Navy's COBRA Anti-mine Program Reaches Milestone

A sailor performs pre-flight checks on an MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter on board the littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3). The Fire Scout plays a key role in the Navy's COBRA anti-mine system. (US Navy photo/Tim Godbee)
A sailor performs pre-flight checks on an MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter on board the littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3). The Fire Scout plays a key role in the Navy's COBRA anti-mine system. (US Navy photo/Tim Godbee)

The Navy announced Friday that it has taken another step forward in a $34 million anti-mine program that relies on unmanned helicopters to support Marines hitting the beach.

On April 6, the San Diego-based littoral combat ship USS Coronado (LCS 4) successfully completed second-phase operational testing of the Coastal Battlefield Reconnaissance and Analysis (COBRA) system -- a milestone in a program that's spanned three decades.

Scientists won't have COBRA ready for service for at least four more years, but the Coronado's crew proved they can deploy an unmanned helicopter drone from sea to a potentially hostile coastline -- to ferret out lethal minefields before Marines storm ashore.

"The crew onboard was the perfect fit to conduct this testing," said Danny Lunden, a test director at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Ventura County, in a prepared statement emailed to The San Diego Union-Tribune. "We all worked so well together and did so in such a short amount of time."

Testing by the Coronado's crew on the highly-classified COBRA system began on Feb. 22 and leaned on help from the "Blackjacks" of North Island-based Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 21 and Mine Countermeasure Detachment 6 out of Naval Base San Diego.

"It is incredible how all three different entities came together to accomplish this mission," said Cmdr. Karl McCarthy, the Coronado's skipper. "It took an ample amount of time, dedication and teamwork from all parties to make this successful."

The Coronado returned four months ago from a tour of the Far East that began in mid-2016. It's been tagged as a testing vessel to help the Navy develop the latest technology and tactics for the littoral combat ship's three missions: Hunting and killing enemy surface warships, anti-submarine warfare and minesweeping.

"The Coronado was waiting to undergo maintenance in the shipyard and there was some time to do the testing," Lt. Miranda V. Williams, spokeswoman for Littoral Combat Ship Squadron 1, said by phone. "They were assessing the crews, the equipment and the overall effectiveness of the system. They feel like it went very well."

The Pentagon hopes littoral combat ships like the Coronado eventually replace the aging fleet of Avenger-class minesweepers, with one of their key missions locating bombs on a beach.

That starts with a littoral combat ship launching an MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter over a coastline. A multi-spectral camera mounted on it scans the beach and surf zone for minefields and obstacles. Software on the ship later sifts huge amounts of data to map minefields before grunts walk into them.

What began as a Marine program in the 1990s was transferred to the Navy in 2004. Because it relied on incremental development of the latest technology, Pentagon planners divided it into blocks.

During Block I, COBRA was supposed to find unburied mines and obstacles on a beach during the day. Block II, at nighttime. Block III, at all hours, buried and unburied, in the sand and the surf.

In 2011, Arete Associates won a $26 million deal to engineer and make three COBRAs, and the Pentagon added $8.5 million for the Arizona company to rig it to work on a littoral combat ship.

There have been problems along the way.

In 2015, the Pentagon disclosed that COBRA's gimbal was unable to fix on a single spot while shooting several images at the same time, potentially losing large portions of data that had to be analyzed later.

In a 2017 report, analysts reported that COBRA showed "marginal capability" but that it was still "better than any existing beach reconnaissance capability" and the Pentagon green-lighted further testing.

After similar experiments on board the littoral combat ship USS Independence (LCS 2) in July, the Navy declared COBRA's Block I system initially capable.

The Navy hopes to have the Block II system working by 2022, but has set no deadline for implementing the Block III technology.

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This article is written by Carl Prine from The San Diego Union-Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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