Good Mine Hunting

On April 4, the Wavell Room kindly published the first part of a blog on future mine hunting options for the RN. The link is here and the summary here:

“The Royal Navy’s mine hunting fleet provides the UK with a world-leading war-fighting capability that is on essential live operations in the UK and elsewhere every day of the year. It buys the RN considerable equity with our allies whilst providing both balance and mass to what would otherwise be a top-heavy fleet. As a training tool for both divers and future commanders it is invaluable.

Twelve replacement ships would maintain all this for roughly the price of a single Type 26.

Current ships go out of service in the next 10 years and thus far, I’m not hearing much noise about their replacements. I hope this changes in the near future.”

This sparked an interesting debate which I will try and summarise below. Since then, there has been a timely article in The Strategist outlining the increasing Chinese Navy mine threat.

It was made clear in the discussion that under the auspices of transformation, or automation, or both, a great deal of work on the RN’s future mine counter measures (MCM) capability has been done, particularly with the French in a collaborative programme called MMCM. This is a sophisticated and complex programme that includes, “Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs), a super-performing new sonar (SAMDIS) carried by Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) or towed by USV and Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs). Remotely controlled by expert operators from a Portable Operational Centre (POC), these would break new ground in collaboration and autonomy.” With MMCM as the backbone, much has been done towards “detecting mines without the need to put a ship in the minefield”.

What is less clear, both in the reading and discussion, is how this capability is going to be delivered in a sustainable and defensible manner. There are a lot of options but the direction of travel for the RN is not clear. The MMCM script says that “The solution would also be highly portable—being flown to mined areas in hours…” The vignette-based approach MMCM has adopted suggests that much complex logistical planning on how to deploy this capability has already taken place. But at the highest level, even the ‘fly-in’ methodology mentioned here can be challenged. For example, if the Iranians have just mined the Strait of Hormuz, you’re not flying there, or anywhere near, for some time. Note; this doesn’t mean you could safely operate existing capabilities either.

One reader kept citing “a suite of delivery options” without being able to articulate what they were. Other discussions centred on using either existing platforms (B2 Rivers) or planned hulls (T31). Again, no one I spoke to, inside or outside the wire, knew exactly what this meant. What is clear is that the list of tasks these hulls are going to be asked to do is increasing daily. There is no doubt that there is some good mine hunting technology out there. Nothing since my last post as alleviated my concern is that the RN is being seduced by this, possibly at the expense of its sustainable warfighting delivery.

The Belgian and the Dutch solution to this problem is to build a fleet of 12 x 2800 ton vessels from which their autonomous solutions can be deployed. These look excellent (and perhaps what a Hunt 2 should look like) but I’m not hearing of any UK plans for something similar. So why not? Is overall cost the problem? Or is there a concern that the expenditure could come at the expense of another capability? By coincidence, last weekend I posted parts of my 1994 undergrad dissertation. This examined the period where the RN effectively bartered away a mid-level capability – diesel submarines – for fear of losing an (element of) exquisite capability – nuclear submarines. (Noting that once you’ve lost a capability like that, you never get it back.) Or is it just ‘the fetish’ of pursuing new technology? More on this at the end.

My final point is that 90% of the discussion triggered by this blog focussed on new methods of networked mine detection. Almost everything else I cited as a positive for the current fleet of mine hunters was overlooked. The equity our mine hunting capability buys us with the US was largely overlooked as was the MCMs utility as the platform from which our world-leading dive capability is supported. The fact that the RN can scarcely afford to lose 11 platforms right now didn’t get a mention nor did their utility as a platform on which to give our aspiring leaders of the future something to cut their teeth on. In sum, almost every discussion was about ‘teching’ our way out of the need to put a ship in the minefield…and that’s it.

That these conversations didn’t happen on twitter doesn’t matter, as long as they are happening behind closed doors. Of course, with the Hunts in their early 40s, they need to be happening right now. If they’re not, or if the transformation bus is now moving so fast that even ‘looking at it funny’ can be career threatening, then we’ll simply end up with something that looks shiny and ‘clever’ but in reality is less capable than its antecedent. Spending our way out of this hole could even end up costing more. Zumwalt anyone?

To summarise this time around, I’ve asked some questions:

1.         Will the new technology be as good at detecting mines – Yes

2.         Will it be as good at mine disposal on a large scale – No

3.         Will it be ready in time for the current MCMVs going out of service – Not sure

4.         Will the delivery systems be (globally) combat ready in time – Probably not

5.         Will this system be as proficient in the secondary roles – No

6.         Will this suite of technologies cost less than 12 x new ships – Probably not   

7.         Is the RN in danger of sacrificing a global maritime lead role – Yes

I’ll finish with an interestingly provocative postscript from a USN senior about remote operations generally: “If you rely on offboarding/satellites or the electromagnetic spectrum for track analysis and/or C2 w/o a resident backup offline capability – in a peer war I will blind you, cut you off, make you mission ineffective and then steal or kill you – every time. The fetish.”

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