Friday, September 6, 2013

Towards the future of minesweeping: an introduction

Deploying today’s minesweepers and keeping them in action for long periods of time out at sea is not easy. The current vessels have glass-reinforced plastic hulls, excellent not to detonate magnetic mines but not so good for ocean travel. They aren’t fast vessels, and they are very small, with a logistical endurance that ranges on the 14 days mark. Minesweepers also happen to be complex warships, very expensive to build and maintain: in proportion to its size, the Hunt-class minesweeper is the most expensive ship in the Royal Navy’s arsenal. It is a very capable minesweeper, but has serious limitations, and although formally all minesweepers have a secondary “patrol vessel” capability, this is very marginal, considering their limited endurance, low speed, lack of helicopter facilities etcetera.

The RN minesweepers can be deployed over long distances, of course: it takes time, but both Hunt and Sandown vessels regularly make their way to the Gulf to replace their sister ships involved in Operation Kipion. Once every three years, there is a ship rotation. The force based in the Gulf (newly grouped under the badge of 9th MCM Squadron) is normally composed by two Hunt and two Sandown, so that the complementary capabilities of the two boats are both readily available in the area (the Hunts are fitted with the hull-mounted sonar Type 2193, while the Sandowns have the variable-depth Type 2093). To counter the weakness of the minesweepers, the RN keeps a Bay-class ship as mother vessel in the area: she carries communications, weapons for the defence of the force, an hangar for a Lynx helicopter flight, a command and control staff, Diver teams, aerial and underwater unmanned vehicle teams and stores and fuel that she can pass on to the minesweepers to extend their endurance. 

Operation Kipion is the constant presence in the Gulf of powerful RN assets, centered on the MCM force of four minesweepers.

The expanded MCM force in the Gulf has now been given the collective identity of 9th MCM Squadron. The badge has already been worn by MCM forces of the Royal Navy in the Gulf in the past

The US Navy does more or less the same using the USS Ponce, an old LPD that instead of being withdrawn from service was refitted and transformed into a capable Afloat Forward Staging Base. The US Navy, which has had to deploy its minesweepers over a greater distance, all the way across the Atlantic, used Float On, Float Off vessels to carry the warships to the Gulf, in a demonstration of how difficult it can be to deploy the current generation of minehunting vessels over long distances. The minesweepers on their own would have needed at least 60 days to reach Bahrain, against 40 days of travel on the back of the FLO-FLO vessels Blue Marlin or Tern (both ships used for the super-transport), and on their arrival they would have needed a drydocking period to have the wear and tear of the travel fixed and remedied to.  

MCM global deployment, US Navy style
This is part of the reason why all major western Navies are trying to develop a working, stand-off suite of unmanned boats, underwater and air vehicles that can sweep a wide area of sea to remove enemy mines, without requiring the mothership to actually get close to the minefield. This would allow the removal of the single-purpose, wooden or glass reinforced plastic hulled minesweepers from the fleet, making space for larger, steel-built, ocean-capable vessels which would offer far greater deployability and flexibility.
It is the concept behind the american LCS with its MCM module. France has its SLAM-F project, the UK has the MHPC programme and Italy is planning to eventually replace the minesweepers of the Lerici and Gaeta classes with a OPV/mothership carrying an equal modular suite of unmanned vehicles. In this brief introductory piece to what I hope will be a series of posts I’ll be writing over time, I want to recall a major case of wartime difficulties with minesweeping, going back to the Royal Navy’s experience in the Falklands war. This also gives me the chance to talk about an act of bravery that does not really get recognized enough, and that I’m sure many do ignore completely.

In the task force that sailed south to retake the Falklands in 1982, there initially were no minesweepers, although it was fully expected that sweeping of mines, underwater EOD and other tasks were likely to be required, and a small MCM team sailed aboard the LPD HMS Fearless.
The absence of minesweepers was due to the elderly Ton class’s incapacity to safety face the long transfer from the UK and the heavy seas expected in the South Atlantic. The Hunt class was at the time yet to come, with the first two vessels yet to be delivered, and anyway it would have been a tough call for the newer hulls as well.

Unfortunately, the Argies were soon observed planting mines at sea. Admiral Woodward writes in his memories (“One hundred days”, book written with the help of Patrick Robinson):

One of our submarines had already watched the Args laying mines to the east of Port Stanley harbor entrance (called Port William, incidentally), which was after all the most obvious place for us to land. So we knew well enough that they were perfectly capable of laying mines across the northern end of Falklands Sound as well. For that matter they might even go for the Southern end too, depending on how many they had, how much time they had and whether they thought it necessary. And since it now seemed fairly certain that our General Directive would change in a way that which would render Carlos Water our automatic choice for the landings, I wanted to do my best to ensure that we did not lose half a dozen ships and a couple of thousand men four miles short of the landing area.


If I had been an Argentinian and had suspected even for one moment that the british were coming in to land in Carlos Bay, I would have laid as many mines in the north and south entrances to Falkland Sound as I could. That would have eliminated all worry about the Brits landing anywhere along either side of the Sound. It would have been a considerable weight off my mind. We did not, of course, know whether they had done just that… or something very like it.  

For my part, however, mine-sweepers and their special equipment I did not have, which meant that I would have to use something else – and the hull of a ship was the only suitable hardware available. The only steel which would go deep enough. Now, plainly I could not use the two indispensable Type 22 frigates Broadsword or Brilliant with their close-range Sea Wolf systems. I also clearly could not send in my remaining Type 42s Coventry and Glasgow with their invaluable long-range Sea Dart systems. And equally surely, it really wasn’t on to send a merchant ship or RFA. It had to be a ship though – and it would have to be a Royal Navy warship. But it would also have to be something cheap and cheerful which I could replace, like a 3000-ton Type 21 frigate. Like Alacrity. Like expendable Alacrity.

Now, I did not particularly relish the prospect of ringing up Commander Christophere Craig and saying, “Tonight I would like you to go and see if you can get yourself sunk by a mine in the Falkland Sound. By the way, I will put Arrow up at the northern end to observe events and in case she’s needed to pick up survivors.” Nor, when it came to sending the amphibians in, could I possibly follow the instincts of the fabled American Civil War admiral, David Farragut, who roared at the entrance to Mobile Bay in 1869, “Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead!”

I did neither. Instead I phoned Commander Craig on the voice-encrypted network and said, “Er,… Christopher, I would like you to do a circumnavigation of East Falkland tonight, all the way around to the south, then north up Falkland Sound and out past Fanning Head to rendezvous with Arrow.” I also told him to come up the Sound very noisily, exploding a few star-shells and generally frightening the life out of the Args. I added, “If you see anything move, sink it, but be out of there and home by dawn, so you are clear of the land before they can fly.”
He was silent for a few moments and then he said, “Umm, I expect you would like me to go in and out of the north entrance a few times, Admiral. Do a bit of zig-zagging.”
“Oh,” I said, feigning surprise and feeling about two inches high. “Why do you ask that?”
“I expect you would like me to find out whether there are any mines there,” he said quietly.
I cannot remember what I said. But I remember how I felt. I think I just mentioned that I thought that would be quite useful.
He replied, with immense dignity, “Very well, Sir.” Then he went off to prepare for the possible loss of his ship and people the best way he could. I shall remember him as one of the bravest men I ever met. This was Victoria Cross material but, strangely, only if it went wrong.

I personally felt awful not to have had the guts to be honest with him and wondered what the devil he was going to tell his ship’s company about their task tonight and about my pitiful performance, which, for a sea-going admiral to one of his commanders, beggared description.

Fortunately, there were no mines. Alacrity did her dangerous job that night, taking to occasion to sink the argentine tanker Isla de Los Estados, caught in the Sound in the light of a star-shell and pounded with the 4.5 inch gun.

Thus ended quietly, and no doubt gratefully so, an extraordinary story of courage, which will go, I’m afraid, largely unnoticed in the annals of maritime history. COMAW (Commodore, Amphibious Warfare, Michael Clapp) certainly was completely unimpressed by Alacrity’s efforts. But had it ended in tragedy it would have joined the sagas of Jervis Bay or Glowworm being presented to young naval officers of the future as a supreme example of selflessness and devotion to duty. If they had hit a mine, Commander Craig would have been most strongly recommended for the award of a VC – but, thank goodness, he didn’t.

Commander Craig lived on and continued his career with distinction. No VC for him, but he became Commodore and was the frontline commander of the british task force in the Gulf War, the conflict in which, showing that many lessons from the Falklands had been learned, a much improved Type 42, HMS Gloucester, with much improved Sea Dart missiles, shot down an iraqi Silkworm anti-ship missile in a worldwide first that has yet to be repeated.  

On 12 May, Carlos Bay became the definite objective for the beach head. Alacrity had done her job and allowed the campaign to proceed. On May 21st, the troops landed on the beaches of San Carlos bay.

It was only on May 26 that the 11th Mine Counter-Measure Squadron, a formation purposefully stood up for the South Atlantic campaign, reached South Georgia. The Squadron was formed requisitioning five deep sea trawlers from Hull and fitting them with rudimentary MCM equipment. The crews for the five ships came from the Ton-class minesweepers based in Rosyth.
The vessels so obtained (HMS FARNELLA, HMS CORDELLA, HMS JUNELLA, HMS NORTHELLA and HMS PICT) initially worked to transfer stores across the task force and towards the beach heads, before serving in their intended role, finally clearing Port William waters between 23 June and July 4. It was only in early July that two new Hunt-class minesweepers could arrive in the area to complete the job.
I strongly encourage everyone who reads this piece to go read this brief but detailed account of the activities of the “forgotten few of the Falklands”: the men of the Minewarfare, Diving and Explosive Ordnance Disposal units.

Waiting so long to have minesweepers, even rudimentary, was a non-starter, during the Falklands campaign, which was dramatically constrained and absolutely had to be closed in short time, before the ships were worn out and the winter could set in.
It is worth remembering that the Falklands Campaign was planned with the awareness that the task group would, in Woodward’s effective words “fall apart” by mid to late june, due to the ships receiving no adequate maintenance and spending all their time out in the hostile South Atlantic. The arrival of winter would have made pretty much impossible to sustain the tempo of the operation, and the ships would have had to turn back and head to a port.
Already in the planning phases it was evident that the land battle had to be won by the end of June at the latest, and preferably a good two weeks before that. As a consequence, to make sure that land forces would have a reasonable time to reach Port Stanley, the soldiers had to go ashore by about May 25, not later. To sustain the campaign, the sky and sea had to be sufficiently clear to allow operations and, crucially, to enable the transfer of stores, men, vehicles, fuel and ammunition from the ships to the shore, by both boat and helicopter.
The margins were incredibly tight, also considering that the LPD HMS Intrepid had been destored in March and put in reserve as part of the disastetrous cuts of the John Nott’s defence review, and she had to be re-stored and brought back to operational status before she could sail south.
Weather and strategic considerations, plus the availability of HMS Intrepid constrained the definition of the “window” of time in which the amphibious landing could take place: it had to happen between 16 April (earlier date at which HMS Intrepid could be available) and 25 May.

It is a good thing that the Args did not have the capability to establish larger minefields. They would have posed a tremendous challenge, and potentially derailed the whole campaign, in consideration of the unavailability of proper minesweeping equipment and, crucially, the pathologic lack of available time. 
Time is always a crucial factor, in any war. But the Falklands campaign is probably the one war that has been shaped the most by choices of timing. It is worth reminding, and admiral Woodward himself never made a mystery of it, that had the Args waited six months more, the islands would now be called Malvinas for real. Six months would have seen the Argies in a stronger position (with the Etendards carrier-qualified, so able to deploy their Exocet missiles far further out at sea) while the cuts mandated by the John Nott's defence review would have had removed Britain's capability to react by removing from the ORBAT the carriers and the LPDs. 

On Sunday 13 June, the Task Group was, as was to be expected, effectively falling apart. Only three vessels in the force had no major OPDEF (Operational Defect) to report, and these were Hermes, Yarmouth and Exeter.
Fortunately, the war was over, with the surrender of the argentine garrison in Port Stanley on Monday 14, in the times that had been anticipated. HMS Invincible, that had had to deal with big trouble almost immediately after setting sail, dealing with a gearbox which wouldn’t work, had now to sail well clear to the north, escorted by the frigate Andromeda, to undergo an engine change.
As expected, by then the weather was changing, and the ships had to endure a monstrous tempest with force 10 gale winds, confirming that, for very good reasons, there was no time to waste.

There are many examples of how much of an impact mines can have on impeding operations. They are very effective at slowing down the pace of the opposition’s ops, and this at times can, in itself, bring to victory. Unfortunately, the current minesweeping vessels are slow, not genuinely globally deployable and limited in terms of usefulness outside of their very specific role. They are as incredibly precious, in other words, as they are frustrating.  

I’m firmly convinced that the times are now mature for motherships much less specialized and much more multirole and flexible, equipped with modular mission payloads. The emerging unmanned stand-off MCM capabilities have the potential to make sure that the unfortunate HMS Alacrity of the future will be able to reconnoiter a waterway not with their own hull, but with the help of unmanned boats and sensors they will be able to deploy from cargo decks. We can think, specifically, to the future Type 26 frigates, with their mission deck capable to take 11 containers of equipment and/or boats, manned or unmanned.

The modular payloads will extend the capabilities of warships in many roles, not just in the MCM field. Unmanned vehicles will most likely grow more and more important in ASW missions as well, for example. And while the minesweeper as we currently intend it will possibly disappear, there will be a new, exciting chance to build multirole vessels with far greater logistical endurance and deployability and with utility across a much wider range of roles.

In the coming posts, it is my intention to talk about the ongoing development programs, from MHPC to SLAM-F to the LCS, tracing a story of this important turning point in the history of naval warfare. 


  1. So, in your opinion would designs such as the Black Swan sloop or BMT's Venator negate the deployability problem to a certain degree?

    Or - as a whole - how do you feel the MHPC program (as scarce public information there is) goes to improving the points of our MCM force that you explained?

  2. Venator and Black Swan would both very much improve deployability. I plan to talk about both designs as the series progresses. They are larger ships, built of steel, with much, much greater endurance and much greater multirole capability. So they definitely go in the right direction, although i don't think any of the two designs is perfect, as i will explain later. I have some reservations, but they make for excellent starting points in their own ways.

    The MHPC programme in its current form is about getting in service a suite of unmanned surface, subsurface and later perhaps aerial vehicles, initially to be carried on suitably modified Hunt minesweepers. By 2028, however, new, multirole motherships are envisaged, and that is where the real chance comes, with the opportunity to replace minesweepers with constabulary warships with modular, stand-off MCM capability which will be both less "invasive" and more capable as today's systems and methods.

  3. Anyone reading this know what has happened to Defence

    That site has not been updated for a fortnight and is now down completely.

    I am guessing that readers here may also frequent that site?

    Thank you

  4. seems to have vanished off the face of the earth. They're not even answering emails. Is the DMJ now defunct?

    1. The website probably is. I know the publishers were cutting back on funding from months ago.


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