Key Point: Despite the threat, the Navy is currently unwilling to invest in modern minesweepers.
Hypersonic missiles and fast attack boats may dominate the headlines as the primary threats to the U.S. Navy, but the naval mine remains one of the deadliest threats to the modern warship. Mine technology has advanced significantly in recent years, with advances in networking and sensing allowing mines to become more lethal.
With recent tensions stepping up with Iran, the need for effective minesweepers is rapidly rising. But a recent report by ProPublica suggests that the American minesweeper fleet is hardly ready to be deployed, and the replacement ships are some ways off.
Can the U.S. Navy mobilize effective minesweepers in time? Will the capability be important in the future?
While the ProPublica article paints the situation as dire, the U.S. Navy does have a plan that could be put into action to field minesweeping capability relatively quickly. The Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) are built around the idea of modular “Mission Packages” that can potentially be swapped out to equip the ships for different roles. One of the packages is the Mine Countermeasures Mission (MCM) package, which includes a variety of sensors, drones and helicopters to allow a ship to effectively minesweep.
However, the cornerstone of the MCM is the Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle, an unmanned light boat that is meant to carry mine detection and neutralization equipment so the LCS can stay at a safe distance while mines are being cleared. While development of the CUSV is largely complete, the integration of minesweeping equipment onto the CUSV is still an ongoing process as of 2019.
While presumably LCSs fitted with the MCMs with prototype CUSVs could be pressed into service rapidly (as most technologies used on the CUSV are relatively mature), this would introduce additional risk into a potentially lethal minesweeping mission.
It’s understandable why the Navy doesn’t want to invest additional money into the legacy minesweeper fleet. But it begs the question of whether enough MCM equipped LCSs will be procured to fulfill future obligations. In 2018, a naval analysis blog pointed out that the Navy only plans to procure eight LCSs equipped for the countermine mission, replacing the eleven dedicated minesweeping ships the Navy has currently, which are already stretched thin.
While it’s possible the operation of multiple CUSVs from a single ship could attempt to pick up the slack, or the equipping of more LCSs with MCMs, the threat from mines only appears to be getting worse in the future. Mines could be an easy way for China to complicate a situation in the South China Sea, or for Russia to attempt to isolate the Baltic states navally from Europe.
Future mines are likely to become more mobile and autonomous, similar to the Mk 60 CAPTOR (Captured Torpedo) sea mine utilized by the US Navy. These future torpedo-mines are likely to be more time-intensive to detect and neutralize, which could make the countermine mission even more difficult and put additional strain on the Navy’s planned eight minesweeper fleet.
Charlie Gao studied political and computer science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national-security issues. This piece was originally featured in September 2019 and is being republished due to reader's interest.