By LCDR U.H. (Jack) Rowley
Chief Technology Officer (CTO)
Maritime Tactical Systems, Inc.
The United States has a wide range of potential threats it must contend with. As a former naval officer who has made several deployments to the Arabian Gulf, I continue to think about the threats that could imperil naval forces operating in or near that body of water. The United States and Iran have been on a collision course for the past several decades that could well lead to military confrontation.
This toxic relationship has simmered below the level of armed conflict and most hope that hostilities will not break out. But what if they do? One doesn’t have to be a Clausewitz or Sun Tzu to recognize that if the United States and Iran go to war, the first move Iran will likely make will be to mine the Strait of Hormuz to prevent U.S. and allied naval forces from surging into the Arabian Gulf. Will the United States and its allies have the capability to defeat these mines?
Mines are some of the most attractive weapons available to any determined adversary and represent one of the most vexing military challenges. Sea mines are perhaps the most lethal form of these weapons, as they are hard to find, difficult to neutralize, and can present a deadly hazard to any vessel—even those ships specifically designed to hunt them. These “weapons that wait” provide an adversary with an effective means to thwart even a major naval power.
Should Iran chose to employ its extensive mine inventory to threaten commerce in the same fashion that it laid mines to hazard military and commercial traffic in the Arabian Gulf and Gulf of Oman decades ago, it has the assets and to do so. If Iran sows sea mines in the Strait of Hormuz, it will fall to the U.S. Navy to clear these deadly mines. Sadly, the Navy is ill-prepared for this task.
But the threat of adversary sea mines is not limited to Iran. More ominously, U.S. peer competitors have robust mining capabilities. In a recent interview in National Defense Magazine, Seth Cropsey, Director of the Center for American Seapower at the Hudson Institute, highlighted the mining capabilities both China and Russia would bring to the fight. He focused primarily on the threat from China, noting:
One of the top global mine threats comes from China. It has been estimated that Beijing has as many as 100,000 such weapons. Those range from the old-fashioned moored contact mine to include mines that have rocket-propelled weapons and target detection systems. In the event of a conflict with China, the United States is unlikely to approach warfare from the land. That leaves us with the seas as the place of where conflict is most likely to play out.
Beijing would likely concentrate on creating choke points in areas such as the archipelagos that separate East Asia from the Middle East and the South China Sea. That means that sea control and navigating around China’s anti-access and area denial capabilities will be crucial. It’s reasonable to expect that the Chinese would use mines there, and reasonable to expect that they would use mines if they decided to use force against Taiwan. Moving through those straits is crucial and being able to clear them of mines is equally important.
The threat of sea mines can thwart any naval operation. Further afield, sea mines have broader repercussions for global maritime trade routes as well. Western nations, including the United States, have given insufficient attention to dealing with the threat sea mines pose to naval and merchant activities worldwide.
The State of U.S. Mine Countermeasures Capability Today
For those with stewardship for the U.S. Navy’s mine warfare capabilities, the old saw 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.
The ability of the U.S. Navy to deal with the threat of sea mines is not getting better; it is getting worse, because the trend lines are moving in the wrong direction. The platforms that embody the U.S. Navy’s primary mine-countermeasures (MCM) capability—the MH-53E AMCM aircraft and the Avenger-class minesweeper—are scheduled to sunset by 2025. As Captain Chris Merwin of the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) pointed out at a military-industry event, the Navy’s follow-on MCM capability, embodied the MCM package aboard the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), is not coming on line as rapidly as anticipated, and initial operating capability is not scheduled until 2023—a date Captain Merwin described as “optimistic.”
For all navies, there is only one way to hunt and destroy mines at a distance without putting sailors at risk by having them sortie into deadly minefields. This task can only be accomplished by using unmanned systems. In the past, unmanned vehicle technologies were not mature enough to be considered to take on the complex mine-hunting and mine-clearing task. They are today.
Leading a Mine Warfare Renaissance with Tested and Proven Technologies
Navy-Marine Corps expeditionary strike groups operate in the littorals close to shore, often on a coastline that the adversary defends with mines. That is one of the reasons why, over the past several years, in a series of U.S. Navy and Marine Corps events as diverse as the Ship-to-Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation and Advanced Naval Technology Exercise, the Battlespace Preparation in a Contested Environment, the Surface Warfare Distributed Lethality in the Littoral demonstration, Dawn Blitz, Steel Knight, the Bold Alligator exercise series, and Valiant Shield, operators have field-tested wide range of emerging technologies, many of them adaptable to the MCM mission.
One of the technologies that performed well was the MANTAS unmanned surface vehicle (USV). Over the course of the events described above, the MANTAS was scaled-up from a six-foot, to eight-foot, to twelve-foot version. During Exercise Valiant Shield, MANTAS was tasked with re-supply mission, carrying cargo to the troops ashore. As a result of that mission success, U.S. Navy and Marine Corps officials asked MANTAS’ manufacturer, MARTAC Inc., to scale-up the MANTAS further and design a thirty-eight-foot version.
It is this USV that can be combined with surface and subsurface mine-hunting and mine-neutralizing equipment to provide an over-the-horizon MCM capability that takes the sailor out of the minefield and provides a potential solution for this challenging mission. While there are any number of USVs and UUVs that the U.S. Navy is testing, leveraging one that has been thoroughly wrung out for hundreds of hours during years of Navy, Marine Corps and other Service exercises, experiments, and demonstrations provides the most viable platform for a comprehensive MCM capability.
Achieving a Near-Term MCM Capability with COTS Technologies
The essential building block for a commercial-off-the-shelf technology MCM solution is a scaled-up version of the twelve-foot MANTAS high-speed catamaran proven in the events listed earlier. This USV—nicknamed the T38—is virtually identical in size to an eleven-meter RHIB carried by many naval ships. The T38 can operate in up to sea state five, has a cruise speed significantly greater than that of an eleven-meter RHIB and a range four times greater than the RHIB.
One of the most important attributes of this MANTAS is the fact that the T38 has an aft-mounted twin tow station which can house both a mine-hunting sonar system and a mine neutralization system remotely-operated vehicle. These towed subsystems are installed on two rails aft. The catamaran hull enables the MANTAS to conduct an angled submergence of the stern tow station.
With the T38 as the essential building block in providing an autonomous MCM solution, there are any number of commercially available mine-hunting sonar systems and mine neutralization system remotely-operated vehicles that can be deployed aboard the MANTAS. Many of these are being used today by NATO nations and have been used extensively in mine clearing exercises and other operations. Thus, moving forward with a comprehensive commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) autonomous MCM solution built around the T38 does not present a difficult engineering challenge.
Outside observers have noted the advantages of using unmanned platforms to deal with the mine countermeasures challenge, with one analyst, Andrea Daolio, noting: “Unmanned systems and new technologies can greatly help the U.S. Navy in the MCM task. Unmanned systems can greatly help MCM operations in the air and on the surface. A fully autonomous large fleet of inexpensive unmanned UUVs and USVs, operating together in a “formation maneuvering” sweep scenario could sweep large portions of the sea while avoiding all risk to sailors.”
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.
In an article in USNI News Daily Update, Rear Admiral Casey Moton, Program Executive Officer, Unmanned and Small Combatants (PEO USC), noted how his office, responding to Congressional language in the most recent NDAA, must ensure that unmanned systems the Navy seeks to buy have the right level of technical maturity, especially in the most basic hull, mechanical and electrical (HME) attributes. This strongly suggests that the Navy would be well-served to move forward by focusing on COTS technologies that have been wrung out in Navy and Marine Corps exercises, experiments and demonstrations. This will ensure that these systems have the requisite HME and other maturity to succeed.
As analyst Bryan Clark noted in an article in Forbes, “The DoD has a wide range of existing and soon-to-emerge unmanned autonomous systems that could contribute to important missions. The U.S. military’s approach to unmanned system development, however, is unfocused and often chases new technology instead of solving shortfalls in today’s operational concepts.” Defeating deadly mines is a compelling operational concept in search of a solution. Instead of chasing new technologies that will take years to mature, now is the time to employ an available and tested COTS solution to do so.
The prototype T38 was operated extensively during the U.S. Navy’s Trident Warrior exercise this summer. For two weeks, Navy officials had the opportunity to evaluate this unmanned surface vehicle from “stem to stern.” Some of the attributes they found most compelling were the T38’s cruise speed of 25 knots and burst speed of 80 knots, as well as its ability to operative for up to eight days without refueling. These same officials also noted that with a max payload weight of 4,500 pounds, the T38 can easily carry and deploy any number of commercially available mine-hunting sonar systems and mine neutralization system remotely-operated vehicles.
Achieving An Effective Mine Countermeasures Solution Now
U.S. Navy vessels, as well as U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps Maritime Prepositioning Ships, will need to enter the Arabian Gulf—the same body of water where U.S. Navy sailors on USS Samuel B. Roberts, USS Tripoli and USS Princeton were seriously injured by mines—in any conflict with Iran. It will fall to the U.S. Navy to clear these deadly mines. The United States needs to embrace an unmanned solution to deal with these mines to keep its ships and sailors out of harm’s way. The components for such a system exist today, and can be integrated to provide an effective MCM solution in the near-term.
About the author:
Mr. Rowley is an experienced and accomplished multi-disciplined engineering project and program management professional with over 35 years of project/program management of complex ocean, electrical and mechanical engineering systems design. As a retired U.S. Navy Surface Warfare and Engineering Duty Officer, his experience base includes both Government and commercial sectors.
Mr. Rowley has a wide array of engineering and project management accomplishments in the areas of Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering. Prior to his retirement from the Navy, he administered, and program managed the $1.2B Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) U.S. Navy Government shipbuilding contract. In the past two decades, while at SAIC/LEIDOS, he led the SAIC IR&D engineering design team to field a NOAA sanctioned SAIC Tsunamic Buoy (STB) and successfully designed, constructed, tested and deployed 24 STB buoys in the international arena. Mr. Rowley additionally served as the engineering technical director and lead naval architect integrator for the DARPA ASW Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV). Now known as the Medium USV Sea Hunter, the 131ft unmanned trimaran surface craft is the first major autonomous USV with a range of up to 7000 nautical miles and is currently operating as a USV test platform for the Navy within the Surface Development Squadron One in San Diego, CA.
Mr. Rowley is currently the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) with Maritime Tactical Systems, Inc. (MARTAC) in Melbourne, FL. MARTAC has designed and produced the MANTAS Tactical Autonomous Unmanned Surface Vessels ranging in incremental lengths from 8ft to 50ft.
Mr. Rowley has the degree of BSEE from University of Oklahoma as well as an MSME and Degree of Ocean Engineer/Naval Architect from MIT.