PANAMA CITY /PALM BEACH, FLA
Is mine warfare like ballistic missile defense? You betcha! And harder, too, the U.S. Navy brass says, because you have to do countermine operations in a more challenging undersea environment.
“I’ve been in acquisition now for 17 years,” says Capt. John Ailes, who recently was selected to be a rear admiral and is currently in charge of Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) mission package integration.
“My first job was ballistic missile defense (BMD),” he says. “Mine warfare—and nobody would ever think this—is very similar to ballistic missile defense in this way: it’s all about discrimination. What’s the target? In BMD you try to figure out the re-entry vehicle. They use penetration aids and all kinds of things to confuse you.”
But, he contends, “In mine warfare, the environment provides that free. It’s even more complex. You’ve got trash cans and buoys and various things that have been thrown overboard by ships and the natural contour of the bottom. You’re trying to figure which is a mine and which is not. And mines are in different parts of the water. Some are at the tippity top, some in the middle, some are at the bottom.”
These comments from the admiral-to-be came in late July during an exclusive set of briefings and tours of Navy and Lockheed Martin facilities on both sides of Florida that support LCS mission packages and modules.
There are those both inside and outside of the Navy who say the service is making a big deal about mine warfare now to help support the case for LCS. Whether that’s true is beside the point; developing better countermine tools is the issue here and it’s clear the Navy has become serious about that task.
"Since World War II, mines had damaged more U.S. warships than missiles, guns and bombs combined,” says author Bradley Peniston in his 2006 book, “No Higher Honor: Saving the USS Samuel B Roberts In the Persian Gulf. “Yet the Navy still afforded its surface combatants no mine-detection gear more sophisticated than a pair of binoculars and a sharp-eyed lookout.”
Well, the Navy is certainly working on much more sophisticated equipment now. Aviation Week Intelligence Network subscribers can look for more on that in the coming weeks. For now, though, it’s important to discuss why mine warfare is so hard, but necessary.
As Ailes puts it, mine warfare is a game of risk. “In naval lore, we always talk about Adm. Farragut: ‘Damn the torpedoes, full-speed ahead!’ The torpedoes he was talking about were mines. I always thought he was an idiot – Oh my god, you’re going to kill everything. How brave was that?”
But, he says, “In talking to the mine people, he actually had a good idea of how reliable the mines were. He knew how long they lasted; he knew when they were planted. You know what – it’s balanced risk.”
Peter Adair, head of the analysis and tactics division for the Panama City Naval Surface Warfare Center, says, “It’s all about statistics. What percentage of the time are the mines going to be buried? Tons of clutter make it more difficult to find the mines. When you find a mine it won’t be in the same location if there’s a current moving back and forth. There’s the depth, the visibility, sea state, biologics. Does a turtle look like mine? Sea grass, kelp – these are factors you have to account for when I estimate how long it will take to clear an area.”
He notes, “The acquisition community has defined how fast you can do all of this, to find that mine and ensure that this area is clear of mines from top to bottom. That’s what we’re doing on the analysis side: predicting, based on test data, how fast can I clear this volume of water. You like to know where they’re putting mines in, but you don’t always know where they are.”
The suspicion of a mine is like a bomb threat, he says. “It’s ‘all stop.’ There’s a mine out there. You have all of these systems come in and try to find … the mine, which is not radiating a signal.
“The ASW [anti-submarine warfare] community complains about these small diesel subs because they’re so quiet. That’s like mine warfare, but the mines are even smaller,” Adair says.
But unlike subs and ballistic missiles, mines are very affordable, and relatively easy to get. “They’re highly prolific,” Adair says. “They still have inventory from World War II mines – very simple, contact mines that can last. There are no batteries, just the chemical charge. It’s an asymmetric threat [that costs] orders of magnitude [less than] the cost of what it can do to a ship.”
Worse, many countermine operations involve putting ships, sailors and divers right in a mine field – a potentially deadly scenario. The new toolkit being developed by the Navy would change that.
Still, in mine warfare, nothing is 100%. It’s just too hard and costly to prove the ultimate negative. The countermine operators can only say that a certain area is mostly clear of mines.
With BMD, you see the kill – you can tell when the skies are clear. With mine warfare, it’s impossible to see so clearly.
“You can’t say with confidence that it is completely clear because you’ll be searching forever,” Adair says. “It’s a game of risk. How confident do you want to be?”