That the SA Navy’s mine counter-measures (MCM) remains an effective and efficient component of the maritime arm of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) was ably demonstrated during Exercise Phoenix in Mossel Bay recently.
“Captain Theo Stokes, MCM squadron commander, and his personnel rose to the task given by Flag Officer Fleet Rear Admiral Bubele Mhlana to arrest the decline and stabilise the fleet,” Chief Petty Officer Byron Lombard reports.
This saw the MCM branch move lock, stock and an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to conduct the exercise. The main aim of Exercise Phoenix was to transfer skills and knowledge to operators. No less important was rebuilding overall MCM capabilities.
According to Stokes the exercise was designed primarily to collect data off Mossel Bay utilising technology transfer between the Simon’s Town-based Institute for Maritime Technology (IMT) and the MCM squadron using IMT’s Remus 100 AUV fitted with side-scanning sonar technology.
The MCM squadron is positioning itself for the new technology which Project Motsu will deliver. Phoenix provided the opportunity to see and utilise the AUV’s capabilities and incorporate it into the MCM toolbox. During the exercise information on the AUV’s limitations as regards different weather conditions, topography and water depth was all gathered and will be put to future use.
Navy divers also formed part of Phoenix and are scheduled to be staffed aboard MCM vessels in future. Their task will centre on finding mine-like objects (MLOs).
As far as the future of MCM operations in the Navy is concerned, Commander Werner Stassen sees IMT assisting with hardware and knowledge. This input will decrease over time and be handed to MCM operators who gain the needed knowledge and skills during exercises such as Phoenix.
Stassen added that operators involved in Exercise Phoenix had made valuable suggestions on classifying objects and cleaning data. “All the data collected was presented to both Fleet Command and the Navy Office.”
The skills transfer aspect of Phoenix saw leading seamen Gavin Gain and Sion Meyer, among others, learn how to process raw data from the Remus AUV as well as doing interpretation before turning the data into picture format. This post processing element is done using Sonarwiz and Sea Scan survey software.
“They look for contacts on the raw data and mark them in categories such as objects of interest, MLOs and non-MLOs. It was a case of on-the-job training during the exercise which can be lost if these members are transferred to other units,” Lombard said.
“IMT gives scientific support for the AUV used in Exercise Phoenix but once the Navy has its own AUV they will have a better understanding of its limitations and operating parameters. This will lead to the development of doctrine and standard operating procedures (SOPs) to boost maritime security,” IMT domain leader Jorg Schid said.
Pictures by CPO Byron Lombard