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The Giant Leap for Mine Countermeasures: Integrating the Navy’s MCM Forces

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon. This was no small feat for many reasons, but primarily noteworthy because this achievement was made a mere eight years after the first US space flight, and only 26 years after the first US jet-powered flight. Similarly, the modern naval mine was perfected in 1847 when Alfred Hertz invented the chemical horn and a mere seven years later, hundreds of naval mines were used in the first successful mining operation against the Royal Navy at Fort Pavel in St. Petersburg. Both accomplishments were due to rapid advancements in technology that made the untamable seas and outer space seem much more manageable.

In the time since the Royal Navy was halted and Armstrong took his giant leap, advancing technology has outpaced even the wildest dreams of many twentieth century science fiction authors. The invention of the internet and the smartphone have changed life as we know it and made the world a much smaller place. In so many fields, advances in computers and microprocessors have revolutionized almost every industry and product known to man. Why is it then that short of placing static objects in orbit, no real advances have been made in space travel? The answer is simple, if not infinitely frustrating: space is big and not conducive to human life. Sure, we have collectively launched more satellites, telescopes, and robots than anyone cares to remember, but at the time of this writing, humans have not ventured beyond the Sea of Tranquility.

The same fundamental problem that NASA faced in 1970 when deciding what to do next has not been solved with the microchip. The collective human advances of the last 50 years have not solved the problem of a continuous need for food, water, and oxygen. A parallel can be drawn to the stalemate between naval mining forces and those whose movements they restrict. The contact mine, a buoyant metal sphere packed with explosives, has been something that time and technology cannot defeat. The concept of a modern carrier strike group stopped in its tracks by a single, unattended explosive device that costs all of $1,000 seems unthinkable. Unfortunately, that is the reality we may face. U.S. Naval strategic concepts all hinge on the premise of assured mobility. The ability to safely transit through sea lines of communication to key weapons employment zones is the food, water, and oxygen of the Navy. Every numbered Fleet Commander faces adversaries with hundreds or even thousands of these devices, and they are far more diabolical than any cutting-edge, million dollar carrier killer missile. They outnumber U.S. Naval vessels by ~12,000 to one, and can be deployed by any surface vessel, military or civil, in about five minutes. Even more perplexing is the fact that these devices were designed several years before the American Civil War, with many existing inventories being manufactured before the end of the Second World War.

Called Infernal Machines by the Royal Navy in 1853, early mines could be produced at a low cost and in great numbers, acting as a great force multiplier for even the weakest of fleets. The design of the near-surface contact mine has not changed much since then, and due to its simplicity, low cost, and availability, it has become the most prolific naval mine in the world by a factor of 1,000. Indeed, cheap and easily-obtainable near-surface moored contact mines pose the same threat to our modern Navy that they did 180 years ago. Like human space travel, this is a problem that time and technology has yet to conquer. It was not until the late 1940s that the US Navy started developing methods and strategies to defend against mines, after two world wars and almost 90 years of worry and fear of them.

Like everything else in the US Navy, our Mine Countermeasures (MCM) tactics were born in the United Kingdom. Due to the widespread use of near-surface contact mines, British MCM tactics developed in the 1930s, starting with the mechanical sweeping of moored mines, which involves physically cutting the mooring of contact mines. US Surface MCM vessels first saw combat during the Korean War in response to the robust mining of Wonsan Harbor. Slow transit times, attacks from other surface belligerents, and the fact that minesweeper personnel must transit mine infested waters left naval leadership with a desire for something faster, safer, and with longer legs. The helicopter fit this role nicely, and by the middle of the Vietnam Conflict, Airborne Mine Countermeasures (AMCM) helicopters were a reality. Mechanical and influence (magnetic) minesweeping devices designed for surface vessels were miniaturized and made deployable from the first purpose-built AMCM helicopter, the RH-53D.

Phased out in the late 1980s, the RH-53D was redesigned and made larger in every way, which gave birth to the MH- 53E Sea Dragon. In the Fleet since 1989, Big Iron is now configurable for seven different AMCM missions and stands ready to deploy worldwide in 72 hours in response to the global mine threat. For the past 30 years, MH-53E assets have worked in concert with Surface MCM (SMCM) and EOD components performing Undersea MCM (UMCM) to counter mines across the globe. However, the aging fleet of only 28 MH-53E airframes and the rapid decommissioning of the Avenger class of SMCM ships has placed the Navy in the same position as it found itself in following the Korean War; we need something faster, safer, and with longer legs.

Newer MCM technologies are on the horizon, and luckily, some are already here. EOD Expeditionary MCM (ExMCM) companies have been outfitted with a surface-deployed Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (UUV) that has all of the capabilities of the MH-53E’s towed sonar array. The HSC Community has been outfitted with airborne lasers capable of localizing near-surface moored mines and a second system that can neutralize influence mines in situ.

While newer technologies such as the Airborne Laser Mine Detection System (ALMDS) of the MH-60S can detect and classify contact mines, it cannot remove them from the water column. Likewise, ExMCM companies cannot operate their UUVs in high sea states or beyond the reach of an eleven-meter RHIB. Practically stated, a single platform cannot perform every MCM task needed in a complex mine problem. That’s where the integration of existing assets becomes a very attractive solution – assets fill in each other’s capability gaps to maximize clearance and minimize timelines. In the current state of MCM, it is the only way to maintain dominance in an ever-expanding global mine threat.

For the last three years, the HM, HSC and EOD Communities have conducted joint MCM Exercises in Key West in various Fleet-representative MCM Scenarios. This has been accomplished in conjunction with the annual HM Helicopter Advanced Readiness Program (HARP). HARP is designed to task, assess, and certify a helicopter squadron or detachment for deployment in similar conditions that they would encounter during that deployment. In the case of an MCM squadron, this is typically an expeditionary contingent of three helicopters and 160 personnel, including maintenance and tactics personnel. On its own, an HM squadron is manned and equipped to execute the full detect-to-engage sequence against all mine types, from initial detection through neutralization. An inherent problem (and planning assumption) for HM is that all MCM operations must occur in daylight hours only. The MH-53E platform is not capable of safely executing overwater hover operations at night, such as the extended hover required to stream and recover MCM equipment. Factors such as extreme rotor wash at low altitudes and a coarse hover coupler make this an unnecessary risk for a relatively small reward of additional MCM effort in the hours of darkness.

The MH-60S in its AMCM configurations does not suffer from this problem. Their ALMDS near-surface mine detection system and Airborne Mine Neutralization System (AMNS) are certified for day or night operations from ship or shore. Designed for Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) deployments, ALMDS and AMNS are part of the new MCM Mission Package (MCM MP), which as of this writing, is not ready for issue to either of the two LCS hull variants. As the LCS-operated MCM components are not in the Fleet yet, this leaves the MH-60S with critical AMCM capability gaps as ALMDS and AMNS are not complementary but part of the larger, complete LCS MCM MP. This does not mean that HSC AMCM assets are incapable of contributing to the AMCM Community. HSC-21 and HSC-28 have repeatedly proven their value during various exercises and particularly during the inaugural HSC AMCM HARP late last year. It does, however, emphasize the need for AMCM integration in the coming years. As the venerable and capable Sea Dragon nears the end of its service life, both HM squadrons feel the pressure of limited aircraft and MCM system parts availability. Added to this pressure is the increased demand for their participation in HADR and DSCA operations around the world, which only exacerbates these logistic hurdles. In the midst of these demands, the global mine threat has not decreased or diminished in any way. As we approach the end of the MH- 53E lifespan, the demand for a rapidly-deployable MCM asset with over-the-horizon capability has never been higher. To satisfy this demand, the HM and HSC Communities have joined forces over the last three years to demonstrate the immense capabilities of an integrated AMCM force against various modern mine threats.

For example, near-surface contact mines were historically located only after their moorings were cut in large-scale mechanical sweeping operations. The MH-53E utilizes the Mk-103 mechanical sweeping system to accomplish this task, which can be towed in four different symmetrical configurations based on the given tactical situation. ALMDS can scan the near-surface of the same water space in a fraction of the time, day or night, though the threat remains in the water column. Integration between the two platforms has yielded a more focused and efficient solution. ALMDS is used to detect mines in a water space. The positions of these mines are then passed to HM assets for "spot sweeping," which is the cutting of a localized mine with a smaller portion of the mechanical sweep. Following the mine cut, HSC assets cast EOD personnel near the mine for neutralization on the surface.

Influence mines, whether resting on the sea floor (bottom mines) or moored at a set distance from an anchor, are another problem entirely. These mines use a variety of sensors to detect target vessels and unlike contact mines, they are designed to sink a ship by attacking the keel rather than blowing a hole in the hull below the water line. In some cases, influence mines can be swept by replicating their triggering signatures with a towed influence device. However, MCM assets are better utilized by applying time and effort to localizing and identifying mines. This is especially true for the wide array of advanced sensors that are employed by the majority of modern influence mines

HM assets employ the AN/AQS-24C towed vehicle, which utilizes a synthetic aperture side-scan sonar with optional laser or volume sonar sections, capable of localizing and identifying bottom and volume mines. Operating for the entirety of daylight hours can yield dozens of targets for neutralization, which can then be passed along to an MH-60S for neutralization at night. For the EOD’s Mk-18 UUV family of systems, airborne deployment and recovery of the UUV from an MH-60S results in extended range and reduction in sea state limitations, expanding its already impressive capabilities. When HSC and ExMCM Detachments are coupled with HM assets, either ashore or on board an Expeditionary Staging Base (ESB), our adversaries would be faced with a lethal and adaptable expeditionary MCM force capable of countering any expected mine threat to the point of attrition.

ExMCM’s Mk-18 UUV family of systems is not the only unmanned platform that the Navy is relying upon in the future. Private industry has promised over-the-horizon, full detect-to-engage capabilities from unmanned surface and airborne platforms. The Navy has invested heavily into development of these future capabilities, even though they are far from deployable. Despite the fact that these programs have been chronically delayed and solid timelines have not been established, the Navy has been marking its calendar for divestment and decommissioning of legacy MCM platforms. In the coming years, the Avenger Class MCM ships and MH- 53E helicopters will be decommissioned, leaving only LCS and ExMCM to bear the MCM requirement for the U.S. Navy. While none of these dates have been declared with any certainty, one thing has been made very clear: The integration of expeditionary MCM forces is how we must fight today.

The performance of the expeditionary MCM contingent in Key West has yielded far better results than any of the exercise planners could have hoped. We were able to verify existing capabilities and validate new tactics with legacy systems in support of MCM integration. Across Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Fleet-representative scenarios, the integration of existing MCM forces has shown itself to be far more effective than the results of independently-operating MCM units. As we navigate the waters of constrained budgets, delayed timelines, and the eventual sundown of legacy systems, integration is the key to maintaining worldwide MCM readiness.

HSC-28 and HM-14 aircraft operating at NAS Key West during Combined HARP 21-1. Photo by LT Rich Babauta