The U.S. Navy is making what could prove to be a costly—and potentially dangerous—mistake by moving away from surface mine-countermeasures vessels and toward unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) instead.
The Navy’s new push is being driven by decision-makers’ fascination with the dramatic advances being made in UUV technology. Almost day by day, underwater vehicles are becoming more sophisticated and less costly, potentially capable of delivering precision anti-mine weapons. And the improvements are coming at a spectacular pace. To many, UUV designers seem to be at the cusp of a major breakthrough in this field.
In fact, however, such assumptions are flawed, and UUVs are still a long way from being ready to replace traditional mine-countermeasures ships. Although the underwater robots admittedly are cheaper, the surface vessels consistently outperform them in detecting, classifying and neutralizing mines anywhere except within confined harbors. And the ships carry remotely operated vehicles and can deploy explosive ordnance disposal divers as well.
As a result, replacing traditional mine-countermeasures vessels with UUVs is likely to diminish the ability of the United States and its maritime allies to meet the threat posed by the growing use of sea mines—particularly by rogue states and insurgent forces—thus endangering U.S. national security and imperiling the global economy. Worse, the loss of such capabilities is irreversible. Once it has begun, it can’t be checked easily.
The U.S. Navy’s waning interest in traditional mine countermeasure vessels isn’t just a recent phenomenon. In a July 1993 paper, H. Dwight Lyons Jr. and colleagues at the Center for Naval Analyses described a “recurring” mine-countermeasures (MCM) cycle: “Mines cause a problem in war. MCM becomes a hot topic. Post-war budgets decline. MCM must compete with sexier programs. Interest wanes as memories fade. Little, if anything, really changes.”1 The cycle begins anew when mines once again “cause a problem in war.”
Yet, there’s no real dispute about the danger that mines pose. Sea mines have been used in almost every conflict since World War II, and on those rare occasions when they were not used—such as in land-locked Afghanistan, for example—their cousin, the improvised explosive device (IED), has wreaked havoc as the preferred tool of insurgents.2 Allied forces conducted mine-countermeasures operations during Operation Unified Protector in the Libyan civil war in 2011, with the British minesweeper HMS Brocklesby clearing contact mines laid in the approaches to Misrata harbor.3
Since the end of World War II, four times as many U.S. Navy ships have been lost or seriously damaged as a result of mine explosions as by all other means of attack combined.4 There is also a huge financial disparity between the low cost of sea mines and the price tag for repairing or replacing the ships they damage. Adversaries can buy contact mines for about $1,500 apiece, and can improvise their own mines for less; by contrast, the cost of repairing the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58), which struck an Iranian M-08 naval mine in the Persian Gulf in 1988, was about $96 million.5
While we might like to wish the mine threat away (see the “Interest wanes as memories fade” category in Lyons’ recurring MCM cycle), the evidence clearly shows that the mine threat is increasing as weaker nations with smaller defense budgets seek to hobble the U.S. Navy’s maritime hegemony. The confidence shown by Iran’s Navy chief, Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, in December 2011, when he said that “Closing the Strait of Hormuz . . . will be easier than drinking a glass of water” was a clear allusion to his country’s previously demonstrated ability to lay mines in the Persian Gulf.
Similarly, anyone who thinks that China’s recent advance in carrier aviation suggests that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) will be counting primarily on air power to challenge the U.S. Navy in Asia’s sea-lanes might want to read the excellent assessment of China’s mine-warfare capability produced by the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute.6 The PLAN’s “Assassin’s Mace” capability makes for sobering reading. Such realities are too often dismissed by technophiles, but they are convincing enough to our adversaries.
This kind of cognitive dissonance, where the widely recognized danger presented by mines does not spawn appropriate measures to counter the threat, is pervasive. In a 2009 book, Seapower, Geoffrey Till, professor of maritime studies at the U.K. Joint Services Command and Staff College, refers to “mine warfare” only twice, and “mines” only once in 358 pages.7 Yet, contrast the scarcity of reference with the weight of his content and it is clear that Till understands the challenge navies face: “Mines (even old ones)…pose a real problem for naval forces engaged in expeditionary operations….Certainly, navies in general and expeditionary forces in particular will have to pay increasing attention to this obvious means of denying access.”8
Indeed, in U.S. policymaking circles, the threat posed by sea-mines is so well known that it is in danger of being dismissed as background noise.
Given such a clear and present danger, why is the U.S. Navy being seduced away from mine-countermeasures ships and toward UUVs?
The answer, in a nutshell, is money. With declining defense budgets and soaring costs for other new weapon systems, U.S. policymakers have found themselves squeezed for funds, and sometimes willing to grasp at spectacular new technology that seems to promise budgetary savings even if it requires that they accept increased strategic risk.
In the case of the UUVs, proponents have been able to sell the new concept by arguing that the robots are ready to replace manned surface ships as the Navy’s primary mine-detecting and -destroying vehicles, siphoning off the funding that otherwise might be used to expand the traditional mine-detection and mine-destruction force. With the mine-countermeasures community unable to lobby against that, it has sought to make surface ships seem “sexier” in order to compete for funding. And it has lost out.
Few and Far Between
But the UUV proponents’ argument is flawed. U.S. and Western weapons designers sometimes have come up with technological breakthroughs that offer major cost-cutting opportunities and improved capability, but the “no-brainers” that provide both of those benefits are few and far between, and the prospect of technological advances in coming years does not necessarily guarantee that a weapon will prove more capable. Unfortunately, in the tradeoff between surface ships and UUVs, there are serious risks that the U.S. Navy will lose maritime access “for the want of a nail.” Indeed, the risks are so large that they imperil not only U.S. national security, but the entire Western economy.
At the same time, given the influence of the U.S. Navy as the only truly global maritime power, the navies of U.S. allies, which face even greater constraints on military spending than the United States, will likely follow Washington’s lead in shifting funds from surface ships to UUVs. That will end any chances that other countries will fill the mine-countermeasures gap the United States leaves behind, and the entire Western inventory will suffer. Decisions of this magnitude should link defense spending to broad strategy in a logical and dispassionate analysis of the most potent threats to the national economy. With that in mind, the U.S. Navy should reconsider its UUV policy and seek instead to preserve its current capabilities.
To understand how this dire situation has arisen and appreciate why corrective action is required, we must consider two distinct threats: the strategic threat to MCM in general, and the tactical threat to the maritime community at large.
Many of the supposed advantages that UUVs are said to have over surface ships are superficial or simply not true. Contrary to what proponents have contended, today’s UUVs don’t come close to matching surface ships in their ability to detect and destroy mines. Much of the argument over this issue involves classified information, but you only need a basic grasp of sonar theory to appreciate why a surface ship’s variable-depth sonar, physically attached to a source of electric power and constantly monitored by a team of professional operators, performs more capably than a small, battery-powered UUV that cannot provide real-time data.
And detecting a contact is only part of the mine-countermeasures effort. Once the mine is found, it must be classified (as mine, non-mine, mine-like, etc.) through careful assessment of a variety of characteristics—size, shape, shadow, target echo strength, etc. Then it must be prosecuted—more often than not these days using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) or explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) diver. The need to prosecute so many contacts arises from the fact that many mines are deliberately designed to look like non-mines—for example, the Swedish “Rockan” or the Italian “Manta”—while many non-mines have numerous mine-like characteristics. Till notes that “the sea bottom in the littorals is notorious for being covered in a remarkable diversity of old iron (wrecks, oil drums, old washing machines, the list is endless) and this makes detection extremely difficult. New UUVs may, however, help.”9 Note that Till uses the word help—meaning it could assist the effort, not replace current capabilities.
Surface ships also consistently outperform UUVs in other areas. For detection, their greater sonar power increases the volume of water “hunted” and improves the speed of advance. For classification, the operators who view the sonar picture in real-time can change the frequency of the sonar, allowing more accurate classification of contacts that appear amorphous at first glance. Finally, for prosecution and neutralization, surface ships carry their own ROVs, including spares, and can embark and support an EOD diving team; UUVs cannot.
UUVs only have the advantage when it comes to supporting diving operations within confined harbors, where surface ships might struggle to operate. And, perhaps most telling, UUVs are cheaper.
New Moore’s Law?
Admittedly, such arguments apply primarily to present-day UUVs. But what about future versions? Technology is developing rapidly, and many of its proponents predict that a new, far-more-capable model is coming soon. Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert, the Chief of Naval Operations, often mentions Intel Corporation co-founder Gordon Moore’s famous 1965 prediction that the number of transistors per processor chip would double every two years, increasing overall computing speed and power. Might there be a similar “Moore’s Law” for UUV development?
But Admiral Greenert has been careful to suggest that this growth in computing power “enables” precision weapons—it does not necessarily replace them.10 “Technology, especially information-processing, will continue to evolve more quickly and become more widely available,” he says, but adds: “We appear to be reaching the limits of how much a platform’s inherent stealth can affordably get it close enough to survey or attack adversaries.” Indeed, not all technological advances keep pace with processor chip transistors and, while we might hope for a technological breakthrough in UUV technology, hope is not a principle of war that we should employ in the face of a serious and increasing threat to the U.S. Navy’s ability to secure maritime access.
Two other points: First, even an “unmanned,” “underwater” vehicle requires a substantial manned surface platform to support it. Second, the Navy is planning to use modular hull platforms on board the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) to carry its UUVs if the robots ultimately replace manned surface mine-countermeasures ships.
The Duck Test
Modular hulls have been tried before. The Danish Flyvefisken SF300-class patrol vessel was designed to use interchangeable modules to support four distinct missions: mine countermeasures, mine-laying, combat, and surveillance/pollution control. As the ship has evolved, however, each version has taken on one specific role—the first seven ships are specialist mine-countermeasures vessels in all but name—which raises some serious questions about the validity of the entire concept. As Captain Robert C. Powers notes in a September 2012 article: “As the LCS evolves, it is likely that the module concept will prove to be unsupportable from both a financial and operational point of view. What may evolve are two ship types; one with a mine-countermeasures capability to replace the wooden-hull minesweepers…and a second one with antisubmarine- and surface-warfare capabilities.”11 Using the well-known Duck Test, it seems reasonable to conclude that if a ship looks like a mine-countermeasures ship and operates like a mine-countermeasures ship, then it’s a mine-countermeasures ship.
Given Admiral Greenert’s stated preference for “dependable ‘trucks’ that can handle a changing payload selection,” it is not surprising that so many other officers have fallen into step, especially as the CNO’s argument is founded in fiscal realism. Despite Admiral Greenert’s advocacy of modular platforms in general however, he notes that “Navy missions since the Cold War evolved to include…preparing to counter mines,” and such top-level recognition is heartening news for the mine-countermeasures crews who struggle daily to provide an essential capability after the Navy’s “decades-long neglect of mine warfare.”12
As Milan Vego warns us most clearly in his 2011 U.S. Naval Institute prize-winning essay, “Technological superiority is not a panacea.”13 We must always go back to the basics in order to remember what our strategic objective was, before we find ourselves distracted by the shiny new equipment available at the tactical level.
Indeed, as a recent AOL Defense article noted:
There is no one silver bullet or panacea technology that will solve the Navy’s mine-hunting problem. The solution lies in optimizing a whole interconnected system of systems and the processes by which they work together.14
Let us ensure that such a system of systems does not involve throwing the baby out with the bathwater in a imprudent rush to embrace unproven UUV technology at the expense of tried-and-tested surface ships.
1. Dwight H. Lyons Jr., Eleanor A. Baker, Sabrina R. Edlow, and David A. Perrin, Occasional Paper, “The Mine Threat: Show Stoppers or Speed Bumps?” (Alexandria, VA: Center for Naval Analyses, July 1993), 2.
2. For a comparative assessment, see Dan Parsons, “Undersea Mines Could be Next Decade’s IEDs,” National Defense Magazine, September 2012, at www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/blog/Lists/Posts/Post.aspx?ID=885.
3. BBC posting 5 May 2011: www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-13300510.
4. “21st Century U.S. Navy Mine Warfare,” U.S. Navy Expeditionary Warfare Directorate, Program Executive Office, Littoral and Mine Warfare, 2009. 8.
5. Commander, Mine Warfare Command, “An Introduction to Mine Warfare,” briefing slides with scripted commentary, Mine Warfare Command Headquarters, Corpus Christi, TX, 22 May 2002.
6. Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, and William S. Murray, “China Maritime Study Number 3, Chinese Mine Warfare: A PLA Navy “Assassin’s Mace’ Capability” (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, June 2009).
7. Geoffrey Till, Seapower, 2d ed. (London: Routledge, 2009).
8. Ibid., 128.
9. Ibid., 239.
10. Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert, U.S. Navy, “Payloads Over Platforms: Charting a New Course,” Proceedings, July 2012. 18.
11. Captain Robert Carney Powers, U.S. Navy (Retired), “Birth of the Littoral Combat Ship,” Proceedings, September 2012. 47.
12. Greenert, op.cit., 23.
13. Milan Vego, “Technological Superiority is Not a Panacea,” Proceedings, October 2010. 28–32.
14. Sydney J. Freedburg Jr., “Eye on Speed, Navy Minesweepers Take Cues from NASCAR,” AOL Defense, 26 September 2012, at http://defense.aol.com/2012/09/26-eye-on-speed-navy-minesweepers-take-cues-from-nascar.