Lt Jason Croke with his Navy Diving Unit colleagues in Portugal. Niall O'Connor/The Journal

Deep dive: On site with Ireland's undersea drone experts for a major military exercise

The Journal recently traveled to the Portuguese coast to observe a major military exercise testing drones and undersea tech.

HIGH IN A fort overlooking the Portuguese resort town of Sesimbra a group of Irish naval divers were working with Polish colleagues. 

The team and their Polish counterparts were examining data on computers and maintaining torpedo shaped devices.

In the bay below were a number of NATO warships from Spain and Portugal. In a nearby, bigger tent there were teams from other nations – flags from the US, Germany and France on display. 

The Irish divers were in the seaside town an hour south of Lisbon as part of the NATO Partnership for Peace initiative for a major military and scientific exercise looking at the use of undersea drones to deal with everything from sunken ships to protecting critical infrastructure like internet cables.

The exercise, which took place last month, was held at coastal towns an hour south of Lisbon where NATO and partner nation navies gathered to test new technology.

What happens? 

REPMUS, or Robotic Experimentation and Prototyping with Maritime Unmanned Systems, is a Portuguese-led exercise and focuses on developing the equipment to the point of it having a guaranteed effectiveness where it is used across all allied nations.

A second event, Dynamic Messenger, also takes place in tandem when some of the technology is exercised by militaries and scientists to test it in real world scenarios. 

The exercise has been held in a purpose built Portuguese naval drone testing base on the beautiful sand beaches of Troia Bay since 2004.

Some of the testing this year took place off the coast of Sesimbra where NATO has dropped a dummy length of undersea cable to test how the tech detects attacks on the system. 

IMG_5947 A Remus device, similar to the Irish Naval Service vehicle, in the water during REPMUS exercise. NATO NATO

Internet cables

Critically for this exercise, the area is the landing point for the undersea cables Atlantis Two and Sat-3/WASC.

There were multiple locations where drone manufacturers, scientists and Portuguese and Spanish naval vessels were carrying out experiments with the dummy subsea cable on the seabed.

The Irish team at the event was led by Lieutenant Jason Croke who is second in command of the Irish Naval Dive Section which is based at the Haulbowline Naval Base in Cork Harbour.  

“We are part of REPMUS, the experimentation exercise, and we are here with other nations operating unmanned undersea devices,” he said.  

The device he’s discussing with The Journal is a Remus 100 – it is a torpedo shaped unit which can be sent into the depths to give the navy a picture of what is below. It has a side scan sonar which can give a detailed picture of what is on the seabed and also has a camera on the front of the nose. 

The 100 in the title is the depth it can descend to – but other Remus devices can go much deeper. It has already been used successful in an operation to recover the body of a seafarer whose body was found inside the sunken trawler Alize off Hook Head. 

The naval operators programme the device with a plan of where they need it to go – it then goes into the water and about its work autonomously before returning to the mothership, in this case a Naval Service ship. 

It was delivered to the Irish navy in the wake of the search for Rescue 116 – the Coast Guard helicopter that crashed killing its crew off the west coast in 2017.

Croke said that the team are integrated in the exercise and everyday they are given an area to search. The data gathered from this undersea test is sent to a central data analysis centre and this determines and measures how effective the drone is.

“We are involved fully in the exercise – for us it is a great learning opportunity for us. The best military operators of these vehicles are here – the manufacturers of the equipment are here also. 

“We are here and absorbing as much information as we can – it is really beneficial for us. 

“This is part of the Partnership for Peace initiative and it isn’t solely a NATO nation exercise. We are here, the Japanese and South Koreans are also here – it is a great way to get sight of international best practice.”

The Irish Navy, Croke said, are getting particular insights into the processes and procedures used by the big navies and then looking how they could be employed in Irish military operations. 

“We use this device in search and recovery capacity at home, we also use it for unexploded ordnance in the maritime environment, this could be a mine or a grenade. 

“This vehicle makes that work much safer because we can map, scan and determine what is there without having to send in a diver. But it also gives a capability to search a huge area in an hour and half – to search same area with a diver would take days.

“There are an endless amount of cables coming into Ireland and this piece of equipment could be used to survey certain parts of that cable,” he added. 

The atmosphere in Troia was akin to a trade fair at a military base – dozens of drones, subsea and air, were being tested. 

IMG_5705 Captain Ken Minehane, second in charge of the Irish Naval Service.

The Journal also met and spoke to Captain Ken Minehane, who is in charge of Naval Operations Command of the Irish Naval Service. He is also second in command of the service, and was in the drone test base at Troia. 

He was observing the activities and said that the Partnership for Peace initiative had enabled the dive unit to learn from other countries and develop new, more efficient and safer practises.  

“We can also verify that our dive section, for instance, is working to the best international standard – we must always review our standard.”

Minehane said that the REPMUS exercise would “gives us the ability to view the developments around unmanned platforms both subsea, surface and air”. 

“It is something that we keep doing on a continuous basis and looking at the market and seeing what is developing and it is important that we follow what industry and other militaries are doing. 

“There are a couple of systems I saw here and we will follow up with the companies, it would be to improve the intelligence gathering. We need to make our operations smarter by getting more intelligence,” he said.

Scientists from across the world travelled to the event, and, in conjunction with the navies, tested undersea drones. 

The focus of REPMUS was to look at developing undersea craft that could work to deal with everything from floating drifting mines other more fixed mines below the surface.

Drifting mines

During a briefing with a French Naval officer who is working with NATO, we were told there are significant problems, particularly in the Black Sea, with drifting mines.

The official told us that it is either an act, likely by Russia, to disturb maritime traffic but more likely an unintended consequence of Russian naval forces minesweeping and cutting the cables of sunken sea mines laid by Ukraine in the war. 

These then drift south in to shipping lanes – as recently as last week a ship in Romania was suspected to be struck by such a device. 

The Portuguese navy provided most of the ships to facilitate those exercises and one of those was the NRP Sires – a mine laying vessel.

They were launching drones into the water to test technology to detect not just drifting mines but also maritime mine fields generally.

Captain of that ship Commander Ricardo Laces Teixeira, who patrols 1,400 nautical miles out into Portugal’s massive Exclusive Economic Zone, leads a ship of specialists in mine warfare.

“These autonomous vehicles help with one of the big issues that mine hunting has – it removes the human from this activity. 

“It is a huge achievement and it allows us to patrol and surveil an area when we risk our people or the ship.

“It makes us feel more safe – it is always the best strategy to remove the people out of it, it is a very difficult situation to fight but with these vehicles it is a huge achievement,” he said. 

IMG_5639 Commander Ricardo Laces Teixeira or the NRP Sines.

Back at Troia, at the drone base, a NATO official who works in the alliance’s defence investment section, said that the work being carried out in Dynamic Messenger and REPMUS could make it much cheaper for nations to protect their waters.

He said there are technologies being developed whereby countries and industry could monitor subsea cables in real time by attaching sensors to cables. 

He believes that a fleet of drones, both air and subsea, could be deployed from naval vessels to deal with threats such as submarines in the near future and cost as little as €5m. This tech could consist of autonomous small aircraft, surface drones, sub surface drones and a towed array of sensors for naval ships.

“This isn’t really the future because it is here, we are seeing it here in Portugal, this technology could fend off targets such as submarines,” the official said.    

“There is now technology also that can alert us to threats – we can detect this and the location where it is and send ships or aircraft to investigate. Sometimes it is seismic events but it can be ships,” he added.

Malign activity

Nokia told The Journal, at the event, that they are working on technology to monitor cables and that they will show this capability to Irish Defence Forces and gardaí in October.

General Hans-Werner Wiermann, head of Critical Undersea Infrastructure Co-ordination, said that “malign activity” would have to be responded to by surface vessels for the time being but that there are capabilities being developed that would revolutionise how Navies operate. 

He was appointed in the wake of the Nord Stream pipeline sabotage incident near Danish island of Bornholm at the end of September 2022. 

“We have the sensors now, we can characterise, using Artificial Intelligence, what those sensors are hearing and seeing. 

“We are working to make sure that no one gets away with tampering with critical undersea infrastructure. 

“At same time it is heartening with what can be achieved in a short period of time and the situation is improving. At the end we can’t protect every piece of undersea cables but if we can detect suspicious behaviour we can send a strong deterrent signal,” he said.  

IMG_5713 General Hans-Werner Wiermann of NATO's head of Critical Undersea Infrastructure Coordination at Troia. Niall O'Connor / The Journal Niall O'Connor / The Journal / The Journal

The General said that NATO are operating outside of Ireland’s territorial waters and that this is the strategy for alliance nations. 

While the General would not be drawn on the political issues around Ireland’s partnership with NATO he said that he did not believe that its non-membership was having an impact on the protection of undersea cables. 

Admiral Keith Blount of the Royal Navy, who is NATO’s Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe also spoke to The Journal and echoed these sentiments.

“Well your country [Ireland] is here and that is a very good sign. That spirit is one that we would encourage all countries to be part of whether a member of the Alliance or not. 

“There are many partner nations here and they are now part of that community trying to develop the future capabilities for all of our militaries,” he said. 

Talking to the officials in Troia and Sesimbra it is clear that their feelings is that they are part of something significant and historic happening that will change maritime security for ever. 

Necessity is the mother of all invention as the old saying goes. There is a lot of talk of Nord Stream and Ukraine for European officials and some officials referenced the arrival, unchallenged, of Russian ships off the south coast.

It is clear that naval operating models are taking a dramatic turn across Europe and as one official put it, that may well be the catalyst for a revolution in Irish naval strategy. 

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