Breaking the Mold
A new Navy concept of mine countermeasures aims to deliver speed and agility to the fleet, vastly improving operational timelines
By WILLIAM E. LANDAY III and HUNTER C. KEETER
In the 21st century, the U.S. fleet increasingly will operate in coastal regions. The Navy is developing advanced technologies to assure access through that battle space and into the littoral areas, amid threats posed by an adversary’s mines and other area-denial capabilities.
The threat posed by naval mines is nothing new, of course. Such weapons may be credited to the efforts of Swedish inventor Immanuel Nobel. In 1855, during the Crimean War, the Russians deployed Nobel’s mines, effectively denying the British Royal Navy Baltic Sea access to St. Petersburg. In 150 years, mine countermeasures (MCM) have improved, but today’s dedicated MCM capabilities remain slow-moving, with large logistics “footprints” and stove-piped designs.
The Navy staff and acquisition organizations, such as the program executive office for littoral and mine warfare (PEO LMW) at Naval Sea Systems Command, are executing a new plan that will break that mold to deliver speed, technical agility and autonomy. Powerful new technologies are being developed that not only will change the face of MCM, but may add capability to other types of operations, such as antisubmarine warfare and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
The future of MCM, as in other warfare areas, is about developing technologies — sensors, weapons and vehicles — that will provide leap-ahead capability. The Navy’s vision is to field a common set of unmanned, modular MCM systems employable from a variety of host platforms or shore sites that can quickly counter the spectrum of mines to enable assured access on a timeline that supports Sea Power 21’s Sea Basing concept.
Realizing the vision will accelerate the timeline of MCM operations — from days or weeks down to hours or minutes — decreasing the “detect-to-neutralize” kill chain, and keeping sailors and marine mammals out of harm’s way in minefields. Additionally, the technologies now being developed will bring new performance in shared situational awareness and combat power across the full spectrum of operations.
The Navy’s dedicated MCM force includes airborne MCM squadrons in Norfolk, Va., and Corpus Christi, Texas, with 32 MH-53E helicopters. MH-53Es on mine-warfare missions tow the Mk103 Mechanical Minesweeping System, the Mk104 Acoustic Minesweeping System, the Mk105 Magnetic Minesweeping System and the AQS-24 Side-scan Sonar.
The surface force includes 14 MCM-1-class and 12 MHC-51-class ships, based at Manama, Bahrain; Sasebo, Japan; and Ingleside, Texas. Divers and Marine Mammal Systems of Naval Special Clearance Team One — based at San Diego — and eight dedicated explosive ordnance disposal detachments deploy worldwide to enter minefields, identify and dispose of the ordnance.
MCM is a challenge of probabilities, balancing three interrelated elements of time, area and risk. Risk is measured in the number of residual mines — weapons left over after a mine-clearance effort. The MCM operational sequence proceeds from detection, to classification, to mapping, to reacquiring, to identifying and, finally, to neutralizing mine threats. At present, each mine warfare system is optimized for a specific portion of the sequence.
The timeline — which may be measured in weeks or months based on the size of operating areas such as the Arabian Gulf and the Straits of Malacca — increasingly is unacceptable in view of the Defense Department’s emphasis on fast-moving forces. To enable access for force entry, all MCM must be completed within the first 10 days of a given operation.
Contrast that to the year it took U.S. and coalition MCM assets to clear the 10 mine danger areas located after Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
The Next Generation
To support these evolving operating concepts, new technologies will be brought together to form mission packages for the new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). These will include a variety of unmanned vehicles, advanced sensors and weapon systems that could be employed not only from LCS, but from other fleet platforms to compress the MCM timeline. The LCS mission packages, with “organic” airborne MCM systems, are the stepping-stones to a new generation of capabilities that may be applied to mine warfare and other operations.
The semisubmersible Remote Minehunting Vehicle (RMV), built for the Navy by Lockheed Martin, is designed to tow a version of the AN/AQS-20A variable-depth sensor package. The AQS-20A includes five integrated sensors, capable of detecting, classifying, localizing and identifying bottom and moored mines. Its integrated acoustic sensors include port and starboard side-looking sonar, a forward-looking sonar, gap-filler sonar and a volume search sonar.
Additionally, the system can accept an electro-optical laser-imaging sensor to identify mines. RMV potentially is capable of hosting smaller unmanned vehicles and other towed sensors and projectors, broadening its mission reach and capabilities.
Several new airborne MCM systems are being developed with Sikorsky’s MH-60S helicopter in mind. In its MCM role, the MH-60S will be equipped with Raytheon’s AQS-20A sonar (towed through the water); Northrop Grumman’s electro-optical Airborne Laser Mine-Detection System, which uses a laser to penetrate shallow water and detect moored mines; and EDO Corp.’s Organic Airborne and Surface Influence Sweep that provides magnetic and acoustic influence mine-sweeping capabilities.
To neutralize mines, Raytheon and BAE’s Airborne Mine Neutralization System is capable of destroying deep sea mines using BAE’s tethered Archerfish expendable underwater vehicle, while shallow mines are handled by Northrop Grumman’s Rapid Airborne Mine Clearance System (RAMICS), a 30mm gun firing super-cavitating projectiles capable of penetrating the water column and destroying mines.
In the beach and surf zone environment, Northrop Grumman’s Coastal Battlefield Reconnaissance and Analysis multispectral sensor system will be carried aboard the Fire Scout unmanned air vehicle. These mines will then be destroyed using the JDAM (Joint Direct-Attack Munition) Assault Breaching System.
Unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs), such as the Battlespace Preparation Autonomous Underwater Vehicle developed by Bluefin Robotics and the Office of Naval Research, provide reconnaissance and battle space preparation.
Smaller unmanned underwater vehicles, such as the Remote Environmental Measuring UnitS (REMUS), provide closer inspection of mine-like objects. Six REMUS vehicles were deployed in 2003 to reconnoiter Iraqi waterways around the port of Um Qasr. The REMUS is a commercial UUV from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and Hydroid Inc., adapted by the Office of Naval Research. Navy SEAL teams and explosive ordnance disposal detachments have used REMUS vehicles in a variety of missions.
Through the spiral development of airborne MCM systems, and the elements of LCS mine warfare mission packages, the Navy is building families of unmanned vehicle systems that will take on the lion’s share of MCM, opening the aperture to a broader range of mission capabilities. For example, multimission UUVs will host modular payloads and be capable of carrying a wide variety of sensors and, eventually, weapons. Advances in sensor technologies, such as synthetic aperture sonar, will increase MCM detection ranges and imaging quality, also improving undersea mapping and reconnaissance.
Computer algorithms governing vehicle behaviors also are evolving, to provide greater autonomy — for distributed networked, cooperative performance. Other types of vehicles, such as autonomous crawling robots, will emerge to add MCM and reconnaissance capability in the surf and beach zones.
The Navy has just begun to elaborate an overarching concept of operations to describe how future unmanned MCM systems will interoperate with the fleet. The concept will recognize the potential of unmanned systems, designated for MCM and other tasks, as “nodes” in the web of systems contributing to the Common Operational Picture (COP).
The COP is envisioned as a shared, real-time database of battlespace knowledge upon which commanders will rely as they plan and execute their operations. Because of the complex littoral battlespace in which most future operations will take place, every element of the force will have to contribute to the COP. MCM capabilities — leveraging technologies designed to operate in the littoral, above, upon and beneath the surface — are uniquely evolved to contribute to situational awareness in that multidimensional battlespace.
Sensors searching for mines also will build clearer pictures of the undersea geography, useful for planning assault lanes. Land robots investigating improvised explosive devices will contribute to tactical situational awareness of enemy-held structures or territory. Operating from clandestine platforms, such as the Ohio-class guided-missile submarines, UUVs will distribute sensors for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance collection, contributing to MCM and other missions. As cargo-carriers, modular vehicles will resupply special operations forces in remote locations.
As these and even more advanced technologies become part of the fleet’s MCM toolkit, sailors and Marines will find innovative ways to employ them to meet operational demands.
The PEO LMW is leading the acquisition of future naval capabilities that will shield and enable the fleet’s Sea Basing operational concept. Working with the Office of Naval Research and others, the challenge is to deliver the speed of capability, technological agility and modular engineering that will overcome the MCM challenge and assure force access.
At service laboratories such as the Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City, Fla., the vision already is being realized, with the next-generation technologies in the water or taking to the air. The technological foundation being built for future MCM capability not only will deliver access but also will contribute critical battlespace situational awareness and combat power to the fleet and to the joint force.
Rear Adm. William E. Landay III is program executive officer for littoral and mine warfare at Naval Sea Systems Command. Hunter C. Keeter is PEO LMW programs analyst at Anteon Center for Security Strategies and Operations.