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Mine Countermeasures Evolving Towards Mix-And-Match Capabilities, Personnel

Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit (EODMU) 2 and Expeditionary Mine Countermeasures Company (ExMCM Co.) 202, stand by in a rigid-hull inflatable boat as a Mark 18. Mod. 2 unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) is lowered into the water during a ExMCM training exercise on Aug. 4,2017. US Navy photo.

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The Navy is trending towards a mix-and-match set of people, platforms and sensors to detect and destroy mines, a departure from the simpler legacy mine countermeasures setup with a single helicopter type and a single wooden-hull ship class, set for replacement by the new Littoral Combat Ship and its neatly defined mission package.

“The more the merrier in terms of diversity of approaches,” Marine Corps Maj. Gen. David Coffman, director of the expeditionary warfare division on the chief of naval operations staff (OPNAV N95), said Tuesday at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual Expeditionary Warfare Conference.

Several speakers at the conference described LCSs deploying assets outside the planned MCM mission package, mission package equipment being used on cruisers and destroyers, and manned and unmanned platforms teaming up to create more range and capability than previously envisioned.

One trend is operating the land-based Expeditionary Mine Countermeasures (ExMCM) Company, which falls under the Explosive Ordnance Disposal community at Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, aboard Navy ships.

“We’ve taken our ExMCM company with their Mk 18 family of (unmanned underwater vehicle) systems, we’ve put them aboard cruisers and destroyers and had them do extensive rehearsals of the actual operations – and in some cases, in exercises and operations we’ve actually used those platforms,” Capt. Michael Egan, Commander of Task Force 52 within U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, said at the conference.
“We are already working off of amphibious ships, not only the [USS Lewis B. Puller (T-ESB-3)] and the [decommissioned Ponce (AFSB-I-15)] before that, but also the British auxiliaries. We’re not just limiting ourselves to our own ships, we’re working with our allies and our coalition partners and their ships as well.”

Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit (EODMU) 2 and Expeditionary Mine Countermeasures Company (ExMCM Co.) 202, are lowered into the water during Mark 16 dive training on Aug. 16, 2017. US Navy photo.

Egan later described the entrance of Puller into U.S. 5th Fleet this summer, saying that an ExMCM company was put on the ship early on “because it was the only platform available” to help the company test its at-sea capabilities. He said the company and its UUVs embarked, rehearsed, and then went underway to test their at-sea capability. Once the ExMCM company aboard the Expeditionary Sea Base (ESB) proved successful, “then it was just like the sky was the limit” in terms of experimenting with mine countermeasures capabilities in 5th Fleet.

The captain noted that the British Navy operating in 5th Fleet was eager to support MCM operations off a non-traditional platform.

The ExMCM community recently conducted tests with USS Independence (LCS-2) to test their ability to deploy personnel and UUVs off the Austal-built LCS, after doing similar tests on the Lockheed Martin-variant USS Freedom (LCS-1) last summer.

At the same time the Navy is putting the shore-based ExMCM companies on LCSs, some leaders are considering taking LCS MCM mission package unmanned underwater and surface vehicles and putting them on other surface ships or even ashore.

“I can’t imagine a scenario in which we would actually have enough LCSs to mass that capability as quickly as we need it” if an adversary actually deployed mines in a busy shipping area, Capt. Hans Lynch, head of the mine warfare branch within OPNAV N95, said at the conference.
“So I think shore-basing makes a lot of sense. ESB makes a lot of sense. EPF (expeditionary fast transport, formerly the Joint High Speed Vessel) makes a lot of sense. Coalition platforms. And really I think there are opportunities for even DDG-1000s, they have enough room that we can put a USV or UUVs onboard. Aircraft carriers even or some of our big-deck amphibs could support some of our mission platforms that we have.”

His boss, Coffman, said that diversifying which ships can conduct mine countermeasures and other missions has the benefit of keeping an adversary guessing.

“When [an amphibious ship] comes by your shore, you don’t know what’s on it – it could be mine countermeasures, it could be irregular warfare, it could be SEALs, it could be [signals intelligence] or [electromagnetic warfare], it could be traditional amphibious conventional operations,” he said, highlighting just one benefit of “divorcing the platforms and the movable modules” that bring particular warfare capabilities.

Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Andrew Martin, assigned to Expeditionary Mine Countermeasures Company (ExMCM Co.) 202, explains the capabilities of the unmanned underwater vehicle carriage system on an 11-meter rigid-hull inflatable boat to Maj. Gen. David Coffman, director of expeditionary warfare, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, during an ExMCM static display at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek. US Navy photo.

In addition to mixing and matching who will deploy which gear from where, the Navy is also considering teaming up a manned helicopter from the LCS mission package with unmanned mine hunters to create greater range than the mission package as planned could.

Capt. Mark Leavitt, commander of Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Atlantic, said the MH-60S is meant to deploy the Airborne Laser Mine Detection System (ALMDS) and the Airborne Mine Neutralization System (AMNS). However, he said, those helos may need to contribute to the fight in a different way: carrying unmanned systems farther from the LCS and providing force protection for the entire MCM force.

“I’ve heard the concerns of fleet commanders it’s about speed, it’s about solving the time equation, it’s about delivering some certainty with the clearance of the water space.”

Though the LCS’s unmanned surface and underwater vehicles are maturing in development and may be able to provide the certainty element eventually, they won’t have the range from the ship and therefore the speed to clear an entire area on their own.

“You’re not going to get speed from constraining mine countermeasures to an 11-mile bubble around the LCS. When we purchase unmanned surface vessels that have to remain within a range of the LCS, you’re not going to get speed, you’re not going to get range,” he said. Instead, the captain suggested, “you’ll get that by …. sling[ing] two or three Mk 18s, you sling a Knifefish (UUV), and you go 80 nautical miles away from the LCS and you put that system in the water from an aircraft (MH-60S) and you pick it back up from an aircraft.”

Leavitt suggested the MH-60S could carry a metal grate underneath to hold the unmanned vehicles, and a diver could assist in launching and recovering the vehicles.

This setup “removes the mine countermeasures systems from the 60S” but instead “allows me to carry lethality on the 60S, to put some of our fixed forward-firing weapon systems onto the Sierra so that I can defend the mine countermeasures task force. I can defend with a 20mm cannon, with Hellfire, with unguided rockets and the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System. I can now deliver an entire package with an LCS – I can send an LCS out that has not only some MCM capabilities, and the Mk 18 capability delivered at range from a 60S, and surface search and shallow water search at range from an MQ-8 (Fire Scout), I can load up that 60S with a weapon system to defend not only the LCS but everything around it as well.”

  • publius_maximus_III

    Replacing the battle-proven wooden hull (non-magnetic) minesweeper with an aluminum hull (non-magnetic) LCS and its high-tech transmission for low speed/high speed operation, seems to be a case of one step forward, two steps backward. All sorts of start up problems with cracking in the aluminum, galvanic corrosion, improper engagement of the transmission, etc.

    Perhaps the next non-magnetic minesweeper material to try out should be fiberglass? Plenty of large yachts out there made of the stuff. If not fiberglass, then some other super-duper composite material. ABS, the plastic old phone handsets were made from, is pretty tough stuff.

    • Duane

      No – you don’t get it.

      The “battle proven wooden hull” minesweeps, in the last shooting war with large numbers of mines,turned out to be the only five ships sunk by mines, in the Korean War. Proven failures, actually.

      Second, the aluminum or steel hulled LCS (depending upon variant) don’t do the sweeping. The minehunting and mine neutralization work is performed entirely by unmanned vessels and unmanned and manned aircraft deployed from the LCS, and also other ships as described in this post. Therefore no more MCM vessels sunk and sailors killed by mines.

      Welcome to the 21st century.

      • publius_maximus_III

        Doing away with minesweepers because some were sunk by mines in the Korean War is like doing away with aircraft carriers because some were sunk by attacking torpedo and dive bomber aircraft in WW-II. Going in harm’s way means increased risk from certain threats, mines when sweeping minefields, enemy aircraft when placing your own aircraft in range for attack.

        • publius_maximus_III

          Speaking of Welcome to the 21st Century, according to the official Navy website there are still 11 out of 14 MCM Avenger class minesweepers in active service. The first two were scrapped, and a third was scrapped after a grounding. But apparently it is still considered a viable approach to the old duty of keeping the sea lanes cleared of mines. I especially like the motto of the USS Sentry, MCM-3: “Iron men in wooden ships.”

          Helicopters and unmanned vessels have their place, but apparently have not completely replaced the minesweeper. I can see a place for joint use: a narrow lane cleared for the minesweeper at a distance by one of the two, followed by wider sweeps by the more powerful minesweeper tow.

          Welcome back to Duane’s World.

        • Duane

          Well, we ARE doing away with minesweepers. The ones we have today are all slated to be retired starting in 2020. The work will be performed entirely from remote and/or unmanned platforms as described in this post. The backbone of the MCM capability will be platformed on the LCS, but as described in this post, other platforms can be used as well – it’s mostly a matter of moving equipment around from platform to platform.

          The advantage of the LCS is that is is armed and lethal and can deploy both aviation assets (MH-60s and MQ-8s) and unmanned vessels, unlike minesweeps, and can operate in shallow waters, unlike the amphibs and auxiliaries.

          • Neil

            There is no argument that coverage and detection is something unmanned systems can do. If you are faced with a mine field in deep water, that the only option is to clear, you will still need dedicated mine counter measure vessels to conduct mine neutralisation.

          • Duane

            Actually, no. The new MCM system uses a combination of aircraft, both manned and unmanned, and unmanned vessels to do the mine neutralization work. The MQ-8 is fitted with a remote mine sensing system for shallow mines, and the MH-60S uses a 30mm chain gun to explode near surface mines. For deeper mines, Mine Countermeasures Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MCM USV) tows a minehunting sonar sensor system, and then performs the minesweeping using a combination of acoustic and EM triggering signals to detonate the mines remotely.

          • Al L.

            “MH-60S uses a 30mm chain gun to explode near surface mines ”

            Get up to date Duane, RAMICS was canceled years ago.

          • Duane

            No – RAMICs is still one of the elements of the MH-60S Airborne Mine Countermeasures System. There are other elements too.

          • Al L.

            know you could deny that the sun rises in the east if it fit your narrative but facts are facts. RAMICS was canceled flat out in 2011. No part of it exists in the MIW package. Just google “RAMICS canceled 2011”. I’d give a link but its not allowed here.

            In addition this is also highly inaccurate:

            “For deeper mines, Mine Countermeasures Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MCM USV) tows a minehunting sonar sensor system, and then performs the minesweeping using a combination of acoustic and EM triggering signals to detonate the mines remotely.”

            PEO LCS did a summary of LCS mission modules 17MAY2016. Hardly any of it fits your description. You can find it by googling “LCS Mission Modules Program Update 17MAY2016”

      • Murray

        Should the need ever arise in an emergency, unmanned mine hunting/sweeping vessels could be operated from “craft of opportunity” eg fishing vessels, tugs etc. I just wonder how many North Korean trawlers and merchant ships were built to operate on the high seas as auxiliary minelayers in the event of war with the US and it’s allies.

        • Da Facts

          One of the few areas where US Ship Building still is doing well is the Offshore industry. The Platform Supply Vessels are the seaborne equivalent of a pick up truck. The MSC already has some in service for sub and special warfare support. Heck, they already are routinely running divers and ROV’s from them.
          Maybe we should look there for some low end hulls.
          Of course the 10-12 knot speed might be a problem…