The (R)evolution of Mine Countermeasures

By Captain Buzz Broughton, U.S. Navy and Commander Jay Burdon, U.S. Navy

During the Cold War, dedicated MCM forces focused their efforts on the continental United States to provide port breakout for naval forces in time of war. Today, the range of MCM missions has expanded significantly to include:

  • Maintenance of sea lines of communications in which critical transit routes, including pre-determined Q-Routes, are cleared for the safe passage of warships, strategic sealift vessels, and forward-deployed joint maritime and afloat prepositioning forces
  • Break-out/in operations at overseas ports to ensure that enemy mines do not block the movement of U.S. and allied sealift vessels
  • Fleet operating area support to ensure that warships, either individually or as part of carrier battle groups (CVBGs) or amphibious ready groups (ARGs), are able to maneuver freely
  • Amphibious operating area support to identify and clear minefields in preparation for an amphibious assault

The expanded mine countermeasures demands of the 21st century dictate a totally new way of doing business. We must seize the initiative to provide an organic mine countermeasures capability integral airborne, surface, and subsurface capabilities to detect, identify, and neutralize or avoid enemy mines that threaten our operations—to our deployed forces, and address the growing demands placed on the Navy's highly capable, U.S.-based dedicated MCM force.

Unfortunately, new organic MCM systems alone will not fulfill these requirements. To prepare the fleet for forward-presence, crisis-response, and power-projection operations, we must place a higher priority on continued science and technology efforts, new doctrine and tactics development, and fleet wide mine warfare education and training. Only by mainstreaming mine warfare can we develop an effective organic mine countermeasures capability to ensure that we do not repeat the near disasters of the past.

What can we do today to counter the naval mine? In terms of availability, variety, cost-effectiveness, ease of use, and impact on joint expeditionary warfare, mines are the most attractive weapons available to any country determined to prevent forces from achieving sea control and power projection ashore. For this reason—and because today's expeditionary forces still have limited capabilities to deal with this menace—mines constitute a genuine asymmetric threat.

According to the Office of Naval Intelligence, more than 50 countries currently possess mines and mining capabilities, a 40% increase since 1986. Of these, at least 30 countries have demonstrated a mine-production capability and 20 have attempted to export these weapons. In addition to the sheer numbers of mines available on the world market, the types, sophistication, and lethality of these weapons are rapidly increasing as well.

Although unsophisticated mines, such as moored contact systems, are still reliable and often stockpiled in significant quantities, sophisticated bottom-influence and propelled-warhead mines gradually are entering inventories. Typical global advances in mine technology include:

  • Pressure sensors to make mines virtually unsweepable
  • Computer-controlled target detection devices to upgrade obsolescent mines at a fraction of the cost of new mines
  • Irregular shapes, anechoic coatings, and non-magnetic materials that render mines much more difficult to detect
  • Mines with multiple sensors to improve targeting against surface ships and submarines in deep and shallow water

Unfortunately, all of these advanced technologies are readily available for export and therefore require an aggressive exploitation effort to ensure U.S. tactics and systems keep pace with the threat.

Further complicating the mission is the undersea environment. The MCM battle space is divided into five depth regimes:

  • Deep water beyond 300 feet
  • Shallow water from 300 to 30 feet
  • Very shallow water (30 to 10 feet)
  • Surf zone (10 feet to the beach)
  • Craft landing zone

To appreciate the complexity of the environment where mines wait, one must consider a myriad of factors including the different depths, water turbidity and sea state, biologics, background noise, numbers and types of mines and obstacles available to an adversary, bottom type, natural and man-made clutter, and the potential use of decoys.

Today's dedicated triad: As implied in "Joint Vision 2010," "Forward. . . From the Sea," and other vision statements, it is imperative that U.S. forces begin to shape the battle-space prior to hostilities with actions that identify relevant environmental data and intelligence information. At the first sign of tensions, however, MCM-oriented surveillance and reconnaissance operations should be undertaken immediately to obtain updated and increasingly detailed assessments of the location, movement, extent, and density of mining.

After evaluating the threat, four distinct MCM options are available:

  • Localize and avoid
  • Localize and selectively clear (both used for tactical breakthrough and short-term operations)
  • Sweep
  • Sustained minehunting (for high-confidence, long-term operations)

From an operational standpoint, minehunting and minesweeping are complementary, providing the fleet with volume clearance and the redundancy required for freedom of maneuver.

The Navy's present dedicated MCM force consists of a triad: surface MCM (SMCM), airborne MCM (AMCM), and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) assets that operate under the control of one of three operational MCM squadrons.

The surface force consists of 14 Avenger (MCM-1)-class mine countermeasures ships, 12 Osprey (MHC-51) class coastal minehunters, and the MCM support ship Inchon (MCS-12). The Inchon , a converted Iwo Jima (LPH-2)-class amphibious assault ship, supports the surface, air, and EOD forces in the MCM task group, and provides the MCM commander with the command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) architecture required to integrate with fleet operations. The ships are U.S.-based with the exception of two home ported in Japan, the Guardian (MCM-5) and Patriot (MCM-7), and two forward-deployed to the Persian Gulf, the Ardent (MCM-12) and Dextrous (MCM-13).

The AMCM force presently consists of two squadrons, HM-14 at Norfolk, Virginia, and HM-15 at Corpus Christi, Texas, each with ten MH-53E helicopters. Both are capable of responding to a 72hour rapid-deployment contingency alert.

The EOD force consists of 15 specialized MCM detachments. During operations, each SMCM ship has one detachment and the Inchon carries up to four additional detachments with a recompression chamber. Two Marine Mammal System (MMS) Detachments, which use dolphins, and a Very Shallow Water (VSW) MCM Detachment also are available for deployment. The VSW Detachment, established in 1997, uses Navy EOD, Navy Special Warfare, and Marine Corps reconnaissance forces, along with marine mammals, to develop procedures, tactics, and test new technologies for detecting and clearing mines in this, the most challenging region. In addition, the standard EOD detachments embarked in the CVBG, ARG, and support ships are being trained in MCM operations.

What must we do tomorrow to continue countering the naval mine in the 21st century? The Quadrennial Defense Review, released in May 1997, established the requirement to meet two nearly simultaneous major theater wars, and the Chief of Naval Operations subsequently directed an assessment of the MCM force's capability to support the requirement. The results were not surprising. U.S.-based MCM forces could not steam to the crisis in time to be effective, and heavy-lift ships could not carry adequate SMCM assets to the region quickly enough—taking up to 40 days in some cases. Another critical shortfall was the lack of a mine identification capability for the airborne forces once in theater, which led to slower clearance operations.

Strategically, the study confirmed that the current dedicated MCM response capability is unsatisfactory for regional enemy mine threats. While forward-deployed MCM forces can help, this approach clearly is only a short-term solution; hence the U.S. Navy's decision to adopt organic MCM.

The Office of the Chief of Naval Operations has identified organic MCM as a "capability that is carried in deployed forces to allow early MCM operations and . . . to conduct MCM operations en route." The goal is to develop and field a capability that gives deployed airborne, surface, and submarine forces the ability to detect, identify, and neutralize mines without delay. It is understood that large-scale, high-confidence clearance will be conducted upon the arrival of supporting MCM forces—the follow-ons to today's dedicated force.

Organic MCM capabilities will enable our deployed forces to maneuver while executing other combat missions to maintain battlespace dominance. Organic MCM's reliance on off-board and standoff detection and neutralization systems will reduce our sailors' and ships' exposure to danger, thereby reducing the risk of mine countermeasures operations and increasing freedom of maneuver.

There is no silver bullet to counter the mine threat. Effective organic MCM operations will depend on a complementary systems approach to achieve success. This requires pursuit of a rigorous investment strategy leveraging commonality, modularity, and portability to develop and integrate a range of new technologies and systems. However, with this aggressive pursuit of new technologies comes risk. We need to be willing to dedicate the time and money to develop and field these new applications of technology.

The family of organic systems . The plan to mainstream mine warfare is maturing slowly. (See Figure 1.) To date, only two operational prototypes have been tested in the fleet: the Magic Lantern Deployment Contingency System and the Remote Minehunting System (RMS) [V]2. While each system is designed to meet specific MCM requirements, together they will allow joint expeditionary forces to reduce the threat posed by mines and operate safely, and effectively in the littorals. (See "Reserve Helos Get Magic Lantern," Proceedings , February 1997, pages 74-75; and "What It Takes To Go Anytime, Anywhere," Proceedings , January 1998, pages 82-84.)

The AMCM plan's number one priority is to introduce MCM into the fleet on board a variant of the H-60 helicopter. The H-60 allows integration with most ships, resulting in vastly improved flexibility. The next step will be to transition from the MH-53E helicopter currently in our inventory to the integrated H-60 aircraft. To that end, we are planning to field two sensors, two weapons, and a new influence sweep to enable the H-60 to locate and neutralize mines in a variety of environments.

The Airborne Laser Mine Detection System (ALMDS), a follow-on to Magic Lantern, uses a blue-green imaging laser to detect and localize floating and moored mines down to keel depth. The Rapid Airborne Mine Clearance System (RAMICS) will be used with ALMDS to provide H-60s a near-surface mine neutralization capability using a super-cavitating 20-mm round.

Locating mines in deeper water will require the AQS-20/X sensor, which couples side-scan and gap-filling sonars for detection and fuses them with an electro-optical sensor for identification. The Airborne Mine Neutralization System (AMNS) will be the weapon complement to the AQS-20/X. AMNS is a remotely operated, warhead-equipped, torpedo-like device that may use sonar and/or video data linked back to the helicopter to identify and neutralize previously located bottom and moored mines.

The Shallow Water Influence Minesweep System (SWIMS) will capitalize on miniaturization to provide a magnetic/acoustic system that can be towed by an H-60.

Organic surface MCM is getting the Remote Minehunting System, an autonomous, off-board, diesel-powered semi-submersible using Global Positioning System (GPS) guidance. It incorporates forward-looking and towed variable depth side-scan sonars to reconnoiter for bottom and moored mines. It will be integrated into the SQQ-89 suite in Flight IIA Arleigh Burke (DDG-51)-class destroyers and will have an over-the-horizon communications link to extend its operational range. Future plans include the addition of an identification capability.

Organic submarine MCM systems provide a covert mine surveillance and reconnaissance capability to the joint task force commander. The Near-term Mine Reconnaissance System (NMRS), which is launched from Los Angeles (SSN-688)-class submarines, provides a limited mine detection, classification, and localization capability to the Fleet. NMRS is controlled by a fiber-optic cable and uses forward-looking and side-scan sonars.

A Long-term Mine Reconnaissance System (LMRS) will replace NMRS and be far more capable. Designed to be launched from Los Angeles -class submarines and the New Attack Submarines (NSSNs), LMRS will operate autonomously.

To evaluate the concept's effectiveness, the CNO staff revisited the MCM Force-Level Study and applied the future capabilities to a single sea line of communications scenario with identical conditions. The results were profound. At the strategic level, forward-deployed forces with organic MCM sensors and weapons resolved the rapid-response problem by simply being on station. At the operational level, the application of an identification capability with installed organic sensors improved joint operational timelines. While this study substantiates the need for an identification capability, it will take time and resources to develop and field that technology.

Over the next seven years, as organic systems are introduced and we begin to employ a common MCM-capable H-60 aircraft, dedicated and organic forces will blend. Beyond 2005, after we have mainstreamed mine warfare and organic MCM becomes integrated into the overall warfighting strategy of our naval forces, today's MCM force probably will right size to fulfill a supporting role.

Two key transition issues must be addressed: the timeline for introducing new organic MCM systems into the fleet, and a follow-on strategy for transitioning the dedicated force to a supporting role. With present programming efforts, the fiscal year 2000-2005 timeframe is the first opportunity to introduce an organic capability to the fleet and fiscal years 20062010 becomes the period to focus on the transition. Any successful shift to an organic MCM capability will be dependent upon a strenuous research, development, test, and evaluation effort, along with an increased procurement commitment to field these systems as soon as possible. Our top priority, however, must remain the readiness and sustainability of current mine countermeasures capabilities while the introduction process occurs. We must not sacrifice the dedicated force to achieve this goal.

What must we do to make the mine countermeasures (R)evolution a reality ? Mine warfare is a Navy core competency, and we are developing a Fleet Engagement Strategy to integrate it with the fleet. Introducing organic MCM will entail much more than just delivering hardware to the fleet. A systems approach will address the organizational requirements related to the adoption of this new equipment, including acquisition, doctrine, tactics, command and control, education, and training, after which organic MCM must be integrated into joint task force work-up, planning, and deployment cycles, as well as operational planning. In the interim, however, the mine threat must be seriously factored into deployment work-ups. Consequently, there are several challenges to overcome, many of which are in progress. They include:

Education —We must ensure that mine warfare technicians and operators are receiving top-quality education and that we are detailing our very best to the instructor billets. Externally, we must reevaluate the progressive career instruction that all our officers receive and validate the course content of the Surface Warfare Officer School's Department Head, Prospective Commanding Officer (P-CO), Prospective Executive Officer (P-XO), and major command courses. Today, they receive only meager instruction in mine warfare—as compared to other areas, such as air, surface, and undersea warfare.

We must also look at officer specialty training, such as the undersea warfare course, and ensure that it is updated to reflect the use of new MCM systems. Similarly, the amount of classroom time devoted to MCM at the Navy's Tactical Training Groups is significantly less than for other warfare areas and needs to be increased. The Battle Force MCM Officer Course taught at Ingleside, Texas, intended for staff and ship operations officers, is designed to provide the fundamentals needed to conduct operational MCM planning in the fleet; unfortunately, the course is underused. Submarine officer pipelines also will require modification to prepare them for the Long-term Mine Reconnaissance System.

The bottom line is that the current training baseline is inadequate and must be improved.

Training —Once our people are "minesmart," we must ensure that operational work-up cycles include the new organic systems. Afloat Training Groups will need a cadre of people who are educated in mine warfare and understand the employment of these systems and the impact of the threat. They will be the foundation for teaching commanding officers, as well as squadron and group commanders, to elevate mine warfare to the level of submarine, surface, and air warfare in their day-to-day planning.

Doctrine —Naval Doctrine Command has been working with the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, the Commander of Mine Warfare Command, and others to provide a framework for developing naval MCM concepts in the future. The document, Concept for Future Naval Mine Countermeasures in Littoral Power Projection , is available from the Naval Doctrine Command and provides a solid foundation for doctrinal issues as we look to the future.

Tactics —To evaluate the effectiveness of the new systems and warfighting guidelines, we must employ rigorous, mine warfare-focused modeling and simulation, wargaming, and fleet exercise programs. The outcome of these should be evaluated in terms of their application to the littoral MCM scenarios that we are likely to face in the future. The Mine Warfare Command will spearhead the tactical development.

Acquisition —While readiness and sustainability remain the top priority for the dedicated force, the investment in science and technology is the top priority in the organic world with the goal of advancing those programs into production . . . no small task for any organization. There must be a conscious effort to be innovative in our acquisition strategy to get hardware to the fleet cheaper, smaller, and faster. We must take advantage of current developments, both domestic and international, and look for commonality, modularity, and portability.

Industry, Science, and Engineering —As we partner with industry to meet our requirements, it is essential to understand the framework within which we operate today. Cost, schedule, and performance are the major drivers of any program or plan. Not so long ago, we focused on performance, regardless of cost. Today, when technology is advancing in leaps and bounds, cost is the driver. We need to make certain that the right people and organizations communicate with each other to eliminate parallel efforts. Industry must accept the challenge to go smaller, cheaper, and faster—and ensure that their programs are closely monitored internally to meet the common goals. Gone are the days when cost overruns and delays were the norm. We must be more responsible with our programs in delivering quality products on time and at projected cost.

After the (R)evolution, where will we be ? The Chief of Naval Operations fully supports the efforts to go organic and mainstream mine warfare. It is incumbent on leadership in every aspect of the Navy to embrace the Navy's mine countermeasures vision and actively participate in and support the Fleet Engagement Strategy. The blame for failure will fall on our shoulders if we field the hardware without the complete infrastructure to support it.

Only by addressing these issues will we establish the new culture needed to create the awareness, knowledge, and proficiency required to successfully transition mine warfare from its traditional role as a specialized, adjunct discipline to its new role as an enabling warfare discipline.

Captain Broughton is the Head of the Mine Warfare Branch (N852) in the Expeditionary Warfare Division of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.  Commander Burdon is his Deputy.


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