The U.S. Navy got a lot of press in 2017, and a lot of it was negative. In the Pacific, there were two incidents where U.S. Navy ships collided with civilian vessels, and as a result 17 American Sailors lost their lives. In the wake of these incidents, report after report has come out detailing how the U.S. Navy’s surface fleet is overworked and overwhelmed.
After the collisions, several U.S. Navy commanders lost their jobs, and charges were filed against five Navy officers for offenses ranging up to negligent homicide. This is an almost unprecedented move, and the Navy is attempting to both satisfy the public outcry and remedy the training and readiness shortfalls that have plagued the surface warfare community for some time.
The point isn’t to shame Navy leadership, but rather to point out that the Navy’s surface fleet is terribly overworked. As a nation we are asking them to do too much. Reports show that while underway, Sailors typically work 18-hour days, and fatigue has been cited as a major factor in the collisions. While there may be a desire to generate more overall mine warfare capacity, it is unrealistic to expect the rest of the surface fleet to assume any additional burden for this mission area.
The surface fleet needs to refocus its training and resources on warfighting and lethality. Of all of its currently assigned missions, mine warfare in particular could be transferred to a seabed-specific command.
A Seabed Command would focus entirely on seabed warfare. It could unite many of the currently disparate functions found within the surface, EOD, aviation, and oceanographic communities. Its purview would include underwater surveying and bathymetric mapping, search and recovery, placing and finding mines, testing and operating unmanned submersibles, and developing future technologies that will place the U.S. on the forefront of future seabed battlegrounds.
Why It Is Important
The seabed is the final frontier of the battlespace. Even low earth and geosynchronous orbits have plenty of military satellites, whether they are for communication or surveillance, but the seabed, except for mines and a few small expeditionary vessels, remains largely unexplored.
There are several reasons for this. For one, it’s hard to access. While the U.S. Navy has a few vehicles and systems that allow for deployment to deep depths, the majority of the seabed remains inaccessible, at least not quickly. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this hasn’t been a huge problem. Except for in rare cases of submarine rescue, there has been little need for the Navy to deploy forces to extreme depths.
That is changing. Secretary of Defense Mattis has made it clear that in the coming years, threats from nations such as Russia and China will make conventional forces more relevant than they have been in the past 20 years. It is imperative that the U.S. Navy has a solution to rapidly deploy both offensive and defensive forces to the seabed, because right now it can’t.
While mine-hunting robots have been deployed to Arleigh Burke destroyers, it seems unlikely that in a full-scale war the Navy will be able to direct these assets to work full-time at seabed warfare. After all, they’re too valuable. The Arleigh Burke destroyer proved its mettle in Iraq; being able to place cruise missiles through the window of a building certainly has a deterrent effect. But this also means that any attempts to add mine warfare to the destroyers’ responsibilities will be put on the back burner, and that will allow enemies to gain an advantage on the U.S. Navy.
There is simply a finite amount of time, and the Sailors underway cannot possibly add yet more tasks to their already overflowing plate. It would take a great deal of time for Sailors onboard the destroyers to train and drill on seabed warfare, and that’s time they just don’t have. No matter how many ways you look at it, the surface fleet is already working at capacity.
What is needed is a new naval command, equipped with its own fleet of both littoral and deep-water ships and submarines, which focuses entirely on seabed warfare.
In this new command, littoral ships, like the new Freedom Class LCS, will be responsible for near shore seabed activities. This includes clearing friendly harbors of mines, placing mines in enemy harbors, searching for enemy submarines near the coast, and denying the enemy the ability to reach friendly seabeds.
The deep-water component will be equipped with powerful new technology that can seek out, map, and cut or otherwise exploit the enemy’s undersea communications cables on the ocean floor, while at the same time monitor, defend, maintain, and repair our own. It will also deploy stand-off style torpedo pods near enemy shipping lanes; they will be tasked with dominating the seabeds past the 12 nautical mile limit.
We have to be prepared to think of the next war between the U.S. and its enemies as total war. Supplies and the transfer of supplies between enemy countries will be a prime target for the U.S. Navy. We have to assume that in a full nation vs. nation engagement, the submarines, surface ships, aircraft carriers, and land-based aircraft will be needed elsewhere. Even if they are assigned to engage enemy shipping, there are just not enough platforms to hold every area at risk and still service the required targets.
For example, the U.S. will need the fast attacks to insert Special Forces troops, especially since the appetite to employ the Special Forces community has grown in the last 20 years. They will also be needed to do reconnaissance and surveillance. Likewise, the aircraft carriers will have their hands full executing strike missions, providing close air support to ground troops, working to achieve air superiority, and supporting Special Forces missions. Just like the surface fleet is today, the submarine fleet and the aircraft carriers will be taxed to their limit during an all-out war.
That’s why a seabed-specific command is needed to make the most of the opportunities in this domain while being ready to confront an adversary ready to exploit the seabed. Suppose that during a total war, the Seabed Command could place underwater torpedo turrets on the seabed floor, and control them remotely. A dedicated command could place, operate, and service these new weapons, freeing up both the surface and the submarine fleets to pursue other operations. Under control of Seabed Command, these cheap, unmanned torpedo launchers could wait at the bottom until an enemy sonar contact was identified and then engage. Just like pilots flying the MQ-9 Reaper control the aircraft from thousands of miles away, Sailors based in CONUS could operate these turrets remotely. Even the threat of these underwater torpedo pods would be enough to at least change the way an adversary ships crucial supplies across the ocean. If the pods were deployed in remote areas, it would force the enemy to attempt to shift shipping closer to the coast, where U.S. airpower could swiftly interdict.
The final component of Seabed Command would be a small fleet of submarines, equipped for missions like undersea rescue, repair, and reconnaissance. The submarines would also host saturation diving capabilities, enabling the delivery of personnel and equipment to the seafloor. Because these assets are only tasked with seabed operations, the Sailors would receive unique training that would make them specialists in operating in this unforgiving environment.
A brand new Seabed Command and fleet is order. It will be made up of both littoral and deep water surface ships, unmanned torpedo turrets that can be deployed to the ocean floor and operated from a remote base, and a small fleet of submarines specially equipped for seabed operations.
The U.S. Navy cannot rely on the surface warfare community to complete this mission; they are simply too busy as it is. While the submarine force might also seem like a logical choice, in a full-on nation vs. nation war, their top priorities will not be seabed operations. Only a standalone command and fleet will ensure America’s dominance at crush depth.
Joseph LaFave is a journalist covering the defense contracting industry, defense trends, and the Global War on Terror. He is a graduate of Florida State University and was an engineer at Lockheed Martin.
Featured Image: ROV Deep Discoverer investigates the geomorphology of Block Canyon (NOAA)
“A ‘capital ship,’ rightly understood, is a ship type that can defeat any other ship type. In the days of sail and dreadnoughts, it was the type of ship having the most and biggest guns. It is the ship type around which fleet doctrine and fleet architecture are established. The question is what kind of killing weapon the capital ship supports.” —Robert Rubel1
The Navy’s Strategic Studies Group 35 concluded the “Navy’s next capital ship will not be a ship. It will be the Network of Humans and Machines, the Navy’s new center of gravity, embodying a superior source of combat power.”2
Such a network could consist of networks of sea mine swarms and their support ships. Networked sea mine swarms could converge on masses of adversary ships, bringing to bear overwhelming force. The visibility of surface support ships would enable the network to generate conventional deterrence by signaling the swarm’s presence, while helping maintain the swarm itself.3 The history of mine warfare suggests swarming sea mines could deliver a decisive force.
Sea mines can already inflict significant damage on all other types of ship, including capital ships.4 On April 14, 1988, a single contact mine nearly sank the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG 58), causing over $96 million in damage.5 Since World War II, mines have seriously damaged or sunk 15 U.S. ships, nearly four times more than all other threats combined.6 However, unlike aircraft carriers and other capital ships, traditional sea mines offer little ability to project power and, once identified, can be avoided.
But what if sea mines could move themselves intelligently and coordinate their actions? They could rove the seas in advance of friendly fleet movements and position themselves into an adversary’s path. Multiple mines could strike a single target. Naval mines could become a critical aspect of seapower. Networks of naval mine swarms could become the future capital ship.
Swarming sea mines can do exactly that.
Swarming Sea Mines: The Concept
Swarming sea mines consist of interconnected, undersea drones dispersed over an area. Drones within the swarm communicate with one another to coordinate their actions. Sensor drones7 within the swarm disperse, broadly searching for incoming targets. Sensor drones relay information to attack drones to engage an adversary vessel, or stand down to allow a friendly vessel to pass.
Attack drones may be either undersea turrets or free-roaming munitions. As undersea turrets, attack drones serve as platforms for launching torpedoes or other munitions. Input from sensor drones informs the trajectory for launch. As a free-roaming munition, an attack drone functions like a traditional sea mine. Using on-board propulsion systems, the attack drone maneuvers to the adversary vessel and detonates in proximity.
Interconnectivity enables swarming attacks. Multiple attack drones may launch attacks from different directions. This increases the likelihood of successfully sinking an adversary ship because (1) strikes hit different parts of the adversary hull and (2) it enables multiple strikes on the same target, putting at risk larger ships that may survive a single detonation. Interconnectivity could also enable networks of sea mine swarms to coordinate strikes, significantly increasing the number of attack drones. Such a capability would be useful in attacking an adversary fleet, with multiple swarms coordinating target selection.
As the size of the swarm grows, so too does its combat power. Larger swarms mean more sensors in the network and more munitions to overwhelm targets. The Department of Defense (DoD) recently fielded a swarm of 103 aerial drones.8 China also reportedly fielded a swarm of 1,000 aerial drones.7 In theory, a sea mine swarm could consist of tens of thousands of interconnected mines, able to overwhelm any target. The primary limitation on swarm growth is the capacity to manage the rapidly increasing complexity of drone information exchange.
Strategically, swarming sea mines could play the same roles as traditional sea mines. Sea mines may be used to control critical chokepoints. During the Iran-Iraq war, Iran seeded the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz with Soviet contact mines.9 Alternatively, they could be used to inhibit amphibious forces attempting to come ashore. During the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War, Iraq deployed sea mines to limit coalition forces’ ability to launch an amphibious assault.10 Similarly, during the Korean War, North Korean mining of Wonsan Harbor “prevented over 50,000 U.S. Marines from coming ashore and allowed the North Koreans to withdraw their forces.”11 However, swarming sea mines can play additional roles, such as protecting friendly vessels.
Advantages over Traditional Mines
Swarming sea mines have qualitatively better capabilities. Compared to traditional mines, swarming sea mines have drastically increased the threat through autonomous movement, broad area coverage, and information integration.
Advances in robotics enable unmanned systems to maneuver and act without human decision-making.13 DoD’s Perdix drone swarm shares a “distributed brain” to make decisions and react to the environment.14 The swarm fully controls its own behavior without human direction, other than setting broad mission goals. Other autonomous systems such as the South Korean SGR-A1 gun turret can reportedly identify and engage targets.15 Although DoD policy does not allow autonomous weapons systems to select humans as targets, traditional sea mines already autonomously engage targets.16
Maneuverability enhances the psychological effects of minefields. Fear over encountering a minefield can affect behavior without inflicting damage. Once a vessel passes through a traditional minefield, it is often safe. However, a swarming minefield may move to a new area, adding new uncertainties.
Greater maneuverability enables drone-based naval mines to incorporate automated retreat rules. For example, after a specified time, drones may disarm and leave the area. Friendly vessels may then retrieve and redeploy them in another location. For traditional naval mines, retrieval is a highly fraught task because a retrieving vessel may inadvertently detonate the mine. Emplaced mines cannot be reused; swarming sea mines can.
Autonomous decision-making would enable swarming sea mines to identify and respond to changes in environmental conditions that could mitigate their effects. With traditional bottom mines on the seafloor, strong tides and currents can shift the mines.17 Swarming mines could recognize this shift and adjust.
Autonomous movement is a significant departure from the capabilities of traditional naval mines. While some advanced mobile mines such as the MK 67 Submarine-Laid Mobile Mine can be placed from afar, the MK 67 remains in place.18 Other naval mines are able to move with the current. None of these mines can position themselves intelligently.
The inter-connectivity of a drone swarm enables naval mines to integrate information from many different sensors. Sensor drones could incorporate traditional influence sensors, including magnetic, acoustic, and seismic sensors.19 Data from multiple sensors may be shared to minimize false positives. Sensor drones may roam freely, studying an area for potential targets, creating greater situational awareness. Alternatively, buried sensor drones could enable live battle-damage assessment. If an adversary vessel survives an initial strike, additional attackers may be called to follow and engage.
Swarming naval mines may be connected into broader intelligence and surveillance networks. Information from these networks could enable the swarm minefield to reposition based on adversary behavior. For example, naval intelligence may identify an adversary vessel about to enter a given area and relay that information to the drone swarm to maneuver into the vessel’s path.
While traditional naval mines are already capable of incorporating multiple sensors to prevent false positives, they are unable to share information with one another.20
Broad Area Coverage
Maneuverability and information integration would enable swarming sea mines to greatly increase the threatened area. Sensor drones can disperse broadly to provide maximum situational awareness. Information may then be relayed to other drones to engage an incoming target.
Like attack drones, sensor drones may be free roaming or stationary, though there are trade-offs. Free-roaming sensor drones may actively search an area looking for targets. This enables much broader coverage; however, communication ranges may limit the distance they can travel. Stationary sensing drones may float near the surface or bury themselves in the seafloor. Sensor drones that bury themselves minimize the profile presented to adversaries, lowering detectability. However, stationary drones lose the benefits of mobility, providing less area coverage.
The increased area coverage is efficient because fewer munitions would be required to control a given area. Mines will take up less space on friendly vessels while having the same impact. This is especially important for submarine-launched mines, because submarines have very limited storage capacity. Currently, to equip submarines with mines requires removing torpedoes at the rate of one torpedo for every two mines.21
Despite these significant advantages, however, operationalizing the concept entails some significant challenges. None of these challenges appears insurmountable, and work is already being done to address them, but they must be considered for concept viability and to realize the benefits of swarming.
The ability of the swarm to function as a unit depends on drone communication. Underwater, this is a major challenge. Traditional communication methods are often based on electromagnetic transmissions that are ineffective underwater.22 Underwater communications must rely on acoustic communication, which is slower, has small bandwidth, and has high error rates.23 The lack of electromagnetic communication also prevents drones from using GPS guidance for coordination and localization.
Initial research points to the inclusion of relays and surface-based control drones as a solution (see footnote 5 for a brief typology of drone archetypes). To address the lack of underwater GPS penetration, Jules Jaffe and his research team incorporated GPS-localized surface buoys that emit acoustic signals.24 Their underwater drones passively receive the buoy’s signals and, based on the known location of the surface floats, determine their own location.25 Similarly, Thomas Schmickl and his research team use a “surface base station” emitting an acoustic signal for localization and establishing boundaries to ensure no drone gets lost in the ocean’s expanse.26 The station also receives status updates from the swarm, such as task completion.
From a military perspective, a surface control drone may be undesirable because it could be identified and targeted, neutralizing the minefield. To prevent this, control drones could be underwater with a GPS periscope extending above the surface to receive and transmit signals. Alternatively, swarms could incorporate redundant control drones. If one is eliminated, the minefield stays live.
More broadly, the underwater environment creates difficulties in countering adversary attempts to disrupt communications. An adversary is likely to target inter-swarm communication because if communications are disrupted, so too is the swarm.27 Unfortunately, the properties of underwater communication mean terrestrial jamming detection technologies do not operate effectively.28
Tethering and Reseeding
Reseeding a minefield is often a significant challenge. If most mines have detonated, the minefield offers little utility. Adding mines in hostile terrain while incur risk such as on January 18, 1991 when Iraqi forces shot down a mine-dropping A-6 aircraft.29 The mobility of drone swarms diminishes some of this challenge because the drones may be deployed from afar to move into position.
Reseeded mines must also tether to the swarm’s network. An added attack drone needs to integrate with the other attackers and with the broader sensor network. Reseeded drones need to recognize that they are a part of the minefield’s network and vice versa. It also requires the distributed brain of the swarm to incorporate the new drones into task assignment and overall control.30
Coordinated re-positioning removes some difficulty. If few attack drones have been destroyed, the other drones can fill any gaps. However, as the losses grow larger, or if the swarm had few attackers to begin with, adding attackers becomes a greater challenge.
The availability of power limits swarm operations. On-board power is required to maintain communications, use propulsion systems, and operate and interpret the results of sensing systems. These requirements limit the amount of time the swarm can pose a threat.
One possible solution is sea-based charging facilities. Support ships could be created whose primary role is to recharge undersea drones, including swarming sea mines. They could also be used for swarm maintenance, reseeding the swarm, or long-range transportation. Alternatively, the Navy’s work on unmanned undersea pods could allow for undersea recharging.31 This would likely be most useful for mining friendly territory because the pods would need to be pre-positioned and adversaries could target them. As swarm size increases, so too will this challenge. Large swarms may also encounter queuing problems if only a few drones can charge simultaneously. Regardless of the solution, time spent traveling to and from recharging facilities also limits time in a mission area.
A 2001 National Research Council study painted a bleak picture of U.S. naval mine warfare: “The current U.S. naval mining capability is in woefully bad shape with small inventories, old and discontinued mines, insufficient funding for maintenance of existing mines, few funded plans for future mine development (and none for acquisition), declining delivery assets, and a limited minefield planning capability in deployed battle groups.”32 This holds true today: the Navy’s FY17 to FY21 budget anticipates spending only $29.4 million on acquiring offensive mines.33 Similarly, the FY17 to FY21 budget for the Navy’s only research and development program for mine systems is $56.9 million.34 All new mine development is relegated to converting Submarine-Laid Mobile Mine warheads for underwater drone delivery.
If networked swarms of sea mines represent the Navy’s future capital ship, that picture must be repainted. Drastically.
Zachary Kallenborn is a Senior Associate Analyst at ANSER pursuing broad research into the military implications of drone swarms.
The author would also like to thank Jerry Driscoll, Steve Dunham, and Keith Sauls for providing useful comments and edits on a draft of the article. Needless to say, any issues or mistakes are the author’s own.
The views herein are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the institutional position of ANSER or its clients.
3. John Fleming notes the importance of visibility in conventional deterrence in John Fleming, “Capital Ships: a Historical Perspective,” Naval War College, July 12, 1993, 17, http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a266915.pdf
7. In general, there are four drone archetypes: Attacker, Sensor, Controller, and Decoy (the ASCDs). Attack drones carry munitions or are themselves munitions. Sensor drones provide information about the surrounding environment. Control drones manage the swarm’s behavior to ensure the swarm can operate together, providing direct leadership or ensuring the operation of communication channels. Decoy drones serve no role other than to increase the apparent size of the swarm, creating psychological effects, or drawing fire for functional drones. This framework is the author’s own; however, it is consistent with others such as Jeffrey Kline’s Shooter, Scout, and Commander. Jeffrey E. Kline, “Impacts of the Robotics Age on Naval Force Design, Effectiveness, and Acquisition,” Naval War College Review 70, Summer 2017, https://www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/db52797a-a972-44cd-951b-f2b847b193b3/Impacts-of-the-Robotics-Age-on-Naval-Force-Design,.aspx.
18. National Research Council, Committee for Mine Warfare Assessment, “Naval Mine Warfare: Operational and Technical Challenges for Naval Warfare,” Washington D.C.: National Academy Press, 2001, 58.
19. For additional details on mine actuation mechanisms, see “Mine Warfare,” section 126.96.36.199, “Influence Actuation Logic.”
20. “Mine Warfare.”
21. “Mine Warfare.”
22. John Heidemann, Milica Stojanovic, and Michele Zorzi, “Underwater Sensor Networks: Applications, Advances, and Challenges,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 370, January 2012, http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/370/1958/158.
23. Luiz Filipe M. Vieira, “Underwater Sensor Networks,” in Jonathan Loo, Jaime Lloret Mauri, and Jesus Hamilton Ortiz, Eds., Mobile Ad Hoc Networks: Current Status and Future Trends (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2012).
29. National Research Council, Committee for Mine Warfare Assessment, 2001, 18.
30. Some initial work has been done on scalable drone swarm control algorithms. See Payam Zahadat and Thomas Schmickl, “Division of Labor in a Swarm of Autonomous Underwater Robots by Improved Partitioning Social Inhibition,” Adaptive Behavior 24, 2016, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1059712316633028.
Since regaining their independence in the early 1990s, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have confronted the challenge of how to secure themselves with limited resources. Russian opposition to the Baltic States’ Western orientation has ensured that Moscow remains the primary threat. Since Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, the countries have become more concerned about their eastern neighbor’s intentions.
During the 1990s, the Baltic States considered three major security policy options: neutrality (Russia’s stated preference); trilateral alliance and close military cooperation with the Nordic states; and working to join NATO and the European Union.1 With a political desire to rejoin the West and ongoing suspicion of Russia, all three countries made joining Western institutions their primary goal. They achieved membership in both organizations in 2004.
With NATO’s Article V collective defense guarantee in hand, the Baltic States were free to choose their own paths to meeting their alliance obligations and homeland defense needs. Estonia has maintained a focus on territorial defense, retaining conscription and large reserves to defend the homeland, while actively participating in NATO and U.S.-led operations with its small active-duty forces. Lithuania followed a middle ground, tailoring some of its forces for missions abroad, while retaining some territorial defense capability. Latvia elected to rely almost entirely on NATO for deterrence, ensuring its forces are fully interoperable and available for alliance operations. Latvia and Lithuania both ended conscription to concentrate on professional forces. The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 refocused all three countries on homeland defense, with Latvia and Lithuania re-emphasizing territorial defense capabilities. Lithuania has decided to resume conscription for at least the next five years.
All three Baltic States have focused their naval capabilities on mine countermeasures. This specialization is seen as a concrete way to contribute to NATO missions despite limited resources and to address regional maritime security concerns. The Baltic Sea contains thousands of mines and munitions left over from World Wars I and II, which continue to be cleaned up during NATO and other exercises. Additional capabilities are retained for lower-end homeland security missions.
The threat of Russian ground invasion has been the primary occupation of Baltic military establishments. All three countries nevertheless have significant coastlines on the Baltic Sea with the accompanying maritime security and defense concerns. These include search-and-rescue, exclusive economic zone security, combating smuggling, the threat of amphibious assault, and hostile submarines. The focus on land threats, expense of naval combat platforms, and limited resources have so far prevented the countries from acquiring or maintaining significant naval capabilities. What follows is an analysis of each Baltic State’s respective naval capabilities followed by trends in their combined missions and activities.
Estonia focuses its naval forces almost exclusively on mine countermeasures. The current national defense plan, which runs through 2022, calls for modernizing its three Admiral Cowan-class (former British Sandown–class) minehunters, developing its diver group, and maintaining the auxiliary vessel Tasuja (ex-Danish Lindormen–class). The focus is on international military missions, particularly with Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Groups (SNMCG). Local maritime security is left to other agencies.
The Police and Border Guard is responsible for surveillance, border protection, search-and-rescue (SAR) and pollution control operations.2The Navy does not participate in such missions, but can be tasked for SAR as needed.
The Maritime Administration provides navigational security, including sea charts, hydrography, icebreaking, and maintaining a vessel traffic service. Fisheries protection is the responsibility of the Ministry of Environment, although it makes use of Police and Border Guard assets.
A 2016 report found that Estonia’s maritime security suffered from institutional fragmentation and a lack of maritime situational awareness.3 Insufficient investment and poor delineation of responsibilities left the country without the ability to identify or precisely locate unknown vessels within its waters. Should a vessel be identified as hostile, Estonia lacks the ability to engage it.
The divide between the navy and border guard has been exacerbated by domestic politics, including constraints on using defense assets for constabulary duties. The border guard has also benefited from EU investment, which cannot be used for military purposes.
With the appropriate investments, these problems could be resolved within 15 years, says the aforementioned report. This would require institutional reform and significant funding for coastal radars, additional patrol craft, helicopters, coastal defense missile batteries. It remains to be seen if the Estonian government will move forward on these proposals. Until then, it will remain vulnerable to maritime threats.
Latvia has a significant mine-hunting capability with a fleet of five Imanta-class (former Dutch Alkmaar class) mine countermeasures ships for NATO operations. Riga also cooperates with Lithuania on mine warfare as part of the Baltic Squadron (BALTRON) program. Estonia withdrew from the unit in 2015 as it refocused its resources on its own minesweeping capabilities.4
Latvia has invested in additional multi-role and patrol capabilities with its Skrunda-class patrol boats. Each features a modular mission bay capable of supporting missions such as mine countermeasures, environmental protection, or armament up to a 35-mm cannon. The Navy has also considered anti-submarine warfare and area air defense capabilities for the class.5 Latvia has also implemented a sea coastal surveillance system (SCSS) to improve maritime situational awareness.
The Latvian Coast Guard service, a component of the Navy, is in charge of search-and-rescue, environmental monitoring, and law enforcement in national waters. The Sea Coastal Surveillance Service monitors and surveys territorial waters. The Border Guard also operates some maritime assets for border protection.
As NATO has increased its presence in the Baltic States, Latvia has proposed that the alliance set up a naval facility in the former Soviet Navy base in Liepaja.6 This facility would create a steady NATO naval presence in the immediate region, enhancing maritime security and providing capabilities the Baltic States lack. Critics note that it might also be viewed as a provocation by Moscow. As it stands, little appears to have happened on this front. The focus continues to be on landward defense.
The Lithuanian Navy, as might be expected of the largest of the Baltic States, has the greatest capability. Mine warfare is a core asset, including two Kursis-class (ex-German Lindau–class) coastal minehunters and two Skalvis-class (ex-British Hunt class) minehunters and the support ship Jotvingis (ex-Norwegian Vidar class). It has a capable patrol squadron consisting of four Zemaitis-class patrol ships (ex-Danish Flyvefisken class). Lithuania acquired the fourth ship, the Selis, in November 2016, in an agreement that also covered two anti-submarine warfare sonars for other ships in the class. The acquisition permitted the decommissioning of the Navy’s last Dzukas-class (ex-Norwegian Storm-class) patrol craft. It may also have been inspired by the increasing Russian threat. The Zemaitis-class ships provide the greatest combat capability of any in Baltic naval service, with modern combat management systems and a 76-mm main gun.
The Lithuanian Navy has been described as the most balanced of the three Baltic naval services. It is tasked with monitoring and defending national waters as well as performing search-and-rescue and other maritime security missions. The sea and coastal surveillance service and maritime rescue coordination center are under the command of the navy. The Border Guard Service provides air assets for SAR operations, since the Navy does not maintain its own.
Combined Maritime Capabilities
The Baltic States face a challenging maritime environment. Russia is stepping up its operations, including increased air activity and deploying to the region two Grad Sviyazshk-class patrol craft, equipped with long-range Kalibr cruise missiles.7 For the most part, the countries lack the resources to defend themselves against serious naval threats without significant NATO assistance. All are increasing defense spending (Estonia already meets NATO’s 2 percent GDP threshold and Latvia and Lithuania are expected to reach it within the next few years), though ground capabilities remain the priority.
Russia’s capability to potentially control airspace in the region, to include fighter jets and long-range surface-to-air missile systems, poses an additional threat. NATO currently maintains an air-policing capability stationed at air bases in Estonia and Lithuania. Otherwise, the alliance is reliant on assets outside of the immediate region. The Baltic States lack significant air defense capabilities, although talks are underway on a joint procurement of NASAMS surface-to-air missile systems. Their naval platforms are without any such protection.
All three face a number of capability gaps. None has a significant naval combat capability. The Lithuanian navy is the only with ships with naval guns of any size. A mobile coastal missile capability is seen as needed by some. Elsewhere in the region, Sweden has been refurbishing its RBS 15 missile batteries, while Poland has purchased the Norwegian Naval Strike Missile. A joint procurement of such a capability by the three countries could address financial and logistics concerns.
Mine warfare is another gap. Lacking sea control capabilities, strengthening sea denial is an option for bolstering defenses. Finland has expertise in minelaying and could be a valuable partner.
Given recent incidents in Swedish and Finnish waters, some sort of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability may also be required. Lithuania is upgrading the ASW capability on its Zemaitis-class boats, while Latvia could seek such a capability for its Skrunda-class patrol craft. As unmanned systems improve, this could be another avenue for these countries to obtain an affordable ASW capability in the future.
The Baltic States also participate in wider maritime surveillance activities in the region, namely the Sea Surveillance Cooperation Baltic Sea (SUCBAS) program. This includes all of the states that border the Baltic Sea, except for Russia. The participants exchange information on vessel data, technical sea surveillance and views on related issues. There is also cooperation at the European Union level.
Despite the similarities of their challenges, the Baltic States have mostly gone their own way on naval policy. Each has a different concept for their navy and maritime security agencies, with cooperation among the states mostly limited to mine countermeasures capabilities. They have not pursued the potential for joint procurement of naval capabilities.
In this new strategic environment, the Baltic States must think carefully about how to maximize their assets, including how border and coast guard services should be utilized in a high-threat scenario. Improving coordination domestically and with their neighbors will enhance security beyond the Russian threat.
Any significant changes will take time to implement. With the increased visibility of potential threats domestically, now seems an opportune time to begin making the necessary investments. By better securing their maritime holdings and strengthening naval defenses, the Baltic States will make a useful contribution to the overall defense of the region in support of NATO and EU objectives.
Jeremiah Cushman is a senior analyst at Military Periscope, where he writes about weapons. He holds a BA in International Relations from Boston University and an MA in European and Eurasian Studies from the George Washington University, where a focused on European security and the Baltic States.
1. “Between continuation and adaptation: The Baltic states’ security policy and armed forces,” Piotr Szymanski, Center for Eastern Policy (Warsaw, Poland), Nov. 24, 2015.
2. “Cooperation Of Coast Guards And Navies In Baltic Sea Region,” Lt. Cmdr. Taavi Urb, National Defence Academy of Latvia (Riga), April 10, 2011.
3. “The State Needs Warships, Helicopters And Coastal Radar Network,” Oliver Kund, Postimees (Tallinn), Dec. 27, 2016.
4. “Estonia To Withdraw From Baltic Naval Squadron,” Estonian Public Radio, Jan. 8, 2015.
5. “The Commanders Respond: Latvian Navy,” Capt. Rimants Strimaitis, Proceedings, March 2012.
6. “Latvia’s Push For A NATO Naval Base,” Elisabeth Braw, World Affairs Journal, June 21, 2016.
7. “Russia Beefs Up Baltic Fleet Amid NATO Tensions,” Andrew Osborn and Simon Johnson, Reuters, Oct. 26, 2016.
Featured: Featured Image: Estonian Defense Forces, 17 April 2009. (Estonia Ministry of Defense)
This commentary is based on Dr. Truver’s remarks at the Future Strategy Forum 2016, Undersea Warfare panel, hosted by the Center for Naval Analyses, 5-6 December 2016.
By Scott C. Truver, Ph.D.
Winston Churchill observed, “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”
Looking backward, it usually comes as a surprise to learn that of the 19 U.S. Navy ships that have been seriously damaged or sunk by enemy action since the end of World War II, 15 – nearly 80 percent – were mine victims.
This vulnerability to mines has catalyzed the U.S. Navy to spend many hundreds of millions of dollars to counter a global threat that includes more than a million sea mines of more than 300 types in the inventories of more than 50 navies worldwide, not counting underwater IEDs that can be fashioned from virtually any container. More than 30 countries produce and more than 20 countries export mines. World-War I-era contact weapons bristling with “horns” can be as dangerous as highly sophisticated, computer-programmable, multi-influence mines that fire from the magnetic, acoustic, seismic, and pressure signatures of their victims. Ask Captain Paul Rinn, commanding officer of the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts, how a mine designed in 1908 can ruin your day.
Of particular concern are the mining capabilities of potential adversaries:
Russia reportedly has about a quarter-million mines
China, 80,000 to 100,000 mines
North Korea, perhaps 50,000 mines
Iran, 3,000 to 6,000 mines
Instead of discussing countermeasures to adversary weapons, this analysis is about our mines and mining in late 2016, how they might contribute to the Navy’s strategy, and where innovation might be leading us.
America’s mines have been a factor in virtually every conflict since Ezra Lee navigated David Bushnell’s Turtle in a frustrated attempt to screw a “torpedo” – today what we would call a limpet mine – into the hull of Lord Howe’s flagship HMS Eagle in New York harbor on 6 September 1776. Therefore, it is not too much of a stretch to say that U.S. undersea warfare began with an IED/mine “event.”
Leaping over two centuries of U.S. Navy mine warfare history, during the Cold War, the Navy maintained a large stock of bottom mines for offense and defense. Several types of anti-submarine and anti-surface ship mines deployed by submarines and aircraft entered service in the 1950s and 1960s.
Later, mine inventories included Mark 36/40/41 Destructor shallow-water general-purpose 500/1,000/2,000-pound bombs fitted with mine target detection devices; the Destructor mines first deployed in 1967 and saw wide employment at sea and on land during the Vietnam War – some 11,000 DSTs were laid along jungle trails. The Mark 60 deepwater CAPTOR – enCAPsulated TORpedo – that encapsulated Mark 46 torpedoes within mine cases entered service in 1976, intended to block the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) gap to Soviet submarines in the event that deterrence failed. This was soon followed by the Mark 67 submarine-launched mobile mine – SLMM – that entered service in 1983 and could be covertly laid in vital areas.
But with the end of the Cold War, the Navy’s mine capabilities began to atrophy. Today, no conventional mines remain in service, the CAPTORs have been retired, and at one point the Navy had programmed the remaining obsolescent SLMMs to be phased out in 2012. Had that been carried out, our attack submarines would have had no mining capability at all. As it was, only direct intercession by CNO Admiral Greenert saved a handful of SLMMs until something better comes along, if it ever does given competing submarine missions and tasks.
The only other mines in service in 2016 are the Quickstrike series of aircraft-deployed, general-purpose-bomb-converted Mark 62 500- and Mark 63 1,000-pound weapons (in service since 1980), and the dedicated, thin-wall Mark 65 2,300-pound bottom mine (in service since 1983).
Remarkably, the Navy has not introduced a new mine in almost 35 years, but not without the mine warfare community trying. Various concepts for littoral sea mines were suggested in the 1990s and early 2000s – one had the U.S. Navy collaborating with the Royal Navy, and the U.S. submarine force looked into a dual-purpose convertible Mark 48 heavyweight torpedo/mine – but these were ultimately not pursued.
Even upgrades to existing mines proved to be a hard sell. Work on the “next-generation” computer-programmable Mark 71 target detection device for the Quickstrikes began in 1991, but initial procurement began more than two decades later. Other priorities competed for attention and scarce resources.
That is revealed by Navy budgets since the fall of the Berlin Wall: on average less than one percent of Navy Total Obligational Authority has been spent on MIW, total, and the author believes mine programs get maybe five percent of that.
Even if resources could be found, however, the availability of aircraft, airborne tankers, and defensive escorts for mining campaigns is uncertain. There will certainly be intense competition for such aircraft in future crises and conflicts.
The 1991 Gulf War was the last time that the Navy deployed mines in combat. Four A-6 Intruders planted a tactical minefield of Quickstrikes at the mouth of the Kwahr az-Zubayr River to deny Iraqi access to the northern Gulf. One aircraft was lost to ground fire, and there were no indications that the mines actually sank or damaged any vessel. Aircraft-deployed Quickstrikes have less-than-optimal accuracy, even less precision, and are best deployed in less-than-contested environments and at dangerously low altitudes. Innovation in mines and mining directly addresses these operational challenges.
Reinvigorating the Mine Warfare Enterprise
As Major General Chris Owens, USMC, Director Expeditionary Warfare (N95) has underscored, “the strategic objective should be to make our adversaries worry about our mines as much as their weapons concern us.”
In September 2014, U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) demonstrated an extended-range Quickstrike-ER – a modification of the 500-pound winged Joint Direct-Attack Munition (JDAM-ER) – dropped from an Air Force B-52H bomber at 35,000 feet. According to Air Force Colonel Mike Pietrucha speaking at the Mine Warfare Association seminar in November 2016, this was the first-ever deployment of a precision, standoff aerial mine. A subsequent effort among PACOM, the Navy, and the Air Force successfully tested a 2,000-pound Quickstrike-J deployed by a B-52H.
“This effort marked the first advance in aerial mine delivery techniques since 1943,” Pietrucha continued, “and demonstrated a capability that substantially changes the potential of aerial mining in a threat environment.”
This QuickStrike/JDAM innovation could have a revolutionary impact on U.S. mines and mining, as Colonel Pietrucha underscored: “The mines have JDAM accuracy with respect to their selected impact point on the water surface, and the ability to place a 2,000-pound mine within six meters of a specified aimpoint on the bottom at ranges greater than 40 nautical miles is unprecedented.”
The takeaway from these tests is that any pilot trained for and any aircraft equipped to drop the JDAM can be a mine-layer, not just once, but many times. And, in the case of USAF bombers – our only high-volume mine layers – an entire minefield can be laid in a single pass without directly overflying the minefield.
Important for a Navy warfare area that sees its weapons and systems delivery stalled, Pietrucha noted, “Both variants are assembled entirely out of components already in the U.S. inventory, making these weapons possible without a protracted acquisition process.” The JDAM conversion kit costs about $20,000.
Future Smart Mines
Looking farther into the future, boffins at the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Navy’s Surface Warfare Center, Panama City (NSWC-PC) are working on several innovative advanced undersea warfare systems (AUWS) that can be delivered by unmanned surface or submarine vehicles.
In October 2014, Admiral James Winnefeld, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Panama City to learn more about remote-controllable “smart mine” innovations. In January 2015, he accompanied Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work to explore how future smart mines could contribute to the Third Offset Strategy. Responding to such high-level DoD interest and a mining joint emergent operational need statement, investment in AUWS and something called the Modular Undersea Effectors System – MUSE – is ramping up.
Panama City’s MUSE envisions innovative mining using “encapsulated effectors” to carry out important tasks, in addition to mining. The concept sees forward-deployed – on the seabed in international ocean space, much like SOSUS or CAPTORs – unmanned stationary nodes for remote or autonomous unmanned air/surface/undersea/seabed vehicles (UxVs) to populate the “encapsulated effectors.” These “effectors” include mines, torpedoes, missiles, decoys, jammers, communication nodes, electronic warfare payloads –virtually anything that can be packaged in UxVs and launched from seabed encapsulation nodes.
According to Panama City engineers, MUSE will be an “integral element of the kill web, offering distributed, forward, persistent, autonomous lethal and non-lethal undersea/seabed scalable effects across all phases of operations.” An encapsulated effector can achieve two orders of magnitude increase in effective range compared to Quickstrikes and SLMMs, greatly reducing the sortie burden on aircraft, submarines, or large UxVs.
The Navy intends to put in place an “Encapsulated Effector” program that would integrate the AUWS, MUSE and smart mine technologies into incrementally fielded capabilities. In short, the Navy’s mines and mining laboratory sees next-generation smart mines to be critical elements in what some observers call “sea-bed warfare”:
Deliverable by autonomous unmanned vehicles as well as manned aircraft, surface ships, and submarines
Remote controllable via wireless secure communications
Discriminating against an expanded target set
Churchill’s exhortation to look backward to see forward framed this discussion, so therefore, “Torpedoes [mines] are not so disagreeable when used on both sides,” Admiral David Farragut wrote to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles on 25 March 1864, several months before he damned the torpedoes in Mobile Bay, “therefore I have reluctantly brought myself to it. I have always deemed it unworthy of a chivalrous nation, but it does not do to give your enemy such a decided superiority over you.”
Perhaps with strong support and such asymmetric innovations as the extended-range JDAM-guided Quickstrike mines and MUSE, the U.S. Navy will enjoy “a decided superiority” over our adversaries – whether our mines are show stoppers or just speed bumps in future conflicts.
Scott Truver is a senior advisor to CNA and directs Gryphon Technologies’ TeamBlue national security programs.
Featured Image: BALTIC SEA (May 25, 2015) Members of a Latvian explosive ordnance disposal team use demolition charges to detonate a World War II-era German bottom-mine while conducting mine countermeasures operations in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Estonia during Exercise Open Spirit 2015. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Patrick A. Ratcliff/Released)