Navy to ‘Mainstream’ Mine Warfare Within Five Years

By Sandra I. Erwin

The U.S. Navy is moving forward with plans to deploy modern anti-mine systems aboard ships and helicopters. During the past decade, the Navy has invested nearly $2 billion in research and development for mine countermeasures.

But even though Navy officials said they are optimistic about the progress achieved so far in mine countermeasure programs, they also acknowledge that these projects have less political support than other, higher-profile, naval warfare areas.

The most significant change that will be introduced to the fleet within the next five years is the addition of so-called organic systems that can detect, sweep and neutralize sea mines in both deep and shallow waters. Organic mine countermeasures will reside within each carrier battle group and each amphibious-ready group.

The current capabilities, by contrast, are "dedicated." They consist of specialized ships and helicopters that only perform mine warfare duties. Dedicated mine countermeasures, officials said, are not suited to today’s fast-paced military operations. Minesweeping vessels are aging and move too slowly to be able to reach a hot-spot on short notice, assert advocates of organic mine warfare.

Navy officials recognize that, at this time, mine countermeasure programs may not rank as high as other naval warfare systems, because the conflict in land-locked Afghanistan has not challenged the Navy’s anti-mine capabilities.

Priorities could change, however, said Rear Adm. Michael Sharp, the Navy’s program executive officer for mine and undersea warfare.

Even though the U.S. war against terrorist groups in South Asia does not present threats from sea mines, "that could change" in the foreseeable future, Sharp said during a recent conference on expeditionary warfare sponsored by the National Defense Industrial Association.

Recalling the troubles that U.S. ships experienced with sea mines in Operation Desert Storm, Sharp said, it is not inconceivable that the current conflict against terrorist organizations could expand to the waters of the Persian Gulf. "We don’t want our backs turned to the Persian Gulf, because the war could expand," he said. "I worry about that."

Sea mines generally are small and low tech, but "pack a tremendous punch," said Capt. David Grimland, who is in charge of the Navy’s organic mine countermeasures program.

A mine does not necessarily have to strike a ship’s hull to sink it, Grimland explained. "Mines are effective because of a phenomenon that occurs when there is an explosion in the water." A shockwave caused by a mine explosion hits the ship and causes it to rise in the water. Concurrently, a hot gas bubble is generated from the explosion, follows the shockwave and causes more damage. Bubbles follow the path of least resistance and tend to gravitate toward the bottom of the ship, said Grimland. "Mines that don’t actually strike the hull of the ship can be more damaging than mines that you run into."

As the Navy introduces organic mine-warfare systems, it will need to institute additional training for commanders and sailors. That process is known in Navy-speak as "mainstreaming mine warfare." Grimland said his goal is to "increase our fleet’s understanding of the complexity of mine warfare."

During the past two years, he said, every battle group that has deployed from the East and West coasts has received some training in mine warfare.

"We are changing from a garrison force to a deploying force," said Grimland.

The Navy’s existing dedicated mine warfare forces consist of 12 coastal mine-hunting ships and 14 mine countermeasure ships, one command and support ship, 20 mine-hunting and mine-clearing helicopters, 15 explosive ordnance disposal detachments, a very-shallow water detachment and marine mammal detachments.

"Our systems are optimized for blue-water [deep ocean] operations," Grimland said. "Our sonars provide excellent mine-hunting capability, but they require improvements for littoral operations."

Minesweeping today is done with 1950s technology, he said. The equipment is "difficult to maintain and operate."

On the modernization priority list is the replacement of aging MH-53 helicopters with MH-60s. Additionally, the Marine Corps is considering a major upgrade to the 53-type helicopters and the Navy plans to equip the MH-53s with new sonars.

Another problem for the mine-warfare fleet is the age and the condition of the USS Inchon, its only command ship. The Inchon only will last until 2005, said Grimland. "We are looking at potential alternatives" for a replacement, he added.

One reason the Navy has been slow to deploy anti-mine systems, he said, is indecisiveness about what technologies to buy. The Navy has experienced "great failures in fielding programs," said Grimland, because "technology moves so fast that someone else comes in with a new idea and derails what you are doing." Lately, he added, "We are seeing that all too often."

His advice to mine-warfare program managers is to "trust the decisions we make and follow through with projects. Don’t put things on a shelf."

The USS Eisenhower battle group is scheduled to have an organic mine-warfare capability by 2005. The Navy said that five carrier battle groups will be equipped by 2007 and all 10 by 2009.

Two of the systems that are expected to play prominent roles as organic mine countermeasures are the remote mine-hunting system (RMS) and the long-term mine-reconnaissance system (LMRS).

The RMS and LMRS, along with the airborne mine countermeasure programs, are the mainstay of the Navy’s strategy to field an organic mine warfare capability. The LMRS and RMS will be the first off-board sensors available for submarines and surface combatants, respectively.

"That is a major leap in capability," said Capt. Tom Davilli, who oversees mine-warfare fleet exercises. The submarine force, he said, already is looking at LMRS as a "mission re-configurable platform," for functions other than mine warfare.

"That could be the case also for RMS," he said. "We are looking at putting more missions, more sensors."

The LMRS was designed for clandestine mine reconnaissance. The Navy has long-term plans to install more capable acoustic sensors for precision underwater mapping.

The RMS mission also is mine reconnaissance and identification. Although the Navy has expressed interest in alternate missions for the RMS, there is no official program to do that.

As these two programs proceed through development, there is a brewing debate within the mine-warfare community as to whether the Navy will end up buying both, given that they do many of the same things.

Davilli said that both these systems are complementary and each fulfills specific requirements. Nonetheless, he said at the conference, "As everyone in this room understands, things that look alike or smell alike are seen as competing."

Among the reasons for the perceived rivalry between the two programs is that, while the program executive officer for mine and undersea warfare is responsible for both systems, they are funded by two separate resource sponsors within the Navy. The RMS is a surface-warfare program, while the LMRS is sponsored by the submarine program office. The surface and the undersea communities often battle fiercely for Navy procurement dollars during budget deliberations.

Another source of rivalry between the programs, according to industry sources, is that the RMS is made by Lockheed Martin while the LMRS prime contractor is Boeing.

According to a Navy source who did not want to be quoted by name, N77, the resource sponsor for the LMRS, and N75, the resource sponsor for the RMS, have budgeted sufficient funds through the five-year budget plan to be able to field these systems by 2005.

There is no competition between these two programs, the source said. "Each has a separate and distinct mission and both are integral to the organic mine countermeasure ‘system of systems.’"

The LMRS provides the early clandestine capability to assess the combat area and help commanders decide how to carry out mine countermeasure operations. The RMS and airborne systems will be responsible for reconnaissance, mine-hunting, and neutralization missions.

Topics: Mine Warfare, Navy News, Aviation

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