After nearly a decade of research and at least $70 million spent
on engineering and testing, the Navy and Marine Corps are nowhere
close to having suitable equipment to detect and breach minefields
in shallow waters, close to the beach.
Shallow-water mine countermeasures today, said experts, are not
much more advanced than what Army and Navy engineers had at Omaha
Beach in 1944.
"We’ve been talking for 10 to 15 years about how we
are going to deal with the mine threat in the littorals," said
Lt. Gen. Emil Bedard, the Marine Corps deputy commandant for plans,
policies and operations. "We are still talking about it,"
he said in a briefing to the National Defense Industrial Association’s
expeditionary warfare conference, in Panama City, Fla. The "most
critical issue for amphibious operations," said Bedard, is
the inability to find and destroy mines in shallow waters, less
than 40-foot deep.
Last month, the Navy’s office of expeditionary warfare was
expected to release a solicitation to industry seeking proposals
for mine-breaching systems that can find and destroy mines buried
in the "surf zone," in order to clear lanes for Marines
to land safely.
The surf zone is a term that describes the region extending from
the mean high water line on the beach to a water depth of 10 feet.
This is considered the most difficult area to conduct mine detection
Today, the inability to clear mines from the surf zone is the "Achilles’
heel of our maneuver force," said the commandant of the Marine
Corps, Gen. James L. Jones.
Jones is a long-time advocate of the need to develop mine countermeasures.
He often has pointed out that enemy sea mines were responsible for
14 of the 19 Navy ships destroyed or damaged since 1950. During
the Gulf War, two Navy ships—the USS Princeton and the USS
Tripoli—were severely damaged and seven sailors injured by
sea mines. Navy studies reported that approximately 50 nations possess
sea mines—a 40 percent increase since 1986. At least 30 of
those countries are able to produce mines.
In a previous assignment, Jones was director of naval expeditionary
warfare, a position that is now held by Marine Maj. Gen. William
The "10-feet in" problem, Whitlow said, is now on the
agenda of the secretary of the Navy, Gordon England. "He is
intent on resolving that issue," Whitlow said at the symposium.
The solicitation for industry proposals, he explained, specifically
asks for capabilities to breach minefields in waters less than 10-foot
Several industry and government officials interviewed for this
article noted that the current problems were prompted by the failure
of two shallow-water mine countermeasure programs that had been
under way for seven years. These projects were called the distributed
explosive technology (DET) and the shallow-water assault breaching
system (SABRE). Both programs were supposed to provide breaching
and clearing systems for the surf zone.
About a year ago, senior officials from the Navy and the Marine
Corps decided to cancel both DET and SABRE, because the systems
developed thus far were considered ineffective and too costly.
These programs failed for several reasons, officials said. The
systems, for one, were too cumbersome to operate, a hindrance that
is known in military-speak as a "large logistics footprint."
Additionally, there appeared to be a disconnect between the program
requirements and the user needs. It was a case of a product that
was built without enough input from the customers, said several
officials at the conference.
The section from the very shallow water zone through the craft
landing area presents a difficult environment for detecting mines,
because there is a lot of clutter and the water is thick with mud.
Additionally, it exposes mine countermeasures forces to hostile
In the waters off the Korean peninsula, for example, "there
are places where the divers cannot tell where the bottom is,"
said Capt. Tom Davilli, who oversees naval mine-warfare fleet exercises.
"It gets thicker and thicker, until they can’t swim anymore.
... They can’t see the palm of their hand in front of them."
In those waters, he said, sonar devices don’t work.
Marine Corps officials said that there are other ways to get around
the mine obstacles, such as flying over them. Nevertheless, the
lack of a shallow-water anti-mine system limits their options in
conducting amphibious landings and logistics support operations.
Both the SABRE and the DET were part of an assault breaching system
mounted on a team of two landing craft air cushioned (LCAC). SABRE
is a single rocket-deployed demolition line-charge system, used
primarily in water depths between 3 and 10 feet. DET is a dual rocket-deployed
system that fires an explosive array (or net) charge from an LCAC
to destroy mines in the shallow-water zone from 3 feet up to the
Senior Marine Corps officials were unhappy that these systems had
to be deployed from a LCAC, because the breaching actions would
expose both craft and crew to enemy mines and other defensive fire
from ashore. They also complained that the SABRE and DET were too
demanding in terms of logistics support. The system would have required
the equivalent of two full loads of munitions on two cruisers to
clear an average surf zone.
There were technical problems as well. In a May 2001 report, the
General Accounting Office, which investigated the program for members
of Congress, said that SABRE "fuze failures and concerns about
operational limitations, safety, and reliability have caused the
Navy to suspend the development of these systems."
Rear Adm. Michael Sharp, the Navy’s program executive officer
for mine and undersea warfare, told the conference that, before
anyone rushes to deploy another system to replace SABRE and DET,
both industry and government need to understand the requirements
Somehow, officials failed to incorporate those requirements into
the program specifications, said Sharp. When the Navy developed
SABRE and DET, he said, "We built exactly what we were asked
to build." This program experienced a similar situation as
"when you are asked to build a pink kitchen. ... You do it.
But then the customer comes back and says, ‘I guess I did
not want a pink kitchen.’"
The SABRE and DET systems were made "to specs," said
Sharp. But they failed to meet the user needs nonetheless. To prevent
that from happening again, he said, the Navy and the Marine Corps
have to answer the question: "What are we trying to do? Are
we trying to do D-Day? Are we trying to clear a small path?"
Before the program goes any further, he said, "We have to
come to grips with what we need. ... If we don’t, 10 years
from now, we could be in the same situation."
The Defense Department, Sharp said, cannot afford to spend millions
of dollars on development and, shortly before the system goes to
production, "the leadership says they don’t want it."
Some technologies are in development today by the Naval Sea Systems
Command that potentially could result in operational mine-breaching
systems for shallow waters.
One technology, called the Hydra-7 mine-countermeasures concept,
was covered in a paper co-authored by Thomas Kidwell, an engineer
from the Naval Sea Systems Command Indian Head Division, and Joe
Mayersak, from Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control Advanced
The project focused on the capability to neutralize beach and surf
zone mine threats and to clear beach obstacles for an amphibious
assault. The Hydra-7 concept is based on an air elivered round with
an energetic dart payload—for mine neutralization—and
an explosively deformed payload.
The Hydra-7 round is guided to a predetermined position over the
potential assault lane and positioned vertically. A rocket motor
then accelerates the payload to a predetermined velocity. Approximately
750 feet above the surface, the payload is dispensed, distributing
the darts over the intended area.
The authors of the paper said that the Hydra 7 project already
has demonstrated the ability to neutralize TNT targets with energetic
darts. Steel surrogate mine targets have been neutralized at the
ground surface, while plastic TNT targets have been destroyed on
the ground surface and to burial depths of up to six inches.
A follow-on to the SABRE and DET systems also could incorporate
pulse-power technologies that were developed during the past several
years by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
The technical challenge confronting the Navy is daunting, because
there are so many different types of mines and decoys, said Phil
Olin, a mine-detection expert in south Florida.
In World War II, he said, sea mines mostly were made of iron. Now,
mines are made with plastic, wood and various composite materials.
They also are becoming "smarter," meaning that they look
for electromagnetic and acoustic signatures from approaching vessels.
The SABRE/DET debacle, meanwhile, was the subject of much discussion
at the Panama City conference. Several officials agreed that the
project epitomizes what is wrong with the Pentagon’s acquisition
Sharp said that a cutthroat competitive environment often encourages
companies to underbid contracts and underestimate the risk involved
in a project.
J. Dan Howard, senior advisor for naval affairs at Lockheed Martin
Corp., compared the defense acquisition process to a "liar’s
poker" game. "The government customer comes with expectations
and says, ‘I have this much money to do this.’ He knows
it’s not enough. But then, we, the industry, come back and
say, ‘yes, we can do it for 70 percent of what you programmed,’"
This way of doing business gets both government and industry managers
in trouble, he added, because it often results in cost overruns
and unfulfilled expectations. "Occasionally, that means that
a promising technology that the war-fighter needs goes on the rocks,
and we all blame the controllers for it," he said.
To "fix this mess," Howard said, program managers need
to "understand the art of the possible from the outset,"
and the development phase should be "adequately funded,"
because there are no guarantees that contractors will get any production
contracts to recoup any losses incurred in the development phase.
"Sometimes, production never occurs," said Sharp, the
Navy’s program executive officer. "We ought to recognize
that and, when we can, include some ... reasonable amount of production
in the initial contract."
In the government, he said, cost growth is anathema. However, "sometimes,
cost growth is a fact of life. ... We have to recreate the tolerance
for cost growth in our system."
The nature of the competitive defense market, said Sharp, "causes
industry to underestimate the cost of the risk." In the government,
meanwhile, "we do cost estimates, and they are pretty good.
But they get thrown out the window, because a company comes in and
says they can do it for 70-80 percent of the estimate."