Mines Can Wait. Can We?
2013 Naval Mine Warfare Essay Contest Second Prize WinnerFrom the Civil War to Operation Iraqi Freedom, US Maritime Forces have had to contend with mines. National navies and nationless terrorists will continue to challenge American commercial and military freedom of navigation by utilizing readily available mines and Underwater Improvised Explosive Devices (UWIEDs). Such a fact is a direct affront to the core objectives of US Maritime Forces as outlined in the tri-service Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower: Deterrence, Forward Presence, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response, Maritime Security, Power Projection, and Sea Control. It is, therefore, imperative that mine countermeasures (MCM) capabilities be robust in order to support these objectives, especially if the United States seeks to maintain unfettered access to the planet’s waterways.No weapon has presented a greater threat to American domination of the maritime environment than mines. These ‘weapons that wait’—consisting of bottom, drifting, floating, limpet, and moored types that detonate by command, contact, or influence—have, since the Second World War, damaged or sunk more American ships than any other method including aircraft, missile, terrorist attack, or torpedo. By examining MCM operations since World War II, a model for the future can be compiled.Hard-Earned LessonsIn the aftermath of World War II, the United States began shedding naval forces, including its inventory of some 500 mine countermeasures vessels. By the time the Korean War broke out, the United States had just 15 such vessels left, a paltry force to contend with the tens of thousands of enemy mines sown in the waters surrounding the Korean Peninsula. This capability deficit became most troublesome when 3,000 North Korean mines blocked a UN amphibious task force from its planned landing at Wonsan. This once again brought the asymmetric threat of mine warfare to the forefront, along with its ability to limit US sea control and power projection. That the great amphibious forces that island-hopped the Pacific right to Imperial Japan’s front door could be stopped by a small country and an arsenal of outdated mines highlighted the obvious need for a revitalization of US mine countermeasures. Immediately, the United States began building new ocean-going and coastal minesweepers. However, with memory quick to fade, by the time Vietnam erupted, most of these, too, had been stricken.Mine countermeasures during the Vietnam War were primarily about keeping rivers and the near-shore regions open. Adapting to this new mine warfare scenario, the United States assembled and organized commandos, helicopters, minesweeping boats, minesweeping landing craft, and river patrol boats to scour Vietnam’s waterways for mines. Lessons here are that Army, Coast Guard, Navy, and Marine Corps coastal, port, and riverine vessels must be able to contend with mines, and that the ability to conduct mine countermeasures in the littorals and upon near-shore waterways can be equally important to that on the high seas. It would not be until the 1980’s that deep-water mine warfare entered the scene again, doing so with a literal bang.During the Iran-Iraq War, in the warm waters of the Persian Gulf, oil platforms and tanker ships were attacked by both sides. When Iran threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz and choke the world’s oil supplies, the United States was drawn in. While on tanker escort duty, USS Samuel B. Roberts—an Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided-missile frigate—struck an Iranian contact mine. She was heavily damaged and nearly sank. This experience showed that the US must have a means of detecting and neutralizing mines, or risk life, ship, and reputation, and, thus, the ability to deter aggression. Despite the hard lesson of the Roberts, the 1991 Gulf War made evident that the lessons of Korean and Vietnam had been forgotten.US warships were soon again engaged in open warfare within the confines of the Persian Gulf. Mine countermeasures were comprised of sailors on deck, binoculars pressed to faces, in search of floating mines. Such stopgap measures were as ineffective as they would seem, and Iraqi mines seriously damaged both the USS Tripoli and USS Princeton. The result of this was that, like in Korea, a planned amphibious assault was cancelled. While American leadership sold the idea that the threat of an amphibious assault was just a feint meant to divide Iraq’s occupation army, the truth is, a Marine Corps landing was planned to recapture Kuwait City, and Iraq had checked it with mines, some of which dated back to the First World War. 2003s Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) was the next and last time the US Navy engaged in major MCM operations. This campaign presented the widest spectrum of MCM lessons.With a sustained Persian Gulf presence, one that included four Bahrain-based Avenger-class mine countermeasures ships, OIF was a greater success for American mine countermeasures. This afforded an understanding of where Iraqi mines were stored and how they would be deployed, and the United States used this intelligence to recognize when mine sowing operations were underway. During OIF, and despite the Iraqis disguising their minelayers, coalition Special Forces—including Naval Special Warfare Clearance Team ONE—interdicted most enemy mine sowing operations within the Khor Abd Allah waterway. Thus, OIF showed that the best way to prevent an enemy from using mines or UWIEDs to interfere with operations, or, worse, damaging or sinking friendly vessels, is by intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Partnership was another factor of OIF mine countermeasures operations. Coalition partners included Australia and the United Kingdom, and their contributions to MCM were invaluable. Both Australia and the UK provided explosive ordinance disposal teams, and the UK assigned six Minehunters, and a Landing Ship Logistic to serve as mother ship for coalition MCM efforts. Despite poor water conditions that included extensive debris, poor acoustics due to a mud bottom, and almost zero bottom visibility, the United States and coalition partners effectively detected, identified, and neutralized these Iraqi mines with no casualties. Of 500 underwater contacts detected with helicopter-borne sonar, localized and categorized by ship-borne sonar, and investigated by remotely operated vehicles, divers, and marine mammals (dolphins and sea lions), 90 mines or mine-like targets were destroyed. The triad of man, machine, and mammal proved highly successful for OIF’s mine countermeasures operations. Also, OIF showed that the Avenger-class mine countermeasures ships employed by the United States were maintenance-heavy and subject to crippling malfunctions. This was blamed on two factors: lack of crew ownership, and neglect of maintenance, repair, and overhaul. Therefore, four grand MCM lessons can be gleaned from the OIF experience: First, by maximizing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and maintaining a continuous presence in chokepoints and potential flashpoints, the United States and her allies can minimize the asymmetric threat of waterborne mines; Second, though we know the US cannot always go it alone, we must have the ability to do so; Third, the triad of man, machine, and mammal should be maintained, and, since it is highly desirable to remove man and mammal from harm’s way, the ever increasing sophistication of unmanned surface and underwater mine countermeasures vehicles will increase the machine portion of the workload; and, Fourth, MCM ships should have dedicated mission-trained crews, and the ships must be maintained, repaired, and overhauled.By taking all these lessons to heart, we can prepare for the future, shaping an American mine countermeasures renaissance.The FutureWe know that no matter how big or good a fleet is it must include MCM. This means that, with the limited number of Avenger-class MCM ships retiring in 2024, it is time to reexamine the need for MCM(X). A 30-year shipbuilding plan submitted to Congress in the early 2000s called for 14 new mine countermeasures ships, though was cancelled in favor of the corvette-sized Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) currently joining the fleet. However, LCS, when examined from a purely MCM perspective, has several limitations. These include a lack of endurance, a metal hull (not good when coming up against mines that are triggered by magnetic influence), mission-specific modules that mean LCS either is or is not configured for MCM at any given time and location, and sea handling. It is optimistic if not foolhardy to espouse that LCS can handle the MCM mission with equal effectiveness as the Avengers they are to replace. Though LCS will suffice as a coastal-type MCM platform, there will be a need for a minesweeper of the ocean that can keep up with the carriers in any sea-state, and that can provide dedicated forward-deployed MCM. Therefore, pursuit of an MCM(X) should again be a Navy priority. Considerations for design and numbers are discussed later.River, coastal, and port mine countermeasures can be as important as that upon the open-ocean. Mine countermeasures should be organic to American riverine, amphibious, and coastal forces. This means that the brown water maritime forces of the United States—Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Navy—must include MCM in their portfolio. Relevant craft—including amphibious assault vessels, cutters, patrol boats, and riverine craft—must at least have an ability to detect mines. This can mean rudimentary forward-looking sonars, low-light underwater cameras, and/or magnetic anomaly detectors. The Littoral Combat Ship is well suited to the coastal and port environment. With the threat of mines and UWIEDs to the homeland, it is time to include the US Coast Guard in the procurement of these ships in MCM-specific configuration. A limited number of Coast Guard Littoral Combat Ships could be shared by homeland ports. Surging for mutual support, though MCM-dedicated, their inherent surface warfare capability would contribute to the spectrum of Coast Guard responsibilities, and, with their modularity, could be reconfigured (for anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare) and deployed abroad in times of national conflict. If a US Coast Guard LCS is not the solution, then the new National Security Cutter should be upgraded to include some level of MCM capability. Regardless, it is time to include the Coast Guard in US mine countermeasures.Whenever an American warship is damaged or sunk, it severely undermines deterrence and emboldens our enemies. Deterrence is a state of mind, and the state of mind we seek to impose when we sail our big grey ships off rival coasts is: ‘Don’t mess with me, because you cannot win.’ Asymmetric warfare is often the only viable option for any player seeking to challenge the domination of the US Navy. Mine countermeasures are a well-known and proven vulnerability of US warships, one that those who wish to do us harm will seek to exploit. Until this hole in deterrence is plugged, it is likely that this will be a frequent avenue of attack against US Maritime Forces. Their targets of these attacks will be both commercial (imagine a cruise ship hit or a liquid natural gas carrier exploding in port) as well as military vessels.Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) is a central tenet of warfare, and is the foundation upon which battles and wars are won or lost. The best way to fulfill the ISR mission as applied to MCM is a forward and dedicated presence. Though the US Navy, as a whole, is a forward-based force, this is not the case with MCM. This is primarily a problem of numbers. We certainly have access to the needed bases and infrastructure to support such a need, though we lack hulls. Even if LCS is procured in numbers, a prospect that appears unlikely due to rising costs and mounting technical issues, these vessels, by their lonesome, will be unable to both provide an organic MCM capability to amphibious and carrier task forces at sea, as well as a dedicated forward-based one that patrols chokepoints and protects homeland and allied ports. In combination with LCS, MCM(X) could provide both dedicated and organic capabilities. Besides those at sea with amphibious and carrier strike groups (approximately 12 LCS and 12 MCM(X)), basing locations and procurement numbers for homeland and forward MCM could include:LocationCoast Guard LCSNavy LCSMCM(X)Bahrain042Miami, FL201Galveston, TX101Guam111Japan042New York, NY101Pearl Harbor, HI211San Diego, CA101San Juan, PR101Seattle, WA101Singapore021Spain021MCM(X)Displacing approximately 1,300 tons, the 250’ hull of MCM(X) is, like the Avenger-class she would replace, to be of fiberglass–sheathed wood. Propelled by twin screws, MCM(X) should be long and thin (35’ beam) for speed and fuel efficiency, and be able to keep up with the carriers in any sea-state. The vessels would have low-speed electric drives for use during mine hunting operations, gas turbines for high-speed transit, and a bow thruster for precise maneuvering and station keeping. MCM(X) would use reduced acoustic and magnetic signature technology for her electrical generation systems and engines. Though relying primarily for defense on other more capable vessels, MCM(X) should have a single SeaRAM turret for dealing with small craft and any airborne threats that leak through the protective screen provided her by escorts. MCM(X)'s mine countermeasures equipment could include:A large flight deck able to accommodate an MH-60 helicopter equipped with the Airborne Laser Mine Detection System and Airborne Mine neutralization System; and, an MQ-8 Fire Scout vertical-takeoff unmanned aerial vehicle equipped with the new Coastal Battlefield Reconnaissance and Analysis system.A hull-mounted AN/SQQ-32 Variable Depth Sonar and cable-controlled SLQ-48 Mine Neutralization System.Ability to launch/recover the Remote Minehunting System consisting of the WLD-1 Remote Mutimission Vehicle—an Unmanned Surface Vehicle—and its towed AQS-20 Sonar and/or Unmanned Influence Sweep System; Kingfish Unmanned Underwater Vehicles; and, Knifefish Surface Mine Countermeasures Unmanned Underwater Vehicle.An EOD swimmer team with Rigid-Hull Inflatable Boats.ConclusionThe United States has for too long neglected her ability to hunt for and neutralize mines. It is, perhaps, understandable that this neglect has perpetuated, that we have only revisited the nuisance of enemy mines when they have temporarily blocked our path, killed a few of our beloved, or trashed our lovely ships. The Navy is, after all, one of supercarriers, nuclear-powered submarines, and sleek Tomahawk-spewing cruisers. So, what is a minehunting sailor compared to aviators doing Mach 2 with their hair on fire, submariners stalking enemy missile boats that threaten to bust American cities with glowing mushroom clouds, to mighty grey ships slamming through typhoons on their way to intimidate an enemy coast, or to brave Marines riding hovercraft through foaming surf to liberate the oppressed or rescue the nature-lashed. How can mines—weapons we associate with rusting prickly spheres that threaten ships and sweating crews in old black & white World War II films—compete for attention or money among these glorious Hollywood stereotypes? Here is a scenario that may haunt us in to action:In order to cool the latest despot-manufactured crisis, an American carrier strike group steams off the Korean peninsula. Ahead, a composite cylinder is buried at the East Sea’s rocky bottom. While the world worried about ballistic missiles and what rides within their pointy warheads, North Korean scientists were busy fitting their latest nuclear weapon within a watertight container. The nuclear mine is designed to recognize the unique acoustic signature of the four propellers and twin reactors of the American Improved Nimitz-class supercarrier. When it recognizes its target, it will detonate, sending a shock wave through the water column that shatters hulls, floods compartments, and sends several thousand Americans and centuries of American naval pride to the bottom, all while limiting retaliatory options.History has been sending a message: It is time to revitalize America’s mine countermeasures capabilities. Mines will wait. Can US Maritime Forces afford to?Mr. von Bleichert is a past contributor to Proceedings. A college instructor and PhD candidate (public policy and administration, specializing in homeland security), he also is the author of “Fourth Crisis: The Battle for Taiwan” (Amazon Digital Services, 2013).Sources for this article include: The Naval Institute Guide to the Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet, 19th ed., by Norman Polmar; and, 21st Century U.S. Navy Mine Warfare: Ensuring Global Access and Commerce, by the US Navy’s Program Executive Office Littoral and Mine Warfare, Expeditionary Warfare Directorate.
Peter von Bleichert