Friday, May 22, 2015

Combat MCM

A comment to a recent post inspired me to do a bit of thinking about combat MCM requirements.  Understand that for the purpose of this post the term MCM refers to mine clearance rather than simple detection and avoidance although those acts would certainly be part of the overall MCM effort.  What we’re talking about here, though, is clearance so as to allow large scale assault or movement operations.

There are three broad types of mine clearance – note, however, that the Navy would undoubtedly characterize these differently.  For my purposes, these categories will suffice.

Uncontested – This involves clearing navigational routes, generally commercial, under circumstances where the enemy is not actively attempting to prevent the clearance operation.  This would be typical of post-conflict clearance ops or clearance of nuisance (though serious!) minefields by terrorist groups or rogue nations attempting to exert their influence short of a declared war.  The Gulf tanker wars and associated mining would be an example.

Contested – This involves clearing navigational routes, harbor approaches, and moderately near-shore zones while the enemy is actively attempting to prevent the clearance operation.  This category strongly implies that the timely and safe movement of naval forces is dependent on the execution of this category of MCM.  For example, the movement of a carrier group through a mined navigational chokepoint might well require mine clearance while under fire and the time required to complete the task will be the limiting factor in the group’s speed of movement and subsequent tactical and operational relevance.

Amphibious Assault – As the category suggests, this involves clearing lanes for the movement of whatever connectors or amphibious vehicles the Marines and Navy finally settle on.  The lanes don’t have to be particularly wide relative to the other categories since ships won’t have to move through them (unless the Navy brings back LSTs!).

MCM technology has not received the attention that aviation, ship, or submarine technologies have.  Consider the recent advances in aviation and surface ship stealth, nuclear and hybrid electric propulsion, autonomous UAVs, weapon guidance, the Zumwalt AGS, the Ford’s EMALS, the Virginia VPM, the V-22 combination helo/aircraft, etc.  Now compare that to the advances in MCM.  There really aren’t any.  Sure, the same old MCM technologies are being done remotely via unmanned vehicles but it’s still the same old technologies, just with a better safety factor for the operator.

Now, let’s consider the requirements to conduct MCM in each of the three cases.  I cannot stress enough that I am not an MCM expert and this is one of those areas that requires in depth knowledge but is complicated by the fact that very little public information is available on the methodology of mine clearance or the performance characteristics of the available MCM equipment and platforms.  Nonetheless, we’ll take a shot at analyzing the requirements and see whether they point in the direction the Navy is moving or whether they suggest a different path is needed.

Uncontested.  For the case of uncontested clearance, the pace of operations will be somewhat relaxed, by definition.  Still, reasonably timely removal will be important to return the affected waterway to routine use.  Another assumption implicit in this case is that all the mines need to be removed – not just a narrow safe path.  This is likely to be the worst case scenario as regards sheer number of mines needing removal.  As such, the number one attribute of the MCM force would be endurance.  The operation will require quite some time and the MCM force needs to be able to stay on site for an extended period.  The secondary implication of this requirement is that the MCM force needs to be able to supply its own mechanical/repair support, housing for personnel, and basing for the individual MCM assets. 

Speed of removal, while desirable, is a lesser concern.  A few days or even weeks, more or less, is not critical.  Thoroughness, however, is critical.  The removal operation must be 100% as the merchant vessels using the route will have no mine detection capability.

Thus, for this category, we can postulate the need for a large mothership with long endurance and large capacity for supporting, operating, and housing equipment and personnel.  The individual MCM assets can be small, remote underwater or surface vehicles, helos, ships, divers, or any other asset.

Contested.  For the case of contested clearance, the underlying assumption is that the clearance operation will occur under fire and that speed of removal is paramount – the movement of a naval force being halted until clearance is achieved.  The MCM force will have to stand and fight although, by definition, significant combat support will be available.  Close range air defense by the MCM force is desirable but speed of clearance is the main priority. 

Speed can be achieved either through rapid clearance capacity inherent in individual assets or through the aggregate efforts of large numbers of slower assets.  For the former, we do not currently have the technology to enable sufficiently rapid clearance.  Current clearance technology only allows rates of advance on the order of a few knots.  Note that the technique of sweeping is rapid but is far from complete or assured.  Sweeping offers a nice start but the level of clearance required to risk the movement of major naval forces will still require a much more thorough effort.  Alternatively, large numbers of less efficient assets can, theoretically, achieve a combined useful speed.  Note, though, that large numbers of assets will attract enemy attention and complicate the defensive situation with many more assets needing to be protected.

Thus, for this category, we can postulate the need for assets capable of rapid clearance using as few numbers as possible.  Further, the MCM assets will probably have to operate in or near the minefield so as to minimize the defensive area.  This is completely at odds with the Navy’s original conceptual intent for the LCS although that intent, along with every other aspect of the LCS, has come into question. 

The Navy has no current capability that meets this criteria.  What’s needed is a conceptual vessel that can operate four helos while conducting its own ship-based clearance.  Note the lack of mention of remote controlled UUVs.  There simply won’t be the time to launch, recover, and service UUVs.  Add in the lack of speed inherent in UUVs and the absence of UUVs becomes understandable.  What we’re describing is a helo-destroyer (DDH?) or mini-amphibious ship.  Realistically, the technology for this case is largely non-existent.

Amphibious Assault.  For the case of amphibious assault, we need to clear lanes of approach for the connectors and amphibious vehicles.  Additionally, we may need to clear areas of operation for near-shore support vessels should the Navy ever acquire such.

While I don’t know enough to describe exact clearance methods, and there will be more than just one, certain generic characteristics are foreseeable.  Whatever clearance vessels or platforms are used, there will be attrition among them.  Thus, we will need sufficient numbers to do the job several times over.  For the sake of survivability of the platforms, speed is vital.  Armor and stealth would be desirable though not at the expense of speed.  The individual assets ought to be minimally manned in order to lesson the cost of attrition. 

One could make a good case for helos and UUVs in this role.  Surface vessels, whether manned or unmanned are too slow and vulnerable and, if damaged or sunk in the course of clearing, might well constitute a serious impediment to the connectors and vehicles.  UUVs, by nature of their submerged state, may prove effective and survivable.  A UUV’s inherent lack of travel speed and even slower clearance speed is mitigated by the need to only clear relatively small lanes and the ability to assign multiple craft to each lane.

Helos would be effective and have a degree of speed but are notoriously vulnerable to shoulder launched SAMs.  Thus, MCM helos should be armored to the extent possible.  The Soviet Hinds are a good conceptual starting point.

There may still be a need for a final, shoreline mine removal capability that would probably need to reside on the actual landing craft, whatever that might be.  Alternatively, one could envision a specially modified landing craft equipped for shoreline mine removal (line charges or some such).

So, having looked at the three MCM cases, what general conclusions can we draw about the MCM path we need to follow?

  • We need a dedicated MCM vessel that can operate 4 helos and conduct ship-based MCM as opposed to remote vehicles.
  • Remote vehicles are useful only in the assault scenario or the uncontested clearance scenario.
  • Effective MCM is inherently slow and we will need large numbers of assets to provide the composite speed of operation.
  • In two of the three cases discussed, MCM will occur under fire and the individual assets must be able to provide a degree of self-defense and/or offer a degree of survivability via speed or some other attribute.
  • Attrition will occur which again suggests the need for large numbers of assets.

Now, how do the preceding conclusions match with the MCM path the Navy is actually on?

  • The LCS will soon be our only MCM vessel and we will shortly be down to around 12-16 total depending on how many MCM modules the Navy procures for the LCS and whether the Navy continues with their stated policy that MCM will only be conducted by the LCS-2 version.
  • The Navy currently has no concrete plans for a dedicated MCM mothership.
  • The Navy’s inventory of MCM helos is aging, lacks a defined replacement (to the best of my knowledge), and is not survivable in a contested environment.
  • The Navy has bet “all in” on remote, unmanned minehunting vehicles which, thus far, are technological failures.

There seems to be a fairly significant mismatch between the requirements outlined in this post and the Navy’s existing and near-term planned assets.  China, alone, is estimated to have hundreds of thousands of mines in their inventory.  Contrast that with the number of MCM assets the Navy has.  We’re on the wrong side of that equation!

The Navy needs to urgently re-evaluate their MCM requirements and immediately begin building a significant MCM force along the lines described here.


  1. A few notes:

    1. It's a bad idea to combine roles between a helo MCM mothership and a ship-based MCM vessel. The former needs to be large and carries expensive helicopters, the later needs to be smaller, and specially designed for low signatures and shock tolerance.

    2. Remote vehicles are the wave of the future for MIW and have been rather successful outside the US. USVs have had greater success than UUVs. (e.g. the German Seehund, Danish MSF and MRD drones). We chose to make a more complex, semi-submersible RMMV, which has been problematic. We should take a look at cheaper, commercial sonar solutions (e.g. Klein 5900) combined with less expensive USVs (e.g. Meggitt Hammerhead). Just buy more of them.

    3. One option that hasn't been mentioned is submarine-based MCM. Right now we have LMRS, but it is a recon only system, no way of performing disposal. In theory, one could integrate a tethered or autonomous ROV with both hunting and disposal capabilities into an SSN or SSK. It would return to the sub to rearm or replenish batteries. The Saab Double Eagle SAROV can have a 1km tether that provides both power and data, or a 12km tether just for data.

    4. One concept for clearing assault lanes on or close to the beach was to use large JDAMs or LGBs to blow mines out of the way.

    5. An important, but often ignored, part of MIW is to periodically perform detailed bottom map surveys of likely areas of conflict. Obviously this is not easy (or legal) to do near an enemy's shore, but is feasible in international waters. These surveys can be fed as a baseline to change detection software to rapidly determine what might be a mine and what is a previously existing bottom feature.

    1. Smitty, all good observations. However, what's missing is any plan for dealing with rapid clearance of large areas under combat (enemy opposition) conditions. How do we clear a chokepoint for a task group to transit in a short timeframe so as not to present a literal sitting duck target? In fairness, I can't blame you for not addressing it since there is no technology or procedure in existence for accomplishing such a task, as far as I know. The Navy certainly doesn't have a clue.

      What worries me is not so much the lack of capability as the lack of focus on the lack of capability. I can find no evidence of any programmatic effort on the part of the Navy to address this need.

    2. "Short timeframe" and "mine clearance" are terms that don't usually go together. About the best we can do is sweep the area with MH-53Es or UISS. But sweeping isn't 100% effective.

  2. There is one other way to clear mines, and it is the fastest way. Let them hit an expendable unit. I would suggest either concrete or ice hulls (in the ice case just a solid block) with a noisemaker to simulate a prop, and an above the water line propulsion system (like a fan boat) that shuts down and floats if the unit sinks. With the right setup you should be able to manufacture them in the sea base as long as you had sawdust or concrete and a mold. Approximately the size of an LCU should do. Then send them in on preprogrammed routes or remote them. Use heavy lift helos to retrieve propulsion systems.

    Randall Rapp

    1. Modern high end mines are extremely complex things, no more the big spikey ball on a chain.
      Many are effectively torpedoes sat on the bottom. Listening for a pre-programmed set of exact passive sonar matches, and calculating their point of attack.
      They can lie dormant intentionally for literally months, and have huge warheads, specifically designed to detonate with the affects you may have seen if Australian MK48 tests on YouTube.
      Spoofing them to activate can be quite a game, finding them equally so.

    2. That's why the integrated noise maker. Plus if their that sensitive they probably won't even fire on their intended targets.

    3. Well, Randall, the Navy sort of did that during the tanker wars when they had the "escorted" tankers proceed ahead of the naval vessels on the theory that the tankers could absorb a mine hit with far less damage than a navy ship. Makes you wonder who was escorting who?

  3. "The Navy’s inventory of MCM helos is aging, lacks a defined replacement (to the best of my knowledge), and is not survivable in a contested environment."


    Navy has begun studying capability replacement for the MH-60R/S helicopters as part of Future Vertical Lift. See below.

    1. Also this:

    2. Do you get the feeling that we're looking at another, eventual, F-35 type of program where a single helo airframe will be asked to replace every helo in the military's inventory?

  4. This is an area that the US Navy it would seem has neglected.

    Some reading material:

    Part of me wonders if that is because there seems to be too much of an emphasis on building high-end "sexy" ships and less on everything else (including of all things training).

  5. Has anybody studied explosive clearing similar to the Army's Line charges. I could see a hose being towed over the target area by a helicopter, dropped, and then filled with a heavier than water explosive. It sinks to the bottom and is detonated.

  6. Line charges might be useful in the surf zone but probably less so in deeper water. The US also has a JDAM kit that uses tungsten darts for surf zone mine clearance.

    On the whole 'not invented here' theme, an interesting subject because the US does seem on face value (I can't say for certain) to be falling behind the state of the art.

    Just finished a 4 part series on MCM and EOD in amphibious and port clearance operations if anyone fancies a read

    Part 3 is the MCM piece

    1. T.D., many thanks for the link to the series. I enjoyed it immensely. Well done. Yes, the US is falling behind in MCM and ASW (and other areas!).