The Navy had previously meant to replace its legacy mine countermeasures triad of helicopters, wooden-hull ships and divers with a Littoral Combat Ship mission package that could mostly do it all with unmanned systems – but unexpected success with a separate family of systems is leading to a new triad of capabilities for fleet commanders to employ.
The LCS mission package was envisioned to replace the Avenger-class MCM ships and the MH-53E helicopter. The mission package would have unmanned aerial, surface and underwater vehicles that would be outfitted with sweeps, sensors and neutralizers, so they could conduct the full range of detect-to-engage mine countermeasures while minimizing or eliminating the need for a human in the mine field.
While that technology was in development, though, the Navy began using the Mk 18 Mod 1 Swordfish and the Mk 18 Mod 2 Kingfish family of systems in its explosive ordnance disposal units as a bridge, until the LCS unmanned systems could be fielded. But their greater-than-expected success and relatively low cost have helped carve out a more permanent place in the fleet for these vehicles.
Today, the Expeditionary Mine Countermeasures (ExMCM) companies include an unmanned systems platoon to launch and recover these unmanned underwater vehicles from an 11-meter rigid-hull inflatable boat; a post-mission analysis cell to analyze sonar and video data; and an EOD MCM platoon with divers who could reacquire a threat, neutralize it, or remove it from the water for further study.
“ExMCM was meant to be a bridging solution. Turned out to be a very viable, capable system that we’ve now decided is going to be an enduring system. Currently it’s only deployed in 5th Fleet, but we are purchasing additional ExMCM for 7th Fleet and perhaps even for 6th Fleet,” Capt. Chris Merwin, the director for mine warfare at the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center, said at a recent National Defense Industrial Association event.
Merwin added that the timing of buying these systems and fielding them in European and Pacific waters would depend on budgets, but he was clear that that’s the direction the Navy wants to move in.
“Not designed for large area search, per se, but certainly for very specific smaller area searches, Q routes – very capable when you’re talking supporting Marines for amphibious assault, very good in-shore capabilities,” he said.
“No real down side to them except for they do need – very very capable, very flexible, it can operate from virtually any platform you want to put it on, but it does require a vessel of opportunity. So I don’t want to say there’s no investment that’s got to be made; you either operate it from a shore, which of course could be helpful but could limit where you could take it, or you need to put it on a vessel.”
Merwin made clear that the new support for the ExMCM companies and their capability will not take away from support for the LCS and its mission package.
“I think it’s just, more is better. It was a very proven, high [operational availability] technology. Very relatively inexpensive technology. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but it is a fraction, an ExMCM company costs a fraction of what an LCS mission package costs. And they are not the same, they certainly, each has their strengths and they each have weaknesses, but they work really well together,” Merwin told USNI News when asked if the decision to expand the ExMCM presence to 6th and 7th fleets says anything about the LCS and its capabilities.
“So I think it was, once we got the systems and tested them in 5th Fleet, it became a no-brainer that this was a very capable system” that would prove useful to operators, Merwin continued.
“It’s highly mobile, it’s airmobile – I can have an ExMCM company strat-lifted anywhere in the world I needed to in 24 to 48 hours, and nothing else can do that. I don’t think that says anything negative about the LCS – so they each have a place, they each have a role. It’s a team effort, just like the current legacy triad.”
Asked after his speech if the concepts of operations for mine warfare had ExMCM companies and LCS ships used separately for different types of contingencies or in a collaborative manner, Merwin said, “the intent is definitely to work them together. They certainly each bring their own strengths and their own weaknesses, and it’s up to the MCM commander to decide which one he’s going to apply for which area. But they’re meant to work together. It’s absolutely a team effort, and it’s proven itself time and time again to work well when we do that.”
Even as the ExMCM company presence is set to expand, so too is the LCS mission package. Merwin said the Navy is buying 24 mission package sets but will only have 15 ship hulls dedicated to the mine countermeasures mission. Rather than keep the nine remaining packages on the shelf as spare parts, the Navy is actively looking at what other kinds of ships could serve as a vessel of opportunity to host the MCM unmanned vehicles and crews if needed.
The Navy has already loaded its MCM unmanned vehicles onto the British Mounts Bay-class ships and the USNS Hershel “Woody Williams (T-ESB-4) to ensure the ships had physical space as well as power and command and control capabilities to support MCM mission package operations, Merwin noted. He added that the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock hadn’t yet conducted testing with the mission package but would likely be a good fit due to having so much space for embarked forces.
“The Navy is in the middle of testing these other vessels of opportunity – what are the things we need to learn, the [tactics, techniques and procedures] we need to develop, things we need to have ready before we were to embark it on another ship. That’s where we’re going; it’s definitely going to be modular, it’s definitely going to be able to put on any platform it needs to be put on, but it is built around the LCS,” Merwin said, making clear that the 15 LCS ships slated for MCM operations would continue to focus on that mission set despite the success of loading the mission package onto VOOs.