Shallow-Water Mines Remain ‘Achilles’ Heel’ of U.S. Navy
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 and clearing.
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 Whitlow.
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 deep.
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 fire.
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 beach.
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 clearly.
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 Projects
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 system.
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,’" Howard said.
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."