Former NATO mine countermeasures chief explains drastic investment U-turn

Contributor:  Richard de Silva
Posted:  02/13/2013  12:00:00 AM EST
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Tags:   mcm

Philippe Cornez, is the former director of NATO’s Mine Countermeasures Centre of Excellence and will be chairing this year’s inaugural Mine Countermeasures Conference (MCM 13). Defence IQ catches up with him to discuss the rapid U-turn in MCM investment today…

Sir, last we spoke, you mentioned that you felt MCM was somewhat underrepresented in the interests of current militaries.  From our perspective, that does seem to be changing now, perhaps due to a shift in focus to the Pacific in recent months and, of course, the concern over the Strait of Hormuz, at which we saw an exercise at the end of last year on quite a large scale – IMCMEX 12.  How prepared, or underprepared, do you believe we are when it comes to engaging in naval mine warfare?

It is true that we were underrepresented and not only in means but also in interests in different stuff on a strategic level, and it was probably because MCM has always been [considered] minor warfare – very important, of course, but always in the eyes of the staff, it’s been a tactical means and not a strategic means, or something you need to do but not very ‘sexy’, not very likeable, even for navy officers.  It is slow.  It is taking a lot of time.  So that was a reason why mine warfare was not really in the eye of the staff, but I have seen in the last three years, during my period as director of the centre of excellence, that there has been a tremendous increase of interest for naval mine warfare.

We have seen that, not only through the school in an increasing number of students, an increasing number of participants in conferences, workshops, things like that, but also increased visitations of VIPs I know from different countries taking an interest into that warfare. 

As you know, we organise a normally bi-annual exercise for NATO, a direct proof, synthetic exercise and NATO have now decided to run this exercise every year, instead of every two years.  That’s another sign of the renewing interest for mine warfare.  You spoke about the international MCM exercise in the Hormuz region.  Indeed, it is something very important.  It was planned at very short notice and a lot of countries participated in that exercise.  It will be part of the conference topics (at MCM 13).  We will probably talk a lot about that exercise - and the importance to exercise not only in a synthetic trainer but also in real environments, at sea, in the areas where we suppose there could be a danger.  We have also seen for the first time a company organising a conference with a specific subject on mine warfare.  Mine warfare has been part of different conferences, like in ‘Underwater Battlespace’ and different technology conferences, but not really as a sole subject or a main subject of a conference.  So it’s a sign there is plenty of interest for mine warfare. You can see also on networking media that a lot of people are joining groups and workshops on mine warfare.  So the interest is there but is it enough?

Well, that is the question but, also, why such a sudden interest in this?  You mentioned that the exercises had been unanticipated, to some degree…

Oh, the shift is for different reasons.  First, there is a huge commercial interest because a lot of countries need new material.  So, when the industry takes interest into warfare because there needs to be new material, there is a general interest in that warfare.  That’s a commercial point.  On the other side, strategically of course, we know that, besides the Strait of Hormuz, which has been a focus in the mine warfare for a long time, there is also a return of interest in Southeast Asia.  If you read about that region, you will see that all the programmes of the countries in the region that involve new acquisition also involve offensive mine warfare.  So every submarine in the southeast of Asia will be able to place mines.  We found three mines in Libya.  So it’s a possibility that’s always there.  It’s always been there but some activities put mine danger on the first page, on the news, and of course then you have the reaction.  People say, oh yes, we have a problem there.  Now there is communication.

Now we know why there is more interest, the second part is ‘are we prepared to counter the threat’, and that’s a big issue.  If we look at most European nations, we have an MCM fleet that’s aging.  It is still able to do the job but with enormous risk because you need to go into the operation area.  You need to go in the danger area, in the minefield, and so we are looking into a standoff system for the future.  It’s not the case for the moment.  So a lot of countries have planned to acquire a new means.  Some countries are studying very intensively to replace their actual ships by other kinds of systems and we will talk a lot about it during the conference.  But it is very expensive.  It is difficult to convince – in the time of economic crisis – governments to invest in defence.  You know that as well.  So it is a big challenge economically to be able to replace the means we have for the moment and it is also technically difficult because a lot of systems are in concept phase, prototype phase and not really ready to be put at sea in operational areas.  So it’s a huge challenge to replace the actual fleet.  The second problem, if you see the major European countries in mine warfare, we are coming from the ‘80s from 150 ships and we are back to something like fifty per cent [of that].  So less ships but the task is still the same.

You mentioned a couple of interesting things there…  I think the first thing just to touch on very quickly is you mentioned Southeast Asia as being a hotspot in terms of the strategic shift.  Arguably, that could also be a commercial interest as well, being that there is such heavy commercial shipping traffic in that area.  The naval mine would present quite a serious threat in the littorals there.  Again, during our last conversation, you indicated that there was a potential in the future for an emergence of the smaller, nonconventional naval mine perhaps being used by rogue nations, but you also said that there was no real concept at the time for tackling those.  Has there been any progress on that?

Oh, it is very difficult to deal with those nonconventional mines.  It’s a little bit like the IED.  You never know what you can expect.  So we know there are new types of mines.  For example, mines that can be laid totally inert and triggered acoustically at a distance up to 20 miles.  So you could put a minefield in and let it stay really silent for a few years, until a [conflict] appears.  So, for the moment – except for intelligence, which is very important – it’s to know the threat, and we will deal with the threat during warfare at this conference.  We need really to focus on knowing how to plan a mission or to find the best way to prevent the minelayer from laying the mine.  So prevention is one part of the solution.  The other part is acquiring new systems.  We’ll be able to go deeper, to go closer to the shore, to be less invasive and very quiet because some of those modern mines will include an anti mine warfare system, I’m sure, in future.  But it is still a big problem.  We lack information so we need really to focus on knowing the threats before going there.

There is also the big legal aspect because, normally, a lot of mines are not legal.  For example, the drifting mines that have been employed in the Gulf are not legal.  You cannot use them, except in a defensive posture but, you know, a lot of rogue states don’t care about the law of the sea.

And that of course is the threat that is probably most feared at this time.  One of the routes that seem to have been explored in combating that, in particular, is this idea of a dedicated platform – a next-generation platform that deals exclusively with the MCM problem.  Sir, you mention that the EDA had been working on something towards this effect.  Can you tell us whether there’s been any progress on that, whether that’s come to fruition?

The EDA programme was to develop a concept on a future MCM system.  The programme was achieved with good results, with a concept agreed by a lot of nations.  The second point after that, as in any process, is that you need to find some nations who are ready to go into a programme to develop the system and that was a little bit more problematic – a question of money, of course.  You need to invest time and money and so, for the moment, there is no European dedicated programme to develop a new system.  As you may know, France and the United Kingdom have decided to go along together to try to develop a modern mine warfare system, and they are quite advanced in that.  This system will be a standoff system, using UAV/UUV for autonomous vehicle and the principle in future will be stay out of the minefield.  It is still very dangerous to go there with a crew into the minefield.  Normally you’re well protected.  Your ships are equipped to resist explosion and to be quiet and normally you will not trigger the mine but there are more and more mines now that will target MCM ships.  So it is still very dangerous.  So the best way is to stay out of the minefield and use an autonomous vehicle in advance.  But, yes, there are some programmes for the moment between the UK and France and we hope we can benefit from those developments.

In keeping, as you say, the ‘man out of the minefield’ and in undertaking MCM operations, I understand it’s not something that can be done too covertly, so having attention drawn to those vessels while they’re undertaking particular missions of that nature seems to be another capability gap that is wide open in this space.  As we’ve explored, there are a lot of issues that need attention here so, if I were to ask you, Philippe, where you see in practice the priorities for developments for progress in the near term, if you had a list from top to tail, could I ask what would be on the top of that list today?

I think the prime thing will be to learn how to use those autonomous vehicles.  They are on the market.  They are ready to operate.  They still need to be a little improved on endurance and processing and things like that but the most important part is to be able to develop new concepts, new doctrine, tactics.  You need a new type of processing system to do the job because you’ll get a lot of data from those autonomous vehicles and you need still to process that data. We need planning tools too because we are used to planning ship-going with a crew to do a task.  And now we have to plan for those autonomous vehicles, prevent interference, deal with space management, because there will be plenty of those tools in the water in the same place.  So you don’t want them to interfere with each other.  So I think the priority… because there are enough systems on the market, they will improve. They are used by civilian companies also. But the priority is for us to learn to use those systems, put them in the water and use them effectively in the area and get the maximum we can get.  That’s only a part of the action – we will also have to find out how to use autonomous systems to neutralise the mine when we have discovered and identified the mine.

Are those just NATO’s priorities or have you seen a very similar sort of stance from your international partners as well?

I think everybody...  I’ve been to plenty of conferences and everybody is dealing with the same problem.  You need to replace very expensive ships and you need… something else.  You’ve seen the importance of the air battle more and more.  Autonomous systems will take the place of aircraft and pilot and the pilot will stay on the shore.  So I think that we will go the same way with navies in tasks like MCM.  I think everybody is dealing with the same problem: cost. And personnel is a big part of the cost.  So, if you can do the job with less personnel, it’s good and, if you can prevent that your personnel take a risk, it’s even better.

Richard de Silva Contributor:   Richard de Silva

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