Tactical Employment of Drone Motherships

As discussed in an earlier post, dynamics between unmanned naval systems and the platforms that carry them are changing rapidly to accommodate new technologies and tactics.  Arguably, various types of drone motherships have the potential to transform mine countermeasures more than any other warfare area, and the evolution in mine-countermeasures tactics towards the mothership-unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) partnership is already underway.  One of the first major demonstrations of this concept occurred last summer during the U.S. 5th Fleet’s International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX), when a number of UUVs were tested from large amphibious motherships including USS Ponce (AFSB(I)-15).

Essentially, the Navy is moving from dedicated MCM ships, such as the Avenger-class minesweeper, to a trio of platforms operating together: a Generation I mothership (ex: an AFSB) carrying Generation II platforms (ex: manned RHIBs) and the UUVs themselves.  The Gen I mothership provides the endurance and sustainment to the package.  The RHIBs (specially modified to carry UUVs, as pictured below) take the mine-hunting or neutralization payloads off-board to minimize danger to the larger mothership.  And the payloads – in this case, high-resolution imaging sonars – are delivered to the target area via a small UUV.  Another option for getting the sensor/sweeping delivery systems to their operating area is using drones carrying drones, such as the French Espadon or Fleet-class Common Unmanned Surface Vessels (CUSV), launched from Gen III motherships like the Littoral Combat Ship’s (LCS).

Civilian mariners aboard Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) Ship USS Ponce (ASFB(I) 15) lower an 11-meter rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) to conduct tests on two M18 Mod 2 Kingfish Unmanned Underwater Vehicles. Ponce, formerly designated as an amphibious transport dock (LPD) ship, was converted and reclassified in April to fulfill a long-standing U.S. Central Command request for an AFSB to be located in its area of responsibility.
Civilian mariners aboard Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) Ship USS Ponce (ASFB(I) 15) lower an 11-meter rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) to conduct tests on two M18 Mod 2 Kingfish Unmanned Underwater Vehicles. Ponce, formerly designated as an amphibious transport dock (LPD) ship, was converted and reclassified in April to fulfill a long-standing U.S. Central Command request for an AFSB to be located in its area of responsibility.

A further example of an innovative drone carrier was revealed during the January 2013 Surface Navy Association’s annual meeting, when Major General Timothy C. Hanifen, USMC, Director, of OPNAV’s Expeditionary Warfare Division (N95) discussed how the U.S. Navy will demonstrate the forthcoming MK VI Coastal Patrol Boat to carry and launch UUVs for mine hunting and neutralization. 

There are likely a couple of reasons for this movement towards alternative motherships such as USS Ponce and smaller platforms like the MK VI to carrying MCM drones.  Clearing an area of mines is a complicated, methodical operation.  Simply described, mine clearance involves getting equipment (sonar, sweeping gear, and/or neutralization charges) on target to locate, classify, and neutralize mines as rapidly as possible in a port, shipping lane, or other expanse of water.  Generally speaking, more sensors moving more quickly over a wider area will complete the mission in less time, which is why airborne mine-sweeping and -hunting operations have proven so important.  Deploying smaller manned and unmanned craft from a larger ship, each carrying more than one mine-hunting or mine-neutralization vehicle will get more mine-hunting equipment in the water.  A single minesweeper can utilize one sonar and moves slowly through the water from mine to mine.  The mothership/drone combination multiplies the number of sonars in the water several times.  This unconventional platform experimentation is also likely a response to the technical problems and delays in deploying a viable mine warfare mission package on the Littoral Combat Ship, especially with the RMMV. 

The Chief of Naval Operations’ push for “payload over platforms” will lead to additional experimentation with other mothership/drone pairings.  Expect to see new combinations of unmanned vehicle carriers expanded into other warfare areas, including anti-surface (ASUW), anti-submarine (ASW), and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR).

This article was re-posted by permission from, and appeared in its original form at NavalDrones.com.

6 thoughts on “Tactical Employment of Drone Motherships”

  1. In the quote from N85 we AGAIN see a Marine general talking about naval vessels doing things they can NOT do. The Mk VI PB has very little open deck area. There is NO more room to load, lift and launch UUVs unless they are the small ones. (I have seen that before on 34 ft HSLs which had a cockpit too small even for a small side scan bird). Nor does the Mk VI PB possess the endurance needed to perform a long mine clearance and neutralization operation. Trying to use multiple PB sized platforms is even more problematic because those patrol boats are intended to work in & out of friendly ports, and the USN does not have an active ship which can support them the way that MCS or AGP tenders did before.

    The USN needs a better platform to operate in the littorals which is actually capable of lifting the payloads being considered.

    The Navy will need to define the rqmts for the next-gen AFSB much better than it has now using MLP nee AFSB as baseline. But I see the Navy usually defaulting to an old amphib with a wet well dock?~~

    1. Lee – It appears they are going to try using the MK VI in this capacity. New UUVs with side scan sonar such as REMUS 100 are deployable from a zodiac (only about 80lbs) and one or two could easily fit aboard such a PB. Look at the geography in a place like the Persian Gulf and you’ll see how it might make sense to use this sort of mothership/PB/UUV combination, operating several of them around the clock from a gator’s welldeck.

      1. @ND I was referring to small side scanners in original post which do not go far towards mine neutralization, and I still question the Mk VI PB capability to deploy & control larger UUVs referred to in article?

        You are assuming that a 80 ft ~ PB with deep vee hull and tall superstructure WILL fit in a wet well. I am NOT.

        Did you look at Mk VI PB drawing? I could not find any reference to aft deck size. One has to have room to maneuver the over-board equipment around and a place to stow them which is complicated IF multiple items are carried (even an 80 lb object~).

        1. P.S. Safe Boats in a prerel has confirmed that the Mk VI is 78 ft long. And the Navy is only buying SIX boats over the next FIVE years. So there will NOT be many of those assets to deploy as foreseen by some flag in DC~

  2. I was driving around Little Creek yesterday, and saw they were installing the IR .50 cals on the harbor patrol boats and I thought how wonderful it would be to have an autonomous one of those in the boat-deck of a PC.

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