To borrow an old saying, mine warfare is like the weather: everybody
talks about it but nobody does anything. Like all old sayings it
is not entirely accurate, but there is more than a grain of truth
in it. Mine warfare has been and continues to be an issue much discussed
in the U.S. Navy and in Congress. Attention to this subject has
waxed and waned depending on circumstances, budgets and threats.
Now, attention is again being focused on mine warfare. One of the
most serious threats to U.S. naval power projection is sea mines.
Mines, which are cheap to make and easy to deploy, are perhaps the
most effective weapons available to a littoral adversary seeking
to prevent U.S. naval forces accessing littoral territories and
projecting power ashore.
Of the 18 Navy ships seriously damaged in operations since the
Korean War, mines were responsible for 14 of these incidents. Between
1988 and 1991, three warships to hit mines were the USS Samuel B.
Roberts (FFG-58), the cruiser USS Princeton (CG-59) and a countermine
task force flagship, the USS Tripoli (LPH-10). Aggregate damage
to the ships exceeded $121.5 million, while combined cost for the
three mines was estimated at $13,000.
Mines have twice complicated U.S. amphibious landings, first at
Wonsan in 1950, and then off Kuwait in the 1990s. In addition to
the physical harm caused in these and other incidents, mine warfare
caused significant operational delay.
U.S. adversaries have learned from these low-budget successes,
and as a result the current mine threat is growing rapidly in scope
and technological sophistication. As of 1996, 48 navies were capable
of laying mines, 31 nations manufactured mines and more than 20
nations exported mines. Between 1989 and 1998, there was a 40 percent
increase in the number of countries with mining capabilities, a
75 percent increase in the types of mines available, a 60 percent
increase in countries producing mines and a 60 percent increase
in countries exporting mines.
Today, in addition to traditional, low-technology contact mines,
the Navy can expect to encounter far more advanced systems that
incorporate magnetic, acoustic, seismic, underwater electric potential,
pressure, delayed arming mechanisms, propulsion systems, coatings
and camouflage techniques that make mines more difficult to detect.
Many of these features can be added to obsolescent mines at a fraction
for the cost of new ones.
To address the significant threats posed by sea mines, the Navy
has traditionally relied on a standing mine countermeasures (MCM)
force. Since the Gulf War, the Navy has invested the lion’s
share of its MCM resources into this dedicated force, which until
recently was comprised of 27 MCM ships, including the USS Inchon
(MCS 12), 14 Avenger class large mine countermeasure vessels, 12
Osprey coastal mine hunters, Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadrons
14 and 15, and explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) divers. The Navy
has also relied on the contribution of allied mine countermeasure
forces, as during the Gulf War.
The U.S. Navy’s mine countermeasures force generally is considered
one of the most capable in the world. Yet, it is a force in need
of modernization and transformation. The Inchon, which had been
converted in 1996 to provide multi-role support to surface and helicopter
mine countermeasures forces, suffered an engine room fire in 2001.
Rather than paying the estimate $10 million to repair it, the ship
was decommissioned without replacement.
This is hampering efforts to develop and test new mine countermeasure
technologies. Moreover, existing capabilities need to be enhanced
to address the problem posed by shallow “surf zone”
The dedicated MCM force is not a sufficient answer to the challenge
posed by sea mines. U.S. naval forces must be able to deploy rapidly
and operate against in all kinds of water and against the littorals
as soon as they arrive on station. In the early stages of conflict,
U.S. maritime forces will be hard pressed to act quickly when challenged
with maneuvering through these obstacles in a hostile mine-warfare
environment while detecting and defeating attacks close to shore.
Without significant improvements in its current MCM capabilities,
the Navy would be left with two unappealing choices: sit and wait
for the dedicated MCM forces to arrive from their U.S. bases, or
proceed blindly into crowded, mine-studded environments. The solution
is adaptation—countermine warfare must be conducted rapidly
and with forces on hand in the field.
The Navy has recognized that the a solution is to provide organic
MCM capabilities to fleet units and to change naval doctrine to
require that the mine detecting, classifying, and neutralizing skills
that comprise dedicated MCM missions become mandatory war-fighting
competencies for the forces comprising the Navy’s carrier
battle groups and amphibious ready groups.
While the Navy has not yet decided upon the exact mix of organic
and dedicated MCM platforms, the suite of systems needed to provide
organic capabilities would include integrated onboard MCM sensors
and weapons that make up the combat-systems package of the Navy’s
surface ships, submarines, and helicopters. These systems, deployed
in the Navy’s Battle Groups or Amphibious Ready Groups, would
complement the existing dedicated, in-theater capability, provide
capability in areas where there are no forward deployed dedicated
MCM forces, and, of perhaps greater importance, decrease the response
time necessary to commence the MCM campaign.
Organic systems on the horizon include surface, airborne, and undersea
technologies. Surface ships will employ off-board systems to meet
the demand for mine reconnaissance of anticipated operating areas.
The Remote Minehunting Sytem (RMS) is being developed to meet these
requirements. It is anticipated that the system will be employed
in Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, beginning in fiscal year 2005.
The Rapid Airborne Mine Clearance System (RAMICS) will provide
near-surface mine neutralization using a 20-30 mm Gatling gun system.
The lead airborne development program is the Airborne Laser Detection
System (ALMDS), an electro-optical mine detection system that uses
an aircraft-mounted laser to detect floating and keel-depth-moored
mines. Another airborne system in development is the Airborne Mine
Neutralization System (AMNS), an expendable, torpedo-like device
remotely operated mine neutralization device, deployed from the
H-60 helicopters that will be capable of providing identification
and neutralization of unburied and close-tethered mines.
Underwater mine reconnaissance is a top priority for the Navy’s
Underwater Unmanned Vehicle program. To this end, both Near-Term
and Long-Term Mine Reconnaissance Systems (NMRS and LMRS) programs
have been established. NMRS will provide initial UUV capability
to the fleet, launched and recovered from a Los Angeles class submarine.
NMRS will be capable of limited mine detection classification and
localization. An NMRS operational prototype is scheduled for delivery
this year. LMRS is targeted to enter service in fiscal year 2003.
While the concept of organic MCM has been agreed upon, there are
doubts about its implementation. In the past, when the Navy has
experienced budget shortfalls in other critical areas, such as aviation,
surface, and submarine communities, MCM has been one of the “bill
payers.” Now, mine warfare must be treated as a core U.S.
war-fighting competency, if the Navy plans to play in littoral waters.
Daniel Gouré is a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute,
a policy think tank in Arlington, Va.