Deployed to the Baltic, Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group 1 (SNMCMG1) just found a cluster of old Russian M/12 moored pendulum contact mines laid in 1917 along Parnu Bay on the Estonian coast. Latvian Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams rendered them safe. It is estimated that there are 80,000 sea mines left over from the two World Wars in the Baltic.
Currently, SNMG1 comprises flagship Royal Netherlands Navy HNLMS Tromp (F803), Royal Norwegian Navy HNoMS Maud (A530), and Royal Danish Navy HDMS Esbern Snare (F342).
Mine warfare has been a task that the U.S. Navy has been fine with increasingly outsourcing to NATO and overseas allies over the past generation, as its own capabilities in this specialty have declined.
Cold War Force fading
Probably the peak of post-Vietnam mine warfare in the Navy was reached in about 1996 when the old amphibious assault ship USS Inchon (LPH-12) was converted and reclassified as a mine countermeasures ship (MCS-12) following a 15-month conversion at Ingalls. Based at the U.S. Navy’s Mine Warfare Center of Excellence at Naval Station Ingleside, it could host a squadron of the Navy’s huge (then brand new) Sikorsky MH-53E Sea Dragon mine-sweeping helicopters.
Going small, the Navy had just commissioned 14 new 224-foot/1,300-ton Avenger-class mine countermeasures ships by 1994 and another full dozen 188-foot/880-ton Osprey-class coastal minehunter (modified Italian Lerici-class design) with fiberglass hulls by 1999.
This force, of an MCS mine-sweeping flattop/flagship, 26 new MCM/MHCs, and 30 giant MH-53E Sea Dragons– the only aircraft in the world rated to tow the Mk105 magnetic minesweeping sled, the AQS-24A side-scan sonar and the Mk103 mechanical minesweeping system on four-hour missions– in three Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadrons (HM)s, was only to last for a couple of years.
As part of the slash in minesweeper money during the Global War on Terror, the increasingly NRF mission dwindled in assets with Inchon decommissioned in June 2002 following an engineering plant fire.
In 2006, USS Osprey (MHC-51), just 13 years old, was the first of her class decommissioned with all of her still very capable sisters gone by 2007.
Naval Station Ingleside, hit by BRAC in 2005, transferred all its hulls to other stations and closed its doors in 2010, its property was turned over to the Port of Corpus Christi.
The first Avenger-class sweeper, USS Guardian (MCM-5), was decommissioned in 2013 and so far she has been joined in mothballs by USS Avenger, Defender, and Ardent, with the eight remaining members of her class scheduled for deactivation by 2027, meaning that within five years, the Navy will have no dedicated mine warfare vessels for the first time since the Great War.
Speaking of shrinking assets, the Navy’s three Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadrons (HM 12, HM 14, and HM 15) are soon to become just two, with the disestablishment ceremony of HM 14 to be held on March 30th, 2023. HM-15 will absorb “102 full-time and 48 reserve enlisted personnel and four full-time and eight reserve officers” from her sister squadron and keep on rolling for now at least with a mission to “maintain a worldwide 72-hour Airborne Mine Countermeasures (AMCM) rapid deployment posture and a four aircraft forward-deployed AMCM and VOD capability in the Arabian Gulf,” in Manama, Bahrain in support of the U.S. 5th Fleet.
HM-12, on the other hand, serves as a fleet replacement squadron for the declining Sea Dragons in service, making HM-15 the sole deployable MH-53E squadron. After 2025, when the big Sikorsky is planned to be retired, the Sea Dragons will be gone altogether without a replacement fully fleshed out yet.
HM-14 currently has a four-aircraft forward-deployed detachment in Pohang, South Korea, in support of the U.S. 7th Fleet, and they recently had a great Multinational Mine Warfare Exercise (MN-MIWEX) with ROKN and Royal Navy assets last month, giving a nice photo opportunity.
The Navy’s Mine Warfare Training Center (MWTC), located at Naval Base Point Loma, looks to have graduated about 18 Mineman “A” School classes so far this year, each with a single-digit number of students. These 150 or so Minemen will join their brethren and be eventually relegated to a few Littoral Combat Ships that plan to have a secondary mine mission with embarked UUVs and supported by MH-60S Airborne Mine Countermeasures (AMCM) helicopters that are closer to being a reality.
Let’s hope so.
A standard ExMCM company is comprised of a 27-person unit with four elements: the command-and-control element (C2), an unmanned systems (UMS) platoon, an EOD MCM platoon, and a post-mission analysis (PMA) cell, all working in tandem, just as they would in a mine warfare environment.The mission begins with and hinges on the UMS platoon providing mine detection, classification, and identification. The platoon, composed of Sailors from mixed pay grades and ratings, is led by a senior enlisted Sailor and employs the Mk 18 UUV family of systems.The UMS platoon deploys the MK 18 Mod 2 UUVs to locate potential mine shapes. Upon completion of their detection mission, the data from the vehicles is analyzed by the five-person PMA cell using sonar data and produces a mine-like contact listing to the C2 element for review.