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The Future of Mine Countermeasures

Keeping the sailor out of the minefield in the Navy’s new approach to mine warfare

The Wonsan debacle did serve as a wake-up call for the Navy, which then began a concerted effort to rebuild its mine countermeasures force. The momentum carried through the 1960s, only to be slowed down by the Vietnam War. The 1970s saw the Navy’s surface MCM force again slowly fall apart. It did, however, see the Navy’s embrace of helicopter-borne minesweeping that had been tested beginning in the early 1950s as another Navy response to the Wonsan debacle.

MCM USS Scout

A demolition charge detonates 1,500 meters from the Avenger-class mine countermeasures ship USS Scout (MCM 8) in the Strait of Hormuz. The charge was built and detonated by sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit (EODMU) 1 and Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit (MDSU) 2, attached to Combined Task Group 56.1, during joint mine countermeasures training. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Joshua Lee Kelsey

While the 1991 Persian Gulf incident did also serve as a wake-up call to the Navy, the situation was not quite the same as in 1950. Instead of being in a shambles, the Navy’s surface mine countermeasures force was only in a low state of readiness because it was then in the process of being rebuilt. The first ships of its new MCM 1 Avenger-class mine hunters were undergoing testing, but still too far from their initial operational capability to have participated in actual operations. But for the first time in years, mine countermeasures suddenly had the Navy’s attention. What the 1991 incident really did was protect mine warfare from the waves of the “peace dividend” budget cuts during the 1990s. In addition to building the Avenger-class mine hunters, another class was also built, the MHC 51 Osprey-class coastal mine hunter.

The 1990s were good years for the mine warfare community, during which it built up and endlessly exercised. As a result, when the second Iraq war got under way in March 2003, the Navy’s mine countermeasures operations were a success, but it realized that it might just be time for a radical rethinking of the mine countermeasures mission.

Minesweeping, as it has existed through most of the 20th century, consisted of two basic methods. The first involved mechanically towing winged, underwater bodies called paravanes at various depths to snare and cut the long mooring cables that keep floating mines tethered to the seafloor. The mine would then float to the surface and be detonated by gunfire. The other method was to tow magnetic or acoustic generators that would imitate a ship’s magnetic or acoustic signature, inducing the mine to explode harmlessly.

MH-53 Countermeasures

An MH-53 Sea Dragon helicopter assigned to Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron (HM) 15 conducts an airborne mine countermeasures exercise with a MK-104 Mod 3 acoustic mine sweeper in 2011. HM-15 was assigned to Combined Task Force 52, conducting mine countermeasure activities in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Bryan Weyers

But in the 1980s, as influence mines became increasingly more discriminating and harder to fool, minesweeping began changing to mine hunting. While surface and acoustic sweeping continues to be used, more often helicopters are sent out equipped with laser-scanners to search the seafloor for mine-like objects. Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) equipped with advanced sonars and electro-optic sensors are used to locate and identify the mines and then gently attach small explosives charges, called neutralizers, to destroy the mines.

The Avengers and Ospreys both performed well during the most recent Gulf War, but they had different combat and navigation systems, which meant that sailors who trained for one were not necessarily trained for the other. The Osprey-class ships didn’t have the operational reach to stay out for more than a couple days without needing replenishment. Operating them was not cheap, either. They had all been worked intensively during their lives, and now their midlife upgrades were beginning to loom. These would run probably about a billion dollars for both groups. But more than anything, being too slow to operate and exercise with the fleet was becoming a showstopper.

The conceptual breakthrough lay in the realization that with mine hunting now relying so heavily on airborne and remotely operated systems like UUVs, it was no longer actually necessary for a ship performing the mine countermeasures mission to be physically inside the minefield. As long as it could stay outside it, nearly any ship could do the task. This was a good thing, since, as the 20th century drew to a close, the Navy was, for the first time in decades, suddenly in the market for a new class of smaller surface combatant.

 

Enter the Littoral Combat Ship

LCS Fort Worth Builder's Trials

Fort Worth (LCS 3), undergoing builder’s trials before delivery to the U.S. Navy in 2012. Both classes of LCS are planned to become the Navy’s mine hunting vessels. Lockheed Martin photo

On Nov. 1, 2001, the Navy began a new program to build a revolutionary new class of relatively inexpensive, corvette-sized surface combatants – the littoral combat ship. Instead of operating as a multimission platform like most warships, the LCS would perform one focused mission at a time and be able to quickly change to another mission orientation by swapping in and out modular plug-and-fight mission packages and specially trained mission crews to go with them. This would allow the LCS ships to be small, fast, and very agile; optimal for operations in littoral waters. Its three focused missions would be surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, and mine countermeasures. The plan was to build 55 of these ships over the next 30 years, with the final ones replacing the first, which would then be approaching the end of their planned life cycles. The LCS would ultimately make up roughly one-sixth of the Navy’s planned 313-ship force.

Now, 10 years later, the first two LCS ships have been delivered and two more have been launched. 2012 will see the beginning of a long period of operational testing to see how well the ship and its different mission module packages perform in close-to-real-world conditions.

The LCS program has generated its share of controversy during these last 10 years. For one thing, by the time the two lead ships were launched, the cost had risen beyond $480 million per ship. Navy officials say they are confident the costs of follow-on ships will be lower.

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Brendan McNally is a journalist and writer specializing in defense and aerospace. Brendan began his career...