Navy’s top officer wants Sea Dragons retired

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot


The Navy’s top officer says he would like to retire the service’s aging fleet of mine-sweeping helicopters “sooner than later,” primarily because they are expensive to operate and not as efficient as the underwater robots that will someday replace them.

Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, made the remarks Wednesday after a Virginian-Pilot reporter asked about the state of the Navy’s mine warfare program.

Greenert, who was in Norfolk talking to sailors in an all-hands call, said the program is in a state of transition. The service is in the process of testing a new fleet of underwater, unmanned vehicles that can be launched from littoral combat ships to find and disable underwater mines.

But until the new technology is ready for action, likely late this decade, the Navy must rely on a fleet of Cold War-era mine-hunting ships and the MH-53E Sea Dragon – the only U.S. military helicopter powerful enough to pull a mine-clearing sled and sonar equipment through the water.

“That’s the ultimate transition,” Greenert said. “That’ll take the men out of the loop, that’ll take us away from dragging sleds with the Sea Dragon helicopter. So I want to move in that direction.”

The Navy in recent years has taken a close look at the Sea Dragon program, which was initially slated for retirement a decade ago but – thanks to delays in developing a credible replacement – is now expected to remain in service through 2025. All the Navy’s Sea Dragons, about 29 helicopters, are based in two Norfolk squadrons.

In January, a Sea Dragon caught fire and crashed off the coast of Virginia Beach, killing three of the five crew members. An internal Navy review of the accident raised questions about the helicopter’s reliability and called for a fleetwide analysis to ensure the Sea Dragon will be safe to fly for another decade.

Greenert wants to move away from using the helicopter as soon as possible, “for a couple reasons,” he said. “It’s aging, but No. 2, it’s expensive to keep them up in the air. And they can’t sustain the mine hunting like you really want. I want to go to unmanned surface vehicles. We have a few out there we’re testing right now. The returns are pretty good right now. I want to accelerate that.”

Sea mines are a serious threat to global security, but the Navy historically has not made major investments in defending against them. A wake-up call came in 2012, when Iran threatened to mine the Strait of Hormuz. About a fifth of the world’s oil supply moves through the congested choke-point that connects the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman; shutting it down for even a day would likely cause prices to soar.

Next week, the Navy is hosting an international mine-clearing exercise in that region, the second such exercise since Iran’s threat two years ago. The Navy’s existing mine-clearing force – including a few Sea Dragons – will participate. The Navy’s future mine-hunting platform, the littoral combat ship, isn’t ready for that.

Greenert said he’s eager to make the transition from old to new.

“I am concerned about (this transition period) from this perspective: It’s pricey. And it’s not as quick, and I want to be able to respond more quickly,” he said. “I want to be able to sweep more quickly and clear a channel that much faster. And the standard is the Strait of Hormuz.”

Mike Hixenbaugh, 757-446-2949,

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