The November 15, 2019, a Latvian Public Broadcasting System article headline was as stark as it was disturbing: “NATO ships clear more than 50 mines from Baltic Sea.”
The subtext was more explanatory: “November 14 saw the conclusion of the Joint Hod ops (Historical Ordnance Disposal Operation) exercise organized by NATO’s 1st Standing Anti-Mine Squad and the Baltic Minesweeper Squadron (BALTRON) which began November 4.”
As the article noted: “During the Hod ops exercise, approximately 20 square nautical miles were cleared, finding 56 explosive items at the bottom of the sea, including various different types of mines. Currently, 43 mines have been destroyed, and the Navy will continue its work on neutralizing the remaining 13 mines.”
The fact that these mines, some of which were WW II German-made mines weighing almost 1000 kilograms each were discovered, is a vivid example that the mine threat that exists in 2020 is real.
Few would disagree with the statement that mines represent one of the most vexing military challenges. Sea mines are perhaps the most lethal form of these weapons, as they are hard to find, difficult to neutralize, and can present a deadly hazard to any vessel—even those ships specifically designed to hunt them.
These “weapons that wait” provide almost any adversary with an effective means to thwart even a major naval power.
Even the threat of mines can stop any naval operation dead in its tracks. The use of sea mines adjacent to maritime choke points presents a threat that is at once ubiquitous and deadly. Further afield, sea mines have broader repercussions for global maritime trade routes as well. Sadly, western nations have given insufficient attention to dealing with the threat sea mines pose to naval and merchant activities worldwide.
While the United States and many of its NATO and other allies are laying up and “sun-setting” their mine-countermeasures (MCM) capabilities, peer competitors are enhancing their MCM inventory. In late 2019, Russia christened a new Alexander-Obukhov-class minesweeper, adding to their already substantial fleet of Aleksandrit-class and Natya-class minesweepers. China added new Wozang-class mine-countermeasures vessels in 2016 (Rongcheng and Donggang types) and in 2017 (Rudong type).
Mine Countermeasures Is an Ongoing Challenge
In the past several decades, rogue states have employed a wide variety of 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 hazarded coalition forces operating in the Arabian Gulf.
Today, especially given the tensions between the United States and Iran, U.S. and allied military professionals are evaluating the ways that Iran could threaten the west. Many think that the most serious threat is that Iran could mine the Strait of Hormuz. The mines themselves would not only take an extended period to clear, but the minesweepers could only do their work once the Iranian navy was sunk and its anti-ship missile sites destroyed.
Beyond the Iranian threat, the challenge posed by potential adversary mining capabilities is real and growing. 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 fifty countries possess mines and mining capability. In addition, the types, sophistication, and lethality of the mines available on the world market are increasing.
This threat is not lost on Navy and Marine Corps leadership.
During the November 2019 NDIA Expeditionary Warfare Conference, Vice Admiral John Miller, former commander of Naval Forces Central Command, noted that developing MCM capability is critical as the Navy faces increased mining threats from adversaries worldwide. During this event, Major General David Coffman, Commanding General of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade noted, “The threat of mines is growing globally. It is an asymmetric advantage that our enemy is trying to leverage and directly affects our maneuverability and our assets.”
It falls squarely on the U.S. Navy to provide the MCM capability to enable the Joint Force to operate forward in support of United States’ interests, as well as those of our allies and friends.
Indeed, the U.S. Navy’s strategic document A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0 (Design 2.0) articulates the profoundly challenging strategic environment where peer competitors such as China and Russia and lesser (but more unstable) powers such as North Korea and Iran, have impressive inventories of naval mines.
Design 2.0 notes that, “It has been decades since we last competed for sea control, sea lines of communication and access to world markets.” One doesn’t have to be a Sun Tzu or Clausewitz to understand that the threat of naval mines is one of the key challenges that drives our emerging need to once again compete for freedom of movement on the world’s oceans, as well as in the littorals.
Mine Countermeasures (MCM) is one of the most difficult and time-consuming missions for navies to successfully execute.
That is likely why, through the entirety of my U.S. Navy experience (which began in 1970), I have witnessed the Navy “admire the problem” of MCM. For example, in the late 1990s, Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jay Johnson, and Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Jones, signed out the fourth edition of the unclassified and widely distributed Naval Mine Warfare Plan. Shortly thereafter came the 21st Century Warfighting Concept: Concept for Future Naval Mine Countermeasures in Littoral Power Projection. Several years later, the Commander in Chief of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, Admiral Robert Natter, and Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Thomas Fargo, jointly published an unclassified Carrier Battle Group/Amphibious Ready Group Mine Warfare Concept of Operations (CVBG/ARG MIW CONOPS).
The U.S. Navy’s MCM capabilities are little-changed today, even after decades of “aspirational” intentions to enhance the Navy’s MCM posture. While the U.S. Navy has made some important strides, such as the MCM package aboard the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), the significance of the MCM mission provides both the impetus and opportunity to do much more. And the time to do so is now.
The platforms that embody the U.S. Navy’s primary MCM capability—the MH-53E AMCM aircraft and the Avenger-class minesweeper – are scheduled to sunset by 2025.
As Captain Chris Merwin of the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) pointed out at a military-industry event in October 2019, the Navy’s follow-on MCM capability, embodied the MCM package aboard the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), is not coming on line as rapidly as anticipated, and initial operating capability is not scheduled until 2023 – a date Captain Merwin described as “optimistic.”
Based on my U.S. Navy experience—spanning half a century, first as a naval officer and now as a Navy civilian—this is not a new issue for the U.S. Navy, but one it has struggled with for decades.
The entirety of my professional involvement with the operational Navy strongly suggests that it is not a lack of “want,” or even a lack of money (although MCM funding has lagged other procurement priorities), but rather, not having adequately mature technology to address the challenge.
Evaluating Unmanned Vehicle Technologies
Today, one of the most rapidly growing areas of innovative technology adoption by military forces worldwide involves unmanned systems. In the past several decades, the expanding use of military unmanned systems (UxS) is already creating strategic, operational, and tactical possibilities that did not exist a decade ago.
While unmanned systems show great promise, most military professionals are keenly aware of the importance of not embracing every tool a technologist thinks might be of value to those in the fight. Employing unmanned systems in an ongoing series of exercises, experiments and demonstrations is a proven way of separating promising, but immature, technologies from those that will actually wind up in the hands of a warfighter as a proven capability.
Given today’s compelling mine threat, as well as the age of current MCM force, to say nothing of the rapidity with which current MCM systems are sun-setting, it may be time for naval professionals to shift to a new technology paradigm and focus on technologies—often commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies—will likely deliver an MCM capability faster than traditional acquisition processes.
For all navies, there is only one way to completely, “Take the sailor out of the minefield,” and that is to leverage unmanned technologies to hunt and destroy mines from a distance. As naval analyst Norman Friedman pointed out in a piece for Defense Media Network, “Gulf War 20th: Naval Lessons of the Gulf War,” the severe damage done to U.S. Navy ships, USS Samuel B. Roberts, USS Tripoli and USS Princeton by simple sea mines is something that can be avoided in the future. In the past, unmanned vehicle technologies were not mature enough to be considered to take on the complex mine-hunting and mine-clearing task. They are today.
The U.S. Navy is accelerating the testing and fielding of unmanned systems.
Headlines such as, “Navy, Marines Moving Ahead with Unmanned Vessel Programs,” appear in the defense media. Concurrently, other articles, such as “When Will the U.S. Navy be Able to Autonomously Seek and Destroy Mines?” emphasize the U.S. Navy’s strong desire to take sailors out of the minefield. Similar efforts are likely going on in other navies, especially NATO naval forces.
As just one indication of NATO’s concern in this area, and the reason that MCM efforts are gaining traction, the alliance has a long history of mine-countermeasures exercises, and has stepped up their periodicity and complexity. An article in Second Line of Defense in August 2018, “NATO Mine Counter Measures Group One Works in Norwegian Waters: August 2018,” presented the challenge in compelling terms. Other articles, such as Ryan Hilger’s “The Navy Needs Agile Mine Warfare,” in the October 2019 U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings addressed the challenge this way: “The United States lacks the capabilities and operational concepts to deploy large-scale mine countermeasures against a peer competitor.” Lieutenant Commander Hilger went further, noting;”
The U.S. Navy is not prepared to confront that level of mine threat, nor does it have a robust strategy for offensive mine warfare.
The current operational concept relies on manned surface platforms and sailors in or near the minefield for detection and clearance operations. The systems rely on a slow, methodical pace to complete the end-to-end countermine kill chain. The Avenger-class mine countermeasures ships and Freedom- and Independence-class littoral combat ships (LCSs) lack the survivability to conduct mine clearance operations in a denied environment—assuming the mine countermeasures module for the LCS ever reaches the fleet.
Other navies can capitalize on the work that the U.S. Navy has already conducted as it has explored ways to use emergent COTS unmanned technologies for the MCM mission. Given the severity of the mine threat, all navies would be well-served to leverage and build upon mature technologies that have been examined by commercial and other government agencies in the United States, and tested extensively in exercises, experiments, and demonstrations to field a near-term MCM capability.
Building on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Experience
Earlier in this article I quoted both a U.S. Navy admiral and a U.S. Marine Corps general, both of who spoke of the severity of the mine threat as well as the challenges of fielding an effective and affordable MCM capability. This was not a set of random quotes, but rather an indication that the Navy and Marine Corps are united in their mutual efforts to deal with the worldwide mine threat to naval expeditionary forces.
The reason for this unity of effort is clear: Navy-Marine Corps expeditionary strike groups operate in the littorals close to shore, often on a coastline that the adversary defends with mines. That is one of the reasons why, over the past several years, in a series of U.S. Navy and Marine Corps events as diverse as the Ship-to-Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation and Advanced Naval Technology Exercise, the Battlespace Preparation in a Contested Environment, the Surface Warfare Distributed Lethality in the Littoral demonstration, Dawn Blitz, Steel Knight, the Bold Alligator exercise series, and Valiant Shield, operators have field-tested wide range of emerging technologies, many of them adaptable to the MCM mission.
One of the technologies that performed well was the MANTAS unmanned surface vehicle (USV).
Over the course of the events described above, the MANTAS was scaled-up from a six-foot, to eight-foot, to twelve-foot version. During Exercise Valiant Shield, MANTAS was tasked with re-supply mission, carrying cargo to the troops ashore. As a result of that mission success, U.S. Navy and Marine Corps officials have asked MANTAS’ manufacturer, MARTAC Inc., to scale-up the MANTAS further and design a thirty-eight-foot version.
It is this USV—one that closely approximates the size of an eleven-meter RHIB used by many navies—that can be combined with surface and subsurface mine-hunting and neutralizing equipment to provide an over-the-horizon “single sortie detect-to-engage” MCM capability that takes the sailor out of the minefield and provides a potential solution for this vexing mission. While there are any number of USVs and UUVs that the U.S. Navy is testing, leveraging one that has been thoroughly wrung out for hundreds of hours during years of Navy exercises, experiments, and demonstrations provides the most important building block for a comprehensive MCM capability.
Achieving a Near-Term MCM Capability with COTS Technologies
The essential building block for a commercial-off-the-shelf technology MCM solution is a scaled-up version of the twelve-foot MANTAS high-speed catamaran proven in the events listed earlier. This USV—nicknamed the T38—is virtually identical in size to an eleven-meter RHIB carried by many naval ships. The T38 can operate in up to sea state five, has a cruise speed significantly greater than that of an eleven-meter RHIB and a range four times greater than the RHIB.
One of the most important attributes of this building block is the fact that the T38 has an aft-mounted twin tow station which houses both a mine-hunting sonar system and a mine neutralization remotely-operated vehicle (ROV). These towed subsystems are installed on two rails aft. The catamaran hull enables the MANTAS to conduct an angled submergence of the stern tow station. This unique configuration results in a flooded well-deck that facilitates a straightforward launch and recovery of the tows.
The first key component of a commercial-off-the-shelf technology MCM solution is a towed-body-mounted sonar. A sonar for this mission must have a resolution sufficient to search for mine-like objects (MLOs). Such a sonar is also programmable for obstacle avoidance, bottom following and terrain referencing. Another important feature is automatic target recognition to identify likely MLO anomalies. At this stage, an operator can verify the MLO designated as such by the MANTAS sonar. Verified MLOs are then added as a waypoint for validation.
The second component of a commercial-off-the-shelf technology MCM solution is a Mine Neutralization System (MNS) Remotely Operated Vehicle. Mine-like objects that have been verified will be continuously updated. Once this is complete, the system will recommend a route for the MNS ROV. This route can be changed as needed as priorities shift or the tactical situation evolves. Once the area search is complete, the T38 transitions from hunting to neutralizing by conducting a well-deck recovery of the towed-body. This is followed immediately by the launch of the tethered MNS ROV.
The Mine Neutralization System Remotely Operated Vehicle then performs the work previously conducted by various classes of ships as it provides real-time video validation of mine-like objects. The MNS ROV autonomously executes the MLO route for final classification and man-on-the-loop validation of each MLO. As this is taking place, the T38 shadows and supports it as an over-the-horizon communications link. This process is repeated until the field is cleared.
If the technical and operational solution presented above sounds simple and achievable it is just that—a capability that exists today in the commercial subsystems that can be delivered far more rapidly than anything the traditional acquisition system can provide.
MARTAC is already completing the design and fabrication of the T38 MCM variant prototype for potential demonstration to the Navy as early as this summer.
The time is right to embrace an unmanned COTS solution to deal with deadly mines.
An MCM Challenge Demanding Action Today
During my decades of service in the operational Navy, I deployed to the Arabian Gulf a number of times—the same body of water where my shipmates on USS Samuel B. Roberts, USS Tripoli and USS Princeton were seriously injured by mines. Because ships and sailors operate daily in harm’s way, The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps—and by extension other allied navies—need to accelerate their efforts to deal with deadly mines. The essential components for such a system exist today, and a robust COTS MCM solution can reach fruition in the near-term.
It is time to put a near-term solution in the hands of the U.S. Navy’s sailors. While programs of record are developing next-generation technology, the Navy should invest in parallel-path solutions that leverage mature subsystems ready to provide speed-to-capability today. Once the Fleet sees the COTS solution that can be delivered with the system described above, the U.S. Navy—as well as other navies with the foresight to embrace such a system—will have an effective way to defeat today’s deadly mine threat.
George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator whose thirty years of active duty culminated in fourteen years of consecutive service as executive officer, commanding officer, commodore, and chief of staff. His last operational assignment spanned five years as a carrier strike group chief of staff embarked in the USS Carl Vinson and USS Abraham Lincoln.
The featured photo is of a MANTAS unmanned surface vehicle (USV).
This article was first published on Second Line of Defense on January 16, 2020.