In October 1951, a 250-ship amphibious assault was canceled when North Korea sowed some 3,000 mines off the coast of Wonsan Harbor. In May 1988, an Iranian mine of 1908 design severely damaged the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58). In February 1991, the Navy lost control of the Northern Gulf when Iraq laid more than 1,300 mines. These mines not only damaged two major warships, but also caused the Navy to table the thought of a potential amphibious assault.
Since World War II, 15 warships have been damaged or sunk by mines. No other weapon system has been so disproportionately effective—in terms of cost and sophistication—in thwarting U.S. operations at sea. Today, the threat grows. Russia possesses an estimated 250,000 sea-mines and North Korea, 50,000.
One might presume that U.S. mine warfare forces would have grown commensurately more robust in response to this threat, but this is not the case. Instead, by almost every measure, the U.S. Navy’s capabilities in this critical warfare area have declined steadily since 1945.
In light of the impact this decline has had on the Navy’s ability to carry out its part of virtually any war plan, how is it this situation exists? Simply put, the problem is just too big. A real solution would require both enormous amounts of money and fundamental changes in Navy-wide priorities. Add to this the fact that mine warfare is not sexy (like ballistic missile defense), “strategic” (such as nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines or aircraft carriers), or a “religious issue” (such as the new Joint Strike Fighter or the Virginia-class submarine payload module), and you have the recipe for continued neglect.
Today, the Navy’s mine warfare force consists of 11 aging mine countermeasure ships (MCMs). The youngest of these is 22 years old. Former Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert has acknowledged that the entire class is plagued by evidently insoluble maintenance issues. In addition to these 11 ships, the Navy has only 28 MH-53E airborne mine countermeasures helicopters. Not only has the effectiveness of these aircraft been questioned for years, but they, too, are at the end of their service lives.
There have been many plans to fix mine warfare through the years, but none proved to be either effective or long-lived. Most recently, mine warfare planners bet on the arrival of the littoral combat ships (LCSs), each potentially equipped with new and sophisticated gear contained in interchangeable, plug-and-play mine warfare modules. These module-equipped LCS ships were anticipated to replace and exceed the capability and capacity of both MCMs and MH-53Es.
Unfortunately, the plan has run into three snags:
• First, the LCS class experienced problems, from manning, to weight and moment, to reliability, to low estimations of combat survivability, and a lack of offensive punch. All this contributed to the cancelation of the class after construction of just 26 of a planned 54 hulls. While a new frigate design is planned to replace the later LCS hulls, that ship is not envisioned to conduct mine warfare.
• Second, mine warfare planners realized that other warfare planners, each with their own unique mission modules, had designs on the LCS. Clearly far fewer than 26 LCSs ever would be available for mine warfare operations.
• Third, the advertised “centerpiece” of the mine warfare module, the remote multimission vehicle (RMMV), which would tow an AN/AQS-20A sonar, was halted earlier this year because of persistently high system failure rates.
The Navy is now scrambling to come up with a new plan, but the inescapable fact is that the technological development of the LCS mine warfare module is fractured, and Band-Aid solutions will not work. Moreover, 26 potential platforms are simply not enough. In mine warfare, quantity truly has a quality all its own.
Can the U.S. Navy land the landing force? An affirmative answer will require bold moves and structural-level changes. Who will take the bitter pill, drag the problem into the light, broadly spread the pain, and move toward real solutions? Those solutions may or may not include a new and large class of MCMs, as well as a replacement airframe for the MH-53Es. In any case, something big has to happen before the Navy can land the Marines in a real test of U.S. power and influence.
Captain Eyer served in seven cruisers, commanding three of them: the USS Thomas S. Gates (CG-51), Shiloh (CG-67), and Chancellorsville (CG-62).