PANAMA CITY, Fla. — Whereas the scourge of U.S. troops for the past decade has been the improvised explosive device, the next 10 years may well be marked by the threat of undersea mines, Navy and Marine Corps officials predict.
Sea mines are cheap, easily deployed and the mere threat of their presence could close worldwide commerce at strategic choke points like the straits of Malacca and Hormuz, said Rear Adm. Frank Morneau, deputy director of Navy Operations Expeditionary Warfare Division.
“How many mines does it take to close a strait?” he asked at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual Expeditionary Warfare conference. “None. All you have to say is you did it.”
The United States is among the few countries with capabilities to located and neutralize sea mines. But officials worry that U.S. technology is not keeping up with more advanced enemy mines. Just 1 percent of the Navy’s $155.5 billion budget is funneled to mine warfare programs, said Capt. Frank Linkous of the Navy’s Mine Warfare Branch. But the military likely won’t be able to afford another $20 billion to defeat mines as it did to reduce the impact of improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Morneau used IEDs as an example of how rapid technological innovation should ramp up to meet a specific enemy tactic.
The Navy added an extra $300 million to sustain and upgrade its counter-mine force in fiscal year 2013. At least nine legacy mine-clearing vessels are scheduled for upgrades.
New technologies are only part of the Navy’s plan to counter the threat. “We’ve been focusing on a lot of gear and a lot of stuff,” Morneau said. “What we haven’t been focused on is time — collapsing the kill chain.”
Identifying mines is difficult. Current technologies have trouble discerning between what might be a mine and other underwater obstructions, including marine mammals.
Once mines are found, they must be “hunted” and destroyed. While technologies exist to find them at various depths, there is not yet a silver bullet for finding and neutralizing them. In shallow waters, mines can be buried beneath the seafloor, making it more difficult to find them.
Lawrence Schuette, director of innovation at the Office of Naval Research, said technology is catching up with the threat. Using small, unmanned systems like the Knifefish unmanned undersea vehicle aboard the Littoral Combat Ship and rigid-hull inflatable boats, Navy officials are finding new ways to neutralize mines at much lower cost.
“Using smaller platforms allows a lot more innovation,” Schuette said.
Technologies like autonomous mine-hunting robots are being developed and will soon be crossing the “valley of death” that separates innovations in the laboratory from real-world programs and platforms, Schuette said. Open architecture hardware and software that is plug-and-play is a must, he said.
“I think we’re in a really good place,” Schuette told National Defense. “This is an area where there has been great cooperation throughout the services and with industry.
Undersecretary of the Navy Robert O. Work said the next decade will see the rise of surface and underwater unmanned vehicles. Maritime unmanned systems will gain prominence as the U.S. military focuses its attention on the Pacific Ocean, he said.
An analysis of alternatives for a "large-diameter undersea unmanned vehicle" capable of finding and destroying mines is currently underway. Officials prefer to call these new technologies "advanced undersea weapons," rather than simply unmanned vehicles.
The Navy has also issued an "urgent needs assessment for round-the-clock mine neutralization." Textron demonstrated at Rim of the Pacific exercises earlier this year that could be done with autonomous boats intended to be launched from LCS.
The mine/counter mine mission package for the new Littoral Combat Ship is "gathering momentum, according to Linkous. While still in development, the capabilities of that system are already twice what the Navy is capable of doing with manned mine hunters, Pinkous said.
The Littoral Combat Ship will shoulder much of the counter-mine burden when the vessels enter service. As a platform from which unmanned mine-hunting craft can be launched, the LCS will allow for “doctrinal changes,” in the way mines are dealt with, he said.
“The virtue of LCS is that you’re using unmanned systems,” Linkous said. “You can more easily accept the risk. You can also do more things in parallel because you’re able to accept those risks.”