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Mine Warfare (MW), much like its sibling Anti-Submarine warfare (ASW), with which it shares some remarkable similarities, has and likely always will be the poor cousin of the RAN’s warfighting community.  Plagued by a history of boom/bust capability development MW has suffered continuity breaks the likes of which have never been experienced in the show business communities of submarine and air warfare.

This has been inherently risky as while Australian Mine Countermeasures (MCM) hasn’t been put to the test since World War 2, getting it wrong is equally as catastrophic as getting any other aspect of warfare wrong.  Trade is threatened, military operations are compromised, ships are sunk, and people die.

MW and ASW are largely reactive to an adversary’s sea denial strategy and involve conduct of difficult activities underwater, quite simply the most challenging environment imaginable.  An environment where detecting, classifying, localising and neutralising highly dangerous threats is difficult enough by itself, let alone when implementing laborious, time consuming procedures using complex sensors and effectors that never perform as a highly qualified and experienced operator would like them to.

This leads to MW (again like ASW) having a reputation for being a slow moving, unexciting, mundane activity – one which is best ignored in the hope that never has to be taken seriously.  And therein lies the problem.  MW does need to be taken seriously and it simply isn’t good enough for it to be talked about frequently and acted upon sporadically as is the case today and has been the case for many decades beforehand.  MW evolves over long periods and therefore, requires ongoing attention as techniques overlap and one approach morphs into another.  There is no panacea.

The history of RAN MW capability development precisely follows the subpar pathway described above as being one to be avoided.  Sadly it is hallmarked by a series of short sharp capability updates separated by years (if not decades) of neglect.  It is a track record that looks in danger of being perpetuated as the RAN plans what comes next when the Mine Hunter Coastal (MHC) ships retire.

Acquired under SEA 1555 in the mid-90s the Huon Class MHCs are an excellent example.  While they overlapped the capability of the Ton and Bay Class ships before them, they introduced a raft of new capabilities such as complex mine hunting sonar, world class ROVs and MW-specific combat systems.  Since then the Huon Class has served well, but have gone largely ignored in terms of capability evolution, and some claim have slowly withered on the vine.

Nonetheless, the hulls themselves remain sound and could serve on for years to come as a platform for ‘MW spiral development’, should the RAN have chosen that approach.  Unfortunately, that seems unlikely to transpire.  Instead, the RAN appears to have decided it needs to revisit its ageing MCM capability, but this time it will probably abandon the evolutionary and overlapping capability approach in favour of a completely new way of doing business.

It looks very much like the RAN has decided it will choose to replace slow MCMVs and tedious operator intensive procedures with…equally slow general-purpose vessels equipped with equally tedious uncrewed systems!

Apparently since acquiring the MHCs, RAN MW practice has changed significantly.  Everyone reading this will be familiar with the ‘keep the man out of the minefield’ doctrine and that is unapologetically the way of the future.  To that end the RAN will focus through SEA 1905 on acquiring a MW toolkit designed around the operation of uncrewed platforms to detect, identify, and neutralise the mine threat from a distance, controlled room ‘mother ships ’operating from afar.  A great idea but one that is still evolving and is far from proven.

As catchy as it sounds, it can be argued that while ‘keeping the man out of the minefield’ is a laudable concept it is somewhat naïve in reality.  The very nature of sea denial is that adversaries tend not to broadcast where they are deploying to.  Therefore, rather unfortunately the RAN may not know where the minefields they are keeping out of are located.  This simply reinforces the axiom that every ship is a minesweeper, once…particularly ships that, unlike the RAN’s existing MHCs, are not designed to operate as safely as possible in the vicinity of modern mines.  Steel hulled, relatively noisy OPVs immediately spring to mind!

So, in practice how will the RAN keep the ‘man out of the minefield’ and still do MW, other than of course by following the US down the hideously expensive path of airborne MCM operations?  Well, like in many other navies the staff answer is that it will operate a variety of uncrewed vehicles equipped with appropriate sensors and effectors from a range of general-purpose vessels, including craft of opportunity and multi-ruled patrol vessels.

That sounds simple enough but quantifying the effectiveness of that approach relative to using the MHC capability is difficult.  It’s not that it necessarily won’t work, it’s just that no navy, including the leaders in the field (such as several NATO navies) is yet to prove beyond reasonable doubt that it will.

In fact, many navies are now retaining their existing MCMVs until such time as they can definitively transition from traditional MCM to uncrewed MCM without a capability gap.  Perhaps the RAN should do so too?  The RAN plans to keep the Huon MCMVs in service until the SEA 1905 capability has proven to be sound.  A better plan may be to invest minimally but sensibly to equip the ships with uncrewed systems that enhance their search and localisation capability.

The retention of the existing MHCs is quite feasible.  Moreover, equipping them with uncrewed MCM systems would be relatively simple.  The planning for a Huon Class upgrade project has already been done and through a number of experimental projects such as SEA 1770/1778 the RAN is developing a growing understanding of the capabilities of contemporary uncrewed platforms.

Doing so would enable the RAN to avoid a capability gap and subsequently, much like what other navies are doing, to manage the risk associated with bringing unscrewed into service exclusively before the technology is fully proven.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Great read, however I think your not taking into account the personnel issues the RAN is currently facing. I think that going autonomous will help on three fronts “keeping the man out of the mine field” Deployable teams from crafts of opportunity will allow for speedy deployment. Finally autonomous systems will reduce the number of personnel need to produce an MCM affect. Just my thoughts, great read!

  2. Quite to the contrary, uninhabited systems will require just as many if not more personnel than a dedicated MCMV. Indeed this was shown to be true over 10 years ago when studies and trials were conducted into this very aspect. RAN Admirals various ignored the data. The hosting of uninhabited systems on MHCs was the coherent sensible way forward however once again lack of experience and soft advocacy by MCM specialists inside the fleet and in Capability Govt has allowed the “mantra” of man out of the minefield (MOOTMF) to gain momentum. MCD Officers who dared to speak up were shunned. The RAN ( or any naval force) is unlikely to know where the minefield is so taking one on with a steel hulled utility ship will end in tears. AI and advanced imaging sonars in AUVs will certainly help but we are a long way from a coherent MCM capability. Perhaps another 10 years at least. Meanwhile the MHCs are virtually port bound with a raft of defects and with poorly trained personnel as a result. Certain senior officers involved in the decisions to pursue this all or nothing cause should hang there heads in shame as should the MCM specialists who remained quiet. The half life refit study of the MHCs conducted in 2010 indicated the hulls would last out until 2040. It’s not too late to rejuvinate RAN MCM by hosting unmanned systems on the MHCs ( remove the 2093 sonar and replace with wide band hull mounted sonar, add sea fox, Auvs and control systems for USVs) and the RAN might have a chance to Re establishment an MCM capability. The present COA with Sea 1905 is looming as another failure.

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