‘If you can combat mines here, you can do it anywhere’

In 2005, three Dutch fishermen were killed after a war bomb landed in their net exploded on deck. Such tragic incidents are fortunately rare. Nevertheless, the Belgian, Dutch and French navies are doing all they can to clear the North Sea of ​​bombs.

‘It is extremely important that we clear our waters,’ says Lieutenant Commander First Class Olivier Vogels. “The West Sea is a very busy place. There are more than a thousand ship movements every day. This means that we have one of the busiest sea routes in the world. But there is also a lot of fishing, there are sand mining areas, wind farms and nature reserves. And all that in a very limited space.’

The risk of a collision with historical ammunition is real, says Vogels. ‘If that happens, all shipping in the region will come to a standstill. After all, every ship is a minesweeper, if only once. Such an incident can cause enormous financial damage. Just look at the consequences of the container ship Ever Given that ran aground in the Suez Canal last year.’

In the command room, operators interpret the sonar images. What place on the screen can be a mine?

The Belgian navy, which is based in Zeebrugge, deals with the detection, mapping and destruction of mines and explosives in the North Sea. ‘Every year we find and destroy about twenty mines off our coast,’ says Lieutenant Commander Pieter Vanhessche. This finding is not obvious. ‘We have a challenging piece of sea here. The water is murky and shallow. There is also a lot of current, which means that sandbars on the bottom move very quickly. If we find a mine, we must defuse it before it is buried under the sand again. And we must also coordinate our actions well with all activities in and at sea.’

The agency built a strong reputation for clearing mines to make waterways safer. ‘If you can combat mines and explosives here in the North Sea, you can do it anywhere,’ says Vogels. ‘We are asked for our expertise worldwide.’

Search and destroy

If I asked you to draw a sea mine, what would it look like? Chances are you’re now thinking of a spiked ball attached to the sea floor by a chain. In reality, the variation is great. “Navy mines can respond to magnetic, acoustic or pressure signals,” says Vogels. ‘There are even mines that allow a certain number of ships to pass, only to explode at, say, the fourth ship.’

The Seafox mini-sub is sent to explore.

There are also different options in the hunt for mines. The oldest and riskiest concept is the minesweeper. A minesweeper is towed behind the ship and mimics a ship. The goal is then simply to set the mine in motion and thus destroy it. “We don’t work that way anymore,” says Vogels. “We have switched to mine hunting. A minesweeper actively searches for explosives and then destroys them in a controlled manner with explosives.’

Vogels and Vanhessche invite me aboard the minesweeper Primula to demonstrate its operation. “A mine hunter is built to enter a minefield with as little risk as possible,” says Vanhessche. “In addition, the ship must have the smallest possible signature. It is the sum of all the ship’s (material) properties which can be detected by radars or mines.’

“The hull is not made of steel, but of fiberglass. The upper structure is made of aluminum. Only then come the metal parts. Once the ship is in the minefield, the captain also switches to an electric engine instead of a diesel engine. These interventions make the ship practically invisible to the mines’ sensors.’

In the meantime, we have descended in Primula to the command center. It is a compact room with a low ceiling, in which as much equipment as possible is placed. The mine hunters look for suspicious objects on the seabed or in a water column on the computer screens. To do this, they lower a drone with sonar into the seawater.

Sandbanks, shipping, nature reserves and fishing zones make the North Sea a busy and complex place to search for mines.

‘On the screen we only see a map of the seabed and possible objects in black and white tones,’ says mine hunting assistant Deborah Bernaert. “Initially, we therefore cannot see what object it is. It can be a rock or a dumped fridge, but also a mine. We try to assess this based on the object’s dimensions, depth and size.’

‘If an object seems suspicious, we send the Seafox to it first. It is an unmanned mini-submarine with a camera on board to view the object. If it turns out to be a mine, divers descend to detonate explosives on it.’ Then an impressive explosion follows. “You may have experienced it dozens of times, a bomb exploding at sea is still a brilliant experience,” adds Vogels.

Unmanned minesweepers of the future

With Seafox, the Navy has been using drones to detect mines since the 1980s. By 2024, she expects six new mine countermeasures vessels. From then on, the entire process, from detection to destruction, becomes unmanned.

‘In the new concept that we have devised here in Belgium, the mothership remains at a great distance from the minefield, up to twenty kilometres,’ says Vanhessche. “From there, flying, sailing and diving drones are sent into the minefield. In this way, we can work faster and more safely, because the crew is outside the risk area.’

The yellow mini submarine inspects suspicious objects more closely to see if they are dangerous munitions.

‘The mothership unloads a drone that uses sonar to search for mines. Another drone can take a closer look at the mine, and a third can defuse it. The motherships will be built in Concarneau (France) at Naval Group. robotic technology. The drones are being built in Ostend by the technology company ECA Robotics Belgium.’

The first ship already has a name, Oostende, and a meter, sailor Emma Plasschaert. “The first missions are expected to take place in 2024,” says Vogels. ‘The whole world will then see this innovative concept.’

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