Defeating Mines and Other Unmanned Maritime Threats

A Modular MCM Vision

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Forty-one.  That is the number of times since the end of World War II that naval mines (unmanned maritime weapons that wait) have been the “weapons of choice” to attack warships and maritime commerce.  Most recently, for several months beginning in February 2017 Houthi rebels planted mines and waterborne improvised explosive devices (WBIEDs) in the Red Sea, near the ports of Mokha, Midi and Al-Hudaydah.

Enemy mines caused significant numbers of U.S. ship losses and damage during crisis and conflict.  Of the 19 U.S. Navy ships that have been seriously damaged or sunk by enemy action since September 1945, 15––nearly 80 percent––were mine victims.

The world sea mine order of battle in 2018 totals about a million mines of more than 400 types in the inventories of more than 50 navies worldwide.  Mines are the quintessential asymmetric weapons that directly attack strategies as well as forces.  And they can be quickly and surreptitiously laid by surface ships—including simple junks, fishing boats, other coastal craft, and commercial vessels— submarines, and aircraft.

Naval mines can attack critical sea and seabed infrastructure (piers and wharves, moorings, navigation markers, cables, pipelines, and more) in addition to ships and submarines.  This maritime threat will grow exponentially as more adversaries gain access to exportable mine and global unmanned system delivery technologies, amplifying the mine countermeasures (MCM) problem. 

And because it is difficult to prove––once a mine threat is implied––that there is no threat in the specified maritime area, about 90 percent of all previous MCM operations have been conducted in areas in which mines have not been deployed. This underscores the need for good actionable intelligence and stockpile surveillance to focus the efforts of available MCM forces.  Intelligence preparation of the environment (IPOE) is crucial for operational success, whether the need is halfway around the world or in U.S. coastal waterways, ports, rivers, and lakes.  This includes focused bottom surveys of key ports and waterways to facilitate both planning and preparation for time-critical MCM operations in an emergency. 

In fact, the best mine countermeasure is to keep the mines from being deployed in the first place.  This is considered “Offensive MCM.”  With forward persistent and effective IPOE, along with prioritized surveillance and strike tasking, it would be possible to deny or delay the mine-layers (manned or unmanned) before they lay their mines. 

This has broad implications for the Navy and Marine Corps, particularly for littoral operations in a contested environment (LOCE), which responds to adaptive enemies employing emerging maritime threats in complex, high-risk environments to ensure that we can win in “any clime and contested place.”  Adversary manned/unmanned maritime threats contribute greatly to the uncertainty of mission success in a LOCE event or conflict: the time is right for an MCM Renaissance. 

MCM Vision:  A Warfare Community in Transition

The Navy’s MCM vision is to reduce timelines and improve operational effectiveness by transitioning from platform-based, sequential operations to unmanned modular MCM systems employing advanced sensors and weapons that can conduct missions in parallel operations.  This future Modular MCM Force will also have sufficient flexibility to be employed from a variety of ship platforms, shore facilities, and seabed caches.  These next-generation Modular MCM systems will quickly counter the full spectrum of mine and unmanned seabed threats, assuring maritime access and maneuver at reduced risk.  

The ultimate objective for the Modular MCM Force is a rapid, full kill-chain capability via coordinated distributed off-board systems launched from vessels of opportunity, shore facilities, or seabed caches.  To achieve its vision, the Service has put in place a plan to deliver, field, and sustain the future Modular MCM Force.  Three pillars undergird the plan:

  1. Sustain in-service, legacy capabilities until advanced technologies, systems, and platforms are fielded
  2. Develop modular technologies and systems that increasingly are unmanned and autonomous
  3. Field Modular MCM adaptive force packages (AFPs) for employment from various ship platforms, as well as from shore sites

For the near-term, the in-service platform-centric “MCM triad”––dedicated surface vessels (SMCMVs), airborne (AMCM) helicopters, and MCM explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) divers––bring proven capabilities to the game.  That said, readiness concerns related to the ages of platforms and systems, as well as the need for faster and more effective clearance rates at reduced risk to manned platforms are shaping the Navy’s longer-term Modular MCM capability.  The “Modular MCM Force of Tomorrow” is more and more quickly closing in on “today.”

Tomorrow’s Modular Technologies and Systems

Real-world complexities of conducting MCM across the range of environmental conditions, depth profiles, and types of unmanned maritime threats drive the need for multiple types of kill-chain systems.  MCM operations comprise two major missions: mine hunting and minesweeping.

  1. The mine hunting mission, which involves searching areas to detect, locate, identify, and kill individual mines, primarily relies on sonars and optical sensors to detect the threat, and small explosive charges to kill it.
  2. The influence minesweeping mission, which generates a signature to mimic a transiting ship and fool a mine to detonate, primarily relies on magnetic- and acoustic-generation systems to spoof the threat.

Because adversaries’ newer mines with sophisticated microprocessors are more resistant to minesweeping, more emphasis should be placed on modular mine hunting approaches (with advanced sensors and precision effectors) for the future MCM capabilities.  

The following advanced sensor technology developments have import for transitioning to the Modular MCM Force:

  1. Advanced sonar technologies have significantly improved, and fleet fielding is generating further operational improvements. A combination of three key technologies and systems––high-frequency wide-band, synthetic aperture, and low-frequency broadband––are being integrated to increase detection ranges significantly and provide higher fidelity in target identification and discrimination across the entire environmental spectrum compared to legacy systems. 
  2. Advanced optical and radar technologies have greatly expanded beyond cameras passively using the visible light spectrum. Several modern systems use lasers and multi-spectral imaging, which are very effective in the near-surface region where wave action degrades sonar operations. 
  3. Advanced magnetic and acoustic technologies leveraging high-temperature superconductors and digital processing remain under development but show great promise.

The following precision effector technology developments have import for transitioning to the Modular MCM Force:

  1. Kinetic effector options include bulk charges, shaped charges, exploding projectiles, and incendiary projectiles.
  2. Non-Kinetic effector options include acoustic and electromagnetic jamming, focused acoustic energy, incineration devices, and deception options.

Similar to sensors, the Navy is focusing on a mix of integrated platforms to enhance overall performance, and the Modular MCM construct integrates advanced sensors and effectors onto unmanned systems.  This approach promises improved operational efficiency and effectiveness through the simultaneous employment (some in a swarming fashion) of multiple off-board systems within the same water space.  The plan will also continuously improve unmanned systems’ autonomy, system networking, communication ranges, endurance, accuracy, and precision to achieve full MCM kill-chains off-board from the host platforms.  This will reduce timelines and provide additional risk reduction for Sailors engaged in MCM operations.

To achieve much-needed reductions in MCM operational timelines and mission risk across the entire MCM problem space, the Navy continues to focus on systems with longer endurance (or that can be re-charged/re-armed in the field), improved tactical sensors and weapons, and greater area coverage rate, accuracy and precision.  An important aspect in the long-term development of new MCM systems is the ability to detect, localize, and identify mine-like contacts within a single pass while minimizing false contacts; the ultimate objective for the Modular MCM Force is to rapidly complete full kill-chain operations against the adversary threat spectrum while reducing the overall MCM risk to mission and force to the lowest levels achievable. 

Modular MCM Adaptive Force Packages

The Modular MCM transition comprises four interrelated lines of effort that constitute the MCM adaptive force package approach:

  1. Hybrid in-service and transitional forces
  2. Littoral Combat Ship MCM mission packages
  3. Alternative platform packages
  4. Shore-based, Seabed-based, and fly-away packages

The current MCM hybrid force posture in the Fifth Fleet area of operations combines unmanned vehicles working in tandem with legacy in-service platforms.  Fifth Fleet assessments of the hybrid force of dedicated surface and air MCM platforms, unmanned systems, and alternative platforms like the expeditionary sea base (ESB) validate that this approach provides a more capable and responsive MCM force than the legacy MCM triad alone.  We will determine optimal hybrid force employment in other world regions, as new advanced systems are incrementally fielded, and deployed.  

Both LCS variants will operate a combination of mine hunting and influence minesweeping systems comprising MCM mission packages.  The mine hunting mission set will be the initial configuration of the MCM MPs fielded to the fleet and will include the Airborne Laser Mine Detection System (ALMDS), Airborne Mine Neutralization System (AMNS), and the MCM USV towing the AN/AQS-20 sonar.  Additional systems will be added incrementally to complete a full MCM MP configuration.  The Knifefish UUV, the Unmanned Influence Sweep System (UISS), Coastal Battlefield Reconnaissance and Analysis (COBRA) system, and Barracuda Near-Surface Neutralizer will improve mine hunting and minesweeping missions across the MCM capability spectrum.  This incremental fielding plan demonstrates the inherent operational flexibility of MCM MPs, as LCS mission loadouts can be tailored to a specific environment, threat or task.

The MCM alternative platform packages concept will see the MCM MPs deployed to ships or vessels of opportunity (VOOs) other than the LCS, including ESB ships, expeditionary fast transports (EPF), “L-Class” amphibious ships (LHA/LHD/LPD), and allied/coalition ships.  The Navy will continue the plan to acquire 24 MCM mission modules under the LCS program, and we are addressing how MCM packages can best be disaggregated and deployed on alternative ships.  The ESB can accommodate a substantial amount of equipment and can get closer to shore faster due to its speed and shallower draft than the LCS.  The EPF’s multi-purpose bay can carry a wide variety of equipment and has a helicopter pad which is suitable for short-term operations and as demonstrated in the past, “L-Class” amphibious ships and various coalition vessels have proven that they can support a wide variety of MCM missions.  The Congress has gotten involved, with the Senate and House Armed Services committees directing the Navy to submit a report on the plan to field MCM MPs on VOOs.

1In parallel with embracing new technologies and systems, the Navy is reorganizing EOD MCM forces as Expeditionary MCM (ExMCM) companies under the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC).  The ExMCM Company is a 2012 response to a Commander, U.S. Central Command joint urgent operational need for increased MCM capacity at a time of heightened tensions in the Central Command area of responsibility, primarily the Arabian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.  The EOD community rapidly fielded a force to employ UUVs in concert with legacy MCM platforms and assets.

The ExMCM EOD force is capable of operating from various ships, follow-on sea bases, and shoreside facilities, using MCM MPs.  The logistical, strategic, and economic importance of maintaining access to seaports, combined with the unique environmental conditions within confined waterways, calls for an increased MCM capability in this area.  Similarly, quick reaction to a mining or WBIED event requires an immediate response capability.  The ExMCM force is the primary capability for these missions, with its equipment purpose-built for near-shore waters, ports, and waterways, and capable of operating from shoreside facilities.  Aviation assets, some MCM USV configurations, and the Knifefish UUV configurations offer good potential to augment existing ExMCM capability for this vital need.

Also, there are ideas to exploit the stealth and persistence of the seabed to preposition forward MCM packages to both persistently monitor enemy mine-laying activities and to cache unmanned systems that wait to engage enemy minefields with stealth and surprise.  These distributed seabed systems will be an incremental part of the modular MCM adaptive force construct.

The Way Ahead

In the near-term, the Navy's Modular MCM goal is to transition from in-service, legacy technologies, systems, and platforms to the LCS based MCM mission packages, ExMCM companies, and MCM adaptive force packages of the Modular MCM Force.  The need is to ensure that, at a minimum, in-service MCM capability and capacity are preserved and resourced appropriately throughout the transition period.  In the far-term, advanced technologies promise autonomy with artificial intelligence and collaborative mission-adaptive capabilities among an increasing number of unmanned systems.  Ultimately this will enable an overall decreased time in MCM kill chain execution and reduced risk to manned minefield operations while ensuring our MCM forces can support fleet maneuver and battlespace access demands across the spectrum of deep water through beach assault operations. 

Dr. Truver manages Gryphon Technologies’ national security program and serves as senior advisor at the Center for Naval Analyses.  Mr. Everhart is Chief Technology Officer, Naval Surface Warfare Center, Panama City Division.

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