Mine Countermeasures Face Setbacks

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The U.S. Navy's first destroyer fitted for modern mine countermeasure operations has begun searching for mines in the Mediterranean Sea. The USS Bainbridge (DDG 96) is forward deployed and has begun using the AN/WLD-1 Remote Minehunting System (RMS).

Mines are a major concern for U.S. warships operating in forward littoral waters, such as the Persian Gulf. Beginning with Operation Desert Storm in 1961, three U.S. Navy ships have been severely damaged by mines in the Gulf-a helicopter carrier, an Aegis missile cruiser, and a guided missile frigates. Mine are cheap, readily available, and can be clandestinely emplaced.

The RMS is a self-propelled, remote-controlled, torpedo-like object that seeks out bottom and bottom-moored mines. The vehicle has a small, 370-horsepower diesel engine for propulsion, The vehicle's sensors forward-looking sonar and obstacle-avoiding video camera. The images from these sensors is sent by data link to the destroyer's combat center. The craft can be programmed to perform autonomously or can be controlled via data link, even when beyond the horizon from the mothership, which recovers the RMS after the "mission." The RMS can detect and map the location of mines, but neither it nor the destroyer can sweep or destroy the mines.

The Navy plans to outfit six Aegis missile destroyers with the RMS. But, the RMS is intended to support naval forces operating in relatively shallow, littoral areas where the threats include mines as well as small submarines and small surface craft. The Aegis destroyers are primarily anti-air warfare ships, intended for deep-water operation, primarily in support of carrier battle groups. Indeed, the Navy's trouble-plagued Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program was developed in part to provide a littoral mine countermeasures capability. The RMS is a key component of the LCS mine countermeasures suite, which will include the means of destroying as well as detecting mines.

Further, aboard the Aegis destroyers the RMS will be rarely employed, thus the specially trained crewmen will have little "stick" time. And, of course, they will be employed in other duties much or most of the time, duties for which they may or may not be properly rated.

One must then ask that with the LCS program underway and the Navy operating 14 mine countermeasures ship of the Avenger (MCM 1) class, why the six missile destroyers are being fitted with the RMS.

Meanwhile, the Navy has recently taken out of service the last of its relatively new Osprey (MHC 51)-class coastal minehunters. These 12 ships-ideal for littoral operations-were commissioned between 1993 and 1999. The Navy began decommissioning them in June 2006. Some have been transferred to Greece and Egypt, with the remainder being kept in storage at Beaumont, Texas, until they can be disposed of.

Lee Hunt, vice president for academic affairs for the Mine Warfare Association, said that the departure of the last coastal minehunters robs the service of the ability to survey domestic harbors for mines. The threat of mines or Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in U.S. harbors is of growing concern of the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense.

Still another sign of the confusion and lack of interest with respect to mine countermeasures is the current Navy move to replace the large MH-53E Sea Dragon mine countermeasures helicopters with the smaller MH-60S Sea Hawk. The latter has considerably less endurance and equipment lift capacity than the MH-53E, and also lacks the big bird's night-flying capability.

The U.S. Navy has long employed minesweeping helicopters, which can be rapidly flown to forward areas with their support gear and put to sea in a variety of ships, especially amphibious helicopter carriers (LPH/LHA/LHD). They have bene used in several areas over the years, including North Vietnam waters at the end of the Vietnam War.

While the U.S. Navy has long shown a lack of interest in mine warfare, the situation was recently exacerbated by the merger of what had been a separate Mine Warfare Command with the recently established anti-submarine training command to form the Naval Mine and Anti-Submarine Warfare Command with headquarters in San Diego. Despite official Navy statements to the contrary, the merger in reality subordinates mine warfare interests to the larger, broader, and more-visible ASW community. This is particularly true as the Navy sounds the alarm about the increasing Chinese submarine capabilities with hardly a mention of that nation's mine warfare activities.

-- Norman Polmar

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