Navy Anticipates Smoother Waters for LCS Mine Countermeasures Module (UPDATED)

By Valerie Insinna

The Navy has employed everything from wooden-hulled ships, sophisticated sonar systems and trained dolphins to find and clear underwater explosives. But in future years, it plans to hand responsibility for mine countermeasure missions over to the much-maligned littoral combat ship.

The service is testing a mission module comprised of various countermine systems, some of which have encountered setbacks that have forced it to scrap and rework certain plans. Navy officials say that most of these issues have been worked out, and that the ship will be ready to hunt mines in 2019.

The LCS mine countermeasures mission module is “designed to close an absolutely critical warfighting gap in mine warfare,” said Sean Stackley, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition. Unlike current methods, it will use unmanned systems to do most of the dirty work, keeping the ship and sailors out of harm’s way.

Mines are cheap and easy to produce. They also are extremely dangerous. Since World War II, they have sunk or seriously damaged ships more than any other weapon.

Wooden-hulled Avenger-class ships currently conduct minehunting and minesweeping activities. Adversaries can deploy a wide variety of mines that occupy different parts of the water column, so there is no one-size-fits-all system to find and defeat them.

“For mine countermeasures, the initial increment will be about twice as effective as what we have on our MCM-1 class Avenger for minesweeps, and it comes with more precise sonar capability for rapid hunting and therefore avoiding of mines,” Vice Adm. Richard Hunt, director of Navy staff, said at a July hearing of the seapower and projection forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. “As we go through the enhancements, the capability will expand to about three times the capability of what we currently have in inventory, and we do that without putting the ship, and therefore our sailors, into the minefield.”

A cliché often repeated by Navy mine countermeasure officials is, “Hunt if you can, sweep if you must.” Both methods have their disadvantages. Minehunting is a time-consuming procedure that requires detecting, classifying, localizing, identifying and neutralizing individual mines. Minesweeping — which involves purposely detonating the mine — is more dangerous, but is a faster way of clearing a minefield.

Once the Avenger has moved into a suspected minefield, it uses a series of sonar and mine neutralization devices for hunting. The Navy also uses a combination of mechanical, acoustic and magnetic sweeps, some of which are towed by the MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter.

One key advantage the littoral combat ship has against the Avenger is speed, said Scott Truver, co-author of the book “Weapons That Wait: Mine Warfare in the U.S. Navy” and currently the director of Gryphon Technologies’ TeamBlue national security programs group.

The ship won’t be cruising around the ocean at 45 knots with all of its mine countermeasures systems, “but you will still be able to maneuver more quickly to get the assets where they’re needed more quickly than the Avenger class,” he said. “The Avenger class had a top speed of maybe 12 knots, and it takes a long time to get across the ocean.”

The LCS module is broken into four increments for developmental and operational testing. All of the increment-one systems currently are being tested on LCS 2, USS Independence, in San Diego.

Most of the systems in the first few increments consist of off-the-shelf products, Stackley said. “The risk in these early increments is very low, very well-managed. There are some developments with later increments that are breaking new ground. And that’s why they come in later increments. We’re not trying to do a Big-Bang approach in the early” stages.

Nonetheless, the program has hit some significant snags. A July Government Accountability Office report highlighted delays in testing and fielding the various systems.

“The modules in the package have experienced difficulties during development and significant shortfalls in performance,” the report said of the mine countermeasures mission package. 

The Navy, for instance, initially wanted the MH-60S helicopter to be able to tow the Organic Airborne and Surface Influence Sweep, or OASIS, the module’s first minesweeper. But because the MH-60S cannot continue after an engine failure, the way more powerful helicopters can, the service decided the risk was too high to the aircraft and crew.

The Navy scrapped OASIS and will wait for the unmanned influence sweep system in increment three to put a minesweeper in the module. That system has yet to be designed and will not reach initial operational capability until at least 2017.

“The capability provided by the unmanned influence sweep system was adequate and does well enough that we didn’t think it was worth doing that fairly hazardous mission of towing with the MH-60S,” said Capt. John Ailes, the Navy’s program manager for mission module integration.

Safety issues with the MH-60S also caused the cancellation of a helicopter-mounted 30mm gun that could neutralize near-surface and floating mines, the GAO report said.

The Navy has also run into issues with the remote minehunting system, which Ailes calls “the heart of the mission package” because of its ability to find mines in the bottom and volume of the water column. The system consists of a semi-submersible unmanned underwater vehicle that tows Raytheon’s AN/AQS-20A minehunting sonar. Lockheed Martin is contracted for the UUV, which is called the remote multi-mission vehicle.

Ailes called reliability problems with the vehicle “the single biggest problem that we’ve had, and one that we think honestly is in the rearview mirror.”

The vehicle has a requirement to operate for 75 hours without breaking down, but initial tests showed it lasted only about 45 hours, said Steve Lose, the Navy’s remote minehunting system program manager.

To improve the system’s reliability, the Navy and Lockheed Martin went through two phases. In the first, the team designed corrections for system failures, he said. They also brought in subject matter experts to look at specific areas of the vehicles — like navigation and hydraulics — and make recommendations for how to change the vehicle.

After those improvements, the vehicle worked for 200 hours before a breakdown in contractor-run testing at Lockheed’s facility in Panama City, Fla., Lose said. The Navy will take over developmental testing in September, and sailors will run sorties on an actual simulated minefield at the Lockheed facility.

Until that time, sailors are working through proficiency training for operations and maintenance, which will prepare them to take the reins, said Steve Froelich, Lockheed Martin’s program director.

The upgraded vehicle, which will be onboard the LCS in September 2014 for testing, has modernized radios and includes the multivehicle communication system, which allows an operator to control more than one vehicle at a time.

The 2012 annual report by the Office of the Director of Operational Testing and Evaluation also cited deficiencies in launch and recovery operations for the remote minehunting system.

It originally was designed to be deployed from an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, which would turn in such a way to block turbulent waves. Launching from a littoral combat ship was not as stable. 

“The first times we were doing the launch, handling and recovery were actually some of the first times we were actually underway on the Independence,” Froelich said. Even with no modifications, sailors gradually became more proficient in those operations as they gained experience. The Lockheed team also upgraded the software for the user interface and the Navy improved the capture spine that is towed behind the ship and lifts the vehicle out of the water, he said.

Troubles with the remote minehunting system weren’t limited to the vehicle. Testing showed the AN/AQS-20A sonar had a high rate of falsely identifying objects and had problems with vertical classification, which measures the depth of the mine from the surface of the ocean.

“The sonar is an off-the-shelf system, but the shelf is a little dusty. The sonar has not been able to detect mines as we’ve expected,” said Paul Francis, managing director of acquisition and sourcing management for the GAO. “It needs a lot of preplanned product improvement.”

Both problems were the result of resolution issues in the forward-looking sonar, which made it difficult for a sailor to distinguish whether an item is actually a mine, Ailes said.

An improved AN/AQS-20A will have “better performance up toward the surface, better positional accuracy when it finds the mine, and probably even most important of all, a higher resolution and better display so that it requires less training for a sailor to be able to more directly distinguish between a mine and a not-mine,” Ailes said. The upgraded sonar will be ready for developmental testing in January, and may also be available for initial operational testing with the rest of increment one in fiscal year 2015, he added.

The older version of the sonar still meets the increment-one requirement, Ailes said. But until the AN/AQS-20A is improved, the Navy could work around current deficiencies by using other systems in the package.

The service is also applying this approach with the airborne laser mine detection system, which uses a laser mounted on the MH-60S to find mines in the top part of the water column. Testing showed the laser failed to identify mines at certain depths and would wrongly classify objects as mines, said the GAO report.

To a certain degree, it doesn’t matter how deep the laser can see as long as the Navy can use the module’s family of systems to see the entire water column, Ailes said. “Everything is about the capability compared to what you have. Between the laser and the [AN/AQS-20A], we see the whole volume, so who cares if, yeah, originally we said it was going to be able to see deeper?”

Francis took the Navy to task for that mentality during the congressional hearing.

Congress needs “an approved program baseline for each of the increments of the mission modules. As we’ve learned with the modules, if something doesn’t work, we’ll have a different game plan,” he said. “I think you should be able to hold the department accountable.”

The Navy plans to field a few new developmental technologies toward the final mine countermeasure module increments. In July, it released a request for proposals for the module’s minesweeper, the unmanned influence sweep system.

The system, called UISS, will consist of a small, unmanned surface boat that mimics the magnetic signature or acoustic sounds of a ship, causing magnetic and acoustic mines to detonate. The system must be able to continue hunting for mines even after an explosion, NAVSEA said.

“It needs to be able to go from the littoral combat ship, out to the area that it’s going to be operating from, be able to operate in that area, and be able to return back to that ship,” said Capt. Duane Ashton, the Navy’s program manager for unmanned maritime systems. “So it’s semi-autonomous ... but that’s one of the things that we’re hoping that some team is going to potentially provide us more [of].”

The service in fiscal year 2014 plans to award up to two contracts to build engineering development models. The system will reach initial operating capability in 2017, Ashton said.

Ashton is also working with General Dynamics to develop and integrate the Knifefish, a heavyweight UUV that uses a low-frequency broadband sonar to find mines within the water column and buried in the ground.

“We’re bringing capability that doesn’t exist in the Navy right now, from a technology standpoint,” Ashton said. “The only way we can go after buried mines today is with our mammal systems.”

The Knifefish collects terabytes of data and then comes back after a 16-hour mission to deliver that information. It automatically performs post-mission analysis and can figure out the probability of whether something is a mine and its position, Ashton said.

“You don’t have to go in there and do that deep review of each detail that you see in the screen,” he said.

Knifefish completed its critical design review in April, and General Dynamics will now begin to develop its hardware and software.

Correction: The original story stated that Lockheed Martin improved the capture spine on the LCS. The Navy performed the upgrade.

Topics: Bomb and Warhead, Robotics, Unmanned Underwater Vehicles, Shipbuilding, Surface Ships, Undersea Warfare

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