The Navy's mine countermeasures community will look quite different a year from now, as the service hopes to spend 2013 wrapping up testing on several new unmanned platforms for mine detection and neutralization and bringing home four MCM ships deployed to 5th Fleet, the mine warfare branch head told Inside the Navy last week.
Capt. Frank Linkous said the key to the transition next year will be to maintain the right level of capability in the Middle East. Manned ships won't leave the area until it is clear that a slew of new products and their operators can provide the same or better coverage in theater, he told ITN during a Dec. 3 interview at the Pentagon. However, he added, the Navy hopes that 2013 will begin the transition from "wooden ships and iron men" sailing through a minefield to unmanned platforms clearing minefields faster, safer and more thoroughly.
Urgent Operational Needs
The Navy filed several Urgent Operational Needs statements over the past two years dealing with upgrading the fleet's existing mine countermeasures tools and adding new ones to the arsenal, many of which are on the cusp of entering service. A key one that has led to several offshoots is a UON filed last year for an improved mine neutralization system to replace the SLQ-48 system on the MCM ships and an upgrade to the neutralizers on the MH-53 helicopters.
The helos already used a variant of the SeaFox system, the AQS-232, so the Navy chose to upgrade to the newest version of SeaFox and hire Lockheed Martin to develop a shipboard system for three MCM ships. The first installation, on Gladiator (MCM-11), began in September and should wrap up soon, and the other two should be done by February or March, Linkous said.
Linkous said that "ultimately we do want to replace the current neutralization system on the MCM-1s, the SLQ-48 system . . . with something SeaFox-like" but that the service would do so through a standard acquisition process rather than another UON.
SeaFox is growing more pervasive throughout the fleet, even as the original UON is coming to a close. Linkous said the Navy decided as a follow-on project to install SeaFox on a rigid-hull inflatable boat and let explosive ordnance disposal divers use it when possible. He said EOD technicians are comfortable operating ground robots to inspect and disable explosives after several years of doing so in Iraq and Afghanistan, and while SeaFox would give them that same safe stand-off distance, it also has the added benefit of saving them the time and hassle of diving when they don't need to.
"Instead of having to put a guy in the water, dive down in the water to the depth the mine is -- and there's a toll on his body, and you lose time, and if it's a deep dive they have to stop for decompression along the way -- this saves their dive time for when they really need it," Linkous said. "It will get the neutralization done more quickly, so we're trying to leverage that same concept they used on land in a maritime environment, and we can do that with SeaFox."
The Navy has already completed testing with the system's identification rounds and is moving toward fielding the RIB-based SeaFox with both ID and neutralization rounds "in the next few months."
Another tool the mine warfare community will soon have is the Mark 18 family of unmanned underwater vehicles, which was bought under the Defense Department's Fast Lane procurement process. The Naval Oceanography Mine Warfare Center will ultimately operate the vehicles, which are in the midst of user evaluation in 5th Fleet. The smaller Mod 1 version will operate in the very shallow water region as intended -- less than 40 feet -- but the Mod 2 version can and will operate in up to 300 feet of water and has the space and power margin to accommodate additional sensors.
"This is basically just a UUV, just a fish and a side-scan sonar right now," Linkous said. "But what if we put a volume sonar on this? . . . Can we put a synthetic aperture sonar on it? So over the next year we'll be making those improvements to the Mark 18 as well."
Linkous noted that the volume sonar, the AQS-24, is also set to receive a capability upgrade thanks to a separate UON, which he expects to deliver in late 2014.
And lastly, this year the Navy opted to explore the concept of a minehunting unmanned surface vehicle, which was met with a lot of skepticism, Linkous said. The service took USVs from Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Newport and put the AQS-24 side-scan sonar on it, and so far the project is coming along nicely, Linkous said. The team assembling the new system is "in the process of fitting the sonars on and getting them tested and moved forward to 5th Fleet. So by the end of 2013 we expect to have four USVs towing AQS-24 sonar," Linkous said, though he said he hasn't determined yet who would operate the USV once it goes to 5th Fleet.
Until these new unmanned systems can be fully fielded and take on their share of the work in 5th Fleet, the Navy needed to address another urgent problem in the MCM community -- the ships' rotational crews are overworked. Ten crews are supporting eight ships in 5th Fleet, leaving almost no downtime for the sailors.
The first step the Navy took was to announce the creation of two new crews, done through the Individual Augmentee program even though volunteers will train and deploy as a group instead of as individuals. A Navy administrative memo went out Nov. 14 asking for volunteers with relevant ratings and past MCM experience, and Linkous said almost all the slots were full. Personnel will report for training on Dec. 31 and go through a 20-week program before deploying to 5th Fleet, bumping the total up to 12 crews for eight ships. "That is an interim solution obviously, we don't want to do this as a long-term solution, but letting us bridge the next year or so, the IA crew process allows us to do that," Linkous said.
The ultimate goal, though, is to bring the four MCM ships home -- four of the eight are homeported at 5th Fleet's headquarters in Bahrain, and the other four were brought over from San Diego, CA, in May. Sending those home may eliminate the need for the IA crews, though Linkous said the entire crewing concept may be changed.
The Navy's goal is to bring the MCMs home some time in 2013, but Linkous would not commit to a time line. "We'll continue to assess the security climate," he said. "We're going to continue to develop and deliver these new technology initiatives. As we do the math on what's the right capability to maintain over there, we will look to bring the ships home as we're able to bring them home."
Linkous said the way his branch approaches mine countermeasures is about to radically change, as the UONs and Fast Lane initiatives wrap up and as the Littoral Combat Ship's mine countermeasures mission package approaches its initial operational capability in fiscal year 2014.
"We are on the cusp of making this transition begin physically in the fleet," he said. The current approach is risky -- "80 folks driving through the minefield -- wooden ships and iron men, as we refer to it. They are physically driving through where the threat is." But the new approach of unmanned vehicles -- operated off of LCS, RIBs and even the Ponce, the interim afloat forward staging base -- means "we're going to do it faster, we're going to do it safer, and with a higher confidence that in fewer passes we found everything. That has been our vision with these systems."
Linkous noted that his 2013 capabilities would help pave the way for the LCS's unmanned vehicles. Lessons learned from the minehunting USV will be applied to the Unmanned Influence Sweep System USV set to appear in Increment 3 of the LCS MCM mission package, and lessons from the Mark 18 UUV will benefit the Knifefish UUV in Increment 4.
Linkous said this process "leverages what we have now -- Mark 18 systems, USVs, sonars that we already own -- and allows us to get them out there, give 5th Fleet an additional capability now, and we are going to learn lessons from operating all these systems that we can carry back into our follow-on programs."