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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 original acquisition strategy called for downselecting a single ship design from the two candidate designs being developed by Lockheed and by General Dynamics. The Lockheed design consisted of a single, semi-planing steel-hull, while the General Dynamics candidate was an aluminum-hulled trimaran. In 2010, the Navy announced that rather than select a single design, it would build both, claiming that the cost savings over time would justify the decision. There have been other complaints as well. Some critics say that the LCS’s design sacrifices protection and survivability for speed and agility. Others say it is simply the wrong ship. But whatever the case, the LCS is the ship upon which the Navy will prove or disprove its new approach toward mine countermeasures.

 

Mine Warfare – LCS Style

Independence

The littoral combat ship USS Independence (LCS 2) operates in the waters off Southern California. Both classes of littoral combat ship are designed to operate in the near-shore environment and take on 21st-century coastal threats such as submarines, mines, and swarming small craft. The most difficult task may well be the mine warfare mission. U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Jan Shultis

Program Executive Officer for Littoral Combat Ships Rear Adm. James Murdoch acknowledges that a reconfigurable, focused-mission surface combatant is a revolutionary idea. But he’ll tell you that only relates to the LCS sea frame, the term they use for the ship when not equipped with one of its mission packages. “There are no leaps of technology here,” he insisted. “I’m not trying to throw unguided projectiles 100 nautical miles from a railgun on the fantail. I’m just trying to put the same sort of sensor in the water that we’ve used for the last 30 years, with a little bit better software, a little bit better transducers, and the ability to operate this thing remotely from the ship. Is it easy? No. Is it a leap of technology? Not at all.” But the technological challenge is complex and difficult.

This is particularly true, he said, with its Mine Warfare Mission Package: an array of sensors, unmanned vehicles, and weapons designed to remotely locate, identify, and destroy mines while keeping the human well out of the mine’s reach.

Typically, a mission could begin with an MH-60 helicopter, launched from the LCS’s flight deck, performing the initial search for surface and near-surface moored mines using a laser-based imaging and ranging system called Airborne Laser Mine Detection System, or ALMDS. The MH-60 can also lower into the water and tow the AQS-20A Mine Hunting Sonar.

Included in the LCS mine warfare module is the AN/WLD-1 Remote Minehunting System, which consists of a diesel-powered, semi-submersible, unmanned vehicle that can be deployed from the LCS’ deck while under way. Like the MH-60 helicopter, it will also deploy the AQS-20A variable depth sonar. The Navy hopes to use the WLD-1 on the DDG-51 destroyer and other surface combatants to provide them with their own organic mine detection capability.

AN/AES-1 Airborne Laser Mine Detection System MH-60S Sea Hawk

The first flight of developmental testing for the AN/AES-1 Airborne Laser Mine Detection System (ALMDS) integrated into the MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter. U.S. Navy photo by Dave Sussman

Back on the ship, the recorded data is analyzed. If suspicious objects are identified, either the helicopter or one of the remote vehicles returns to the scene. If the objects are floating or subsurface mines, a sweep might be performed.

Neutralization is done by the ASQ-235 Airborne Mine Neutralization System (AMNS), which is lowered by helicopter into the water. One of four Archerfish neutralizer vehicles is released from it, and then swims up to the mine and detonates, destroying the mine. Originally this system was to have been used against the bottom influence mines, while moored subsurface mines would have been destroyed by a gun system called RAMICS, which used super-cavitating 30 mm ammunition. But that system has since been dropped and AMNS is now being modified to take over that role as well. “We’re building on some modeling we’ve done which says the neutralizers on the AMNS can swim up close enough to take care of mines in the near-surface areas,” said Murdoch.

He described the challenges of proving LCS’s mine hunting capability this way: “I am working to meet a very noble requirement in mine hunting, one that no previous program has had to meet. I have to show that LCS, the system, can clear a certain number of square miles of minefield per day. I don’t just have to prove the individual sonar systems can go out and see a mine amidst the clutter. I don’t just have to prove the neutralizer can go and blow up a mine. I have to show the whole integrated system works.”

 

Legacy Systems

By 2017, enough LCS should be built and enough MCM mission packages delivered to allow retirement to begin of two legacy MCM systems: the MH-53 helicopters and Avenger-class MCM ships. This should continue through 2024, by which time both systems will have left the Navy’s inventory. Until then, the Navy will continue whatever upgrades are necessary to keep its legacy systems viable against the ever-changing threat.

 

A Terror Weapon in Our Own Waters?

It’s anyone’s guess why, during the 10 years since 9/11, al Qaeda or some other terrorist group has not attempted to place naval mines in America’s home waters.

It would be a relatively easy matter to place a couple of mines inside or anywhere along the approaches of an American port. Doing so to two or three ports wouldn’t be that much more difficult, but once a couple of mines went off, the effect on the American economy would be absolutely devastating. During World War II, German U-boats managed to sow more than 300 mines along the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico and in the process, tied up coastwise maritime traffic for long periods of time.

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