Looking For an Elusive Mine-Countermeasures Solution

By Robbin Laird

Earlier this month, I headed west on what I intended to be a naval aviation-focused trip.

I spent the better part of a week with the tactical aviation community in Fallon Nevada, followed by time in San Diego interviewing the Commander Naval Air Forces, the “Air Boss,” as well as several squadron commanders.

While I was in San Diego, through a series of serendipitous events, my focus turned to the surface Navy when I learned that several unmanned maritime systems manufacturers and systems integrators had brought their gear to San Diego—a major fleet concentration area—to demonstrate an autonomous mine countermeasures capability.

Through my work with not just the U.S. Navy, but with many NATO and other foreign navies, I know how challenging mine countermeasures can be.

And Murielle Delaporte, the Co-Founder of Second Line of Defense and the editor of Operationnels SLDS, spent significant time with a NATO force in 2015 doing counter mine operations in the North Sea. In her interview with the Commander of the NATO task force, Commander Peter A.J. Bergen Henegouwen highlighted the challenge of hunting mines with an aging fleet.

Most of our MCMVs [Mine Counter-Measures Vessels] are getting older and during a period of two weeks of operations, they will have some defects in some way. 

If the crews are not capable of repairing their own equipment, we are depending on shore assistance.

Each nation has indeed various levels of readiness, but in this Group, the equipment onboard each ship seems comparable.

Is there an “ideal Group” from your standpoint as far as its composition is concerned and how do you adjust to potential interoperability issues?

Logistically, it would be very nice to have all the same ships, so we could always have a 100% operational readiness.

However – and that is a big “however,” MCM is a very difficult type of warfare, since we are searching for small objects on the sea bottom, while conditions are not always that favorable.

If you have a clear sandy bottom and you put a soda can on top of it, most of our mine hunters will find it.

In 90% of the cases unfortunately, it is not that easy.

There are rocks on the bottom, or, if there is indeed a sandy bottom, it is in constant motion like dunes. In the coastal area, you face a lot of mud in which objects tend to sink.

So finding sea mines is not always easy.

Given the need for both new capabilities and the growing impact of what sea mines and other types of mines could do in the hands of adversaries to either delay or destroy US and allied fleets, clearly this area of work on shaping new autonomous mine hunting capability is of strategic significance and impact.

It is not just a peripheral tactical issue,

Therefore, I took the opportunity to see a demonstration of this new capability using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) systems.

What I saw not only intrigued me, but gave me the confidences that the U.S. Navy, as well as other navies, can solve the vexing mine warfare challenge in the near term by leveraging evolving autonomous systems technlogies.

This clearly could be an early operational learning point for opening the new chapter in how maritime remotes can provide augmentation of the the effectiveness, survivability and the lethality of the maritime force.

Mine Warfare: Not a New Challenge

Mine warfare is as old as the American Republic. Since the invention of the Bushnell Keg in 1776, mines have been an important element of naval warfare. Some 130 years ago, Admiral David Farragut became famous for “damning torpedoes” (mines) at the entrance to Mobile Bay during the Civil War. Mines have figured significantly in every major armed conflict and nearly every regional conflict in which the United States has been involved.

In the past several decades, rogue states have indiscriminately employed sea mines.  Libya used mines to disrupt commerce in the Gulf of Suez and the Strait of Bab el Mandeb.  Iran laid mines to hazard military and commercial traffic in the Arabian Gulf and Gulf of Oman.  During Operation Desert Storm in 1990-1991, the threat of mines precluded the effective use of the Navy and Marine Corps expeditionary task force off the shores of Kuwait and hazarded all U.S. and coalition forces operating in the Arabian Gulf.  Indeed, Operation Desert Storm highlighted the importance of mine warfare with the severe damage to the USS Princeton (CG 59), the USS Tripoli (LPH 10) and the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG 58).

In terms of availability, variety, cost-effectiveness, ease of deployment and potential impact on naval expeditionary operations, mines are some of the most attractive weapons available to any adversary determined to prevent Joint or coalition forces from achieving access to sea lines of communications or the littorals.

Worldwide proliferation of mines compounds this challenge.  The number of countries with mines, mining assets, mine manufacturing capabilities, and the intention to export mines has grown dramatically over the past several decades. More than 50 countries possess mines and mining capability. Of these, 30 countries have demonstrated a mine production capability and 20 have attempted to export these weapons.  In a comprehensive article in the Naval War College Review, naval analyst and a colleague with whom I have worked with from many years Dr. Scott Truver highlighted the danger posed by China’s mine warfare capabilities as well as those of other potentially hostile nations where he noted:

The mine warfare experiences of America and other nations are not lost on the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Chinese naval analysts and historians understand the asymmetric potential for mine warfare to “baffle the enemy, and thus achieve exceptional combat results.”

Mines provide what some have described as affordable security via asymmetric means.

U.S. Navy Efforts to Deal with the Mine Warfare Challenge

For those with stewardship for the U.S. Navy’s mine warfare capabilities, the old saw about meteorological phenomena rings true; “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.”

Over the past several decades, the U.S. Navy has articulated a commitment to deliver robust mine countermeasures assets to the Fleet.

Sadly, this aspirational vision has yet to be realized.

I believe that might have been all right when the United States was a “uni-power” and had unfettered access to the oceans and the littorals.

However, today the Navy must accelerate its efforts to field effective mine countermeasures in an era of renewed great power competition.

The situation has become so dire that naval professionals are identifying the magnitude of the problem and calling for a near-term solution.

Writing for the U.S. Naval Institute Blog, Lieutenant Commander Jon Paris, an officer who has served on cruisers, destroyers and minesweepers, put the challenge this way:

“The U.S. Navy is focused on high-end warfare—engaging anti-ship cruise missiles, defeating hypersonic weapons, protecting the homeland and allies from ballistic missiles, and operating the air wing far from shore in a command-and-control degraded environment.

“We are focused on defeating those we sometimes still call “near-peer” competitors.

“Our fleet’s muscle will not make it to the high-end fight, though, if it fears the deceptively destructive naval mine.”

A month later, another serving naval officer, Lieutenant John Miller, said this in his first-place prize-winning essay in the Naval Institute’s Mine Warfare Essay Contest (sponsored by the Mine Warfare Association):

“The U.S. Navy knows that its current adversaries pose a substantial offensive mining threat.

“Russia, China, and Iran each possess—and too often export—an advanced, robust, and mature offensive mine capability.

“The U.S. Navy must consider if it has the speed and resources with which to respond to restore freedom of maneuver in the event of sustained mining.”

Mines are inexpensive.

They present a fiscally efficient option to foes with a substantial return on investment.

They are easy to deploy and are difficult to combat.

They are stealthy and disrupt the world’s sea lanes and are built to guarantee a mission kill. Just the threat of their use or the rumor of their presence has immediate tactical and strategic impact, whether it is merchant ships avoiding chokepoints or harbors, causing untold damage to the economy, or billion-dollar naval vessels held at arm’s length, allowing belligerents to buy time and achieve objectives.

For all navies, there is only one way to completely, “Take the Sailor out of the minefield,” and that is to leverage remotely operated vehicles and autonomous systems to hunt and destroy mines at a distance.

As naval analyst Norman Friedman pointed out in “Gulf War 20th: Naval Lessons of the Gulf War,” written for Defense Media Network, “The severe damage done to U.S. Navy ships, USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG 58), USS Tripoli (LPH 10) and USS Princeton (CG 59) by simple sea mines is something that must be avoided in the future.”

Crafting Innovative Solutions Using Commercial-Off-the-Shelf Technologies

There is a compelling need creatively to apply new, innovative technologies to address the operational and tactical challenges posed by mines, as well as the need to expand the use of unmanned systems to tackle Mine Countermeasure Mission (MCM) challenges.

Meeting this demand with COTS hardware and software—and not wagering on emerging technologies that will take years to develop, mature and field—should be a priority for Navy and Marine Corps planners.

Rear Admiral Casey Moton, Program Executive Officer, Unmanned and Small Combatants (PEO USC), has stated that one of the functions of his office is to ensure that unmanned systems the Navy seeks to buy have the right level of technical maturity, especially in the most basic hull, mechanical and electrical (HME) attributes.

This strongly suggests that the Navy would be well-served to move forward by focusing on COTS technologies that have been wrung out in Navy and Marine Corps exercises, experiments and demonstrations.

This will ensure that these systems have the requisite HME attributes and maturity to succeed.

What I saw in San Diego were all the component parts of what several industry representatives, led by Teledyne Brown Engineering Inc, brought together to demonstrate an autonomous MCM solution that takes the Sailor out of the minefield.

It is important to emphasize that every component part of this solution has been in the water and tested in the operational environment.

I witnessed what each individual component could do, and received a briefing on how Teledyne Brown has an integrated solution—dubbed “Clear-Sea”—to pull all these components together and achieve a single-sortie detect-to-engage MCM capability.

The “mother ship” for all the components of this Clear-Sea MCM capability demonstrated in San Diego was the T38E (38-foot extended) MANTAS high-speed catamaran.

Earlier versions of the MANTAS have been proven in numerous Navy and Marine Corps exercises, experiments and demonstrations.

I rode on the MANTAS and noted how the catamaran hull allows the boat to slice through choppy waters and provide a smooth ride that mono-hulls cannot.

I also noted how the size of the vessel can easily accommodate the mine-hunting and mine neutralizing systems that complete the system.

The planned production T38 is similar in size to an eleven-meter RHIB carried by many U.S. Navy ships and thus can be easily integrated aboard most U.S. Navy warships.

In comparison to an eleven-meter RHIB, the T38 is two feet longer, five inches wider, drafts 17 inches shallower at max displacement, and includes a cross-section height over eight feet lower, making it extraordinarily hard to detect.

The T38 can operate in up to sea state five, has a cruise speed equal to, and a maximum speed twice that of an eleven-meter RHIB.

I then received a detailed briefing on each of the component parts of the Clear-Sea MCM capability.

I was struck by the expertise of the young professionals who demonstrated this gear for me and could internalize the passion they brought to the table.

My colleague Ed Timperlake once referred to the launch point for shaping dominant combat platforms for the future fight as being generated by the work in the clean room. When visiting the team at San Diego, I talked with a brilliant 34 year old software engineer working the connectivity of the autonomous counter mine eco system, and would simply underscore that our new generation of warriors clearly includes the digital natives and the software engineers.

They know the potential their gear has to solve a near-term Navy challenge.

The first component that I saw—and that will be carried by the T38—is the ThayerMahan Sea Scout subsea imaging system.

The Sea Scout is specifically designed for missions such as mine hunting.

The Sea Scout system is founded on the in-production COTS system Kraken Robotics Katfish-180 tow-body mounted Synthetic Aperture Sonar. The system is designed to search for mine-like objects (MLOs), and is integrated by ThayerMahan’s remote operations and communications system.

I learned that this system can survey up to three and a half kilometers per hour at a resolution sufficient for MLO classification, and is programmable for bottom following, terrain referencing, obstacle avoidance, and “flies” at a pre-programmed depth. Automatic Target Recognition identifies likely MLO anomalies, which are then presented in near-real-time to the manin-the-loop for verification as an MLO. Verified MLOs are added as a waypoint for validation, while invalid MLOs are discarded or passed to the navigation database as a hazard to navigation. Verified MLOs are continuously updated to a recommended route for the Mine Neutralization System (MNS) Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV).

The next component I saw was the Idrobotica Pluto Plus MNS ROV which executes the “dull, dirty and dangerous” work previously conducted by classes of U.S. Navy ships by providing real-time HD video validation of mine-like objects.

It too will be carried by the T38. I was briefed on how this MNS ROV autonomously executes the MLO route for final classification and man-on-the-loop validation of each MLO while the T38 shadows and supports it as an over-the-horizon communications link and countermine charge supply link. Once the operator identifies a validated MLO as a likely mine that must be destroyed, an explosive charge is placed on the mine.

The MNS ROV then clears the area. The classification, validation and engagement processes are then repeated until the field is cleared.  The countermine charge detonation sequencing may be altered to detonate in any order and at any time desired.

I was able to see what these sensors found during their several-week operation from the Idrobotica Pilota Watch-Stander Station.

I was struck by the fact that this watch station is manned by a single individual.

This system and its software architecture accommodate integration of variable depth sonar or hull mounted sonar, AUV and ROV functions, auto-pilot control and propelled variable depth sonar.

I noted that the fidelity of the images displayed on this watch station left little doubt as to the identity of what was observed.

While each component in this system was impressive in its own right, that is not enough—not by a long shot.

These individual components must be fully integrated in order to deliver the subsystems as a cohesive turn-key unmanned MCM solution that is easy to operate and easy to maintain.

Teledyne Brown Engineering has a deliberate plan to do just this and is prepared to demonstrate incrementally more integrated versions of what I observed in San Diego.

Importantly, from my point of view, among all the MCM solutions I have examined in my years following (and writing about) this mission area, this one stands out as a very capable single-sortie detect-to-engage MCM capability solution.

It strikes me that this integrated Clear-Sea solution—because it leverages COTS technologies already in use by several navies—represents a capability built on commercial subsystems that can be delivered to the U.S. Navy far more rapidly than anything the traditional acquisition system can provide.

I learned that Navy officials have been provided with the details of this solution in a series of white papers and briefings and their initial reactions have been positive.

What I saw suggests that US and allied navies could benefit in the near to mid-term from an innovative package of counter mine capabilities moving forward.

And as I argued in a companion piece to this article:

It is clear as well that getting operational experience with remote systems is crucial to the way ahead.

It is not just about endless R and D; it is about getting operational experience with a novel system.

We have certainly seen that with Triton whereby the system is being deployed earlier than its IOC which led to the coining of the term EOC or early operational capability.

Perhaps this is a new way ahead for software defined and operated autonomous systems.

The featured photo shows part of the US Navy fleet as I flew into San Diego on Friday July 10th prior to my visit to Trident Warrior 2020 that afternoon and prior to the fire which would take down the USS Bonhomme Richard. 

I would like to thank my colleague George Galdorisi for his assistance on this article and for my visit to Trident Warrior 2020.