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Navy Crafting Master Plan for New Era of Mine Warfare

Avenger-class mine countermeasures ship USS Chief (MCM-14) travels through waters near the Korean peninsula during the annual Multinational Mine Warfare Exercise (MN MIWEX) on Oct. 19, 2018.

THE PENTAGON – The Navy’s mine warfare community is putting together a comprehensive plan to lay out the investments required for a successful transition from legacy mine countermeasures systems to more advanced capabilities.

The early-1980s Avenger-class MCM ships and the mid-1980s MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters will be on their way out next decade, and a mix-and-match system of sensors, offboard vehicles and platforms will take over the mission. Though Navy leaders knew the transition was coming – and though it’s been pushed back due to delays in developing capabilities within the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program – decisions related to retiring the legacy systems have now come into the near-term planning window for the service, requiring a coordinated path forward on the transition.

Maj. Gen. David Coffman, director of expeditionary warfare on the chief of naval operations’ staff (OPNAV N95), told reporters today that he and Program Executive Officer for Unmanned and Small Combatants Rear Adm. John Neagley are in the process of working with the Naval Board, U.S. Fleet Forces Command and other operators, congressional committees and other stakeholders to go over the current transition plan and address any concerns about risk or cost.

Maj. Gen. David Coffman, director of expeditionary warfare (OPNAV N95), addresses members of Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit (EODMU) 8 at Naval Station Rota. US Navy Photo

“We have to explain the pathway of how we’re going to do what we need to do in 7th, 6th and 5th Fleet. And it’s not going to be – in some future, at some point – it’s not going to be with a wooden MCM ship that’s going to go into the minefield and either drop a sonar or drag a mechanical (sweep) or neutralizers. It’s not going to be with a 53,” Coffman said.
“It’s going to be with that lineup I gave you: new sensors, capabilities; applied in a variety of air, surface and undersea; manned and unmanned; based off of shore, vessels of opportunity, [Expeditionary Sea Bases], LCSs, et cetera. So that is a big part of the discussion.”

A key challenge for Coffman is that the new systems don’t replace legacy ones in a one-for-one manner. They attack the same problem from a different angle, applying unmanned systems to keep sailors farther from the mines in some cases, using artificial intelligence and big data technologies to help sift through search data faster, and working towards a “single sortie” vision where the entire MCM apparatus could search waterways, identify an item out of the ordinary, classify what type of mine it is, and then neutralize the threat – all in real time.

“We get caught a lot in a, is this better than that? And the congressional language that talks about the legacy – again, it’s their job, I don’t fault that – but it’s more complex than, you can retire the legacy when the new stuff does this. Well, the new stuff does not do mine warfare in the same way the legacy does mine warfare,” Coffman said.

Divers jump out of an MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter, assigned to the “Vanguard” of Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron (HM) 14, during a pouncer operation in support of Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2018. U.S. Navy photo

Mechanical minesweeping is a good example, he said. Avenger-class MCMs excel at this, and the MH-53s have a pole that can drop into the water as a mechanical sweep as well, cutting moored mines from their tethers and allowing them to float to the surface to be neutralized.

“We judged that for the future force, the current proposition is, we’re not going to do that kind of minesweeping,” Coffman said.
“There’s nothing in the inventory that’s going to do the thing the way – same thing for the mechanical pole in the MH-53. The bet is that we’re not going to do it that way,” and therefore Navy leaders and lawmakers can’t insist on stalling the transition until all the MCMs’ and MH-53s’ capabilities are replicated in the new equipment.

At the moment, in crafting this transition plan, “we are duking it out now in terms of what are the best and wisest timelines, because we are up against doing specific things to track towards sundown” of the legacy systems, Coffman said.

Sailors assigned to the Avenger-class mine countermeasures ship USS Chief (MCM-14) raise a training mine from the water during Multinational Mine Warfare Exercise on Oct. 16, 2017, off the coast of Busan, South Korea. US Navy Photo

In the coming months, Coffman and the rest of the group will present to the Naval Board to loop in Navy and Marine Corps leaders, as well as worth with U.S. Fleet Forces Command commander Adm. Chris Grady to bring in the operators and their perspectives. At the same time, congressional committees are being briefed to explain the plan and gauge their willingness to take risk – with only so much money available, the more money that’s spent on the legacy systems, the less there may be to accelerate development of the new systems.

“They are correctly very interested in protecting capability in terms of, they’ve got to fight now. So that’s an important part of this is to dialogue with the fleet … to understand, they are the articulators of risk to the [chief of naval operations] on these pathways – that’s Adm. Grady’s job – so we want to help him with that,” Coffman said.

Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit (EODMU) 2, Expeditionary Mine Countermeasures Company (ExMCM Co.) 202, recover a Mark 18 Mod. 2 unmanned underwater vehicle from the water during an ExMCM training exercise on Aug. 6, 2017. US Navy Photo

By the end of the calendar year, the bulk of the work should be done and a plan ready to present to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson and Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert Neller.

Coffman said his definition of success on this effort would be “increased coherence to mine warfare and a so-called master plan. We’ll see what Adm. Richardson in the end, what he wants to do and how he wants to go with it, but my job is to get the work done between now and New Year’s and basically provide him some options.”

  • Uncle Mike

    Wait, the navy has a mine warfare community?

    • RunningBear

      …..and equally, how did the Corp get roped into this ??
      IMHO
      Fly Navy
      🙂

      • Bryan

        I know. It’s not like they are at risk of hitting mines when they drive ashore or anything.

        • RunningBear

          In this world of “I can do anything”, NOT…..there are only so many Marines (2,200) in an MEU (get off the boat and onto the beach) distributed across the three ships of the ARG. AND……the Corp has discovered this new concept called vertical lift, which allows them to land “behind” the beach, (MV-22B, 400nmi. combat radius), with air support by the F-35B, AH-1Z from the LHA/D.

          The 2nd wave, “Gear in the rear” has to come on the beach and by that time, the Stallion and Osprey will have delivered the attack forces with the initial 777 artillery support to establish that “shot in the back” beachhead.

          Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Squids can have cleared the mines in the water and on the beach to prepare for the LCU/SSC delivery of the Abrams, LAVs, and the bobbing 7kt. targets AAV/ACU with the follow-on forces.

          BTW, open ocean mining is sophisticated and can select which targets it will attack and in the gazillion sq. miles of open ocean, the Corp will not have the MEU resources or the time to “de-mine” an approach to the beach, thus the USN MCM ships and helicopters, will have cleared those areas.
          IMHO
          Fly Navy
          🙂

      • USNVO

        The USMC got “roped” into this because MIW was placed under Expeditionary Warfare on the CNO Staff and a USMC officer has been N95 Director, Expeditionary Warfare for at least the last 15 years or so. And the USMC did not get roped into it, since it is the CNO’s staff and the guys actually doing the work, the MIW guys, are virtually all Navy. Just an aside, the same N95 also is the CNO staff guy for Coastal/Riverine forces, security detachments, EOD, Cargo Handlers, SeaBees, Amphibious boats, etc, none of which the USMC got roped into doing either.

        • RunningBear

          ….poor, poor guy…..but someone’s gotta do it!
          IMHO
          Fly Navy
          🙂

    • NEC338x

      Depending on which historian you believe, either the Middle Kingdom or the Greeks invented naval mine warfare. Is it possible to get anything less transformational? Can’t NavWeaps research come up with a micro-fusion mine or maybe a 10 MW blue-green laser for remote mine detonation? Congress wants to fund sexy pork not run-of-the-mill ham hocks.

      • Marjus Plaku

        Explain your micro fusion concept please, I have not heard of this. The lasers for search and detonation are coming online.

      • vetww2

        What is “micro fusion”? The problem is not explosives. Suggest you read article and comments, again.

  • PolicyWonk

    The best part of all, is that the plan to use LCS for MCM is 100% certain of success. At least once…

    ;-D

    • Kelly J

      It would be the best use of those hulls. Sucks for the crew though.

    • RunningBear

      Not nice!
      🙁

      • E1 Kabong

        Sorta funny…

        “Any ship can be a minesweeper, ONCE.”

  • Kelly J

    Well, LCS is certainly the wrong ship for the job. So regardless of what systems and future tech you plan to bring to the problem, you still need a way to get those systems to the mine and be able to stay on station and work the problem.
    Wood/GRP hulls have worked for a century because they bring a natural defensive capability against mines to begin with. Until you develop a magic new material that can perform the same function, you shouldn’t be so quick to eliminate the idea.

    • RunningBear

      “need a way to get those systems to the mine and be able to stay on station and work the problem.”….the LCS.

      Modern mines can select which vessel it is programmed to disable, regardless of the hull material technology.

      Fly Navy
      🙂

    • PolicyWonk

      Indeed, they successfully tested the available components of the MCM mission package on an EPF (which costs less than 1/4th of what an LCS costs)….

      • USNVO

        Hardly.

        They tested using the EPF to support EOD units. So basically you got a ship that could launch and recover an 11m RHIB, support divers using flyaway gear, and communicate by satellite (commercial INMARSAT based BEST system in the case of the EPF). Interestingly enough, the LCS showed they could do the same thing back in 2008. Well, except they could support the helo as well.

        MIW but not MIW like the MIW MP. No MH-60S, No ALMIDS, No AMNS, No WLD-1 or USV or whatever. Just an 11m RHIB carrying UUVs, MEDAL running through INMARSAT, and a place to stow their gear. Nothing that was a part of the MIW MP.

        But hey, don’t let facts interfere with a good rant.

        • PolicyWonk

          You must’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid[tm] the Duane-o-Laz has been serving up wholesale! An EPF could be modified and equipped to do the full MCM mission, because its design is dirt simple, and as the multitude of articles published on these pages has made bluntly clear, its trivial and fast to modify for a wide variety of purposes. While the LCS fleets remain welded to the piers stateside, EPFs are taking on an ever-accelerating variety of missions for the USN, all over the world, delivering tremendous value to the taxpayers.

          In short – we don’t have to (and never should) spend $920M+ on a glorified yacht/ferry conversion with an ultra-complex propulsion system to perform the MCM mission – it’s an appallingly lousy use of taxpayer funds. That we can do so is useful (in a pinch), but that never should’ve been the focus or dedicated purpose for an LCS, which is how the USN intends to deploy them. The USN has officially stated little intention to swap out mission modules and says it’ll only do so on rare occasions. We could easily create a militarized version of an EPF, cut off a chunk of the superstructure, create a hanger for a chopper (news flash: they’ve already demonstrated the ability to handle choppers), add MCM gear, and we’re done.

          But hey – don’t let facts interfere with a good rant!

  • Graeme Rymill

    “It’s not going to be with a 53”

    No MH-53K to replace the MH-53E? The MH-53E can tow much more than a mechanical sweep. It can tow acoustic and magnetic sweeps and it can tow mine locating sonar. The LCS’ MCM mission package was originally intended to have a helicopter towed influence sweep. Unfortunately the MH-60 was found to lack the power to tow it safely. The MH-53E also has an Airborne Mine Neutralization System.

    There is a clear need to be able to rapidly clear channels at choke points like those found in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. Will the MCM LCS be available in sufficient numbers to achieve this? Will the LCS be able to detect and neutralize large numbers of mines with the speed required? I have my doubts.

    • RunningBear

      “The LCS’ MCM mission package was originally intended to have a towed influence sweep.” If and ever when, the MCM module is installed aboard the LCS and field tested by the sailors in open water environments, then it may be considered as the “current” weapon for this problem. But the “snake bit” LCS program seems to find every speed bump in existence, in getting the ASW/MCM modules installed and into the ocean.
      IMHO
      Fly Navy
      🙂

  • James B.

    The Avenger-class MCMs and the Navy MH-53Es are both getting long in the tooth and will have to be retired, but that doesn’t mean we need to take a double shot of the “transformation” Koolaid. Yes, we need to transition from blindly sweeping to intelligently hunting, but we aren’t going to magically enter a realm in which the LCS is suddenly useful.

    If we want to have an airborne MCM capability in the future, it will involve an H-53-series helicopter. Nothing else we have or would plausibly buy can pull any of the MCM gear we have or can realistically develop in the near future. MH-53Es fly off either amphibs or land bases, and the replacement would do the same. Those 53s may not be Navy–they could by Marine birds–but they will be 53s if the Navy wants an air component to MCM.

    A future mine clearance operation will probably involve a survey, followed by a massive dump of UUVs into the mined area. It should function like very smart line charges to sanitize lanes through a field, with a massive application of resources to create a timely hole in defenses. It will not be a dainty operation like the LCS is designed for; it will be more likely to feature B-52s and big-deck amphibs. On the plus side, the more you can make an MCM operation in to an airstrike or amphibious landing, the easier it is for the regular military to do it, not the perpetually underfunded MCM arm.

  • draeger24

    So why, pray tell, did we give up Ingleside which was literally brand-new in much of it’s infrastructure? It was turned back over to the Port of Corpus Christi a few years ago and has been bulldozed….c’mon, guys….

    • USNVO

      The whole BRAC decision to close Ingleside was laid out in the BRAC report, and while you can argue with a bunch of the numbers, it doesn’t really matter. The Navy can ignore MIW if it is in San Diego or Norfolk just as easy as it did in Ingleside. Of a much more lasting effect is the merging of Mine Warfare Command into ASW Command (Now Naval Surface and Mine Warfare Development Command). Because you know that MIW will get far more emphasis as a collateral duty.

      • draeger24

        no doubt – they only built Ingelside and had SEALs and EOD concentrate on it after the Marines couldn’t land into Kuwait due to the mine threat. The phrenetic tone and urgency back then was unbelievable – and they let it die on the vine. Most of the studies, like Joint Vision 2020, are so ridiculous.

  • Ed L

    Keep it simple.

    • DemocracyRules

      Good point
      – changing everything all at once is a mistake
      – first, keep everything and upgrade it one generation
      – concurrently, find a versatile marine platform to work from
      – the Navy’s new, fast resupply catamaran might work
      – fast, cheap, adaptable, with lots of deck space
      – next, figure out how to defeat the main mine targets
      – in the Persian Gulf, because action is always imminent there
      – then build the boat to do it
      – while figuring out how to defeat N. Korean mines
      – etc.

  • RAS743

    My bad. For a moment there I thought this was about offensive mine warfare. I guess I’m just stupid, thinking it’s better to sow hundreds, thousands of seven-figure weapons than to risk ten-figure warships fighting the enemy, Ditto SSGNs that’s can fire blizzards of seven-figure, stealthy cruise misses rather than risk eight-figure (nine-figure?) fighter bombers against peer or near-peer air defenses. But admirals don’t come from the offensive mine-war community — info there be such — do they. As a civilian, I revere our Navy’s history, but I do worry about the quality of its leadership. I’ll go away now.

  • Chesapeakeguy

    I thought the MCM warfare ‘module’ was the ‘master plan’?