A Sea Change in Mine Warfare

For mine countermeasures in particular, the focus on seaframes has distracted attention from a fact that is plain to those in the mine countermeasures community: that the planned advent of LCS-based mine countermeasures represents a radical shift in how MCM is conducted at both the tactical and operational levels.

MCM has long been almost exclusively the domain of a dedicated force, currently comprising Avenger -class ships and MH-53E helicopters. (Other systems are used in the very-shallow-water region, and unmanned underwater vehicles are increasingly being tested for use in deeper water. These systems are not expected to be replaced by the LCS mission package and do not yet contribute significantly to major MCM efforts.)

The promise of so-called organic MCM is mostly or entirely to replace the dedicated forces with aerial and unmanned surface and subsurface systems that can be based from other platforms. In an older Navy organic MCM vision, for example, a carrier strike group would carry such systems distributed among the carrier, surface combatants, and even submarines. 3 When modularity became a design aspect of the LCS, however, the requirement arose for the new systems to operate from the LCS and its MH-60 helicopters. This demanded compromises between size and weight on one hand, and capability and capacity on the other. At the same time, the original vision of a combined force of organic and dedicated MCM forces has given way to plans calling for organic systems to entirely replace the dedicated MCM force.

In the other two traditional naval warfare areas that will be addressed by planned LCS mission packages, surface warfare and antisubmarine warfare, the LCS-based systems will supplement and not replace a wide variety of surface, air, and subsurface assets. MCM is alone in being so significantly affected by the LCS program, which may also explain why the mission packages receive much less attention than the seaframes.

While the MCM mission package composition has already changed dramatically since its inception and will undoubtedly continue to evolve over the next several years, it is clear that the transition to organic MCM represents a wholesale shift in how an entire warfare area will be pursued. 4 The multirole LCSs will be employed in ways completely unlike the dedicated MCM ships of today, so major operational changes will be necessary. At the same time, every existing MCM system will be replaced. Tactical changes will be significant—for example, mechanical minesweeping will be abandoned, and a potentially extended lag between mine detection and neutralization will be introduced.

The MCM community therefore faces the challenge of simultaneously learning the real-world capabilities of almost an entirely new set of systems and working out new tactical and operational concepts. Properly addressing this situation calls for a full program of testing and analysis. An older Navy model of fleet testing can provide a guide to establishing such a program.

Defining the Testing Process

In today’s Navy, fleet testing can refer to a number of activities. By our definition, however, it requires two things. First, it must involve personnel from the participating fleet units, such as surface combatants, aircraft squadrons, and relevant operational commands (for example, a theater or strike group warfare staff) in the analysis process. Second, it must be part of an ongoing process.

While outside military and civilian analytical support is useful and often necessary, fleet personnel’s participation is beneficial during and after analysis. For example, much testing can and does take place during fleet exercises. With sufficient planning, data collection can take place alongside training and certification. Fleet units often are required to send data-collection messages that list, for example, the conditions under which sensor detections take place; other data, such as unit positions, can automatically be recorded. During reconstruction and analysis, however, data often are found to be missing, incomplete, or plainly incorrect. If some personnel who were actively involved in the exercise are available during analysis, they can help resolve such problems. After the analysis ends, the participants will return to their commands with a better appreciation of fleet capabilities, which provides a significant bonus.

The fleet benefits far more than this, however. Analysis of test data can unite representatives of communities who otherwise do not interact sufficiently, such as members of the air and surface ASW communities. While participating in analyses, these personnel can learn directly from one another and mutually shape the analytical process. The reconstruction of an ASW exercise, for example, will be enhanced by the participation of both the hunters and the hunted. Indeed, in past decades this was a regular part of the testing-and-analysis process; in today’s Navy, however, such a level of fleet participation is almost never realized.

Testing a new system or tactic should not end once a particular developmental goal is met; it should be part of a process. Adversaries and their technological and tactical capabilities evolve, as do strategic threats to the United States. A minehunting sonar that entered the fleet a decade or two ago, for example, must continue to be quantitatively tested against new mine shapes and in newly relevant environmental conditions.

Progressive test results also are necessary for making sensible decisions on matters of procurement and force structure. Too often, strategic planning relies on design performance parameters that are not validated by experience or are based on data involving older versions of systems, outdated tactics, or outmoded targets.

What Fleet Testing Is Not

Having established what effective fleet testing requires—involvement by operational personnel and an ongoing testing process—it is possible to point out many things that do not meet this definition. First, developmental testing, whether by government labs or by contractors, does not meet either criterion. Operational testing and evaluation likewise does not satisfy the requirements; it establishes only that a system meets the necessary design performance parameters, and these are often quite simple. A minehunting sonar, for example, must have a particular probability of detecting specific mine shapes in certain environmental conditions. Developmental and operational testing will determine whether these parameters are met, but the fleet will encounter a much wider variety of mine shapes under a much broader range of conditions. Further, the tactics for which a system was designed may not prove to be the most effective ones in practice, and performance requirements established during system development do not always turn out to include the most tactically relevant parameters.

Many modern exercises fail to meet the requirements for effective testing because no fleet personnel are involved in the post-exercise analysis and because exercise design and results are not linked to a consistent process. Testing during an exercise may be designed and analyzed by personnel from a relevant center of excellence or tactics development command. However, these experts generally work independently of the units involved. The analytical process therefore does not benefit from the operators’ direct participation, and the fleet only receives a report out of context that frequently has little or no impact.

Old Paradigms, New Lessons

The model suggested here is unfamiliar to most members of today’s Navy, but it is not unprecedented. Such a model was widespread from World War II through the latter years of the Cold War. 5 By reviewing the Navy’s history, we can identify some methods that should be resurrected.

In the early days of World War II the U.S. Navy, partly inspired by contemporary British efforts, convened a small group of scientists to devise better means to counter German submarine threats. This resulted in the Anti-Submarine Warfare Operations Research Group, which developed the working model for fleet testing in a wartime environment and demonstrated the utility of sustained data collection, experimentation, and quantitative analysis. The group also demonstrated the utility of sending civilian analysts with scientific backgrounds to work alongside fleet personnel in the analytical process.

The Navy continued these efforts after the war ended, first focusing on documenting the war’s lessons and then ramping up operational assessments again during the Korean War. As the Cold War intensified, so did the Navy’s need for an objective calculation of the fleet’s capabilities, and from the 1960s through the 1980s the Navy sustained fleet-wide data collection and analysis efforts.

An excellent example is the Tactical Analysis Group, which was established by the director of ASW Programs in 1966 to help fleet commands plan, conduct, and analyze ASW exercises. The group’s efforts led to improved tactics and weaponry for the full range of fleet ASW participants. Notably, the program served multiple customers: the fleet received reliable information regarding its capabilities, the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV) received solid data on which to base long-range planning, and training and material commands received data on equipment and training needs. While outside civilian support was extensive, the Tactical Analysis Group ultimately was a Navy initiative, with intense involvement from both OPNAV and fleet commands.

Another good example is the Tactical Development and Evaluation program, which OPNAV established in 1973. Its goal was to develop and evaluate tactics for all warfare areas through a careful, data-driven process involving both modeling onshore and testing at sea. Computer modeling of tactical- and operational-level warfare was informed by credible baseline data provided by at-sea testing. At present, when “synthetic” training is common and steaming time is minimized for cost reasons, it is instructive to see how valuable the combination of on-shore and at-sea work was to creating and testing tactics in such warfare areas as ASW, tactical employment of antiship missiles, and fleet air defense.

Important catalysts to effective testing become obvious when examining these Cold-War efforts. First, direction has to come from on high—from OPNAV and even the Department of Defense. Historically, this means OPNAV-issued directives to the fleet requiring commands to plan and conduct testing and to provide the data and analytical products to higher headquarters for use and archiving.

At the same time, fleet commands must receive sufficient funding to cover testing costs and to support billets for personnel with training in operations analysis. There must also be means to provide small teams of operations analysts to support—but not entirely conduct—data collection and analysis as needed.

Finally, a testing strategy must be devised that fulfills a range of goals. The fleet should receive analytical products that help it gauge and improve its warfighting capabilities, and OPNAV should receive high-quality analysis on which to base strategic planning (including large-scale wargaming) and force structure decisions.

Very Shallow Water Success

Although the practice of MCM has changed little over recent decades, this warfare area does offer one remarkable example of a successful post-Cold War fleet-testing process: the development of the Navy’s Very Shallow Water (VSW) MCM force.

The VSW region, encompassing water between 10 and 40 feet deep, poses a complex MCM problem. The region is typically a difficult environment in which to operate and detect mines, as it has potentially high tidal currents, low visibility, large amounts of bottom clutter, and significant mine burial in sand and mud. Anti-landing mines of the sort often found in VSW are generally smaller than their deeper-water counterparts. Finally, because mine clearance in VSW can take place in advance of an amphibious assault, it often requires low visibility of forces and short timelines.

In the mid-1990s the Navy created a VSW MCM Test Detachment, comprising Navy explosive ordnance disposal personnel and Navy and Marine special forces operators. Acting on the direction of the CNO, and with analytical support from the Center for Naval Analyses, this detachment tested a variety of possible systems and ultimately settled on a combination of marine mammals (bottlenose dolphins) and combat divers. Tactics were refined and system performance rigorously measured through testing within the detachment and participation in fleet exercises. 6

The successful fielding of effective VSW MCM forces is an excellent demonstration of how warfighting capabilities can improve via a thorough, well-designed testing process that has high-level interest and funding, operator initiative, and outside analytical support. As this mission transitions from using marine mammals to unmanned systems in coming years, the Navy will need to carry out rigorous analysis, including side-by-side analysis of new and old systems, to ensure that no capabilities are lost as a result of potentially premature changes.

The Revival of Fleet Testing

What would renewed fleet analysis of MCM forces look like? The process would be long and depend on the form that organic MCM systems take as they reach operational status; however, we can suggest a basic outline of the process.

First, the Navy would conduct realistic tests with individual LCS seaframes, using fully trained, non-augmented mission-package crews, for the explicit purpose of determining MCM performance. Such efforts should be separated from workup or certification events, to ensure that the focus is on MCM performance. The goal would be to comprehensively compare the performance of the entire package of new systems against a variety of mine types under realistic environmental conditions. Data collection would be practiced and institutionalized in this stage. At the same time, command-and-control exercises could be carried out onshore to experiment with coordinating multiple assets, both legacy and organic.

Next, multi-unit MCM exercises would be carried out, possibly in an operational theater. These exercises should again be stand-alone MCM performance assessments. The combination of assets would be determined by the state of MCM at that point, and would include legacy assets and operation of MCM mission packages from alternative platforms or from shore, if deemed necessary. The purpose would be to understand and quantify the Navy’s overall MCM performance.

Finally, LCS-based MCM could be included in more traditional multiple warfare area exercises. Building on the earlier events, however, data collection should remain routine, with periodic updates on MCM performance required by higher Navy leadership. This would assist with the eventual transition from legacy MCM assets, by ensuring that the Navy remains aware of its MCM capabilities as the combination of assets evolves.

It is crucial that fleet personnel are involved in the analysis to ensure that the lessons are internalized by operators. It is likewise crucial that the Navy’s leadership receive regular updates regarding MCM performance measurements, so that data collection will be completed—and adequately funded.

By taking these steps, the Navy can help prevent the dramatic changes accompanying the transition to LCS-based MCM from leading to a reduction in warfighting capability and capacity. If such testing is extended to other warfare areas as well, it could play a key role in informing programmatic and budgetary decisions, saving money by better identifying warfighting requirements, and ensuring that the Navy remains aware of its true capabilities against evolving and emerging threats.

1. A step in the right direction is a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office: Navy’s Ability to Overcome Challenges Facing the Littoral Combat Ship Will Determine Eventual Capabilities , U.S. Government Accounting Office Publication No. GAO-10-523, August 2010.

2. Philip Ewing, “20 to join LCS crew on trial deployment,” Navy Times, 16 November 2009, http://www.navytimes.com/news/2009/11/navy_freedom_deployment_111409w/ . Besides this event, the Navy periodically issues news releases on mission package “delivery” or “testing.” These are important milestones, but actual testing of MCM performance of the full suite of systems, integrated with the LCS and MH-60S, remains at least a few years away.

3. See statement by Major General William A. Whitlow, U.S. Marine Corps, before the Senate Armed Service’s Subcommittee on Seapower, 9 April 2002, http://www.navy.mil/navydata/testimony/seapower/wawhitlow020309.txt .

4. See discussion of current and future MCM systems in the U.S. Navy’s publication, “21st Century U.S. Navy Mine Warfare, Ensuring Global Access and Commerce,” 2009, https://acquisition.navy.mil/rda/content/download/6146/28176/version/1/f... .

5. For an overview of operations analysis in the U.S. Navy, see Keith Tidman, The Operations Evaluation Group: A History of Naval Operations Analysis (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984).

6. “Protect Our Very Shallow Water MCM Force,” Commander Jack James, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , June 2001, p. 73.

Dr. O’Hara is a research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses and currently serves as its field representative to Commander, Patrol and Reconnaissance Force 5th/7th Fleets.


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