Monday, May 13, 2013

Mine Exercise - IMCMEX 12

The current issue of Proceedings (May 2013, “U.S. Navy in Review, Truver and Holzer) contains a stunning revelation about the state of mine warfare, specifically mine countermeasures (MCM), in the fleet.  Discussing the 2012 MCM exercise billed as the largest international MCM exercise ever conducted, IMCMEX 12, the article states that of the 29 simulated mines dropped in the water, only half or less were found.

I’m sorry, what was that?  The largest international collection of MCM experts and equipment ever assembled, under relaxed peacetime conditions, and knowing exactly where to begin looking, couldn’t even find half the exercise mines???  That does not bode well for actual combat MCM operations.

Fortunately, the LCS and its MCM module will solve all the problems, right?  By the way, the LCS and its MCM module were conspicuous by their absence from the exercise.  What does that tell you about the mighty LCS and the spectacularly successful (according to the Navy’s press releases) MCM trials?  I would have thought the Navy would have been chomping at the bit to let the LCS show off its MCM capability.  Perhaps it’s not as successful as the press releases suggest?

Setting aside the LCS, the Navy is clearly behind the curve in mine warfare which is hard to understand since mines are the number one threat to the fleet.  C’mon Navy, wake up and start focusing on mines.


  1. Certainly the Navy's mine warfare capabilities have atrophied. But isn't it be a bit of exageration to claim that mines are "the number one threat to the fleet?"

    Mines can damage or even sink a surface combatant operating close to shore. They can even delay or deny access to critical strategic chokepoints.

    But mines are not an offensive weapon. And they pose little threat in the open ocean -- where the bulk of our capital ships tend to operate. they are the last ditch weapon of an enemy who cannot control the sea.

    I'd say if I had to rate the top three weapons which pose a no-kidding existential threat to our fleet it would be:

    1. Heavyweight torpedoes.
    2. Anti-ship ballistic missiles.
    3. Sea-skimming anti-ship cruise missiles.

    1. Am I exagerating? Well, let's see. Since WWII, mines have sunk or damaged four times more US Navy ships than all other types of attack combined. In recent history, the Roberts (FFG), Princeton (Aegis cruiser), and Tripoli (large amphib) have all suffered serious damage from mines. That's a pretty good claim to being the number one threat!

      Estimates of mine inventories among likely enemies range in the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. Enemy inventories of torpedos and missiles are a drop in the bucket compared to that. Again, a decent claim to the number one threat.

      We have sophisticated defenses to deal with ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and to a lesser extent torpedos in the form of ASW. So, while those are serious threats, their effectiveness is far less than a mine due to our almost total atrophy of mine countermeasures, mine sweeping capability, and simple mine detection. Again, a pretty good argument for being the number one threat.

      Threat doesn't just pertain to the ability to sink a ship. It also pertains to the ability to threaten naval operations. There is nothing, not even submarines, that can stop naval activities as quickly and permanently as a mine threat. All of Sadaam's divisions couldn't stop a proposed Marine Corp amphibious assault in Desert Storm but the threat of mines turned the proposed threat into a mere feint not due to strategic need but, rather, to our lack of ability to deal with the mines.

      Remember, the seat of purpose is on land. Fleets roaming around in the middle of a vast ocean aren't much of a threat to an enemy. At some point we have to approach land, launch amphibious assaults, pass through chokepoints, etc. The presence of mines can stop all that action instantly.

      You may disagree with my assessment but there is plenty of evidence to call mines the number one threat. I'm not dismissing the threats posed by the weapons you mention but we have defenses for them and they don't exist in the kinds of numbers nor have the same chilling effect on operations that mines do.

      Most military assessment reports I've read agree that mines are the number one threat to the Navy.

      So, again, if you want to disagree, feel free but I stand by my statement.


    2. Your opening statement is a bit surprising since you pointed out in a post tw weeks ago that the Navy hasn't faced "real" naval combat in quite a long time. If that is the case, why should we accept that mines are the major threat in wartime?

      I do agree that there is a difference between threat to individual ships versus a threat to the fleet and larger naval campaign. I tend to think that naval mines can and will cause attrition, but are unlikely to end a campaign in it's entirety.

      I'd also point out that simply counting the numbers of mines don't adequately capture the nature of the threat or how it should be countered.

      Tens of thousands of mines might seem like an impressive figure: until you look at how many ships are available to deliver them, and how long it would take to plan them. One might argue that the best way to counter mines isn't via MIW: it's to catch the enemy via ISR before he lays them.

      But as to whether the Navy has to go in close to the shore and thus risk the threat from mines, it all depends on what the Navy is trying to do.

      - If it's strike, even the short-legged F/A-18 allows our aircraft carriers to remain several hundred miles offshore and thus clear of minefields. Same goes for TLAM shooters.

      - If it's to conduct an amphibious landing (which we haven't actually done in 60+ yrs!) it appears that the USMC is taking the right approach with LHA and V-22. Bring the first wave in from over the horizon.

      Several Navy ships have been damaged by mines - but interstingly I don't believe any have been sunk by mines since Korean War.

      In fact, each of the ships you specifically mentioned was brought back into service. The TRIPOLI even stayed onstation for a week after her hit.

      If one looks at the causes of non-US ship sinkings in wartime, the undeniable leading causes are air strikes and submarines. The latter in particular have been particularly deadly: INS Kukri, ARA Belgrano and ROKS Cheonan all went down in under an hour.

      I think you underestimate the threat posed by modern enemy submarines and overestimate our ability to deal with them. A submarine, unlike a mine, does not rely upon the action of an enemy. And submarines can and have stopped a fleet dead in its tracks. Ask the Argentinians about that one!

    3. Oops - meant in my last paragraph:

      "A submarine, unlike a mine, does not have to wait passively for an enemy to contact it."

    4. Anonymous, I suggest you read "The Great Wall At Sea" by Bernard Cole, he discusses the naval strategies China might employ against the United States in event of war. A significant part of their strategy to lock the U.S. outside of the Second Island Chain is to utilize mines.

    5. Thanks AnAwkwardGuy. I've read it.

      The mining tactic suggested in Mr. Cole's book MIGHT be technically feasible, but in my opinion he didn't really think out the practicalities. At least not for a "non-rogue" nation like China.

      For instance - laying massive minefields in open ocean along some of the most heavily trafficked shipping lanes in the world is a good way to turn the entire international community against you.

      I'm not totally dismissing the importance of MIW. However, I'd say vis-a-vis China, our ASW capabilites are more important. And probably in worse shapes.

    6. I understand what your saying, Anon. Ideal military strategies (i.e. mining possible routes the Navy could use) are constricted by real-world political factors (i.e. more international involvement in a war).

  2. The problem is, a mine can be thrown off the back of a fishing trawler, out of the back of a plane, or pushed out of a submarines torpedo tubes. Laying mines quickly is easy.
    And unless the US is prepared to sink civilian shipping vessels, they can be lain, and relain, and relain, night after night after night.

    Offensive Minelaying is also a reality, The Japanese were buggers for it during the Battle of Port Arthur, repeatedly laying new fields and drawing Russian ships over them (old but good)

  3. The point about deep water navies is interesting because the most common application for a deep water navy is to assure access to the shallows, mainly ports.

    So whilst mines may or may not be a threat to a deep water navy they can completely stop access to the 'last mile' and that is their point.

    You can have the most powerful navy in the world but if you need access to a port i.e., most of the time, your all powerful deep water navy is rather useless.

    MCM is vitally important for the most common type of operations allied naval forces are most likely to be involved with

    Not very glamorous though

    1. I certainly don't believe that mine warfare should be completely ignored. I am however disputing whether mines truly represent the "number one threat to the fleet."

      The most common application of our deep water navy (at least in the last 30 years!) has been strike -- not opposed entry. And mainly from carriers and TLAM shooters from dozens of miles offshore.

      In terms of your assertion, complete denial of a port by mining is fairly tall order. Denial of all ports in a theater would be fairly impossible.

    2. Anon, when you compare the state of the Navy's MCM to the inventory of enemy mines, the ease of their deployment, and the potency of their effect, mines are clearly the number one threat. However, if you disagree with that, that's fine. It's like arguing which type of gun you want to be killed with - it doesn't really matter.

      The point of the post was that the Navy's MCM capabilities are woefully inadequate as demonstrated by the exercise results I cited.

    3. I think the reality is that no one has a reasonable MCM solution atm. This exercise clearly demonstrates that. Its a pretty hard problem to solve and the historical solution was to throw tons and tons and tons of ships at it. If you look at our historical inventory of MCM ships they were larger than the whole planned fleet of LCS.

      Right now the US only has 13 MCM ships. None of which are design or capable of doing any MCM work in contested waters and none of which would likely survive an attack by a RHIB with a 12.7mm machinegun (API and related explosive incendiary rounds would eat them alive). Which means that in any conflict scenario you would basically have to keep a frigate or destroyer almost on top of them for protection with almost defeats the purpose.

      Hence, a large part of the original goal for the LCS MCM module was to not actually requiring the ship to enter the potentially mined waters and use aerial and remotely operated vehicles to search and destroy the mines. They obviously haven't gotten there yet. But the reality is that this would also be the system that a dedicated MCM design would also need to employ if required to mine sweep in a AA/AD zone. So I don't think the LCS is too far behind the 8 ball in the combat MCM role.

      The reality is that all we have functional atm is the Avenger class which is slow and defenseless. And only limited numbers of those which have to be pre-positioned around the world as it takes them far too long to get anywhere.

      ComNavOps, would you agree or disagree that a new purpose built MCM vessels would realistically have very similar functionality to the LCS MCM modules goal to be effective in a combat environment (aka not peace time or fully controlled waters).

    4. ats, the original concept for the LCS in its MCM role was not terrible. The idea of using standoff, off-board, remote controlled vehicles for MCM was a fair concept. Of course, none of the technology existed and none has panned out yet so it constituted a total failure. Whether the technology can be developed within the lifetime of the LCS remains to be seen.

      I agree that a new purpose built MCM vessel would share some characteristics of the LCS. It would not need to be anywhere near the size of the LCS. It would need only a minimal self-defense capability like RAM/CIWS and would not need any of the offensive characteristics that the LCS has. It would not need 40+ kts of speed - 20 kts or so would greatly reduce the size of the vessel. In common with the LCS, an MCM ship would want to have the capability to launch and retrieve multiple off-board vehicles (whether manned or unmanned) at a time and would probably need to operate as many helos as possible since helos seem to be the main MCM platform, at the moment. So, yes, an MCM vessel would share some characteristics with the LCS but would still be significantly different. How's that for straddling the fence with an answer?

      A good comment!

    5. The helicopter may be a potent MCM platform, but so far, the MH-60S has proven less than potent. It can't tow OASIS or AQS-20, and ALMDS hasn't done well in tests.

      Maybe we need a more powerful helicopter.

    6. Forgot about RAMICS, which was canceled.

  4. Imagine a mine, in sinks to 10m, where it floats, drifting on currents, until it contacts something, when it explodes.
    Now imagine ten thousand of them, or fifty thousand, or a million dumped off container ships in the west pacific.

    They can probably be tracked and avoided, mostly, but you couldnt actively destroy them with modern MCM systems.

    1. TrT, you lost me on that one. The Navy destroys mines, of course, so I'm missing what you mean by that. Try again? Thanks!

    2. it could destroy 50,000 mines?

    3. CNO, I think TrT is talking about a bit of a scorched earth strategy similar to what has been employed/theorized with land mines in the past.

      As a hypothetical scenario, consider that the Chinese fleet (or a large part of it) and the US pacific fleet engage in a naval battle say 500 miles from the Chinese coast with the Chinese fleet largely being destroyed. At that point, the Chinese have little use for large swaths of ocean as they don't have any ships in number to use it and therefore it is more important to deny it to the enemy.

      So they just load up as many ships as possible with as many mines as possible and start salting the south china sea with them. Let them float willy nilly all over the space. At some point they've dumped enough that the area, at least for a time is effectively blocked out.

      Its not entirely far fetched as this is/was one of are main strategic responses along the korean border to a surprise invasion.

    4. TrT & ats, of course the Navy hasn't got the capabiity to find and neutralize 50,000 mines in any useful time frame! Remember, though, that in practice the Navy would only need to clear lanes for immediate movement. While not easy, that's at least a more reasonable goal.


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