The troubled Remote Minehunting System has a bigger foe than the mines it was built to hunt. The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee is looking to sink the Navy’s Remote Minehunting System, and he has plenty of ammo in his arsenal.
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee has targeted the Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, targeted the beleaguered system in his latest edition of "America’s Most Wasted," a report that argues the remote-controlled underwater vehicle has failed to live up to its billing after nearly 17 years and $706 million of taxpayer money. a new series with the goal of "highlighting, naming and shaming outrageous pork projects funded with your taxpayer dollars."
The RMS is designed to steer itself into a suspected minefield and to use its towed sonar to find and classify mines, among the most lethal and inexpensive anti-access weapons. The underwater vehicle is designed to take ships like minesweepers out of the minefield, but there's only one snag: it doesn't work yet. In tests, the sonar has failed to detect some mines and has yielded false positives.
The RMS has been troubled from the its fiscal 2007 start. Cost per system has more than doubled — from $13 million to $29 million — while the number of systems has been cut from 108 to 54, which means the Navy will get half as many for twice the price, according to the report by Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona. Development was expected to take eight years but is nearing its 17th year, with little signs of progress. The Navy, however, still sees value in the system and is providing more training and personnel to fixing the system's problems. has racked up a $706 million bill, and has little to show for it. The Lockheed Martin-built system has three key problems to overcome:
- Unreliable. The RMS was supposed to run for 75 hours between operational mission failures, but scored a dismal 198.8 hours in tests this summer. The Remote Multi-Mission Vehicle, the system’s centerpiece, fared slightly better with 25 hours between operational failures.
- Losing contact. The RMMV is an unmanned, autonomous, semi-submersible system. It was to be a key component of the littoral combat ship’s mine countermeasures mission package, but has been unable to successfully integrate with interfaceing with LCS systems, according to a 2014 Pentagon report. The RMMV is billed as to be communicate and be steered by line meant to be capable of line-of-sight and over-the-horizon operations, but control from the ship has not proven reliable, and communication is typically lost when the vehicle is out of sight.
- Missing mines. The self-propelled RMMV tows the AN/AQS-20A minehunting sonar system that is supposed to detect and classify mine-like contacts, but a 2013 Government Accountability Office report noted that the towed sonar failed to detect certain mines, was slow in identifying others, and falsely identified some objects as mines.
Lockheed did not respond to requests for comment by Sept. 14.
McCain took aim at 10 projects in his inaugural waste report, published on May 7. His attacks were not limited to military targets — the former naval aviator zeroed in on everything from a $15,000 study of backyard BBQ pollution to $753 million spent to renovate a building for Congress. Still, the Pentagon provided two notable targets: $50,000 to research the bomb-detecting capabilities of elephants, and $49 million spent on pro sports advertising for the National Guard. The Sept. 3 RMS report, which McCain titled "Indefensible," is a special edition of sorts. It looks exclusively at the RMS program, which McCain calls "the epitome of wasteful acquisition spending." In addition to the system’s dismal reliability, McCain took issue with the use of "artificial, even implausible" test conditions and the Navy’s failure to following "common sense best acquisition practices — like making sure RMS works the way it should by testing its basic functions before committing to buy more."
Indeed, a top Pentagon official said it is time to pull the plug after RMS' poor performance this summer. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s top weapons tester, said in an Aug. 3 memo that there had been director of the Office of Test and Evaluation, in an Aug. 3 memo admitted there has been virtually no progress in RMS reliability despite two decades of development. Reliability "plateaued nearly a decade ago," according to Gilmore, who said Navy testers inflated figures and dismissed several critical failures. He recommended the Navy turn its attention to other technologies such as Minehunting Unmanned Surface Vehicles, the Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle, and unmanned underwater vehicles such as the Mark 18 Mod 1 Swordfish and Mod 2 Kingfish vehicles.
"Rather than throwing more good money after bad, DoD should start looking at alternatives better suited and more cost-effective to performing the mine-hunting mission," McCain said in his report.
But the Navy doesn’t appear ready to scuttle the RMMV just yet. Mines are among the biggest problems mariners face. Often called the "IED of the sea," a relatively inexpensive mine can provide plenty of bang for the buck (a mine nearly sank the frigate Samuel B. Roberts in the Persian Gulf during her maiden cruise in 1988). Modern strategies only increase this threat. Virginia-class submarines were designed with a fly-by-wire ship control system to ensure unmatched operation in shallow littoral areas. The joint high-speed vessel’s shallow draft allows the catamaran to push into such waters, as well, but a mine explosion risks ripping through its aluminum hull. ; a reasonable explosion would tear through the aluminum vessel with ease.
"The RMMV's low performance during technical evaluation, specifically in a very short operating time span, is cause for concern and the Navy is working to rectify," said Chris Johnson, spokesman for Naval Sea Systems Command. "In order to ensure better results for upcoming test runs, the Navy is implementing a more robust ready-for-use inspection, procuring additional spares, and providing additional training, additional technicians, better tools, and updated procedures. In addition, a robust reach-back process for original-equipment manufacturer and in-service engineering team to provide technical support is in place. The Navy is also establishing a capability to conduct pier launch and recovery to enable RMMV shakedown missions following periods of corrective maintenance."
The Navy has 10 RMS vehicles and six towed sonars. Four RMMVs have been upgraded and are part of the current technical evaluation. But "a number of further upgrades" could not be installed on the current model, Johnson said. These include improved hydraulic actuators, fuel systems, and sensors.
"These upgrades will be incorporated as part of a more thorough design update that will accompany vehicles in the next low-rate initial production procurement," he said. "We will also continually look for the means of inserting these and any other reliability upgrades into the existing systems."
That plan is too little, too late for McCain.
"It is difficult to understand how the Navy plans to ‘upgrade’ a system that has never been operational to begin with, … " he said. "RMS has become another sad case of wasteful defense spending."
Staff writer Christopher P. Cavas contributed to this article.