Twitter Facebook Google RSS

Navy Rethinking Mine-Warfare Strategy 


by Sandra I. Erwin 

The Navy’s new submersible mine hunter, scheduled to be deployed in 2005 on Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, will be tested on a high-speed catamaran as early as next year.

The Navy will take advantage of these tests to see if it can find a new home for the Remote Minehunting System. Even though the official plan remains to deploy the RMS aboard destroyers, the surface-warfare community has complained that the mine-hunting equipment takes up too much space and labor, draining resources from combat functions. Typically, the mine-sweeping and hunting missions have been conducted by dedicated ships.

The RMS is just one among other mine countermeasure systems that the Navy will test on a fast, ferry-style vessel to be leased this fall.

The Navy expects to lease a so-called High Speed Vessel Experimental Craft 2 (HSV-X2) in October, so it can begin testing the ship’s potential mine-warfare capabilities. The vessel also will serve as a platform for other experiments by the Navy Warfare Development Command, the Navy Mine Warfare Command and the Marine Corps Combat Development Command.

In a mine-warfare role, the HSV will be a surrogate command-and-control ship, a mission that used to belong to the USS Inchon. The Inchon was decommissioned in June.

In addition to the RMS, the Navy also would test aboard the catamaran the Long-Range Mine Reconnaissance system, which was designed to be deployed from attack submarines. “We are looking at the feasibility of deploying them and employing them from a high-speed vessel craft,” said Rear Adm. Robert Sprigg, head of the Navy Warfare Development Command.

The HSV is an attractive platform, because it offers an uncluttered environment to test technologies, he said in an interview. The ship is an “open-box,” where pre-packaged systems can be rolled on and off, depending on the mission need. “It’s very flexible,” he said.

The Navy already has been conducting experiments with the HSV-X1 catamaran, called the Joint Venture (National Defense, April 2002). The U.S. Army leased the HSV-X1 for multi-service experimentation, under a two-year, $20 million agreement with the ship’s manufacturer, Incat, of Australia. Another catamaran was leased from Austal, another Australian firm, for testing by Marines in Okinawa, Japan.

For the HSV-X2, the Military Sealift Command is soliciting proposals from contractors and expects to award a lease contract in October.

The HSV is a modified car ferry. The U.S. military services plan to continue to lease these ships, so they can figure out what missions they are suitable for. The key attribute of an HSV is its speed: it must be able to reach least at 40 knots.

Navy officials said that, so far, they have been satisfied by the performance of the catamaran, even though cracks were found in the aluminum hull. That is to be expected, said Sprigg, because these are car ferries that were not designed for sustained operations in high seas. If the Navy decided to buy these ships, he said, they would require modifications in their design and construction.

Rear Adm. Paul J. Ryan, head of the Navy Mine Warfare Command, said that the HSV is not the definitive choice to replace the Inchon, but it would be an interim solution, until other choices can be properly evaluated.

The HSV-X2 “would give us the capability to experiment with various payloads,” Ryan told National Defense during a conference of the Naval Submarine League.

One of those payloads would be the Remote Minehunting System. The RMS is a semi-submersible vehicle that tows a mine-hunting sonar and a forward-looking sonar. The system will perform beyond line-of-sight mine reconnaissance in deep and shallow water. The Navy purchased six RMS systems from Lockheed Martin Corp. The plan is to install them on new Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, beginning with DDG 91, through DDG 96.

The problem, said Ryan, is that “the surface-warfare community is not enthused about RMS.”

The destroyer crews, he said, don’t want to have to manage and maintain a 14,000-pound vehicle, in addition to everything else they have to do during their deployments. “Mine warfare is not looked upon as an exciting mission” by the mainstream Navy, he added.

“They are more than willing to give [RMS] it up,” said Ryan. “And I am more than willing to test the system on the HSV. ... I offered to use the HSV-X2 as the RMS platform. Maybe it will become the platform of choice” for RMS.

The RMS is one of eight new mine countermeasure systems—both ship-based and airborne—that the Navy plans to field within the next decade.

One of the concepts being studied by the Navy Warfare Development Command is the use of an HSV or a Littoral Combat Ship equipped with mine warfare systems, Ryan explained. One would be assigned to each Navy battle group for countermine duties.

Sprigg explained that there are legitimate reasons why the surface warfare sailors would prefer to not have the RMS “hard-wired” into the destroyers. “When you hard-wire and equip multiple missions on a single platform, you have to take to sea the people and logistics train,” he said. That results in “additional costs and maintenance for every mission, whether you are going to do it or not.”

When an Aegis cruiser goes to sea, it is too cumbersome and expensive to have to take equipment and people that may not be needed, he said. As far as mine warfare is concerned, he added, “We believe we may be able to do it more effectively on a HSV—a dedicated vessel—rather than on a ship that already has multiple missions.”

The issue is not whether the surface warfare community wants the mission, but rather “where is the best place to put it,” Sprigg said.

The HSV is “about an 80 percent solution” as an interim Inchon replacement, said Sprigg. “It won’t fit all the equipment that Inchon had. ... This ship will not hold 53s [helicopters]. But operationally, we can take just about everything else in modular form.

“If we need the 53s, we can shore-base them, should a mission come up. We feel that is a good balance of risk management for the mine warfare mission in the interim, while we go for a more permanent solution to a mine warfare ship.”

A Lockheed Martin spokesman said the company was not aware of any formal plans to shift the RMS from the destroyers to other ships. Regardless, he said, “We will put them on whatever ship the Navy wants.”

Whichever direction the Navy goes with mine countermeasures, it is important to start fielding new technology as soon as possible, Ryan said at the Naval Submarine League conference.

The threat of sea mines is considerable, he said. There are 350,000 mines in the world’s oceans. At least 36 countries produce mines and 26 nations export mines.

One vexing characteristic of sea mines is that they don’t grow old or deteriorate over time, said Ryan. “Periodically, our allies will recover a World War II mine.” Modern mines, however, are more discriminating. Typically, said Ryan, “We clear mines by using a combination of acoustic and magnetic systems.”

The waters that are more suitable for mining are those shallower than 600 feet. That includes such strategic hotspots as the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, the Korean littoral, the Yellow Sea and the Taiwan Strait. “That presents a major challenge if we want to project power in the littorals,” Ryan said.

The Mine Warfare Command, based in Corpus Christi, Texas, operates 14 Avenger-class and 12 Osprey-class minesweeper vessels, in addition to 20 minesweeper helicopters and 17 explosive-ordnance disposal mobile detachments. Each EOD unit has one officer and seven enlisted sailors.

Ryan’s staff of 70 includes 19 officers, who often work with mine-warfare representatives from NATO countries, Australia and South Korea. “The United States does not have enough mine warfare assets to handle the problem,” Ryan said.

In October, the Mine Warfare Command will establish a new “Special Clearance Team,” in Coronado, Calif., he said. It will include Navy SEAL special-warfare divers and mine-hunting dolphins, who will be assigned exclusively to shallow-water operations.

The Navy’s strategic plan for mine warfare is to phase out the dedicated minesweeping fleet and to deploy organic systems within each battle group, beginning in fiscal year 2005.

  Bookmark and Share