Foundering on Rocks, Shoals & Mines

By Dr. Scott C Truver and Commander Richard Nagle, U.S. Navy (Retired)

The Threat Is Real

Recent U.S. warfare analyses increasingly have focused on cruise missile and theater ballistic missile threats to forces at sea and ashore, but it has been the naval mine that has caused the most damage to U.S. warships since the end of World War II. Of the 17 U.S. warships that suffered damage or were sunk from the Korean War through Operation Desert Storm, 14 were mine victims, 2 were attacked by aircraft and air-launched torpedoes, and only 1, the Stark (FFG-31), was struck by missiles.

In April 1988, during the Iran-Iraq War, the Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) nearly sank after detonating an Iranian contact mine of pre-World War I design. During the Persian Gulf War, the Tripoli (LPH-10) struck an Iraqi "homegrown" contact mine, and a few hours later the Princeton (CG-59) was nearly broken in half by an Italian-made Manta bottom mine. Although no U.S. Sailor or Marine was killed, several people were injured, and damage to the three ships and associated weapons totaled more than $125 million-from three mines that might have cost $35 thousand to acquire.

Since the 1991 Gulf War, the world's inventory of naval mines has increased by some 50%, and several countries are actively marketing mines to anyone with ready cash or credit. Current and projected future trends indicate a continuing increase in the numbers, types, and lethality of these weapons, and reduced manufacturing costs-moored contact mines top out at $6,000, while highly sophisticated and lethal multiple-influence weapons go for about $100,000 each-have made them a most cost-effective weapon for littoral countries intent on keeping unfriendly naval forces at bay.

But what can the Navy Department do in this environment of fiscal austerity, especially when its annual investment in mine warfare personnel, platforms, systems, and operations totals less than one-half of one percent of the service's budget? The answer is that "business as usual" cannot be tolerated and innovation must be given free rein.

A Tough Nut

In response to the dramatic geopolitical dynamics of the past seven years, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have put in place new strategies, doctrines, and operational concepts that emphasize joint and allied warfighting, especially in and around coastal waters. In many cases, they call for U.S. forces to close the shore-what the Marine Corps' "Operational Maneuver from the Sea" calls the "littoral penetration point"-to land Marines or support other land-based ground and air forces. It is highly likely in some future crisis or conflict that the presence of mines and other obstacles in this littoral operating area could have a profound-and perhaps disastrous-impact on the outcome of an operation.

When all is said and done, then, the operational focus, at least for a critical period of time, in some future conflict ultimately could be on the very shallow water environment of a littoral penetration point. With water depths of 40 to 10 feet, underwater visibility usually measured in feet if not inches, poor sonar conditions, highly cluttered bottoms, unpredictable and sometimes significant wave and tidal action, wide temperature extremes, and diverse mine and obstacle threats fronting on hostile shores, this probably is the toughest MCM "nut" to crack.

Current VSW tactical concepts call for two boat lanes, each measuring 100 yards wide and 2,500 yards long, for ingress and egress of maneuver forces. The Navy's traditional surface and airborne mine countermeasures platforms-ships and helicopters-cannot carry out missions in this zone unless the most complete battlespace dominance already has been achieved. Indeed, the increasingly sophisticated mines and advanced technology available to our adversaries have eroded the Navy's ability to conduct effective and timely advance-force MCM operations in the VSW zone. Following the Tripoli and Princeton mine strikes, for example, estimates of the time needed to clear lanes for fire support and assault craft in the northern Arabian Gulf ran to more than 40 days.

The services' diver forces, which in 1997 comprise the nation's sole capability to deal with VSW mines, face increasingly greater risk in accomplishing that mission. New technologies such as night-vision and infrared sensors available to hostile forces have complicated the VSW MCM task greatly, making the prospect of retaining any element of tactical surprise uncertain. More to the point of our naval maneuver doctrine and tactics, U.S. amphibious forces do not have the ability to confirm the presence of mines until the tactical point of no return has been reached, which could result in these forces being channeled into bottlenecks and killing zones.

Oddly enough in light of these risks, mine warfare generally has been the stepchild of the Navy, especially during the Cold War. Except for brief periods of renaissance, usually following a notorious mine-related embarrassment, mining and mine countermeasures have been considered a backwater mission. Even now, just six years after the Tripoli and Princeton mine strikes, the Navy's mine warfare programs are at risk, with perilous implications for near-term readiness and future modernization.

Even more critical is the erosion of diver capabilities in the very-shallow-water zone, since the early days of World War II the forte of the Navy's specialized Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs). These teams conducted hydrographic reconnaissance and mine and obstacle clearance from water depths of 21 feet in to the beach, improved and marked useable channels, and acquired time critical military data during pre-assault operations. Once the UDT mission was absorbed as just one of the many Naval Special Warfare/Sea-Air Land (NSW/SEAL) missions in 1983 and sponsorship of NSW/SEAL forces was transferred from the Navy to the Special Operations Command in 1987, the Defense Department's focus on VSW reconnaissance and neutralization of mines and obstacles became less acute. Support within the Navy fell to other competing programs, and the SEALs had other more "glamorous and high-speed" missions to do. As one senior naval officer commented ruefully, "This is a bastard warfare area that's been left out to dry by both SpecWar and the Navy!"

Since then, doctrine, concepts of operations, tactics, and exercises have become more and more unfocused and ad hoc. SEAL platoons deploying in amphibious ready groups continue to receive basic training in hydrographic reconnaissance techniques, but nonmagnetic diving equipment is in short supply and usually is limited to search operations in water shallower than 21 feet. And other equipment remains untested against influence mines. In addition, training to indoctrinate NSW forces in mine construction, functions, safety precautions, and emplacement doctrine does not exist.

Likewise, the Navy's Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) divers deploying with battle groups and amphibious ready groups are not currently equipped or trained to conduct advance-force VSW MCM missions. Forward deployed EOD detachments are outfitted to conduct overt, ordnance-specific tasks and possess only a limited search capability and no capability to conduct hydrographic reconnaissance.

Thus, the nation's ability to project full-spectrum military power from the sea easily could be stymied unless the extent and nature of the mine and obstacle threats to littoral operations are understood well in advance.

An Elegant Solution

Because of the compelling requirement for low-visibility, non-provocative VSW MCM capabilities organic to the fleet, in January 1996 then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jeremy Boorda directed the Commander, Mine Warfare Command, and Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group One to establish a VSW MCM Test Detachment to:

  • Develop tactics, techniques, and procedures for low-visibility mine reconnaissance and obstacle breaching in both daylight and night operations
  • Identify requirements for achieving and sustaining a permanent core contingency-response capability to conduct VSW MCM
  • Evaluate prototype systems and equipment

A critical objective is to reduce the threat to VSW MCM diver operations while looking to a future that might include a variety of fully autonomous systems. "The important task," noted Lieutenant Eric Basu, a Navy SEAL combat swimmer who has served as the test detachment's officer in charge, "is to formulate and refine the requirements to develop and sustain a dedicated, operational VSW MCM unit. Practically every day we examine unit tactics, unique hardware requirements, force structure, allowances and outfitting, and facilities . . . everything must be taken into account to make sure this experiment is a success."

In early 1997 the VSW MCM Test Detachment established at Naval Amphibious Base, Coronado, California, with about 25 selected Navy EOD divers, NSW/SEAL combat swimmers, and Marine reconnaissance troops. With experiments scheduled to run through the remainder of fiscal year 1997, the detachment already has demonstrated good results and a near-term VSW MCM capability from marrying existing fleet systems with off-the-shelf commercial systems. "The lessons we are learning from this project," said Major General Edward Hanlon, Director, Expeditionary Warfare (N85) in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, "are vital to our Navy's amphibious mine warfare capabilities. Although our long-term goal is to get divers out of the water column and to replace them with hardware, today it appears that the right combination of divers and other existing systems remains the key to solving this complex problem."

"And, we're not talking about 'covert' or 'clandestine' operations," Marine Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Kelly, the shallow water MCM operations officer at the Navy's Mine Warfare Command, was quick to point out. "We're `low visibility."' That distinction is important. "Clandestine" has a requirement that an operation be conducted to ensure secrecy or concealment, and "covert" operations intend to conceal the identity of or permit plausible denial by the sponsor.

That said, "we need to reduce the likelihood of detection by hostile forces, through deception operations, employing combat-swimmer vice noncombat diving procedures, and by minimizing above-water profiles," Kelly underscored. "For these reasons we are taking great care to develop tactics, techniques, and procedures and to select equipment not only to limit the exposure of our VSW people and systems to danger but also to avoid compromise of precise locations of potential amphibious landing sites." This was echoed by Master Chief Tommy Dye, a veteran EOD diver assigned to the test detachment, who warned that "we have to recognize and evaluate the tradeoffs between the need for visibility in enhancing our search rates and reducing the risk of being detected by hostile forces through night operations and deception."

The VSW MCM Test Detachment's mission is to enable amphibious operations by carrying out mine and obstacle reconnaissance and neutralization in the VSW zone. Two tasks figure importantly in the detachment's emerging concept of operations. First, advance-force reconnaissance throughout the VSW zone in potential operating areas will determine if mines or obstacles are present, assess the characteristics of the threats, and identify clear channels or the boundaries of the mine and obstacle fields. In this way, the detachment will be able to establish swimmer or boat lanes for follow-on forces. Depending on the scenario, these advance-force reconnaissance missions can be undertaken from several days to several weeks before an operation begins.

The second task is pre-assault lane reconnaissance which can be conducted a day or two before and up to the point an amphibious operation gets under way-to locate, identify, and report mines and obstacles in VSW assault lanes. "We will evaluate alternative assault craft ingress and egress lanes previously selected, to ensure that no mines have been put in place in the interim," Lieutenant Basu noted. Mines and obstacles can be marked for later neutralization, or, if research and development efforts are successful, timed-delay or remotely triggered neutralization or demolition charges can be set during a mission.

The tests so far have demonstrated that divers are superior to any current hardware system in discriminating between mines and nonmines. Even in zero visibility, divers in most cases can positively identify the mine and collect other valuable tactical information about mine and obstacle densities. Diver search rates in most environmental conditions, however, are poor.

Current equipment will permit a limited operational capability that will solve the near-term problems. The AN/PQS-2A hand-held sonar will be used in conjunction with a prototype swimmer in-shore navigation system (SINS) and a miniature underwater global positioning system receiver (MUGR) to detect, locate, and fix mine and mine-like contacts in the search area and lanes. SINS is a long-baseline, time-synchronous area underwater navigation system that provides precise coordinates of the diver's position within a confined acoustic navigational grid. The MUGR provides the diver with very precise position coordinates and time and navigation data.

As currently conceived, one diver in a dive pair will operate the 2A sonar, scanning ahead in a predetermined search lane, while the other diver navigates and records contacts using the SINS and MUGR. "It's a dirty, dark, and dangerous environment-essentially organized confusion," Chief Warrant Office Mike Johnson, a Navy SEAL, attested. "Your whole world, for the duration of the mission, is you and your buddy, and the mines. You train together to protect each other." As many as six two-man dive pairs could be in the water, searching along individual lanes.

These navigation and positioning systems will be replaced by more capable sensors at the turn of the century. The most suitable commercial-off-the-shelf diver thermal protection will be employed, and tests continue to identify the needed modifications to the most attractive off-the-shelf underwater breathing apparatus (UBA) currently available. Semiclosed-circuit and closed-circuit UBAs have been evaluated, with the critical requirements being sufficient duration (as long as four-hour missions, completely underwater) and very low acoustic and magnetic signatures. The Mk 16 UBA currently used by Navy EOD divers is an excellent system but has too much drag for effective VSW operations, according to Master Chief Dye.

Mid-term system upgrades will focus on improved low influence UBAs and diver-support systems, low-magnetic/acoustic diver propulsion vehicles, hand-held support systems, communications systems, long-range insertion/extraction craft, and diver-placed command-neutralization devices. For the far term, beyond 2003, divers will begin to be phased out of the operational VSW MCM detachment as a variety of autonomous search and neutralization systems now in advanced research and development begin to be phased in. "The ultimate goal," according to Lieutenant Colonel Kelly, "is to replace a `man-in-the-loop' with a `robot-in-the-loop."'

Dolphins, Too!

One of the more intriguing VSW MCM Test Detachment initiatives involves the Navy's Marine Mammal Systems (MMS), bottlenose dolphins that have been trained to work in tandem with two men on an improvised 15foot surfboard-a.k.a., low observable craft-manned by a dolphin handler and driver/navigator. Senior Chief Chris Wynn, who oversees the MMS component, is enthusiastic about the prospects. "This pairing of dolphins and people has dramatically shown that relatively high-speed coverage of large areas-well in excess of that capable by divers alone-is possible without sacrificing high detection and location rates and effectiveness of the dolphins."

Two dolphin systems-the Mk 4 Mod 0 and the Mk 7 Mod 1 (see sidebar)-could figure in VSW MCM operations. In most situations, the mammals are much more effective than people or existing hardware. In terms of rate and effectiveness of coverage, for example, the Navy's MCM dolphins are 10-12 times more productive than divers working alone. In April 1994, then-Commander, Mine Warfare Command, Rear Admiral John D. Pearson acknowledged the critical role of the Navy's MMS: "The Marine Mammal Systems are essential assets in the overall MCM inventory. Their highly effective, demonstrated first-pass mine clearance capabilities and in particular their capability to both locate and neutralize buried bottom and close tethered moored mines accentuate their utility. Of particular interest," Pearson continued, "is their potential utilization in a clandestine reconnaissance role during the pre-assault phase of amphibious operations."

In addition to their improved search rates, which enhance both the size of the search area and detection probabilities, the dolphins essentially are unrestricted by visibility and can work at night without much degradation in effectiveness. Logistics support for the dolphins is a challenge, however, as is the need to ensure their low visibility throughout a mission. The prototype low observable craft has shown good results, but technology and systems must be developed to allow handlers and the dolphins to operate in a more stealthy surface or subsurface mode, especially if the tactical scenario calls for searches to be conducted within a few hundred yards of a hostile beach.

The ongoing tests envision one or more marine mammal systems to a search area, with each dolphin followed by two personnel on a low observable craft. Two hybrid Mk 7 Marine Mammal Systems have been trained to detect and mark bottom influence mines proud of the bottom, buried bottom influence mines, and moored mines. Targets are marked by acoustic pingers deployed by the dolphins, and the handler can interrogate each pinger from the surface to mark its position. The field can be revisited by divers, who reacquire the pingers and identify, and possibly neutralize, the targets.

"Of course we've made compromises," Senior Chief Wynn acknowledged, "but the important thing to keep in mind is that they work." Once trained, the dolphins and their handler/diver teammates have demonstrated detection capabilities that far surpass those of divers alone against real-world mine shapes in exercise minefields.

Steer by the Stars!

If approved by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jay Johnson, the VSW MCM capability, like other MCM forces, will reside in a dedicated, deployable unit. When naval operations require an amphibious assault option, the VSW MCM detachment would be deployed to the theater of operations and embarked as an organic element of an on-scene amphibious ready group. As capabilities and technologies mature, both the divers and the dolphins in the detachment gradually could be phased out and autonomous hardware systems phased in. The VSW unit then would continue to provide a flyaway capability, maintaining and operating the autonomous systems.

Several questions need to be addressed and resources must be identified and protected to meet near- and far-term needs. Tactics will continue to be conceived, tested, and, if judged valuable, incorporated into the detachment's kit-bag, but the best test of emerging concepts, tactics, and systems will be real-life integration into fleet training and exercises. Perhaps the most pressing issue is the means for insertion from beyond the horizon. High-speed surface craft with low infrared, radar, and acoustic signatures seem to be the sine qua non for success, although submarines and underwater swimmer delivery vehicles would provide the stealthiest alternative, according to Captain Paul Montanus, a Marine reconnaissance officer.

How to accommodate the marine mammal systems in this transport scheme also is presenting "challenges," according to Senior Chief Wynn, "but we'll solve them, too, just as we did the question of operating dolphins from amphibious warships."

General Hanlon was even more emphatic about the need for success: "The sum of the Navy's effort to solve the MCM problem will have missed the mark if we fail in the VSW zone. The VSW Test Det represents our last chance for success in this vital mission area."

Technology Needs for VSW MCM Operations

  • Small, high-resolution sonars
  • Underwater precision navigation systems
  • Low-signature underwater breathing apparatus
  • Diver protection systems-thermal protection, infrared, and night-vision suppression
  • Command-detonated mine/obstacle neutralization systems
  • Nonvisual instrumentation
  • In-water communications
  • Low-observable/low-signature vehicles
  • In-water command data processing
  • Unmanned remote-controlled and autonomous systems to deliver equipment, detect and neutralize mines, and mark cleared lanes
 

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