The U.S. Navy is developing a new mine countermeasures (MCM) master plan to transition from its existing legacy MCM triad forces to a series of new systems for the mine-clearance mission. To be sure, the Navy is introducing promising new capabilities such as the Airborne Laser Mine Detection System, Airborne Mine Neutralization System, a variety of unmanned surface vehicles, and the Knifefish unmanned undersea vehicle. The main argument supporting this transition is that replacing legacy systems should not involve a “one-for-one” replacement because with the newer systems the Navy can approach the mine-clearance mission in a more innovative fashion. This evolution clears the way to decommission current surface and airborne mine countermeasures systems. Yet in doing this too quickly, the Navy will be left with serious MCM capability gaps that could take years to close.
The MCM Triad
The Navy MCM force doctrinally operates as a triad of airborne, surface, and subsurface systems to detect, localize, and neutralize the mine threat. The MCM triad construct was institutionalized as a result of lessons learned during previous mine hunting experiences in Korea, Vietnam, and Desert Storm. The capabilities of each triad leg complement each other against the mine threat. Airborne systems such as the MH-53 Sea Dragon can rapidly deploy and search large swaths of water. Explosive ordnance disposal diver detachments form the subsurface leg to search for and neutralize mines in harbors and very shallow water and gain critical intelligence by exploiting enemy mines. Finally, the Avenger-class surface minesweepers are capable of both mine-sweeping and mine-hunting from the littoral to deep water using a high-frequency variable depth sonar and mine-neutralization vehicles. The Avenger-class also has the endurance to sustain mine-clearing operations and it remains the only system in the Navy that can complete the entire search, localization, and mine-neutralization process on its own and in the least amount of time. Each leg of the triad has faced funding and maintenance issues throughout its operational history, yet each remains an important component of a flexible and multicapable mine-clearance force.
The MCM Master Plan’s Flaws
The Navy’s MCM master plan will rely on new technology to carry the day while the legacy systems “sundown” into retirement. But once the legacy systems are gone, they are gone for good. When the triad is retired, there will be a capability gap in MCM doctrine, tactics, and experience until the new systems achieve the efficacy in mine-clearing operations that only time and experience can grant. Given this significant risk, phasing out the MCM triad should be done more deliberately—and not based solely on budgetary expediency. The Navy needs an effective MCM force to challenge potential adversaries’ capacity and capability to employ sea mines. Going forward, the focus should be to integrate the new MCM systems into the main battle fleet in a way where they align with and are complemented by the existing MCM triad.
Ultimately, decommissioning the MCM triad will bring an end to another era in the tortured history of Navy mine warfare, historically a low priority in maritime warfighting. Fortunately, the coming MCM master plan is an opportunity to raise fleet-wide awareness of how existing and new MCM systems counter the mine threat. Unfortunately, unless the master plan articulates the risk associated with rapidly eliminating legacy forces the Navy will not enter into the next MCM era clear-eyed and without illusion. It needs to do that.