Mine warfare

 RAN Mine Countermeasures Capability – Where to Now ?

Byline: Greg Mapson / Sydney

It has been over 20 years since an Australian Government Senate inquiry sparked an investment in Mine CounterMeasures (MCM) of nearly $1.5 billion. This investment culminated in the building of a modern MCM HQ at HMAS WATERHEN in Sydney and the delivery of 6 Huon Class Minehunters during the period 1999-2004. This article sets out what has been achieved and makes suggestions as to what is the required future focus for this vital maritime warfare capability.
A Short History – Towards the end of the 1990s, the revitalisation of the RAN’s Mine Warfare (MW) capability was well underway. The new class of 6 MHCs were about to commence delivery, a project to procure a new range of mines was still underway (although it was not to last long), HMAS WATERHEN, the RANs MCMHQ was being rebuilt as a purpose built MCM support base and the plans were afoot to take the Clearance Diving capability to 90 metres with a new diving set. In all, this $1.5bn had been committed to ramp up the RANs MCM and MW capability – with potentially more to come with the acquisition of sea mines. Why all the expense on MCM? The answer was in the Government’s 1987 White Paper, which emphasised the need for capabilities to insure the Defence of Australia, its strategic maritime approaches and in the context of MW, its priority ports. These were ports that then and even more so now were seen as vital for Australia’s economic prosperity.

A maritime mining incident in any of Australia’s priority ports or strategic approaches to the north were of particular concern to the Government of the day and as a result an inquiry was conducted by the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee into Australia’s MCM Capability. The findings of this Senate inquiry placed the upgrade of our MCM capability second only to establishing a capable submarine force. The 1991 Force Structure Review (FSR) echoed this message (although from a MCM and Mining perspective took a more demure stance) but nonetheless set a course to procure 6 proven Mine Hunter Coastal platforms based upon the Italian Gaeta class, to replace the troubled Mine Hunter Inshore (MHIs). The first of the six ships, HMAS HUON was delivered within 6 years of contract award; and the project went on to be one of Australia’s most successful naval ship building programs.

At the same time as the MHCs were being built a comprehensive mine sweeping capability was being bedded down into service, based upon the innovative DSTO/ADI developed Dyad Influence Sweep and Mechanical Sweeping systems. These were fitted to Auxiliary Minesweepers taken up from trade, or Craft of Opportunity (COOP) as they were called. These wooden craft were leased from the fishing industry primarily, and provided excellent service for training in towing the sweep systems and developing tactics. However as a result of the 1991 FSR, it was decided that COOP would not become core assets and that at ‘some stage’ the craft would be returned to the owners after the concept was proven . This decision was based on the premise that the MHCs when available would be able to manage the minesweeping task. Accordingly, the wooden COOP were removed from service in the early 2000s. As part of the Influence Sweep Project, a remote control drone boat capability was also introduced. This was one of the first autonomous influence sweeping systems in the world and was required to act as an acoustic precursor for the COOP (sweep mines that could target the COOP, as these craft were not built to be acoustically quiet). The system whilst suffering all the ills of a first generation system, turned out to be both effective and valuable from an MCM tactical perspective. It also demonstrated the effectiveness of autonomous systems for MCM applications.

The Situation 2011
This decision to remove the COOP from service once the MHCs arrived, turned out to be both expedient and perhaps premature, as the MHC force has been unable to match the COOPs in terms of rate of effort, in both mechanical and influence sweeping as well as in towed sonar Route survey work which was also one of the COOPs primary mission. This has arisen due to MHC operational tempo issues and the heavy training overhead required maintaining proficiency in minehunting. Added to this, the Remote Control Minesweeping Drones have had a litany of ongoing obsolescence issues and now are no longer viable. The RAN is however moving to replace this capability and it is expected that new systems will be back in service by late 2012.
The outcome of this has been that the RAN’s minesweeping capability has been rarely exercised and proficiency across the force in both wire and influence sweeping has declined. This has been exacerbated by the removal from service (the RAN actually calls this ‘placed in extended readiness’ – effectively at 5 years notice and notably, longer then it took to build them) of two of the Huon class MHCs. The other four require Combat System upgrades to address obsolescence issues. It is understood that the RAN is giving consideration to a modest program to upgrade some aspects of the combat system. In summary, there are significant issues with both minehunting and mine sweeping capabilities and despite an increasing requirement for MCM capabilities to protect Australia’s priority ports, the number of MCMV platforms has been substantially reduced.

The much-lauded Clearance Diving (CD) Force has also suffered from equipment shortfalls. For a variety of reasons they have been unable to effectively introduce a deep diving capability that has been sort for over 15 years since the Deep Diving MCM equipment was introduced. This diving set (A5800, the Australianised version of the US Mk 16 MCM diving set) – along with most of the other diving equipment used by the RAN CDs – has significant obsolescence problems and is need of replacement. Some procurement activities have now commenced. In reality the RAN CD’s have been marking time for the best part of a decade in the diving equipment domain and have slipped backwards in their progress to introduce a deep diving capability. Whilst technical diving to depths up to 90 metres is becoming not uncommon in the civilian community, the RAN, due to red tape, OH & S legislation, lack of resourcing and arguably lack of will, has been incapable of addressing this capability shortfall. Whilst the CD capabilities in underwater EOD have been enhanced through the procurement of a range of modern systems, they remain without effective Diver Insertion craft for the conduct of Advance Force activities, a role they are both charged with under their present roles and functions and one which will become more vital with the introduction into service of the new Canberra Class LHDs.

Navy’s Plans

So where is Navy headed with its MCM Force.? Project Sea 1778 which commenced development of 1st Pass documentation in 2006 is, after two delays, about to be considered for 1st Pass by Government sometime in the period late 2011 to early 2012. Originally intended to introduce a limited deployable MCM capability for an Amphibious Task Group centred on the Landing Helicopter Docks, it was due for introduction in 2013. Due to postponement of 1st Pass by Defence it will not now introduce this limited capability until 2015. At a project cost of approximately 80-100m, it aspires to introduce a range of deployable uninhabited systems including Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) Uninhabited Surface Vehicles (USVs) for mine sweeping and towed sonar, as well as Clandestine Diver Insertion System (CDIS), Expendable Mine Neutralisation System (EMNS), large surface craft for AUV support and Command Initiated Detonation Systems (CIDS) for diver placed demolition charges. That’s a lot of equipment for not much money and it remains to be seen whether all of the components will fit within the cost ceiling.
Importantly, it should be noted that the capability hoped for in this outfit of equipment is designed to provide ‘limited access’ for an amphibious task group, that is, facilitate a path through a mined area to the amphibious objective. The RAN still requires the wherewithal to conduct large area Mine Clearance operations both in Defence of Australia and in operations to the near north. This is the role of the MHC. Alas, against the stark reality of the present state of the MHCs and the plans to leave 2 of the class in lay up, the ability to acquit this role is not credible. Project SEA 1180 which emerged out of the 2009 White Paper proposes to replace the MHCs from 2018 and onwards, with a multi role platform with perhaps non NATO STANAG MCM characteristics to fulfil the role of the present MCM, Hydro and Patrol vessels in one hull form. This to most people, who understand the nuances and challenges of mine countermeasures, is a high-risk plan. It has no in service precedent with any other Navy (except perhaps with the Canadians who maintain a very modest MCM capability) but alarmingly it was announced in the White Paper with little analysis, internal review or input from the Navy’s own domain specialists in either MCM or Hydrography. It was in all respects a bolt out of the blue. The word coming out of Navy is that it is fast losing appeal as it is based upon unproven concepts, takes a leap of faith that uninhabited systems will do the MCM job effectively and is based upon the flaky premise, that the location of the minefield will always be known allowing the SEA 1180 platform to sit comfortably outside the minefield at all times and hence not require any costly traditional MCMV build standards.
Against the background of this dubious plan the mine threat is expanding at a significant rate in the northern part of the Asian region. China for example, has a number of technical and scientific laboratories working on new mine technologies. Export of indigenous mines (which there are some 30 or so variants) to Pakistan, Iran and North Korea to name a few, are continuing. Conservatively China has over 100,000 weapons and a stated aim of using its extensive diesel electric submarine fleet to sow these mines wherever and whenever it suits its strategic or tactical means. In particular, China sees it mining capability as one of the most effective methods of containing US Battle Groups in the Taiwan Straits, the North Korean Peninsular and the South China Sea; indeed anywhere it needs to; including sites much further afield . Indeed the PLAN Navy submarines practice mine laying on a regular basis and the expertise of the submarine Captains involved is lauded in both Navy and Government media. It would be alarmist to suggest that China has intentions of using this capability against regional states but its keen interest in new mine technology and laying platforms shows that sea mine use looms large in Chines maritime warfare doctrine.

An Alternative Plan

The ‘one size fits all’ SEA 1180 platform is untested, risky and has an air of ‘emperor’s new clothes” about it. It is unpopular within Navy and there are at last some signs that MCM domain specialists and others are now finding courage to speak out against what, when it boils down to it, is an expedient cost cutting measure at the expense of a vital capability.
Against the background of the increasing mine threat in the region, the RAN needs a dedicated MCM force. With the hull life of the Huon Class expected to last well into the 2030s, this is the platform that the Navy must centre its MCM capability upon. For a start, all 6 MHCs should be operational and upgraded. A project to address this should be started now as a matter of urgency. By all means new capabilities need to be incorporated – including the use of uninhabited vehicles to enhance the MHCs search and clearance rates. But this must be done from the basis of a proven framework of a dedicated MCM platform and in an incremental way, not from an untested platform and concept. No better example of the folly of this approach is the USN Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program. The MCM mission module projects have been running now for well over 10 years. A number have been cancelled and across the board the others are well behind schedule and have cost billions to date. This is not to say that some reasonable level of MCM capability will be achieved in the LCS, but the RAN cannot risk this route with the resources available to it.
An MCM force based around 6 upgraded and enhanced Huon Class Minehunters, along with a modest batch of deployable systems for the amphibious task group to be delivered by SEA 1778 is a credible and affordable capability for the ADF.

MCM Basing

The present policy of basing the RANs MCM forces in Sydney is one caused primarily by history and convenience. In 2011 it makes little sense when the strategic focus is now very much on the Northwest of the continent and the Asian sea lanes to the north. It takes over 10 days for an MHC to reach either Darwin or Perth and if the RAN’s submarine fleet is the strategic capability that is touted to be, than a collocated MCM force would seem to make more sense. A primary role of insuring safe passage of the RAN’s submarines to the continental shelf should be a primary role of the MCM force (particularly against the background of any potential strategic competitor’s capacity to conduct long range clandestine mining against us).
As has been announced during President Obama’s visit to Australia recently, the basing of more US military capability in Australia is now a done deal, with a sensible and correct focus on the North and North West. It will be interesting to see how this new era in Australian/US relationship will unfold and whether the announced increase in US Forces access to North Australia may not in time lead to a new base on Australian soil. From an MCM perspective, neither Darwin nor Rockingham in Western Australia would be first choice locations for Naval Forces. The routes in and out of both are easily mined and in Darwin’s case extremely difficult to clear. A new base in Exmouth Gulf would make more sense than upgrading facilities in either Darwin or Rockingham. Exmouth offers the shortest route to the edge of the continental shelf and to the relative safety of deep water than any other Northwest location. It has rapidly growing support infrastructure and funding could be conducted on a Joint Base footing. Notwithstanding the longer term possibility of an Exmouth Gulf base, the near term build-up of forces in Darwin should make Navy planners commence serious consideration of relocating MCM forces in support. The present Huon Class MHCs is the ship for this job. MHCs have sufficient endurance to reach operating areas well into Asia from such a location and combined with the deployable systems being delivered by SEA 1778 would provide the RAN with a balanced and flexible MCM capability to support. To forward base the MHCs however would require the release of both additional funding and resources, something that both Government and Navy have been reluctant to do so up until now. Perhaps it is time to review this level of funding?

Exmouth Gulf – A Future Aust/US Joint Naval Base

The decline in the RAN’s MCM capability over the last decade has been significant. The chronic underfunding and lack of attention by the RAN in this critical enabling warfare domain has been equally so. All 6 MHCs are required as a bare minimum when looking at the uncertain strategic future dominated by a much more powerful China and the ever increasing strategic importance of Australia’s priority ports and sea routes. The US- Australian Defence relationship is robust but against the background of Australia’s fortunate economic situation, it should carry more of the maritime force load in the region. MCM is one area where the RAN can add exponential value. The RAN is traditionally good at MCM and with modest investment can provide a scarce but highly valuable capability to a coalition maritime operation.

Greg Mapson
The author is a former RAN MCD Group Commander and has extensive military and industry experience in Mine Warfare and Mine Countermeasures. He has been closely involved in the development of the RAN’s MCM and Hydrographic Operational Concepts and has had extensive experience with the development and application of unmanned technologies for MCM use.


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