In a world of high-tech missiles, radars, stealth design and navigation systems, the simple mine is often seen as an archaic throwback to the Second World War, Vietnam and other 20th-century conflicts.
Cheap, easy to produce, and horribly effective, naval mines are still a staple armament of non-state actors, terrorist organizations and states around the globe. The rumor of a mine in a restricted area of water can mean the complete closure of that waterway, and if deployed in one of the vital maritime choke points – the Malacca Straits or the Suez Canal, the Straits of Hormuz or the English Channel – the consequences for maritime trade could be huge.
Mine countermeasures operations do exactly what it says on the tin: they allow navies to detect and defeat the threat posed by all types of naval mines. From active minehunting weapons like Seafox and Pinguin to defensive measures like hull degaussing, mine countermeasures is an ever-developing and ever more vital field of modern naval warfare.
Warships that are designed to partake in mine countermeasures are split roughly in to two camps: Minehunters and minesweepers. Both these types of warship engage in active countermeasures – that is, they seek out and destroy or disable mines. Mine sweepers use wires dragged behind them to either set off or cut loose mines that they pass near, whilst mine hunters use sophisticated sonar and other equipment to detect individual mines before destroying them with the aid of either divers or unmanned underwater vehicles.
The Royal Navy’s Hunt-Class Mine Countermeasures Vessels (MCMVs) HMS Atherstone and HMS Quorn are first-rate examples of minehunting vessels; equipped with the Seafox unmanned underwater vehicle and a time of highly-trained Mine Clearance Divers, they are effective against almost all mine types. Using their Type 2193 sonar, the crew of the MCMV can detect mines up to a kilometer away. Once detected, the Hunt-class will either dispatch Seafox – an autonomous, fire-and-forget minehunting drone that can both locate a target and blow it up with an explosive charge – or a team of human divers to disable or destroy the mine, clearing the way for commercial shipping to pass safely through the area.
Even ships without an active minehunting or sweeping role can adopt mine countermeasures to help protect themselves when passing through threatened waters. Passive countermeasures are the name given to techniques ships can use to make themselves less likely to set off or attract mines. Degaussing, for example, involves passing an electric current through a ship’s steel hull to reduce the vessel’s magnetic signature and thus making it less likely to set off a magnetically-activated mine; many MCMVs take this to the extreme and remove their magnetic signature almost entirely by building the hull itself out of wood or glass-reinforced plastic.
Other forms of passive countermeasures include specialist non-acoustic propulsion systems such as the Votih-Schneider propeller, which limits the vessel’s sound signature and makes the MCMV much less vulnerable to acoustic mines – mines activated by the sound of a ship passing overhead.
IMCMEX brings together the mine countermeasures capabilities and experience of around 40 different nations, and is one of the world’s foremost exercises for practicing cooperative anti-mine warfare. Through exercises like this, the international community is able to ensure that it is ready to respond to a mine warfare threat anywhere in the world.
– Luff, RN