The crane whirred and whined, lifting the Remote Multi-Mission Vehicle (RMMV) toward the dock as the sailors tugged and pulled on lines to muscle the semi-submersible closer to the pier. They jockeyed the suspended craft back and forth to get it into position.
The pier-side RMMV capture-and-recovery evolutions are meant to hone the proficiency of the sailors who will do the job aboard the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) fleet. “It’s for operational training,” says Stephen Froelich, Lockheed Martin Palm Beach general manager and director of mission and unmanned systems. “That’s its whole purpose.”
Watching the sailors maneuver the RMMV, he says, “It’s not that much different from the ship. We use the same overhead crane they use, the same capture crane assembly. One of our goals is to make sure that the sailors feel comfortable operating this. You just need to get the RMMV captured. After that, it’s about hauling it in and bringing it up.”
U.S. Navy officials acknowledge sailors are now getting better with RMMV launch-and-recovery operations. LCS program officials say they are no longer seeing the damage they used to see. And the whole system is much more reliable, they say.
All of that is important – the RMMV is one of the stars for LCS mine-warfare operations.
The RMMV being brought back to the Palm Beach dock had just finished a simulated mine-hunting mission out in the Atlantic. “It was a bottom-contour following,” he says, “shallow – very near the bottom, It just kind of hugs the bottom and looks for mines out of the side.”
The RMMV’s touted stability comes in handy during such missions, he says.
The Lockheed facility is a nursery of sorts for LCS mine warfare equipment, training and ideas. Decades ago, site had gained some fame under previous owners for its work with such things as the Lotus Esprit car-sub and shark-hunter subs used in the James Bond flick “Spy Who Loved Me.”
Now, the facility features 450 employees -- more than half of whom are engineers. About 80 percent of the workforce has at least one degree.
And then there’s the facility’s location.
“You’re in deep water really quick,” he says. “Our operational area is south of here, maybe three miles, and it goes out for about 9 miles, and it goes down for another 13 miles.”
This is where Lockheed does its nonsubmarine undersea work.
“We have the ability to launch in many ways,” he says. “We have organization on the waterfront to help us out, if we need extra boats.”
Deep-water access is important for developing undersea equipment for use in LCS and other programs.
For every 15 feet down,” he notes, “there is another atmosphere of pressure. It doesn’t take very long before your hardest engineering problem becomes pressure, not necessarily water intrusion, although they tend to go hand in hand.”
Pressure-proofing becomes just as important as waterproofing.
If only Lockheed could find a way to pressure-proof the LCS program, which is feeling the weight of added scrutiny by lawmakers in the wake of a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.
The GAO investigated LCS following demands by lawmakers after last year’s Aviation Week stories highlighting continuing problems with the program.
The GAO highlighted issues with the LCS sea frames and mission modules – including the counter-mine (MCM) package that features the RMMV.
But recent Lockheed and Navy tours and interviews at its Florida sites show the RMMV appears to be in much better shape that it may have appeared.
The simulated shallow-mine search mission and increasingly better launch-and-recovery training in Palm Beach also appears to show RMMV development is back on track.
Back on the Palm Beach dock, sailors sprayed the suspended RMMV to wash off the saltwater. It’s going to be a bit harder to wipe away the taint from the GAO report and the questions that continue to dog the LCS program.