Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Ponce and MCM

Does anyone else think the Navy caved a bit too easily on the LCS termination issue?  Now, there could be several reasons for this such as a desire by the Navy to move on to a bigger LCS or a dawning recognition within the Navy that the LCS is an ineffective dead end in its current form.  Remember, though, that the Navy bet “all-in” on the LCS as its only surface mine countermeasures (MCM) platform.  The Avenger class MCM vessels were allowed to rot, literally, in anticipation of the LCS.  The Navy has scrambled to restore the Avengers but they clearly see them only as a stopgap measure.  So far, though, the LCS and its MCM module have failed miserably with the MCM module components largely failing to meet their specifications despite years of development.  Regardless, if the LCS is the only viable MCM platform why would the Navy tamely agree to ending the current LCS production run at 32 (or less, if Congress opts not to fund even those)? 

Well, here’s a bit of pure speculation, unsupported by any definitive facts (yeah, just the kind of post I like!)…

Recall that the USS Ponce was saved from retirement and converted to an Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB).  Among Ponce’s capabilities and uses is the ability to act as an MCM mothership.  As an AFSB, the ship operates MH-53 helos and Kingfish remote unmanned mine search vehicles among other platforms and capabilities.  Ponce has participated in two major international MCM exercises, IMCMEX 2012 and IMCMEX 2013, with great success, according to the Navy press releases.  To be fair, everything succeeds wonderfully according to Navy press releases so that may not be a fair assessment.  Nevertheless, it’s noteworthy that the Navy’s dedicated MCM platform, the LCS, did not participate in either exercise.

Ponce - The Future of MCM?

Could it be that the AFSB MCM mothership concept has proven so successful that the LCS has been relegated to secondary status as far as the future of Navy MCM efforts?  Most serious discussions of MCM efforts acknowledge that effective MCM operations will require large numbers of various types of MCM platforms including helos, remote underwater vehicles, remote surface vehicles, dedicated Avenger type vessels, etc.  What better platform to support those operations and various platforms than a converted amphibious ship?

As I said, this is just speculation but it makes a lot of sense to me.


  1. "What better platform to support those operations and various platforms than a converted amphibious ship?"


    A converted merchant hull like the 30-knot+ Maersk"B" 4,000 TEU containerships that cost ~$350M each?


    1. GAB, sorry, my bad. I didn't mean that as a literal question. It was more like hyperbole intended to contrast the general qualities of a large aviation-capable mothership-capable vessel to a small, limited function LCS. A converted merchant might well be an even more optimum MCM mothership. On the other hand, we're early retiring amphibious ships and a rescued and repurposed, already paid for amphib built to combat standards might be a pretty good stopgap solution. It all depends on what, exactly, we want a mothership to be and do. Probably worth a post!

  2. Been there and back with the T-shirt...

    Back when we took MCM fairly seriously, we outfitted USS Tripoli (an LPH) as a dedicated MCM support ship hosting MH-53E helos and a buttload of kit for them and the MSO's. During Operation Earnest Will, USS Guadalcanel (an LPH) was pressed into service hosting MCM helos, EOD and some other special boat unit folks and spooky types.

    I rotated out to UUS Enhance, an MSO, and we would routinely tie up alongside USS Raliegh, an LPD to get supplies (most crucial were cases of sodas ;) and enjoy some AC.

    Arond 1996 or so the idea to move MCM from a dedicated force to the battle force lead to the "Organic MCM" programs that was supposed to culminate in a deployment of an MCM capable CVBG in 2004 I think it was. That would allow a CVBG to "breakthrough" a mined chokepoint, and then the dedicated crew would follow to make things safe for routine traffic. Not a bad concept, had the gear worked...

    The experiment of putting the Remote Minehunting semi-sumersible on four DDG-51s was less than enthusiastically embraced, and a rug to sweep organic MCM under was searched for - resulting in LCS being that rug. Several Billion dollars later and with only 2 of the original 7 or 8 organic MCM systems making it to an operational capability, we come full circle to how we did things 25 years ago.

    Except now its "innovative" ...


    1. VEB, outstanding comment! Thanks. I'd love to pick your brain/experience a bit more, if you're willing.

      From your perspective, how should we be doing MCM? Should Avengers have a future role? Can the LCS play a role? Can UUVs play a significant role or is their search rate simply too slow? How do we address "breakthrough" mine clearance given the incredibly slow clearance rates currently achievable?

      Anything else you'd like to comment on?

  3. You have area exploratory/recon capability forward in your CSGs, that helps them avoid trouble or get out of it. You then use dedicated ships operating USV/UUVs when you need to do Q-route expansion or area clearance. The Royal Navy has a good plan to build a class of Hydrographic, patrol and MCM ships:

    The Europeans in general have had to take MCM seriously becasue of close quartersof the waters in the North and Baltic Seas. They has followed a more incremental approach, and we have been smart to give up on some of our over-reaching desirements and buy from them. We need to do more of it.

    In a nutshell, you do MCM through diversity and expermentation. We should have MINEXs monthly where we put incrementally evolving gear to the test. Its expensive compared to what we typically do for MCM, but realtively cheap compared to the money we dump into other warfare areas. You end up with a trained cadre of MCM sailors who are confident in what they can do with their gear. Unfortunately we fall victim to requirements creep and better being the enemy of good enough - leaving us with little to show for it all. RMS towing a sonar at something like 6-10 kts is not the solution, though it has a place in the tool kit. It just can't be your only tool...

    And where is the expertise?

    Avengers a long in the tooth and need to be put out to pasture. We need a ship that is dedicated to the care and feeding of UUVs, USVs and UAVs. For more than MCM. Probably bigger than an MCM, but way smaller than an LPD. Euro's are toying with some examples we can go to school on of the right size. LCS might be the right size, maybe a touch bigger (6000tons shows up a lot - a squatter, less armed Absolon?)

    But it has to be designed to do the job you want it to do. It has *NO* need to go much faster than 24 kts. It needs a robust crew of maintenance personnel. It needs multiple ways to get things on and off - a well-deck in particular if you are operating UUVs and USV. A modest flight deck to house UAVs and if needed a helo or two.

    UAVs, USV's and UUV's complement each other. UAVs provide surveillance and comms, USVs can tow things at decent speeds, and UUVs can do the stuff EOD divers used to do, plus some other stuff.

    Breakthrough, like ASW, is best done by avoidance, 2nd by something that can emulate a ship and make mines go off. With some planning you can position assets to work a Q-route - a 500 yard channel 10 nm long is only 2.5 sqnm and you go through as slow as you can in as deep water as you can and the miner, who may have mixed his mine settings to threaten a range of targets, may not have one set appropriately in the channel you pick.

    If you don't know where the minefiled is, LCS can blunder in and go boom, so you have to use good signature management - not always making it as small as possible - sometimes making you look like a super tanker is as good as looking like a dolphin... you the ability to choose. and you need to have a good diversity of sensors and neutralization options.

    Costs some money...a LOT more than we spand now. how much have we spent fixing ships hit by mines? Maybe not so much as to make decision-makers get out their checkbook...sad if its true, I really don't think so...but one wonders sometimes...


    1. VEB, outstanding comment. Thanks for taking the time to compose it! I learned something.

  4. Have you chaps seen what the RN is doing in the Gulf, combining specialist MCM Vessels with a range of stand off equipment and what is often termed a mothership of sorts.

    A Bay class LSD(A) amphibious vessel provides the command, aviation and support elements with a well dock should it be needed. Lots of space, lots of cranes, lots of accommodation and lots of communications.


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