Tag Archives: Mine Warfare

Embracing an Unmanned Solution for the U.S. Navy’s Mine Warfare Renaissance

Mine Warfare Topic Week

By U.H. “Jack” Rowley and Craig Cates

Perspective

For those with stewardship of the U.S. Navy’s mine warfare capabilities, the old saying about meteorological phenomena rings true: “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” Over the past several decades, the U.S. Navy has articulated a commitment to delivering robust mine countermeasures assets to the Fleet. This “aspirational” vision has yet to be realized. That might have been enough when the United States was the sole superpower with unfettered access to the world’s oceans and the littorals, but today the Navy must accelerate its efforts to field effective mine countermeasures in an era of renewed great power competition.

As Dr. Sam Taylor, Senior Leader, Mine Warfare Program Executive Office, Unmanned and Small Combatants (PEO USC), articulated in his CIMSEC call for articles, Mine Countermeasures (MCM) is one of the most difficult and time-consuming missions for navies to successfully execute. And while the U.S. Navy has made some important strides, such as the MCM package aboard the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), the significance of the MCM mission provides both the impetus and opportunity to do much more.

In our collective Navy experience—spanning half a century—this is not a new issue for the U.S. Navy, but one it has struggled with for decades. We contend it is not for lack of want, or even a lack of funding (although MCM resourcing has lagged other procurement priorities), but rather, not having adequately mature technology to address the challenge.

As Dr. Taylor suggests, emerging technologies may offer the Navy the ability to bridge this gap and usher in a true “21st Century renaissance in MCM.” We have first-person experience with technologies that can be readily harnessed and can help the Navy up its MCM game today. We emphasize the near-term because the solution we suggest employs proven commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware and software that we believe can supply a robust MCM capability to the Navy without waiting for the lengthy planning, programming, budgeting, and execution process to deliver these assets years in the future.

Mine Countermeasures: Not a New Challenge

In terms of availability, variety, cost-effectiveness, ease of deployment and potential impact on naval expeditionary operations, mines are some of the most attractive weapons available to any adversary determined to prevent Joint or coalition forces from achieving access to sea lines of communications or the littorals.

In the past several decades, rogue states have indiscriminately employed sea mines. Libya used mines to disrupt commerce in the Gulf of Suez and the Strait of Bab el Mandeb. Iran laid mines to hazard military and commercial traffic in the Arabian Gulf and Gulf of Oman. During the Gulf War in 1990-1991, the threat of mines precluded the effective use of the Navy and Marine Corps expeditionary task force off the shores of Kuwait and hazarded all U.S. and coalition forces operating in the Arabian Gulf. The threat posed by mines was so extensive that clearance operations in this confined body of water were not completed until 1997.

Today, the threat posed by potential adversary mining capabilities is even greater. The number of countries with mines, mining assets, mine manufacturing capabilities, and the intention to export mines has grown dramatically over the past several decades. As of this writing, more than 50 countries possess mines and mining capability. Of these, 30 countries have demonstrated a mine production capability and 20 have attempted to export these weapons. In addition, the types, sophistication, and lethality of the mines available on the world market are rapidly increasing.

There is little doubt that adversary sea mines pose one of the most compelling challenges faced by the United States. It falls squarely on the U.S. Navy to provide the MCM capability to enable the Joint Force to operate forward in support of United States’ interests, as well as those of our allies and friends. Indeed, the U.S. Navy’s strategic document A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0 (Design 2.0) articulates the profoundly challenging strategic environment where peer competitors such as China and Russia and lesser (but more unstable) powers such as North Korea and Iran, have impressive naval mine inventories. Design 2.0 notes that, “It has been decades since we last competed for sea control, sea lines of communication and access to world markets.”1 One doesn’t have to be a Sun Tzu or Clausewitz to understand that the threat of naval mines is one of the key challenges that drives our emerging need to once again compete for freedom of movement on the world’s oceans, as well as in the littorals.

Design 2.0 also notes that the U.S. Navy will harness the increasing rate of technological creation and adoption to help shape the modern security environment to ensure that the United States prevails in any future conflict. Mine warfare is one of those key areas, and one that lends itself to harnessing emerging technologies. Sadly, other than the LCS MCM Mission Package, there has been little innovative technology adoption in this area. Dr. Taylor suggests that the Navy needs to harness emerging technologies that go well beyond the added capability coming to the Fleet through the modular LCS MCM Mission Package.

This call for action is not new. For example, in May 1998 the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps issued a document entitled, A 21st Century Warfighting Concept: Concept for Future Naval Mine Countermeasures in Littoral Power Projection.2 The publication laid out the magnitude of the worldwide mine threat and proposed solutions. But today, the threat is more compelling, simply because our adversaries now have mines which can deny us access and severely limit our ability to operate forward as a Navy and Marine Corps team.

Through the entirety of our mutual U.S. Navy experience (which began in 1969 and 1988, respectively) we have witnessed the Navy “admire the problem” of MCM. For example, in the late 1990s, Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jay Johnson, and Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Jones, signed out the fourth edition of the unclassified and widely distributed Naval Mine Warfare Plan.Shortly thereafter came the aforementioned 21st Century Warfighting Concept: Concept for Future Naval Mine Countermeasures in Littoral Power Projection. Several years later, the Commander in Chief of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, Admiral Robert Natter, and Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Thomas Fargo, jointly published an unclassified Carrier Battle Group/Amphibious Ready Group Mine Warfare Concept of Operations (CVBG/ARG MIW CONOPS).4

Other studies and analyses followed—both within the Navy and Marine Corps—as well as in Congressional Research Service studies, Government Accountability Office reports, think tank reports and in open defense-related media. But the recommended development persistently fell below the funding line, leaving the Navy using and modestly upgrading legacy MCM systems. An article in National Defense Magazine over a decade ago, “Navy Rethinking Mine Warfare,” heralded a new era in the way the Navy addresses the MCM challenge.5 Sadly, not much has happened since then, but it can now, by harnessing emerging technologies.

Leveraging Emerging Unmanned Vehicle Technologies

Due to the extreme challenge of putting manned naval vessels in sea areas where mines are present—witness the severe damage done to USS Samuel B. Roberts, USS Tripoli and USS Princeton—we agree with the Navy’s pivot to unmanned vehicles as a primary solution to the Navy’s MCM solution set and to “Take the Sailor out of the minefield.”6 Today, it appears the U.S. Navy does have the desire to accelerate the testing and fielding of unmanned systems.

Some years ago, Captain Jon Rucker, as Program Manager of the Navy program office (PMS-406) with stewardship over unmanned maritime systems (unmanned surface vehicles and unmanned underwater vehicles), discussed his programs with USNI News. The title of the article, “Navy Racing to Test, Field, Unmanned Maritime Vehicles for Future Ships,” captured the essence of where unmanned maritime systems will fit in tomorrow’s Navy, as well as the Navy-After-Next. Captain Rucker shared:

“In addition to these programs of record, the Navy and Marine Corps have been testing as many unmanned vehicle prototypes as they can, hoping to see the art of the possible for unmanned systems taking on new mission sets. Many of these systems being tested are small surface and underwater vehicles that can be tested by the dozens at tech demonstrations or by operating units.”7

Speaking at the January 2018 Surface Navy Association Symposium, Captain Rucker continued the drumbeat of the bright future for unmanned maritime systems, noting, “We have been given special authorities to do accelerated acquisitions,” and referenced several USV and UUV programs. He noted that the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson, as well as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition, Mr. James Geurts, have been proactive in advocating the accelerated development of unmanned maritime systems. Captain Rucker concluded his remarks by explaining how the Navy will insert unmanned maritime systems into the Fleet:

“As the technology is ready we will insert it into the systems we’re developing, every system I show you, whether it’s an unmanned surface vessel or unmanned undersea vessel, we are ensuring that we develop that modularity and have the interfaces, so as technology is ready we can insert it into the production line—not break the production line—and ensure we stay on track to deliver that capability.”8

This testing has continued—and even accelerated—under the new PMS-406 Program Manager, Captain Pete Small, who noted during the 2019 Navy League of the United States SeaAirSpace Symposium that, “We will bring in Navy program of record weapons systems to incorporate into commercially-derived modular craft.” He also explained how industry is challenged to design scaled-up versions of current USVs, but that this scaling-up initiative is one that is increasingly important to the Navy.9

However, the devil is in the details about how the U.S. Navy intends to bring new technologies to the warfighter. One example from our Navy experience suggests that we must pursue a thoughtful approach to inserting technological solutions to meet Fleet and Fleet Marine Force requirements, rather than depend on promising—but as-yet-unproven—technologies.

From Concept to Technology Adoption: Often a Bridge Too Far

Far too often the technological promise of a concept is so compelling that a solution is rushed to the Fleet with profoundly disastrous results. There is no better example to make this case than an unmanned system the U.S. Navy built and fielded decades ago, the QH-50 DASH (Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter).

As the United States became involved in the Vietnam War during the early 1960s, the Navy renewed its efforts to find a way to field unmanned systems to meet urgent operational needs. At that time, all sea-based aviation was concentrated on the decks of Navy aircraft carriers and large-deck amphibious assault ships. Surface combatants—cruisers, destroyers and frigates—had no air assets at their disposal.

The solution was to adapt a technology that had been in development since the late 1950s and field the QH-50 DASH (Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter). In April 1958, the U.S. Navy awarded Gyrodyne Company a contract to modify its RON-1 Rotorcycle, a small twin coaxial rotors helicopter, to explore its use as a remote-controlled drone capable of operating from the decks of small ships. By 1963 the Navy approved large-scale production of the QH-60C, with the ultimate goal of putting these DASH units on all its 240 FRAM-I and FRAM-II destroyers.

In January 1965 the Navy began to use the QH-50D as a reconnaissance and surveillance vehicle in Vietnam. Equipped with a real-time TV camera, a film camera, a transponder for better radar tracking, and a telemetry feedback link to inform the remote-control operator of drone responses to his commands, the QH-50D began to fly “SNOOPY” missions from destroyers off the Vietnamese coast. The purpose of these missions was to provide over-the-horizon target data to the destroyer’s five-inch batteries. Additionally, DASH was outfitted with ASW torpedoes to deal with the rapidly growing Soviet submarine menace, the idea being that DASH would attack the submarine with homing torpedoes or depth charges at a distance that exceeded the range of a submarine’s torpedoes.

A QH-50 DASH anti-submarine drone on board the destroyer USS Allen M. Sumner (DD-692) during a deployment to Vietnam. The photo was taken between April and June 1967. (Eric Bollin, USN, via Wikimedia Commons)

By 1970 however, DASH operations had ceased fleet-wide. Although DASH was a sound concept, the Achilles heel of the system was the electronic remote-control system. The lack of feedback loop from the drone to the controller accounted for almost 80 percent of all drone losses. While apocryphal to the point to being a bit of an urban legend, it was often said the most common call on the Navy Fleet’s 1MC general announcing systems during the DASH-era was, “DASH Officer, Bridge,” when the unfortunate officer controlling the DASH was called to account for why “his” system had failed to return to the ship and crashed into the water. Compared to technologies used to control unmanned systems today, that of the 50s to early 70s was primitive at best. In many cases, what was attempted with drones was, literally, a bridge too far.

Leading the Mine Warfare Renaissance with Tested and Proven Technologies

While the challenges of the Navy’s DASH systems are one example, we have witnessed other cases where technologies were inserted as solutions to Fleet or Fleet Marine Forces’ needs, only to fail—often spectacularly—to live up to the promise their developers hoped for. That is why we believe the U.S. Navy would be well-served to leverage—and combine—technologies that have been examined by commercial and other government agencies, and tested extensively in Navy exercises, experiments, and demonstrations to field a near-term MCM capability.

Over the past several years, in a series of Navy and Marine Corps (and other Service) events as diverse as the Ship-to-Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation and Advanced Naval Technology Exercise (S2ME2 ANTX), the Battlespace Preparation in a Contested Environment, the Surface Warfare Distributed Lethality in the Littoral demonstration, the Citadel Protect Homeland Security Exercise, Dawn Blitz, Steel Knight, Military Ocean Terminal Concept Demonstration (MOTS CD), the Bold Alligator exercise series, and Valiant Shield, operators have field-tested a diverse number of emerging technologies.

Technologies proven in these, as well as other events, were the MANTAS Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV), the Mine Neutralization System Remote Operated Vehicle (MNS ROV), and a suite of sensors developed and fielded by Teledyne Technologies Incorporated. We believe that the serial development of the MANTAS USV and MNS ROV, enabled by Teledyne sensors can provide an MCM capability for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps today at low cost and with minimal technical risk.

Given the compelling need to creatively apply new, innovative technologies to address the operational and tactical challenges posed by mines, as well as the need to expand the use of unmanned systems to tackle MCM challenges, the ability to meet this need with commercial-off-the-shelf hardware and software—and not wager on emerging technologies that will take years to develop, mature and field—should be a priority for Navy and Marine Corps planners.

From Concept to Capability: What Would Such a System Look Like?

We hasten to emphasize that the components of this system-of-systems are not based on just concepts or drawings or early-stage prototypes. Rather, every component has been in the water and tested in the operational environment. The basic elements of our proposal are based on a multi-modal, multi-domain, modular approach and include several platforms.

As the hub of a best-in-class autonomous COTS MCM capability, the Navy should consider a scaled-up version of the T12 (twelve-foot) MANTAS high-speed catamaran proven in the exercises, experiments and demonstrations listed above. This T38 is similar in size to an eleven-meter RHIB carried by many U.S. Navy ships and thus can be easily integrated aboard most U.S. Navy warships. In comparison to an 11m RHIB, the T38 is 2 feet longer, 5 inches wider, drafts 17 inches shallower at max displacement, and boasts a cross-section height over 8 feet lower, making it extraordinarily hard to detect. The maximum displacement of the T38 is 40 percent lower than an 11m RHIB, while capacity for mission module sensors and systems is 25 percent higher; it carries more and is easier to handle. The T38 can operate in up to sea state five, has a cruise speed equal to, and a maximum speed twice that of an 11m RHIB, and a range four times that of the 11m RHIB. The T38 has an aft-mounted tow station for a mine-hunting sonar system and mine neutralization ROVs, and a submerged aft-hull well-deck configuration for simple autonomous launch and recovery of subsystems. The T38 can be fitted with a wide variety of sensors such as SeaBat F and T (series) sonars, X-Band Radar, Navigation Radar, SeaFLIR 230 Gyro Stabilized Hi-Res Camera, M400 Gyro stabilized EO/Thermal Camera, AIS and LIDAR Collision Avoidance system—among others—providing it with the ability to be closely controlled by a remote operator or operated autonomously.

The MANTAS features a suite of integrated sensors controlled by an Integrated Common Control Architecture housed in an installed or mobile control console. This unified design provides communications management, automated target recognition, and data management and processing. There are two primary MCM subsystems carried aboard the MANTAS.

The first is a tow-body mounted Synthetic Aperture Sonar (SAS) designed to search for mine-like objects (MLOs). This in-production COTS system can survey 3.5 km2/hr at a resolution sufficient for MLO classification. The system is programmable for bottom following, terrain referencing, and obstacle avoidance. As data comes aboard the USV, Automatic Target Recognition (ATR) will identify likely MLO anomalies, which will then be presented in near-real-time to the manon-the-loop for verification as an MLO. Verified MLOs will be added as a waypoint for validation, while invalid MLOs will be discarded or passed to the navigation database as a hazard to navigation. Verified MLOs will be continuously updated to a recommended route for the Mine Neutralization System (MNS) Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV). This route can be influenced by the watch team for various priorities such as route efficiency, most-valid to least-valid MLOs, or other operational considerations. After the area search is complete, the T38 will immediately transition from hunting to neutralizing by conducting a stern submerged well-deck recovery of the tow-body and launch of the tethered MNS ROV. This capability is a key feature in achieving Single Sortie Detect-to-Engage (SSDTE).

The MNS ROV conducts the “dull, dirty and dangerous” work previously conducted by classes of U.S. Navy ships by providing real-time HD video validation of mine-like objects. The MNS ROV autonomously executes the MLO route for final classification and man-on-the-loop validation of each MLO while the T38 shadows and supports it as an over the horizon communications link and countermine charge supply link. The classification, validation and engagement processes are then repeated until the field is cleared. The countermine charge detonation sequencing may be altered to detonate in any order and at any time desired to achieve mission success.

If this technical and operational solution sounds simple and achievable it is just that—a capability that exists today in its commercial subsystems that can be delivered to the U.S. Navy far more rapidly than anything the traditional acquisition system can provide. Navy officials have been provided with the details of this solution in a series of white papers and briefings and initial reactions have been positive. But that is not enough—not by a long shot.

While the individual components of this mine countermeasures solution have been extensively field tested with, collectively, thousands of hours of in-water use, the full-package of components has not yet been brought together in an exercise, experiments, and demonstrations such as those listed above so that Fleet operators can truly experience what this system-of-systems solution can provide. This milestone is slated for limited demonstration in Trident Warrior 2020.

Moving Forward with Effectiveand TimelyMine Countermeasures

During our decades of collective service in the operational Navy, we deployed to the Arabian Gulf a total of seven times—the same body of water where our shipmates on USS Samuel B. Roberts, USS Tripoli, and USS Princeton were seriously injured by mines. Because ships and sailors operate daily in harm’s way, we need to embrace an unmanned solution to dealing with deadly mines. We have the components for such a system, and it can reach fruition in the near-term.

If the U.S. Navy wants to buy-down inherent technical risk and challenge the paradigm of long-cycle FAR acquisition in the deadly serious business of MCM, then it is time to put a near-term solution in the water. While complex programs of record continue to develop next-generation technology, we should invest in parallel-path solutions that leverage mature subsystems ready to “Speed to Fleet” today. Once the Fleet sees the COTS solution that can be delivered with the system described above, we will be well on our way to providing the Navy with a way to defeat today’s mine threat.

LCDR U.H. (Jack) Rowley (USN – Retired) is a career Surface Warfare and Engineering Duty Officer whose 22 years of active duty included nine years enlisted service before commissioning. As a career destroyer sailor, he has served both in the Western Pacific as well as in the Mediterranean and Caribbean. Since his retirement, he has had extensive experience with the Oil and Gas Workboat community, and was the SAIC Lead Engineer on the early stages of the development of the DARPA Sea Hunter USV Trimaran. He is now the Chief Technology Officer for Maritime Tactical Systems, Inc (MARTAC).

 SOCS Craig Cates (USN – Retired) is the Special Operations Team Lead for Teledyne Brown Engineering, Maritime Systems, a position he has held since transition from active duty in 2016. He served 27 years as a Sea Air Land (SEAL) Special Warfare Operator, including 14 years of Combat Development and Evaluation and Department of Defense Acquisition experience. His notable posts were: Seal Delivery Vehicle Pilot and Navigator, and Science and Technology Analyst. He continues to serve as an SDV OEM Test Pilot, and Diving Supervisor qualified in all SCUBA, semi-closed, and closed-circuit diving.

References

[1] Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0 (Washington, D.C.:  Department of the Navy, 2018), accessed at: https://www.navy.mil/navydata/people/cno/Richardson/Resource/Design_2.0.pdf.

[2] A 21st Century Warfighting Concept: Concept for Future Naval Mine Countermeasures in Littoral Power Projection (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, May 1998) accessed at: https://fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/ship/weaps/docs/mcm.htm.

[3] U.S. Naval Mine Warfare Plan, Fourth Edition, Programs for the New Millennium (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, January 2000).

[4] Draft report for comment, in the author’s possession.

[5] Grace Jean, “Navy Rethinking Mine Warfare,” National Defense Magazine, January 2008.

[6] “Take the Sailor out of the minefield,” is a common phrase in U.S. Navy parlance. Beyond saving lives, as one example of how unmanned systems would be vastly more cost effective for the Navy, consider an Avenger-class MCM vessel and an unmanned surface vessel. The Avenger-class MCM Vessels is a legacy system that is a purpose-built, dedicated ship. It is crewed by a nominal 85 officers and sailors. This means that every one hour of mine hunting/sweeping/clearing costs 85 man hours. Conversely, an autonomous unmanned system would be monitored by a watch stander crew of two to three sailors who only actively participate when higher-level decision authority is required. This represents an effort to effect ratio of 1:24 instead of 85:1.

[7] Megan Eckstein, “Navy Racing to Test, Field, Unmanned Maritime Vehicles for Future Ships,” USNI News, September 21, 2017, accessed at: https://news.usni.org/2017/09/21/navy-racing-test-field-unmanned-maritime-vehicles-future-ships?utm_source=USNI+News&utm_campaign=fb4495a428-USNI_NEWS_DAILY&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0dd4a1450b-fb4495a428-230420609&mc_cid=fb4495a428&mc_eid=157ead4942.

[8] Jon Harper, “Navy Officials Speed up Acquisition of Unmanned Maritime Systems,” National Defense Magazine Online, January 11, 2018, accessed at: http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/articles/2018/1/11/navy-officials-under-pressure-to-speed-up-acquisition-of-unmanned-maritime-systems. See also Richard Burgess, “Navy Acquisition Chief: ‘Reliably Deliver Capable Capacity,’” SEAPOWER Magazine Online, January 11, 2018, accessed at: http://seapowermagazine.org/stories/20180111-geurts.html.

[9] George Galdorisi, “Supporting Expeditionary Force Logistics with USV Technology,” SLDinfo.com, accessed at: https://sldinfo.com/2019/08/supporting-expeditionary-force-logistics-with-usv-technology/.

Featured Image: 190607-N-SB587-1203 GULF OF THAILAND (June 7, 2019) The Royal Thai Navy Lat Ya-class mine countermeasures ship HTMS Lat Ya (MHS 633), left, and the Avenger-class mine countermeasures ship USS Pioneer (MCM 9) observe a controlled mine detonation while conducting a joint mine countermeasures exercise during Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Thailand 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class Corbin Shea)

Establish a Seabed Command

Seabed Warfare Week

By Joseph LaFave

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.

Conclusion

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)

Swarming Sea Mines: Capital Capability?

Future Capital Ship Topic Week

By Zachary Kallenborn

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

Introduction

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. 

EMB Mine being laid from an S-Boote. (Photo from Suddentscher Verlag)

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.

Autonomous Movement

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.

Types of Naval mine.A-underwater,B-bottom,SS-Submarine. 1-Drifting mine,2-Drifting mine,3-Moored Mine,4-Moored Mine(short wire),5-Bottom Mines,6-Torpedo mine/CAPTOR mine,7-Rising mine (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Information Integration

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

Challenges

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.

Undersea Communication

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.

Power

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.

Conclusion

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.

References


1. Robert C. Rubel, “The Future of Aircraft Carriers,” US Naval War College Review 64, Autumn 2011, https://www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/87bcd2ff-c7b6-4715-b2ed-05df6e416b3b/The-Future-of-Aircraft-Carriers.

2. Bill Glenney, “Institute for Future Warfare Studies Wants Your Writing on the Capital Ship of the Future,” Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), http://cimsec.org/institute-for-future-warfare-studies-wants-your-writing-on-the-capital-ship-of-the-future/33307

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

4. John J. Rios, “Naval Mines in the 21st Century: Can NATO Navies Meet the Challenge?” thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, June 2005, 1, www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a435603.pdf; “Mine Warfare,” Department of the Navy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations and Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, NWP 3-15 and MCWP 3-3.1.2, https://archive.org/stream/milmanual-mcwp-3-3.1.2-mine-warfare/mcwp_3-3.1.2_mine_warfare_djvu.txt.

5. Scott C. Truver, “Taking Mines Seriously: Mine Warfare in China’s Near Seas,” Naval War College Review 65, Spring 2012, https://www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/19669a3b-6795-406c-8924-106d7a5adb93/Taking-Mines-Seriously–Mine-Warfare-in-China-s-Ne; Bradley Peniston, “The Day Frigate Samuel B. Roberts Was Mined,” USNI [U.S. Naval Institute] News, May 22, 2015, https://news.usni.org/2015/05/22/the-day-frigate-samuel-b-roberts-was-mined.

6. Scott C. Truver, 2012.

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.

8. “Department of Defense Announces Successful Micro-Drone Demonstration,” DoD news release, January 9, 2017, https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Releases/News-Release-View/Article/1044811/department-of-defense-announces-successful-micro-drone-demonstration/.

9. Gary Mortimer, “Chinese One Thousand Drone Swarm Smashes Intel Record,” sUAS News: The Business of Drones, February 13, 2017, https://www.suasnews.com/2017/02/chinese-one-thousand-drone-swarm-smashes-intel-record/.

10. Captain Gregory J. Cornish, U.S. Navy, “U.S. Naval Mine Warfare Strategy: Analysis of the Way Ahead,” U.S. Army War College, April 2003.

11. Gregory J. Cornish, 2003.

12. John J. Rios, citing Gregory K. Hartmann and Scott C. Truver. Weapons That Wait: Mine Warfare in the U.S. Navy. Updated Edition. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991), 231.

13. Determining appropriate rules of engagement is also a critical, related challenge; however, that is not within the scope of this article.

14. “Perdix Fact Sheet,” DoD Strategic Capabilities Office, June 1, 2017, https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/Perdix%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf.

15. Alexander Velez-Green, “The Foreign Policy Essay: The South Korean Sentry—A ‘Killer Robot’ to Prevent War,” Lawfare, March 1, 2015, https://www.lawfareblog.com/foreign-policy-essay-south-korean-sentry%E2%80%94-killer-robot-prevent-war.

16. DoD Directive 3000.09: “Autonomy in Weapon Systems,” November 21, 2012, https://cryptome.org/dodi/dodd-3000-09.pdf.

17. Scott C. Truver, 2012.

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 2.2.3.2, “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).

24. Jules S. Jaffe, et al., “A Swarm of Autonomous Miniature Underwater Robot Drifters for Exploring Submesoscale Ocean Dynamics,” Nature Communications 8, 2017, https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms14189; for a more accessible version of their research, see Jesse Emspak, “Scientists Used Underwater Drone Swarms to Solve the Mystery of Plankton Mating,” Quartz, January 24, 2017, https://qz.com/893590/scientists-used-underwater-drone-swarms-to-solve-the-mystery-of-plankton-mating/.

25. Jules Jaffe, et al., 2017.

26. Thomas Schmickl, et al., “CoCoRo—The Self-Aware Underwater Swarm,” 2011 Fifth IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] International Conference on Self-Adaptive and Self-Organizing Systems, 2011, http://zool33.uni-graz.at/artlife/sites/default/files/cocoro_SASO_paper_revision_as_finally_submitted.pdf.

27. Paul Scharre, “Counter-Swarm: A Guide to Defeating Robotic Swarms,” War on the Rocks, March 31, 2015, https://warontherocks.com/2015/03/counter-swarm-a-guide-to-defeating-robotic-swarms/.

28. S. Misra, et al, “Jamming in Underwater Sensor Networks: Detection and Mitigation,” IEE [Institution of Engineering and Technology] Communications 6, November 6, 2012, http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/6353315/.

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.

31. Michael Hoffman, “Undersea Pods to Hold US War Supplies,” Defense Tech, January 16, 2013, https://www.defensetech.org/2013/01/16/undersea-pods-to-hold-us-war-supplies/.

32. National Research Council, Committee for Mine Warfare Assessment, 2001, 57.

33. “Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 President’s Budget Submission: Navy, Justification Book Volume 1 of 1, Weapons Procurement, Navy,” Secretary of the Navy, February 2016, 307, http://www.secnav.navy.mil/fmc/fmb/Documents/17pres/WPN_Book.pdf

34. “Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 President’s Budget Submission: Navy, Justification Book Volume 3 of 5, Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation, Navy, Budget Activity 5,” Secretary of the Navy, February 2016, 947, http://www.secnav.navy.mil/fmc/fmb/Documents/17pres/RDTEN_BA5_Book.pdf.

Featured Image: EMC Contact Mines aboard a Leberecht Maas class destroyer in Autumn 1940 (via Navweaps.com)

Resources, Limited Capabilities Challenge Baltic Navies As Russia Threat Grows

European Maritime Security Topic Week

By Jeremiah Cushman

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

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 Sandownclass) minehunters, developing its diver group, and maintaining the auxiliary vessel Tasuja (ex-Danish Lindormenclass). 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.2 The 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

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.

Lithuania

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 Lindauclass) 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.

Lithuanian patrol ship Žemaitis (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Conclusion

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.

Endnotes 

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)