First Appearance: The US Navy will test the Airborne Mine Laser Detection System this year during exercises in the Arabian Gulf. The system, equipping an MH-60S helicopter here, was developed as part of the littoral combat ship mine countermeasures package. (US Navy)
Interoperating: The International Mine Counter Measures Exercise in 2012 in the Arabian Gulf involved navies from more than 30 countries, including the UK Royal Navy auxiliary ship Cardigan Bay. This year's exercise is expected to be bigger, with nations participating at various levels. / US Navy
WASHINGTON — From its headquarters in Bahrain, US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) looks out on a steady drumbeat of exercises, training operations and surveillance activities, many in cooperation with regional partners.
The pace is heightened occasionally by a major exercise, such as the International Mine Counter Measures Exercise, or the deployment of a significant task force, such as the appearance this year by a French carrier strike group.
“We’re continually doing interoperability and training exchanges, and exercises with our gulf partners Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, all of our partners in the region,” said Capt. Ed Cashman, director of NAVCENT’s maritime operations center. “We work bilaterally and multilaterally.
“Our partnership, our ability to operate with and reassure our allies in the region and work with partners from the rest of the world who deploy here is a critical focus here,” he added.
The exercises range from explosive ordnance disposal drills to amphibious exercises.
“That’s to make sure that we maintain the readiness to be able to work together at any time,” Cashman said.
Starting in late December, the French carrier Charles de Gaulle and its strike group joined the US and gulf partners for a series of exercises.
“They were fully integrated with our operations,” Cashman said. “We set up some training situations specifically to flex a US carrier strike group with a French strike group. It worked exceptionally well.”
The exercises displayed a “very focused level of interoperability with France,” Cashman noted, similar to earlier operations with a deployed British amphibious task group. The British are expected to make a similar deployment this year.
Another mine exercise will be held this year, Cashman said, extending what’s become an annual event.
“This one will probably be a bit bigger,” he said, since there is more lead time for planners and for nations to decide if and how they will contribute.
“This time there will be just about a year between, and we started planning even before the 2013 exercise was done,” he said. “We had about 28 nations at the last planning conference, with additional navies telling us they’d like to participate.
“It’s very cooperative, from the planning and integration. It’s in everybody’s best interest. Freedom of navigation is such a keen interest for so many nations.”
Nations can participate at various levels, he noted. “You don’t have to have a huge navy; you can have very specific capability sets — divers, staff members.”
The US has been steadily improving its mine countermeasures capabilities in recent years. All minesweepers in the region are fitted with the Sea Fox remotely controlled mine neutralization system, a fitment the US was attracted to when it began operating alongside British minesweepers.
“It’s interesting seeing how the exercise develops, and the emerging technologies are being used and fielded and deployed,” Cashman observed.
A major new piece this year will be the first appearance of the Airborne Laser Mine Detection System (ALMDS), a helicopter-borne piece of equipment being developed for use in mine countermeasures packages aboard littoral combat ships (LCS).
“This is the first time the ALMDS will be deployed for operational test and evaluation,” Cashman said.
The NAVCENT demonstration will be independent of the US-based testing program, said Lt. Kurt Larson, a spokesman for the Naval Sea Systems Command in Washington.
“For this demonstration, ALMDS will be used from shore-based MH-60S helicopters,” Larson noted, adding that the system completed an operational assessment in August 2012 off the Virginia coast, and will continue initial operational test and evaluation into 2015.
The Sea Fox system, Cashman noted, is also deployed on minesweeping helicopters, and is being used on unmanned rigid-hull inflatable boats (RHIBs).
“The RHIB has a camera system for navigation, is global positioning system-programmable, and has the ability to tow sonar sensors to detect and report minelike contacts,” Cashman said.
A year ago, the US was operating eight minesweepers in the region, part of a four-ship surge deployment. The force was reduced to six ships, and now, with new systems operational in the region, to four ships.
“The combination of sensors and mine neutralization systems, along with the concept of employment with unmanned undersea vehicles and eventually other airborne sensors, means we’re rapidly evolving the way we’re doing mine countermeasures,” Cashman said. “We think our capability is just as good as it was with eight ships before they were all modernized.”
The US also is increasing the number of coastal patrol boats (PCs) forward-deployed to Bahrain. Two more ships will arrive in the spring, bringing the total to 10.
The PCs have been upgraded and modernized with new guns, new systems, and the Griffin surface-to-surface missile is being installed.
The ships are expected to be a mainstay of the US Navy’s gulf presence until Bahrain-based littoral combat ships arrive later this decade.
“The PCs are great platforms for a number of reasons,” Cashman said. “There is a steadily greater demand signal to participate in events and training operations. They’re a perfect size — 179 feet long, with shallow draft, and their range and endurance is perfect to operate inside the gulf. They’re about the same size as most of the partner Navy patrol boats in the region and match up well. They can do merchant escort, maritime security, boarding operations.”
The PCs also fill another demand — to play the role of opposition forces in exercises.
“They can simulate the fast attack adversary craft we may be facing,” Cashman said.
Another new weapon system that will undoubtedly get a lot of attention is expected to show up this year, when the US Navy’s Laser Weapon System (LaWS) is installed on the afloat forward staging base ship Ponce. The system already has been shown able to shoot down small unmanned aircraft.
The setup on the Ponce will be the first operational installation of the LaWS, which uses a solid state infrared beam to strike targets.
Altogether, the US activities are designed to bring together partner navies to resist efforts to disrupt the region.
“Part of the messaging is that anyone in the [area of responsibility] who may want to not operate cooperatively, that it’s very clear we maintain the combat capability to be able to defeat aggression,” Cashman said. “That’s a conscious part of our thought, that the United States Navy along with our partners in the region are more than capable of defeating any aggressors. The deterrent part of that is a big part of our calculus as well.” ■