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.
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.
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?
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)
- AN/ASQ-232 SEAFOX Airborne Mine Neutralization System
- 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”,
(2)Northrop Grumman website, retrieved
(4)The Virginian-Pilot website, “A Hidden Danger”, Mike Hixenbaugh and Jason Paladino,
Sept. 25, 2016,
(5)Vertical website, “Clearing The Way”,