2012-07-28 Practice. Practice. Practice!
by Scott C. Truver
(An earlier version of this was posted on the U.S. Naval Institute News.USNI.org website.
Approached in a Manhattan street by an obviously lost tourist who asked, “Pardon me, sir, but how to I get to Carnegie Hall?”, virtuoso pianist Arthur Rubenstein replied, “Practice…practice…practice!”
So it is for the U.S. Navy and America’s partner navies’ mine countermeasures (MCM) forces operating in the Arabian Gulf in mid-2012.
Hosted by the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (USNAVCENT), the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise 2012 (IMCMEX 12) is an international symposium and associated afloat exercise of mine countermeasure capabilities, scheduled September 16-27 at multiple locations in the USNAVCENT area of operations.
MCM assets from more than 20 countries on four continents will participate, making it the largest such exercise ever. (On the preparation of the USS Ponce see the interview with Admiral Buzby, Commander of the Military Sealift Command.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said the operation was “a defensive exercise aimed at preserving freedom of navigation in international waterways in the Middle East.”
Washington has warned Tehran not to mine the strategic Strait of Hormuz, which the Islamic republic has threatened to do unless international sanctions against its nuclear program are pulled back.
Although IMCMEX 12 is taking place in the Arabian Gulf, it won’t be conducted in the Strait of Hormuz, LT Greg “Cricket” Raelson, USN, Commander Fifth Fleet Public Affairs, said during a 20 July telephone interview. “The exercise focuses on a hypothetical threat from an extremist organization to mine the international strategic waterways of the Middle East, including the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman, and the Arabian Gulf.”
Focused as it might be on a “hypothetical threat,” it’s hard to imagine the honed skills would not be valuable in a mine-warfare dust-up with Iran.
The Obama administration has publicly dismissed Iran’s threats to close the strait as just “saber rattling,” but also privately informed Tehran that any attempts to do so would trigger a U.S. military response.
“We would, under the direction of the national leadership, prevent that from happening,” Vice Adm. Mark Fox, then-commander of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, said in a Feb. 12 interview. “We always have the right and obligation of self-defense and this falls in self-defense. If we did nothing and allowed some mining, it would be a long and difficult process to clear them.”
“Exercises like IMCMEX 12 expand levels of cooperation, enhance mutual maritime capabilities and promote long-term regional stability and interoperability between U.S. and international partners, while better preparing the international community to deal with disruptions to freedom of navigation and international commerce,” LT Raelson noted.
After Washington announced plans for the multinational IMCMEX, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on 18 July ridiculed U.S. claims that it could clear Gulf waters of mines in case of conflict.
“The Americans boast a lot about many things, but they are facing problems in practice,” General Mahmoud Fahimi, deputy chief of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ naval forces, told the Fars news agency and Ahramonline/AFP. “We have no doubt that the United States cannot do anything in the area of minesweeping.”
He bragged Iran was “a master of mine designing and has an unbeatable capability to mass-produce different types of mines.”
Despite Iran’s rhetoric, Defense spokesman George Little said the September minesweeping exercise is a defensive drill and is “not…aimed to deliver a message to Iran.”
“IMCMEX 12 demonstrates the international community’s ability to work together to ensure free and secure trade,” said Gen. James N. Mattis, Commander of the U.S. Central Command. “Of the approximately 40 bilateral and multilateral exercises we’ll conduct this year, this exercise also represents the extensive cooperation we enjoy with our international partners – both in and outside the region – with mutual economic and security interests. We’ll finish this exercise with even stronger relationships with our partners.”
The exercise will focus on MCM operations, with an emphasis on command-and-control,” LT Greg Raelson explained. “The exercise will also include MCM support activities; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support; maritime security operations; visit, board, search and seizure events; maritime critical infrastructure protection; explosive ordnance disposal; maritime domain awareness and force protection.”
The Pentagon has this year doubled the number of minesweepers in the region and deployed the USS Ponce, an amphibious transport dock retrofitted as in interim afloat forward-staging base.
Four more minesweepers based in San Diego and four more MH-53E Sea Dragon minesweeping helicopters assigned to Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron-15 in Norfolk were deployed to the Arabian Gulf, joining USN MCM assets already based with the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain under a forward-deployed arrangement.
The ships remain in the region year-round, while their crews rotate in and out at six-month intervals from the mine force’s San Diego home. The eight in-theater Avenger (MCM-1)-class ships are Ardent, Devastator, Dextrous, Scout, Sentry, Pioneer and Warrior. Four other Avenger-class mine countermeasures ships are forward-deployed to Sasebo, Japan––Avenger, Defender, Guardian and Patriot––leaving only two ships, Champion and Chief, in San Diego, for training and response to a potential terrorist-mining threat in U.S. domestic waters.
U.S. explosive ordnance disposal divers round out the Navy’s surface and airborne MCM capabilities that will be exercised in September.
One of the Fifth Fleet’s MH-53E Sea Dragons crashed near Oman on 19 July, while conducting heavy-lift support operations, killing two sailors, Chief Aviation Warfare Systems Operator Sean P. Sullivan, 40, of St. Louis, Mo., and Naval Aircrewman (Helicopter) Second Class Joseph P. Fitzmorris, 31, of West Monroe, La. The mishap remains under investigation, but the Navy stated the crash was not due to hostile action.
No word whether the USN’s “marine mammal systems” might also be deployed during IMEMEX 12. The MMS include highly trained bottlenose dolphins capable of detecting and defeating buoyant mines in the water column or close-tethered to the bottom, and bottom-resting and buried weapons. According to the Navy’s mine warfare “primer” (21st Century U.S. Navy Mine Warfare: Ensuring Global Access and Commerce), the U.S. MCM dolphins deployed to the Arabian Gulf in 1988 during Operation Earnest Will, in 1991-92 during Operation Desert Storm/Desert Sweep, and in 2003 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
For the last few years, four small UK mine-hunters have been maintaining a valuable if unsung presence in the waterway. It is one that Britain’s allies value very highly, according to the Royal Navy. The mine-hunter force, like the rest of the RN, is spread thinly. So, in an approach similar to the USN, to maintain a four-vessel commitment in the Gulf the RN keeps the ships stationed there for years and rotates the crews every six months or so, rather than have the ships themselves ply back and forth to the UK. These assets will certainly be important elements of IMCMEX 12.
Also included will be a Royal Australian Navy Clearance Diving Teams comprising sailors expert in diving, MCM and EOD, anti-piracy and counter-terrorism ops.
Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) will also participate in IMCMEX 12, Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto said on 20 July (Yomiuri Shimbum and Jiji Press). An MSDF minesweeper and its mother ship, along with 180 MSDF MCM experts, will participate in the drill, Morimoto told a news conference. Under Japan’s Constitution, MSDF minesweeping activities on the high seas are limited to neutralizing abandoned mines because of the government’s interpretation of the Constitution about the use of force and exercising the right of collective self-defense. The types of exercises that the minesweeper can participate in are also limited. The MSDF took part in a multinational minesweeping exercise in Arabian Gulf waters near Bahrain last October.
Another 16 or so regional navies will be involved, LT Raelson said, but did not list.
Responding to reports that the USN MCM forces are relying on the advanced Sea Fox remotely operated vehicle––among other mine-hunting and mine-sweeping systems––to defeat “hypothetical threats,” Iran’s General Fahimi sneered, “Look how weak they are. They want to use minesweeping drones. If they had the ability and capability, they would carry out the minesweeping by manned systems.”
Dr. Truver is director of Gryphon Technologies’ TeamBlue National Security Programs group and is the co-author of the US Naval Institute Press book, Weapons that Wait: Mine Warfare in the US Navy (1991 edition). He has supported U.S. mine warfare programs since 1979.
For earlier pieces on the mine threat and counter-mine challenges see below