The Navy has started taking some steps to address the shortcoming. At the Navy League exhibition in April, the service announced a new Surface Mine Countermeasure Unmanned Undersea Vehicle, called Knifefish, which will help protect LCS. Knifefish would essentially be an unmanned minisubmarine launched from the LCS to collect information about the location of mines using its sonar.
But Knifefish, which will not be operational until at least 2017, does not address the immediate threat facing U.S. naval forces in the strait, and it is not clear that building a better mine-hunter using sonar is even enough. “The real solution to modern warfare in some of the areas that we are exploring are outside of sonar,” says Sprigg.
The challenge is not just building technology that can clear mines, but finding a way to do it quickly and affordably. In effect, Iran is playing a numbers game. It knows that mines can eventually be cleared, but probably not before damage to trade is done. “The experience of past mine-warfare campaigns suggests that it could take many weeks, even months, to restore the full flow of commerce, and more time still for the oil markets to be convinced that stability had returned,” academic Caitlin Talmadge wrote in 2008.
Little has changed in this calculus over the past few years. Defeating mines comes down to time and money. If a mine neutralizer costs $50,000, it is important to screen out false positives and ensure you are not blowing up discarded refrigerators, said Morneau. “I want to be discriminatory and know that I'm blowing up a mine,” he added.
Whether it is looking at the economics of mine-hunting, or the development of new technologies, one of the biggest barriers to mine clearance may be the simple law of economics. With the defense budget expected to go down in coming years, there is little, if any, money for the types of new developments the Navy may want. Companies also know any new approaches will have to compete against established Navy technology programs like ALMDS.
“As a company, we sell mine-warfare solutions all over the world,” said Kevin Peppe, Raytheon's vice president for seapower capability systems. “But the biggest problem that we've had is truly trying to sell them to the U.S. Navy.”