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This graphic illustation of Sea Predator is shown deploying a gateway buoy node. These buoys would help establish a perimeter around a sea base.

Sea Predator A Vision for Tommorrow's Autonomous Undersea Weapons
by Dr. Ray Widmayer and Dr. Scott C. Truver


Question: What weapon can meet all of these demanding challenges? One that:

  • to be operational after deployment, requires no person in the loop
  • can be located many miles from any manned ship
  • will wait patiently, possibly for months, until the enemy approaches
  • will attack with great success when the enemy does appear
  • upon the end of a pre-determined lifetime, will automatically sterilize, rendering itself harmless
  • serves as a force multiplier, reducing the number of manned platforms required

Answer: Today’s sea mine. And mines have been doing these things since World War I. And even before then! Very well!

  • Sea mines were the “torpedoes” that Rear Adm. David G. Farragut damned in 1864 during the Civil War Battle of Mobile Bay.
  • Sea mines were the weapons that were used as a North Sea blockade to German U-Boat transits in World War I.
  • Sea mines were the weapons that sank or severely damaged some 3,000 Axis ships in World War II, and were the weapons that nearly strangled Japan in the closing months of that war.
  • Sea mines were the weapons that helped bring North Vietnam to the negotiating table after the blockade of Haiphong Harbor.
  • Sea mines were the weapon of choice in attempting to block the Strait of Hormuz and spiking oil prices during the 1987 tanker war.
  • Sea mines have damaged more U. S. ships than any other maritime weapon since the Korean War.

In fact, sea mines were the world’s first autonomous, unmanned weapon – the first military robots. Even today, defending against the sea mine stimulates all the effort now underway in the U.S. Navy’s mine countermeasures area and at least one shipbuilding program. Extremely lethal, easy to use – even by a country with little other naval warfare capability – sea mines are exceptionally difficult to counter, even with the sophisticated mine countermeasures systems the U.S. Navy and America’s coalition partners, allies, and friends are developing.

Notwithstanding all of these strong attributes, the Navy’s willingness to use sea mines has diminished over the years because of a number of negative “associations” – some real and some perceived. For example, many believe:

  • the use of sea mines is militarily and politically provocative;
  • it takes an excessive number of delivery sorties to plant an effective minefield;
  • mines can restrict our own platforms’ freedom of maneuver;
  • mines require an excessive level of effort to remove after the mission is complete;
  • the rules of engagement are too restrictive; and
  • that sea mines are only used by belligerent rogue countries.

So the real question is how the Navy can capitalize in the future on the unique, battle-proven capabilities of past and current sea mines – to provide a lethal option for future littoral warfare in full consonance with the political and military demands of modern, joint-warfare operations. The answer is to embrace available sea mine technology but in a totally different – and “transformational”- manner than employed previously. The result will be a new, networked sea-mine weapon system able to support 21st-century joint forces in ways that will produce only positive results, without the negative associations summarized above. In fact, the transformational mine-like weapons of the 21st century may not be mines in the classic, conventional sense at all; they may actually be mobile, unmanned undersea weapons – “Sea Predators” – tirelessly on duty protecting the Fleet.

An incipient Navy program for the 21st century, the Sea Predator mine will take advantage of the basic mine characteristics that have served so well for so long – high-lethality, long-endurance, man-out-of-the-loop, strong psychological impact, and force-multiplying features that free manned platforms for other duties – to name a few. Sea Predator, however, will also exploit 21st-century technology to achieve autonomous UUV-like mobility, remote control, and exceptionally large damage width. Further, Sea Predator will be fully networked within the FORCEnet of distributed sensing and command-control-and-communications (C3) channels under development within the Navy.

Four basic questions need to be answered about this proposed Sea Predator:

  • Why do we need a Sea Predator mine in the first place?
  • What are the operational requirements?
  • What are the technology enablers?
  • What is the way ahead?

The Need for Sea Predator

Among the Naval Power 21/Sea Power 21 pillars of Sea Basing, Sea Shield, and Sea Strike – combined with the overarching FORCEnet – Sea Basing is the central axis around which the others revolve. Although it eliminates the difficult defensive issues associated with a land base, the Sea Base (typically some 50 x 50 nm or larger in size, located 100 nm or farther off shore) is unfortunately prey to a whole new array of enemy threats, primarily those associated with diesel submarines, fast swarming boats, and mines – in addition to vulnerability to air attack. Protection of the Sea Base is therefore fundamental to successful military operation there. Without the Sea Base, the other pillars are meaningless.

If the most lethal threat is the enemy submarine, protection of the Sea Base is a perfect job for the Sea Predator mine. In fact, while not specifying any particular weapon system, the approved ASW Concept of Operations (CONOPS) of December 2004 virtually prescribes a mine-like system – like Sea Predator – as a key player defending the Sea Base from future submarines. Sea Predator fits the ASW CONOPS like a glove – not as the only player, but certainly as a key element of the ASW team protecting the Sea Base.

Specifically, the ASW CONOPS observes that “limitations in current weapons reach and sensor integration drives many of today’s ASW operations toward ‘force on force’ engagements that place our forces at risk.” The CONOPS goes on to indicate that “our intent is to apply network centric warfare to dominate the environment by using unmanned vehicles, common operating pictures, and standoff precision weapons.” The CONOPS continues in noting that in the future, ASW will shift from “platform-intensive” to “sensor-rich” operations.

Similarly, another recently promulgated planning document, the Navy Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (UUV) Master Plan, (approved Nov. 9, 2004) supports the case for Sea Predator for protection of the Sea Base by advocating major roles for UUVs in the future of undersea warfare. The use of UUVs as launch platforms for weapons – which could protect the sea base – is identified, thereby providing the capability “to deliver ordnance to a target with sensor-to-shooter closure measured in seconds rather than minutes or hours.” As with the ASW CONOPS, Sea Predator is not specifically identified in the UUV Master Plan, but the fit is obvious.