delivered to fire an eyebolt or compressed air hose connector into a sunken hull for salvage purposes.


Reviewing his options for disposal, SMITH settled on using the explosive harpoon, four of which were loaded in each drone and ready for action according to his SSD.  Each unit consisted of a bottom-ballasted cylindrical pod about 1 metre long and 300 mm in diameter.   Once deployed on the seabed, the pod had wide splaying spring-out tripod legs that supported it in a vertical position where it resembled a thick gun barrel pointed downwards.  It was pre-loaded with a long thin metal bolt, barbed along its length and tipped with a tapered warhead containing a delayed action charge of insensitive explosive.


SMITH carefully manoeuvred the drone until its centre payload section was two metres directly over the PROBMINE.  Although he was actually 12,000 metres away, he felt as if he was sitting on top of the 500 kg charge of murderous explosive himself. He would have liked to have lowered the drone’s skids to settle it on the seabed but he knew the seismic pulse could be registered by the mine’s anti-intervention system.  Instead, he activated auto hover and the drone maintained its position delicately above the sea floor.  He gently deployed the harpoon pod using its telescoping placement rod.  The pod slid out of its bay and the tripod legs sprang out before it alighted on the soft floor of the ocean.  It maintained its position and SMITH was relieved he would not have to use the explosive bolt anchoring system contained in the tripod assembly.  He regained control of the drone and carefully manoeuvred clear of the site without entangling the command cable.  When the vehicle was at a safe distance, he buzzed the Boss.


“Boss, I’ve deployed an explosive harpoon.  It’s well positioned and holding steady. Bottom’s soft.  We should get a high order.  Drone is clear and we are at 12,000 metres. All ranges clear.  Request approval to fire.”


‘Approved,” came the brief reply.


Smith checked all round clear range once more then commanded the drone to send the firing pulse.  He hardly felt the explosion but his systems monitored a Class 1 underwater explosion on the right range and bearing.  Having informed the Boss (who knew anyway), he selected the MINEXREPTELEDAT format and the necessary fields auto­-filled with data.  As a final remark, he typed ‘CONTINUING OPERATIONS’ before remoting it to the Boss for release and transmission.


“Only another five hours to go,” he thought to himself.




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