Unmanned Solutions for the U.S. Navy's Mine Warfare Renaissance
[By Lt. Cmdr. U.H. (Jack) Rowley and Senior Chief Petty Officer Craig Cates]
For those with stewardship of the U.S. Navy’s mine warfare capabilities, the old saying about meteorological phenomena rings true: “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” Over the past several decades, the U.S. Navy has articulated a commitment to delivering robust mine countermeasures assets to the Fleet. This “aspirational” vision has yet to be realized. That might have been enough when the United States was the sole superpower with unfettered access to the world’s oceans and the littorals, but today the Navy must accelerate its efforts to field effective mine countermeasures in an era of renewed great power competition.
Mine Countermeasures (MCM) is one of the most difficult and time-consuming missions for navies to successfully execute. And while the U.S. Navy has made some important strides, such as the MCM package aboard the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), the significance of the MCM mission provides both the impetus and opportunity to do much more.
In our collective Navy experience—spanning half a century—this is not a new issue for the U.S. Navy, but one it has struggled with for decades. We contend it is not for lack of want, or even a lack of funding (although MCM resourcing has lagged other procurement priorities), but rather, not having adequately mature technology to address the challenge.
Emerging technologies may offer the Navy the ability to bridge this gap and usher in a true “21st Century renaissance in MCM.” We have first-person experience with technologies that can be readily harnessed and can help the Navy up its MCM game today. We emphasize the near-term because the solution we suggest employs proven commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware and software that we believe can supply a robust MCM capability to the Navy without waiting for the lengthy planning, programming, budgeting, and execution process to deliver these assets years in the future.
Mine Countermeasures: Not a New Challenge
In terms of availability, variety, cost-effectiveness, ease of deployment and potential impact on naval expeditionary operations, mines are some of the most attractive weapons available to any adversary determined to prevent Joint or coalition forces from achieving access to sea lines of communications or the littorals.
In the past several decades, rogue states have indiscriminately employed sea mines. Libya used mines to disrupt commerce in the Gulf of Suez and the Strait of Bab el Mandeb. Iran laid mines to hazard military and commercial traffic in the Arabian Gulf and Gulf of Oman. During the Gulf War in 1990-1991, the threat of mines precluded the effective use of the Navy and Marine Corps expeditionary task force off the shores of Kuwait and hazarded all U.S. and coalition forces operating in the Arabian Gulf. The threat posed by mines was so extensive that clearance operations in this confined body of water were not completed until 1997.
Today, the threat posed by potential adversary mining capabilities is even greater. The number of countries with mines, mining assets, mine manufacturing capabilities, and the intention to export mines has grown dramatically over the past several decades. As of this writing, more than 50 countries possess mines and mining capability. Of these, 30 countries have demonstrated a mine production capability and 20 have attempted to export these weapons. In addition, the types, sophistication, and lethality of the mines available on the world market are rapidly increasing.
There is little doubt that adversary sea mines pose one of the most compelling challenges faced by the United States. It falls squarely on the U.S. Navy to provide the MCM capability to enable the Joint Force to operate forward in support of United States’ interests, as well as those of our allies and friends. Indeed, the U.S. Navy’s strategic document A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0 (Design 2.0) articulates the profoundly challenging strategic environment where peer competitors such as China and Russia and lesser (but more unstable) powers such as North Korea and Iran, have impressive naval mine inventories. Design 2.0 notes that “it has been decades since we last competed for sea control, sea lines of communication and access to world markets.” One doesn’t have to be a Sun Tzu or Clausewitz to understand that the threat of naval mines is one of the key challenges that drives our emerging need to once again compete for freedom of movement on the world’s oceans, as well as in the littorals.
Design 2.0 also notes that the U.S. Navy will harness the increasing rate of technological creation and adoption to help shape the modern security environment to ensure that the United States prevails in any future conflict. Mine warfare is one of those key areas, and one that lends itself to harnessing emerging technologies. Sadly, other than the LCS MCM Mission Package, there has been little innovative technology adoption in this area.
Through the entirety of our mutual U.S. Navy experience (which began in 1969 and 1988, respectively) we have witnessed the Navy “admire the problem” of MCM. The Navy and Marine Corps published three major strategy papers treating mine warfare in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and other studies and analyses followed—both within the Navy and Marine Corps—as well as in Congressional Research Service studies, Government Accountability Office reports, think tank reports and in open defense-related media. But the recommended development persistently fell below the funding line, leaving the Navy using and modestly upgrading legacy MCM systems.
An article in National Defense Magazine over a decade ago, “Navy Rethinking Mine Warfare,” heralded a new era in the way the Navy addresses the MCM challenge. Sadly, not much has happened since then - but it can now, by harnessing emerging technologies.
Leveraging Emerging Unmanned Vehicle Technologies
Due to the extreme challenge of putting manned naval vessels in sea areas where mines are present—witness the severe damage done to USS Samuel B. Roberts, USS Tripoli and USS Princeton—we agree with the Navy’s pivot to unmanned vehicles as a primary solution to the Navy’s MCM solution set and to “Take the Sailor out of the minefield.” Today, it appears the U.S. Navy does have the desire to accelerate the testing and fielding of unmanned systems.
Some years ago, Captain Jon Rucker, as Program Manager of the Navy program office (PMS-406) with stewardship over unmanned maritime systems (unmanned surface vehicles and unmanned underwater vehicles), discussed his programs with USNI News. Captain Rucker shared: “In addition to these programs of record, the Navy and Marine Corps have been testing as many unmanned vehicle prototypes as they can, hoping to see the art of the possible for unmanned systems taking on new mission sets. Many of these systems being tested are small surface and underwater vehicles that can be tested by the dozens at tech demonstrations or by operating units.”
This testing has continued—and even accelerated—under the new PMS-406 Program Manager, Captain Pete Small, who noted during the 2019 Navy League of the United States SeaAirSpace Symposium that "we will bring in Navy program of record weapons systems to incorporate into commercially-derived modular craft.” He also explained how industry is challenged to design scaled-up versions of current USVs, but that this scaling-up initiative is one that is increasingly important to the Navy.
However, the devil is in the details about how the U.S. Navy intends to bring new technologies to the warfighter. One example from our Navy experience suggests that we must pursue a thoughtful approach to inserting technological solutions to meet Fleet and Fleet Marine Force requirements, rather than depend on promising—but as-yet-unproven—technologies.
From Concept to Technology Adoption: Often a Bridge Too Far
Far too often the technological promise of a concept is so compelling that a solution is rushed to the Fleet with profoundly disastrous results. There is no better example to make this case than an unmanned system the U.S. Navy built and fielded decades ago, the QH-50 DASH (Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter).
As the United States became involved in the Vietnam War during the early 1960s, the Navy renewed its efforts to find a way to field unmanned systems to meet urgent operational needs. At that time, all sea-based aviation was concentrated on the decks of Navy aircraft carriers and large-deck amphibious assault ships. Surface combatants—cruisers, destroyers and frigates—had no air assets at their disposal.
The solution was to adapt a technology that had been in development since the late 1950s and field the QH-50 DASH (Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter). In April 1958, the U.S. Navy awarded Gyrodyne Company a contract to modify its RON-1 Rotorcycle, a small twin coaxial rotors helicopter, to explore its use as a remote-controlled drone capable of operating from the decks of small ships. By 1963 the Navy approved large-scale production of the QH-60C, with the ultimate goal of putting these DASH units on all its 240 FRAM-I and FRAM-II destroyers.
In January 1965 the Navy began to use the QH-50D as a reconnaissance and surveillance vehicle in Vietnam. Equipped with a real-time TV camera, a film camera, a transponder for better radar tracking, and a telemetry feedback link to inform the remote-control operator of drone responses to his commands, the QH-50D began to fly “SNOOPY” missions from destroyers off the Vietnamese coast. The purpose of these missions was to provide over-the-horizon target data to the destroyer’s five-inch batteries. Additionally, DASH was outfitted with ASW torpedoes to deal with the rapidly growing Soviet submarine menace, the idea being that DASH would attack the submarine with homing torpedoes or depth charges at a distance that exceeded the range of a submarine’s torpedoes.
A QH-50 DASH anti-submarine drone on board the destroyer USS Allen M. Sumner (DD-692) during a deployment to Vietnam. The photo was taken between April and June 1967. (Eric Bollin, USN, via Wikimedia Commons)
By 1970 however, DASH operations had ceased fleet-wide. Although DASH was a sound concept, the Achilles heel of the system was the electronic remote-control system. The lack of feedback loop from the drone to the controller accounted for almost 80 percent of all drone losses. While apocryphal to the point to being a bit of an urban legend, it was often said the most common call on the Navy Fleet’s 1MC general announcing systems during the DASH-era was, “DASH Officer, Bridge,” when the unfortunate officer controlling the DASH was called to account for why “his” system had failed to return to the ship and crashed into the water. Compared to technologies used to control unmanned systems today, that of the 50s to early 70s was primitive at best. In many cases, what was attempted with drones was, literally, a bridge too far.
Leading the Mine Warfare Renaissance with Tested and Proven Technologies
While the challenges of the Navy’s DASH systems are one example, we have witnessed other cases where technologies were inserted as solutions to Fleet or Fleet Marine Forces’ needs, only to fail—often spectacularly—to live up to the promise their developers hoped for. That is why we believe the U.S. Navy would be well-served to leverage—and combine—technologies that have been examined by commercial and other government agencies, and tested extensively in Navy exercises, experiments, and demonstrations to field a near-term MCM capability.
Over the past several years, in a series of Navy and Marine Corps (and other Service) events and exercises, operators have field-tested a diverse number of emerging technologies. Technologies proven in these, as well as other events, were the MANTAS Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV), the Mine Neutralization System Remote Operated Vehicle (MNS ROV), and a suite of sensors developed and fielded by Teledyne Technologies Incorporated. We believe that the serial development of the MANTAS USV and MNS ROV, enabled by Teledyne sensors can provide an MCM capability for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps today at low cost and with minimal technical risk.
Given the compelling need to creatively apply new, innovative technologies to address the operational and tactical challenges posed by mines, as well as the need to expand the use of unmanned systems to tackle MCM challenges, the ability to meet this need with commercial-off-the-shelf hardware and software—and not wager on emerging technologies that will take years to develop, mature and field—should be a priority for Navy and Marine Corps planners.
From Concept to Capability: What Would Such a System Look Like?
We hasten to emphasize that the components of this system-of-systems are not based on just concepts or drawings or early-stage prototypes. Rather, every component has been in the water and tested in the operational environment. The basic elements of our proposal are based on a multi-modal, multi-domain, modular approach and include several platforms.
As the hub of a best-in-class autonomous commercial off-the-shelf MCM capability, the Navy should consider a scaled-up version of the T12 (twelve-foot) MANTAS high-speed catamaran proven in recent exercises, experiments and demonstrations. This T38 MANTAS is similar in size to an eleven-meter RHIB carried by many U.S. Navy ships and thus can be easily integrated aboard most U.S. Navy warships.
The MANTAS features a suite of integrated sensors controlled by an Integrated Common Control Architecture housed in an installed or mobile control console. This unified design provides communications management, automated target recognition, and data management and processing.
There are two primary MCM subsystems carried aboard the MANTAS. The first is a tow-body mounted Synthetic Aperture Sonar (SAS) designed to search for mine-like objects (MLOs). This in-production COTS system can survey 3.5 km2/hr at a resolution sufficient for MLO classification. The system is programmable for bottom following, terrain referencing, and obstacle avoidance. As data comes aboard the USV, Automatic Target Recognition (ATR) will identify likely MLO anomalies, which will then be presented in near-real-time to the man–on-the-loop for verification as an MLO. Verified MLOs will be added as a waypoint for validation, while invalid MLOs will be discarded or passed to the navigation database as a hazard to navigation. Verified MLOs will be continuously updated to a recommended route for the Mine Neutralization System (MNS) Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV). After the area search is complete, the T38 will transition from hunting to neutralizing by conducting a stern submerged well-deck recovery of the tow-body and launch of the tethered MNS ROV. This capability is a key feature in achieving Single Sortie Detect-to-Engage (SSDTE).
The MNS ROV conducts the “dull, dirty and dangerous” work previously conducted by classes of U.S. Navy ships by providing real-time HD video validation of mine-like objects. The MNS ROV autonomously executes the MLO route for final classification and man-on-the-loop validation of each MLO while the T38 shadows and supports it as an over the horizon communications link and countermine charge supply link. The classification, validation and engagement processes are then repeated until the field is cleared. The countermine charge detonation sequencing may be altered to detonate in any order and at any time desired to achieve mission success.
If this technical and operational solution sounds simple and achievable it is just that—a capability that exists today in its commercial subsystems that can be delivered to the U.S. Navy far more rapidly than anything the traditional acquisition system can provide. Navy officials have been provided with the details of this solution in a series of white papers and briefings and initial reactions have been positive. But that is not enough—not by a long shot.
While the individual components of this mine countermeasures solution have been extensively field tested with, collectively, thousands of hours of in-water use, the full-package of components has not yet been brought together in an exercise, experiments, and demonstrations such as those listed above so that Fleet operators can truly experience what this system-of-systems solution can provide. This milestone is slated for limited demonstration in the exercise Trident Warrior 2020.
Moving Forward with Effective—and Timely—Mine Countermeasures
During our decades of collective service in the operational Navy, we deployed to the Arabian Gulf a total of seven times—the same body of water where our shipmates on USS Samuel B. Roberts, USS Tripoli, and USS Princeton were seriously injured by mines. Because ships and sailors operate daily in harm’s way, we need to embrace an unmanned solution to dealing with deadly mines. We have the components for such a system, and it can reach fruition in the near-term.
If the U.S. Navy wants to buy-down inherent technical risk and challenge the paradigm of long-cycle acquisition, then it is time to put a near-term solution in the water. While complex programs of record continue to develop next-generation technology, we should invest in parallel-path solutions that leverage mature subsystems ready to “Speed to Fleet” today. Once the Fleet sees the commercial off-the-shelf solution that can be delivered with the system described above, we will be well on our way to providing the Navy with a way to defeat today’s mine threat.
LCDR U.H. (Jack) Rowley (USN – Retired) is a career Surface Warfare and Engineering Duty Officer whose 22 years of active duty included nine years enlisted service before commissioning. As a career destroyer sailor, he has served both in the Western Pacific as well as in the Mediterranean and Caribbean. Since his retirement, he has had extensive experience with the Oil and Gas Workboat community, and was the SAIC Lead Engineer on the early stages of the development of the DARPA Sea Hunter USV Trimaran. He is now the Chief Technology Officer for Maritime Tactical Systems, Inc (MARTAC), the maker of MANTAS.
SOCS Craig Cates (USN – Retired) is the Special Operations Team Lead for Teledyne Brown Engineering, Maritime Systems, a position he has held since transition from active duty in 2016. He served 27 years as a Sea Air Land (SEAL) Special Warfare Operator, including 14 years of Combat Development and Evaluation and Department of Defense Acquisition experience. He continues to serve as an SDV OEM Test Pilot and Diving Supervisor qualified in all SCUBA, semi-closed, and closed-circuit diving.
This editorial appears courtesy of CIMSEC and appears here in an abbreviated form. The original edition may be found here.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.