Interview article

Commander Peter Bergen Henegouwen (Royal Netherlands Navy)

NATO Mine Hunters

Pooling and Sharing Resources

Created at the heights of the Cold War, the Standing NATO Mine Counter-Measures Group One (SNMCMG 1) contributes to keeping sea lines of communication (SLOC) open for allied forces by reducing the risks posed by new and old sea mines. It is one of four groups under UK-based MARCOM (Maritime Command) that “provide NATO with a continuous maritime capability for operations and other activities in peacetime and in periods of crisis and conflict […], help to establish Alliance presence, demonstrate solidarity, conduct routine diplomatic visits to different countries, support transformation and provide a variety of maritime military capabilities to ongoing missions.”

There is, unfortunately, a new urgency for mine-countermeasure capability. The traditional Historical Ordnance Disposal (HOD) mission – to rid the ocean bed of the thousands of mines and bombs inherited from World War I and World War II – is now complicated by modern threats. The ships dedicated on a rotational basis to the SNMCMG1 now have to address a rapidly evolving new generation mine threat as well as a renewed state of tension with Russia.

Currently operating in the Northern and Baltic seas, the Group has three key tasks:

  • Securing the seas against the mine threat;
  • Reassuring NATO members;
  • Enhancing capabilities and training via various exercises.

These exercises can be organized by the Group itself, by a single nation (either an allied nation located offshore or a NATO member participating in the Group), or by NATO itself on a larger scale.

The main challenges are also three-fold:

  • capabilities need to be modernized as countermining has not been a top acquisition priority by NATO members;
  • new generation mines are getting harder and harder to detect ;
  • the oceans are not a terrorist-free sanctuary and there is a need to improve and coordinate intelligence in order to reveal the source of new threats.

NATO member nations have been operating together for decades: process standardization is the key to today’s ability to deal with emerging challenges. Even if fine-tuning is necessary at first among the crews of different nations (which change on average every 4-6 months), the ability to speak the same NATO language is an achievement on its own. For instance, all NATO vessels use the same fuel and replenishment at sea techniques.

Mine countermeasures (MCM) is an especially complex discipline, comprising technological (autonomous or semi-autono­mous drones, sensors, sonars) and human (shallow water teams, specialized divers, force protection) solutions. NATO nations contribute various assets considered complementary to this effort to ensure global safety. With many navies dealing with reduced capabilities, one very clear advantage stems from the pooling and sharing that occurs between them to fulfill their NATO obligations. This burden sharing, born of some 40+ years of international cooperation, is particularly visible among ABNL (Admiral Benelux) countries, as Dutch Commander Peter Bergen Hengouwen explains. He was chosen as Commanding Officer of the SNMCG1 in January 2015.

Dutch Commander Bergen Henegouwen has been the Commanding Officer of the Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group 1 (SNMCMG 1) since January 2015. It is currently composed of six Mine countermeasures vessels and a Command and Supply ship: ENS Admiral Cowan (Estonia), FGS Rappenau (Germany), HNOMS Hinnoey (Norway), HNLMS Schiedam (Netherlands), LVNS Talivaldis (Latvia), HMS Grimsby (UK), and BNS Godetia (Belgium). One of the particularities of this Group is that its Commander sails on a ship from a nationality other than his own – German during his first six month rotation, and Belgian since July.

Commander Peter Bergen Henegouwen
Royal Netherlands Navy

After graduating from the Naval Academy in 1986, Commander Peter A.J. Bergen Henegouwen served for six years, mainly on minesweepers and minehunters. This included a deployment for clearing sea mines in the Persian Gulf in 1991 as executive officer on HNLMS Haarlem. In 1996, he received his first command on the minesweeper HNLMS Naarden. He later commanded minehunters HNLMS Delfzijl and Hellevoetsluis, the latter was assigned to the MCM flotilla MCMFORNORTH (now SNMCMG1). Cdr Bergen Henegouwen subsequently assumed command responsibilities on deployments with other international task groups.

In an INTERVIEW done after the first week of sailing as a Group of four ships of German, Belgian and British nationalities – FGS Donau and Auerbach, BNS Lobelia, and HMS Pembroke, Cdr Henegouwen describes the challenges, but also the excitement, of commanding an international staff on the German supply ship Donau. He also explains his roadmap for the Group leading towards Trident Juncture 2015, the largest NATO exercise organized in decades, and which envisions a better integration and synergy of MCM tasks within the overall fleets. The late-October event involves some 36,000 troops from more than 30 nations and takes place across Italy, Spain and Portugal.

It seems Joint Warrior 2015, which took place in April, off the Scottish shores, already started to fulfil such a plan.

Commander, what are the missions of the SNMCMG1 for the months to come?

We have quite a busy program planned for this upcoming period: in addition to doing historic ordnance clearance, Historic Ordnance Disposal (HOD), off the coasts of countries such as Estonia, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France, we are participating in different exercises.

When we first started to sail together in January, I was very pleased to see that all the ships got out at the same time without incident, as, in my experience commanding similar ABNL deployments over the past three years, breakdowns often occur given the age of most mine-countermeasure vessels. We always manage to keep them going, but delays for repair as you leave harbor frequently happen.

German minesweeper Auerbach/Oberpfalz utilizes Seehund remotely controlled minesweeping drones as part of the TROIKA PLUS system

This shows that units and ships were individually well prepared to work in this group. The initial focus of the first three weeks on board is mostly getting used to working together, because although the ships are individually well trained, they might lack some experience in working together. It is all about different cultures, different procedures; some nations may allow certain things, other nations do not, so we have to get used to each other and see how to manœuver and do our exercises as safely as possible. We start with communication exercises, manœuvering exercises, such as replenishment at sea (RAS), which is especially important. As you come into close quarters, you want to see how the other ships behave in different types of weather. These are the basics to ensure safety as we do our drills and exercises.

The next focus is to test our operational capabilities (mine countermeasures (MCM)) and prepare for joint exercises, such as Joint Warrior, Baltops, and so on. We also organize our own sets of exercises, while joining forces whenever we can with exercises organized by other navies in the area.

The command and support staff of the Group are different nationalities than the ship hosting them. For the first six months of this deployment, a German ship with a German crew hosting a Command staff composed of Dutch, Belgian and Spanish officers and headed by a Dutch CO.

What are the challenges of operating on such an international ship and commanding a group of ships from multiple nationalities? How does it compare with your previous commanding experiences?

The nations provide the ships to the Group and it is their national responsibility to be operationally ready. In the workup phase, the only thing I am doing is getting the ships to learn how to work together, how to communicate, how to manœuver at the same time, and, of course, keep up their operational readiness to be able to act if something “real world” happens. I have been enjoying it because being in this group means meeting colleagues from other nations and learning from each other. As for me, personally, the only change is whom I am reporting to. In my previous assignment, I organized deployments for ABNL ships, as well as other ships. I cooperated for instance with Danish or Norwegian staff, who would augment my staff and vice versa. I worked with the Danish, German and Belgian MCM fleet and navies. Because of my own deployments for the ABNL HQ, I do have some international experience. The only change now is, of course, that I am working for NATO and reporting to the UK-based Maritime Command (MARCOM), in addition to my national authorities. It is indeed a different process of reporting, but I am doing the same kind of work. The main role of my staff is to act as a tasking authority, and, whether we do that nationally or within NATO, we all use NATO procedures.

You cannot use the latter outside of NATO, as was the case for my staff and me in a recent international exercise last October in the Arabian Gulf, to which participated more than 20 countries. It then becomes very challenging: you have to find out how to do your work without using confidential or NATO procedures, which you are used to, and how to talk to each other in technical language. These new challenges show that we are quite capable of doing this. Sailors all know what starboard or forward mean. The language of the sea is universal. We all know what sailing at sea means, we all go through the same environment, and we all speak English, somehow!... So we find ways to communicate and, as long as you can communicate, you can work together.

There is always something to do for the staff: whether preparing for the next port visit or planning our exercises. Being onboard a supply ship, we are trying to get everything for the group such as food or fuel. This ship could almost go around the world with its fuel supply, but most of the mine-hunters have a two-week fuel autonomy. Some, like the Norwegian mine hunters have hover-craft capability, which consumes quite a lot of fuel, so they need to refuel every other day. The need for a supply ship capable of providing fuel is even more important for these kinds of mine-hunters, as you cannot hunt mines, while having to go back to port every other day. All NATO ships use the same fuel (F76) and can handle the same naval diesel oil for helicopters. Such standardization, the ability to take fuel from every supply ship, wherever it is, is one of the good things in NATO. The billing is done by each nation and it is a very good system.

Two-week autonomy is also a good length as far as the crews are concerned, as they are rather small and need to sustain a high level of concentration in their work. Our port visits are therefore as much intended to show the NATO flag as to provide the crews with R&R.

The downside of that, as I stated, is that most of our [Mine Counter-Measures Vessels] are getting older and during a period of two weeks of operations, they will have some defects. If the crews are not capable of repairing their own equipment, we are depending on shore assistance.

Each nation has various levels of readiness, but in such a Group, the equipment onboard each ship seems comparable. Is there an “ideal group” as far as its composition is concerned and how do you adjust to potential interoperability issues?

Logistically, it would be very nice to have all the same ships, so we could always have a 100% operational readiness. However, and that is a big “however”, MCM is a very difficult type of warfare, since we are searching for small objects on the sea bottom, while conditions are not always favourable. If you put a soda can on a clear sandy bottom, most of our mine hunters will find it. In 90% of the cases unfortunately, it is not that easy. There are rocks on the bottom, or, if there is indeed a sandy bottom, it is in constant motion like dunes. In the coastal area, you face a lot of mud in which objects tend to sink. So finding sea mines is not always easy.

The only way to go around these difficulties is to use different types of equipment, different sonars with different frequencies. In the case of “unhuntable” mines (those that lie between rocks or are buried and not detectable by sonar), a mine sweeper is required. Mine-sweeping and mine-hunting are complementary techniques.

It’s all about frequencies: acoustic (noise coming through the water); magnetic (a steel ship influences the earth’s magnetic field); minor influences (the electric current coming from a ship’s propeller); high and low frequency sounds coming from the water; etc.

A modern mine with enough sensors combining all these influences would be unsweepable. But right now, by mixing and matching different sonars and frequencies, our means complement each other to increase our chance to find or destroy mines. Operationally, having different mine hunters and mine sweepers together in one group is ideal because you can use different MCM techniques and reduce the risks.

SeaFox operates during Exercise NOBLE JUSTIFICATION 2014. (Photo: Flt. SGT C. ARTIGUES MARCOM)

It is a difficult type of warfare, because it is underwater and the weather is always influencing us. It is always a challenge, so nations tend to find the best equipment possible to operate under water. It used to be the French PAP (Poisson auto-propulsé) developed in the 60s. The German SeaFox, smaller and easier to manœuver, is now used by many nations because it is an almost autonomous vehicle and one of the systems available at this time. You can do identification with it, and also destroy mines if needed. Each nation however has its own acquisition process and, as an operational commander, I am just very happy to have different options whether in sonars, drones, although logistically speaking, it may not be wise. The logistic responsibility remains nation-centric.

I see our role as supply ship, as a “travel agency” organizing and coordinating the trips so we keep our operational capabilities at the highest level possible. Every day I find out how much replenishment is needed and we organize what needs to be done. If something has to be brought in, we, as a command logistic platform, coordinate that. We can also arrange for the MCM mission to continue while the support platform goes into port to get the spare parts.

There will be up to eight ships during the course of our deployment, which means more work in coordinating the parts and tasking of the ships. But it works easier, because the more ships, the more units you have available, the easier the task will be.

MCM operations are always about “we don't have enough time”– everyone is always eager to transit somewhere without being stopped by sea mines. With all the challenges we have with MCM, it takes time to get rid of mines. So, the more ships we have, the easier the tasking becomes.

Our Netherlands’ MCMVs (which are the same for the Belgian and French Navies) were designed jointly by these three nations in the late 70s, and commissioned in the early 80s. So they are almost 30 years old. When we first build our ships, we aim for a 20- to 30-year life-cycle, including a mid-life upgrade. But unpredictability goes with new equipment. When the first ships were built, we did not know whether Glass reinforced polyester (GRP) ships would survive 30 years in salt water. We are finding out that the hulls are still very good, however, we need to regularly address engineering issues (pipes leaking for instance), as well as system obsolescence, which have sometimes to be fully replaced, as communication and computers for instance become outdated.

These are the challenges we are facing right now, since if something breaks down, there is no backup and the small ships need to go to port. We need to ensure that this unit can be safely replaced as we look towards the future. In that sense, the only recommendation I would have is that all nations try to keep up their level in MCM capacities, whatever it might be, to be prepared to counter mine threats and master such a difficult type of warfare.

What is the current evolution in mine threats as well as in MCMs? How do you assess innovations regarding the use of unmanned underwater systems?

Our ships are designed to do mine countermeasures, which is not the same as clearing historic ordinance. Historic ordinance are explosives which have been lying on the bottom of the sea for a long time. As long as you do not touch or move them, they are not directly harmful, but the moment you drop your anchor on one of them or try to build a windmill on top of them, then, of course, that is a problem. To dispose of historic ordinance, however, is not too difficult: you just blow it up, and that is what we do on a regular basis: seventy years after WWII, we are still clearing explosives from the bottom of the sea from both WWI and WWII.

Real sea mines on the other hand pose a direct danger to the mine countermeasures vessels, which must therefore be well protected from external signatures like acoustics or magnetic sensors. They used to be made of wood, but now they are made of GRP, which does not influence the magnetic field of the earth. Our engines are also put on mountings, so they do not transfer the noise into the water. MCMVs are therefore quite safe.

Modern mines can cause real problems if they target a specific ship or are intended to deny access to a port, stop traffic or alter a strategy. However, a mine-layer should have quite generic mines (as was the case during the first Gulf war when an American ship was hit). These are cheap weapons that can be deployed from any kind of ship. That is why they are so dangerous, but we can handle them. Regular sea mines are not difficult weapons to acquire, as they are like IEDs on shore. The more modern and sophisticated mines are harder to find, as they can be hidden, taking for instance the appearance of a rock. That is also the purpose of the NATO MCM groups: we are, of course, ready to counter any real threat, terrorist or else.

For budgetary priorities, some nations, such as the Netherlands, stopped their minesweepers program a few years ago, but are maintaining their research capability in order to be able to build the right gear if need be. Keeping a minesweeping capability is very expensive given the complexity of modern mines, and the fact that simulation does not apply easily. Simulating an actual ship is indeed very hard (vessels filled with ping-pong balls, or filled with foam, have been tried without much success). These are the reasons why most nations in the past decade or so have been tending to focus on minehunters.

The same goes with the ability to lay mines: only a few nations have kept this capability, but investment in research has been maintained within NATO. In case of conflict, sea mines have indeed their value, as they allow to deny the enemy access to ports or specific areas.

As far as drones are concerned, one should remember that the environment at sea – waves, currents, wind, and underwater environment – is constantly changing. That renders steering and communicating with any systems you try to use remotely very difficult. Using such systems from non-protected vessels, as some Navies envision it, is not totally feasible at this time. Of course, everyone is researching fully autonomous underwater robots to clear all the mines, but you will always need dedicated MCMV’s and personnel to oversee the mission.

German countermining activity on board FGS Weilheim (April 2014). (NATO photo: Flt Sgt Artigues/FRAF)

Another solution, the Marine Mammal Program, is very impressive. It is also very expensive and you need people to make sure the job has been done properly. Going against explosives in the water is a dangerous type of warfare and you need dedicated personnel to do so.

Compared to your past deployments (you mentioned the Arabian Gulf), how would you describe your current Area of Responsibility in the Northern and Baltic Seas?

There is of course a political dimension to the Baltic region given current events: it is about reassurance and showing that we are here. We are a Readiness force demonstrating NATO's resolve.

An immense amount of sea mines have been thrown in the Baltic Sea, especially during the Second World War. So, the moment we start an exercise such as Open Spirit off the coast of Estonia, and the moment we turn on our sonars, we find explosives. There is a big difference between the North Sea, which I am more used to, and the Baltic Sea. In the North Sea, we have been using trawlers for fishery for decades, which have found quite a lot of explosives laying on the bottom of the sea. In the Baltic Sea, there is hardly any trawl fishery and many mines are still there with their explosives intact. I am very keen to contribute to the safety of the area we are deploying in.

How are you positioning the SNMCMG1 for the upcoming largest NATO exercise in decades – ­Trident Junction 2015. Is having a Dutch Commander related to the fact that TJ15 will be under a Dutch Joint Command?

Trident Juncture is a very large exercise. After focusing on getting used to each other and do basic exercises, we shall indeed work up towards Trident Juncture.

In 2016, the Netherlands Navy will be in command of the Immediate Reaction Force (IRF) and the NMR [Allied Command Operations’ National Military Representatives] staff is preparing for it. We will test our capabilities during Trident Juncture. My regular function is being part of the NMR-4 staff working on MCM, a function I have not been relieved from. Through exercises like Joint Warrior, I can keep my interactions with the NMR-4 staff. It will also be the case during TJ15, for which an amphibious scenario is planned, so I will try to use the NATO group to fit into this scenario of amphibious warfare. An amphibious scenario means that you have bigger ships with a lot of troops going through shallow waters that could be mined. Mine countermeasures is therefore always part of advanced forces operations.

However, because most exercises are limited to one to three weeks, practice for MCM are done in a separate area. I would like to see a bit more of an operational flow, where you first have MCMs and then continue on with the amphibious landing. That is something that I would like to train and focus on, especially this year. All this depends on the whole scenario done by the exercise controller. My staff is called the tasking authority: we order the ships to go to a specific area and do a specific MCM task. It is our responsibility to organize where the MCM teams are going, and what they are doing in coordination with higher authorities. That means doing the calculations about MCM, reporting the percentage clearance or remaining risks for other ships, and then, of course, reporting if we find any mines or not. What everybody always tends to forget is that MCM is not always to clear the sea mines. It is also to show whether there are mines or not. Demonstrating the absence of mines is perhaps more important than showing that there are mines.

Being part of advanced forces means that you need to have some intelligence with special forces probably going in. They are of course well trained to do things unseen. On the other hand, our ships that go into advanced forces operations are big grey ships which can easily be seen. They are not well equipped for generic warfare: they do not have air warning radars; they do not have heavy weaponry, and are only capable of defending themselves against small attacks (pirates; terrorists…). We can protect ourselves against individuals coming towards us, not against an air raid or major surface combatants. We use MCM Protecting Units (MCMPUs), but we would need a frigate or other capable ships to defend the group. Then we run into the following challenge: how do you get a frigate into a possible minefield? This is all about strategy and how we’re going to handle these types of scenarios. We have seen it in the early 90s in the Persian Gulf, where Iraq had laid sea mines. The initial plan of the Coalition was to conduct a large amphibious operation off the coast of Iraq, but two American ships were hit by sea mines and we knew there were more mines present. The whole strategy to reach Iraq changed, as we went around the minefield by crossing Kuwait. This example illustrates how big an influence a sea mine can have on military warfare. Just one or two sea mines completely altered the strategy underlying that operation. I believe therefore that, again, showing a way onto the beach, where the mines are absent, is precisely something we have to train more.

Even though we have been discussing this for decades, the short duration of exercises tends to have us focus on the best separate training for MCMVs on the one hand, the frigates on the other hand. An amphibious operation is about getting all that different types of warfare together and raising many questions. What are we going to report? How are we going to talk to each other? How are we going to defend each other? How do you get a frigate in a possible minefield? All these challenges come up when you put together an amphibious operation. Amphibious warfare is indeed the most extensive, the most difficult operation you can do. In that sense, Trident Juncture will be a first-rate opportunity for the SNMCMG1 to train and rehearse in this kind of complex context.

Murielle Delaporte, is the founder and editor of Opérationnels SLDS, a bilingual magazine that focuses on sustainment and logistics.
© FrontLine Defence 2015