Tuesday, April 17, 2018

MH-53E and Mine Countermeasures

Following developments in the area of mine countermeasures (MCM) is challenging, to say the least.  Equipment seems to come and go on an almost daily basis.  A new piece of equipment is tested, proclaimed the future of MCM, and then dropped with the entire process occurring, seemingly, overnight.  The LCS MCM module development has epitomized this.

As we consider future MCM developments, it is helpful to understand the current and legacy systems.  To that end, let’s take a look at the current (soon to be legacy) MCM workhorse, the MH-53E helo.

A major portion of our current MCM capability is aviation based from the MH-53E helicopter.  The MH-53E was produced in the early 1980’s and is suffering age-related maintenance problems, spare parts shortages, and extensive maintenance times.  These helos, of which there are only 28 in inventory, are aging rapidly and there are no plans to provide direct replacements for them.  Instead, the Navy has decided to transition their MCM capabilities to the LCS.

“…current plans involve transitioning the MH-53E airborne mine countermeasures capability to the Littoral Combat Ship Mine Countermeasures Mission Package …” (1)

The sundown path for the MH-53E is now tied to the LCS MCM reaching full operational capability which is tentatively scheduled for 2025.

MH-53E


The MH-53E helos are organized into two active squadrons, HM-14 (10 helos) and HM-15 (13 Helos), and a Fleet Replacement Squadron, HM-12 (5 helos).

Here’s a few specifications with a comparison to the SH-60 series Seahawk just for some perspective.

                                                              MH-53E    SH-60B

Length, ft                     100     65
Empty Weight, lbs            33000  15000
Internal Payload, lbs        30000   6700
External Payload, lbs        36000    N/A
Unrefueled Endurance, hrs        5   3.5?

MH-53E Powerplant  3 × General Electric T64-GE-416/416A C, 4,380 shp each

SH-60B Powerplant  2 × General Electric T700-GE-401C, 1,890 shp each


As the specs demonstrate, the MH-53E is massively larger, more powerful, and with longer endurance.  In other words, ideal for the aerial MCM role.  The SH-60, as has been well documented, was found to be underpowered for safe MCM equipment towing, in what is one of the most bewildering blunders of the LCS module program.


MH-53E MCM capabilities and systems include the following:

Influence Sweep Systems
  • AN/SPU-1W (Magnetic orange Pipe)
  • Mk-104 Acoustic Sweep System
  • Mk-105 Magnetic Sweep System
  • Mk-103 Mechanical Sweep System (Mk-17 cutters)

Neutralization System
  • AN/ASQ-232 SEAFOX Airborne Mine Neutralization System

Mine Hunting
  • AN/AQS-24 Side Scan Sonar with Laser detection/ID capability


Future Upgrades include:
  • AQS-24B – Technical refresh of the Q-24A which addresses obsolescence and reliability issues and adds High Speed Synthetic Aperture Sonar (HSSAS) side scan arrays
  • AQS-24C – Provides expanded volume search capability to B-variant through the addition of iPUMA sonar to the tail of the towed body

Vertical website offers a nice, basic writeup on the MH-53E. (5)

One of the notable issues related to transitioning from aviation centric MCM to ship MCM is the loss of speed.  Helos operate much faster than the unmanned underwater vehicles planned for the LCS MCM module.  Even if it works, the LCS clearance rate will be very slow – too slow for combat clearance.

For example, the AQS-24B side scan sonar can be helo-towed at 18 kts and still be effective, according to manufacturer, Northrop Grumman. (2)   By comparison, the sonar-equipped, mine detecting, Knifefish UUV for the LCS has a speed of 4.5 kts.(3)  Even that speed is misleading because the Knifefish has to wait to return to its host vessel to upload its data which must then be analyzed to actually “detect” a mine.  That process takes significant additional time.  The Navy is attempting to adapt the AQS-24 towed sonar to an unmanned surface vessel to address the speed issue.

Here’s a telling quote,

"We're funding these new systems that, when you look behind the curtain, are not as capable as the systems that they are replacing," said Bob O'Donnell, a retired Navy captain who directed the service's program office for mine warfare in the years following the first Gulf War. "Even if the new systems meet all their operational targets, they won't be as good as the ships and helicopters we've had in service for decades." (4)

Clearly, the MH-53E MCM helos have capabilities that have yet to be duplicated by the LCS MCM module.  It is unclear how the planned 6-10 or so LCS MCM vessels, each individually less capable than current equipment, will replace 12 Avenger ships and 28 MH-53E helos.

Mk105 Magnetic Minesweeping Sled


Potentially, the new CH-53K in a dedicated MCM version offers the ability to replace the MH-53E although I have heard of no such plan by the Navy.

The larger question that looms over any discussion of MCM is whether mine countermeasures should be aviation focused or surface/subsurface.  The Navy has opted for the surface/subsurface path by going all-in on the LCS and unmanned surface/subsurface vehicles and by retiring the MH-53E without replacement.  However, it is not at all clear to me that this is a wise path.

As always, a combination of assets and capabilities is probably the best approach but allowing the MH-53E to retire without replacement is knowingly accepting a significant decrease in MCM capabilities.



_________________________________________

(1)US Navy N98 / Mine Warfare Association, “The Future of Airborne Mine Countermeasures”, 3-Nov-2015,

(2)Northrop Grumman website, retrieved 1-Apr-2018,


(4)The Virginian-Pilot website, “A Hidden Danger”, Mike Hixenbaugh and Jason Paladino, Sept. 25, 2016

(5)Vertical website, “Clearing The Way”, 22-Aug-2012,

24 comments:

  1. Sometimes the USN baldy lags behind foreign developments. I give them that they're leaders in airborne mine sweeping and even mine-killing (with supercavitation projectiles), but they appear to outright ignore available effective foreign solutions at times.

    Back in 2014 I was amused that the typical U.S. military-industrial complex PR cheered the development of something that had an equivalent in German service since 1981:
    http://defense-and-freedom.blogspot.de/2014/11/congratulations-to-usnavy.html

    I'm very sceptical about the suitability of minesweeping of any kind against modern mines in general. It may be necessary to focus on minehunting and still use mine avoidance sonar + general torpedo countermeasures with all high value ships.

    Threat powers (= to me that's Russia, but it also applies to PRC and NORK) have little capability to deploy mines offensively in our waters (except clandestine minelaying early in a war), and I do not see much reason to deal with their defensive naval minefields.

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  2. The description of the Magnetic Orange Pipe on the web describes the 30 foot pipe being given a "Magnetic Charge". Now I am an old electrical engineer but last I checked metal does not act like a capacity and hold a charge, nor is there such a thing as a Magnetic Charge.

    I hope this is just a lousy tech writer/editor, but this is the Navy crew that couldn't figure out that the UISS Cable would melt when they pumped 300 Amps down it.

    Anybody got some REAL data on what the latest science is behind the latest EXPENSIVE magnetic influence boondoggle?

    https://quizlet.com/89198348/anspu-1w-influence-minesweeping-system-magnetic-orange-pipe-mop-flash-cards/

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    1. Well, you would be wrong in that it is neither new nor expensive. It is used for emulation sweeping.

      The MOP was developed to sweep US Destructor series mines in shallow water at the end of the Vietnam War. It is literally a foam filled 30ft pipe (painted orange and hence the name) that is towed behind the helo. You can tow multiple MOPs for a greater field or add a set of rattle bars to it if you need an acoustic source as well.

      The operation is simple, before using the MOP you wrap a magnetic coil around the pipe and run a DC current through it, basically deperming in reverse. Instead of reducing the permanent magnetic signature, you enhance it. The induced magnetic field causes all the iron molecules to align with the field (although only for a time, the iron molecules start to realign with their inherent magnetic orientation as soon as you remove the magnetic field). Hook it up to the helo and tow it through the shallow waters you want cleared.

      The magnetic field has to be re-induced periodically to maximize the alignment of the iron molecules, and hence disruption of the Earth's magnetic field, which is probably where they came up with a magnetic charge.

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  3. The bright side of using CUSV for sonar towing (assuming it works), instead of the MH-53E, is CUSV is MUUUUCH cheaper to buy, operate and integrate on ships. So we may get similar tow speed with CUSV as MH-53E, potentially longer endurance, and be able to buy far more of them.

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    1. All true although I have a hard time believing that the CUSV can match the towing capacity of the helo. We'll have to wait and see.

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    2. CUSV may not match the towing "capacity" of the MH-53E. However, the new UISS is a much lighter tow than the old influence sleds used by MH-53E, so it may not have to.

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    3. Well, the SH-60 helo doesn't have enough power to safely tow and, again, I have a hard time believing that the CUSV has more power than an SH-60 but I don't know.

      The CUSV is claimed by Textron to have a towing capacity of 4000 lbf at 20 kts. I have no idea what the tow force of the UISS is. I also have no idea what the tow capacity of the MH-53E or SH-60 is for a comparison.

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    4. The MH-60S had the required tow power. It just didn't have the power to tow it safely (e.g. engine out conditions). The CUSV doesn't have this safety concern.

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    5. Correct, which is why I always used the word " safely". However, this still doesn't tell us whether the CUSV has the tow capacity. Do you have any actual data? It's only prudent to be skeptical given the LCS program's history of ideas that don't pan out.

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    6. Since both UISS and the sonar are undergoing integration and testing on CUSV, one would expect the engineers have at least verified basic feasibility.

      I don't have any data beyond that.

      https://defensesystems.com/articles/2017/04/24/uiss.aspx

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    7. You don't need me to list all the things in the LCS program that engineers should have verified but didn't, do you?

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  4. "Sometimes the USN baldy lags behind foreign developments."

    Yes, just check out this vessel, the fastest surface minesweeper to date

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alta-class_minesweeper

    Two large fans located on each side create an air cushion between the two hulls and a front and aft rubber skirt, lifting the vessel, giving small drag and a high cruise speed, as well as low susceptibility to the shock of exploding mines since only a small portion of the hull is actually exposed in the water. Propulsion by water jet, again one in each hull, gives a low acoustic signature. A degaussing system gives the vessels extremely low electromagnetic signature

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    1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oksøy-class_mine_hunter

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    2. Those are nice MCM vessels and a modernized version would make a good replacement for the US Avenger class. I note that the vessels are capable of surface sweeps and UUV operations although the UUV ops are very slow (4-5 kts). Also interesting that only a couple of the ships are still active.

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    3. "Propulsion by water jet...gives a low acoustic signature". Not to be a jerk, but do you have a link for that? My (Very civilian) experience is that water jets sound like Jacuzzi's from hell. But I don't know what that means for ASW/MW. And I've failed every time I've tried to find a comparison between a prop driven ship and a jet powered one. (Here I was looking to see if the LCS could be quiet enough with its propulsion for effective ASW).

      JFW

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  5. Here’s a few specifications with a comparison to the SH-60 series Seahawk just for some perspective.

    The better comparison would be to the MH-60S variant since that is the MCM helicopter for the MCM Mission Package. The MH-60S was based on the UH-60L. That said, I don’t know what the performance differences might be.

    To be fair to the LCS module program, the Organic Airborne MCM family of systems was intended to operate off a CVN, and was a concept well before the LCS mission module concept. The OAMCM systems included the AQS-20, OASIS (an influence sweep system similar to the UISS on the MCM USV), RAMICS, ALMDS, and AMNS. As you noted, the MH-60S was found to be unsafe to be towing the AQS-20 and OASIS, and technical difficulties led to RAMICS being cancelled.

    For example, the AQS-24B side scan sonar can be helo-towed at 18 kts and still be effective, according to manufacturer, Northrop Grumman. By comparison, the sonar-equipped, mine detecting, Knifefish UUV for the LCS has a speed of 4.5 kts.

    This is a false equivalence unless the intent is to highlight the differences between airborne/surface tow and undersea vehicles. The Knifefish is designed to hunt buried mines while the AQS-24 is intended to hunt volume mines. The true equivalent to the AQS-24 towed from an MH-53E would be the AQS-20 towed from RMS or the MCM USV.

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    1. "This is a false equivalence unless the intent is to highlight the differences between airborne/surface tow and undersea vehicles. "

      That's exactly what was intended. The LCS approach to MCM is heavily UUV based as opposed to the current MH-53 helo approach.

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    2. "The better comparison would be to the MH-60S variant"

      I haven't found a source of pure MH-60S specs. Further, I assume that the basic specs are quite similar. If you find a source of specific MH-60S specs, let me know.

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    3. "That's exactly what was intended. The LCS approach to MCM is heavily UUV based as opposed to the current MH-53 helo approach."

      IMHO it's hard to say it's "heavily UUV based".

      The MCM module has ONE UUV system (Knifefish) for bottom/buried-mine detection.

      Two USV systems (UISS, AQS-20) for influence sweep and bottom/moored mine detection.

      Three airborne systems (AMNS, ALMDS, COBRA) for neutralization, shallow mine detection and surf/beach zone detection.

      So it seems fairly balanced between airborne, USV and UUV.

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    4. You're right, to an extent. I was trying to point out the difference in emphasis between the aviation approach using MH-53's and the ship based approach using surface and subsurface drones.

      I also note that beyond the numerical list of air/surface/subsurface vehicles, the actual neutralization is significantly dependent on UUVs. The AMNS, for instance, while being helo transported and launched, is actually a UUV destructor.

      COBRA is a developmental system and is not even remotely ready for operation yet. It is still undergoing IOT&E testing although the Navy, in typical fraudulent fashion, has declared the system operationally ready.

      According to the official Navy website, the CUSV is not yet certified and the AQS-20 tow system of record is still the RMS UUV. I'm not sure how up to date that is.

      To sum up, the Navy's approach is to eventually use various surface towed sweeps and subsurface neutralizers for mine destruction while using helos for detection and equipment transport. That's quite a change of direction from the heavily aviation approach currently being used.

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    5. "That's quite a change of direction from the heavily aviation approach currently being used."

      The Navy's "current approach" includes a combination of dedicated mine warfare ships (Avenger and Osprey MCM ships) and MH-53E helicopters. The MCM ships use a UUV destructor as well (the AN/SLQ-48 ROV).

      The LCS module was meant to replace all of that, not just the helo component.

      I agree, though, it is a big change.

      I'm not aware of any current surf zone mine detection system in the Navy (other than divers and dolphins). So COBRA, while developmental, would be a new capability.

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  6. The Navy may want to not use the CH-53. But it is really likely going to be faced with the option of not having MCM capability without it.

    Of course, it's not like that wills top the Navy.

    JFW

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  7. I'm all in favor of LCS(all 9f them being used for mine clearance) unfortunately every single one of them like being in port too much to be of any use what so ever but mine clearance is really the only thing these junk piles may be good at unfortunately

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  8. That's exactly what was intended. The LCS approach to MCM is heavily UUV based as opposed to the current MH-53 helo approach.

    Its still a false equivalence since the capabilities are not apples-to-apples. You cannot compare search speeds of the MH-53E and Knifefish without noting that Knifefish provides a capability that the MH-53E does not have.

    I also note that beyond the numerical list of air/surface/subsurface vehicles, the actual neutralization is significantly dependent on UUVs. The AMNS, for instance, while being helo transported and launched, is actually a UUV destructor.

    But so is the AN/ASQ-232 SeaFox. Both the MH-53E and LCS mission module relies on UUVs for mine neutralization.

    COBRA is a developmental system and is not even remotely ready for operation yet. It is still undergoing IOT&E testing although the Navy, in typical fraudulent fashion, has declared the system operationally ready.

    It's my understanding that COBRA completed its system testing separate from LCS. The IOT&E is really an integration/suitability test of COBRA with the LCS, and is not evaluating the performance of COBRA in its beach zone detection mission. There is no reason that COBRA could not be used from other platforms and not be tied directly to LCS, hence the reason for declaring IOC of COBRA separate from the LCS MCM mission package.

    https://news.usni.org/2017/10/10/navy-declares-cobra-coastal-mine-detection-system-operational-after-successful-test

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