Friday, February 10, 2012

Can we handle Iranian mines?

The ever-lovable mullahs of Iran have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz by the use of mines, missiles and possibly blockships, in the event they are attacked, which, of course, they deserve.  We've prepared for missiles.  Can we handle mines?

This alarming post in PJ Media says we are extremely short-handed in the minesweeping department:
The USS Ponce, a lightly armed and slow-moving amphibious transport dock built in 1970, is about to be upgraded by the U.S. Navy. According to The Washington Post, it will become a forward staging base aimed at Iran.
The likely mission for the Ponce would be responding to Iran’s threat to mine the Strait of Hormuz and prevent oil tankers from passing through the Gulf.
The Navy probably plans to use the four MH-53 helicopters supported from the Ponce flight deck in counter-mine operations. Unfortunately, the MH-53 is old and has an aging mine sweeping capability. It will be hard pressed to do the job, and if it fails, there will be oil tankers burning in the vital and narrow Strait.
A better choice would have been the modern and capable Osprey mine hunters. Built in the 1990s on the design of the Italian Lerici-class mine hunter, Ospreys have fiberglass hulls to minimize the chance of setting off a magnetic mine. Equipped with excellent sensors, they played a major role in clearing Soviet-type mines placed in the Gulf by Iraq during the First Gulf War. They not only cleared transit waterways, but also proved effective at clearing mines from harbors, including Basra, and have significant advantages over helicopter anti-mine systems.
Too bad Navy infighting forced the liquidation of the Osprey program in 2007.

Osprey ships are far less expensive than helicopters; have better sensors; and are much better for escort operations, since a pair of them could escort large oil tankers through constrained passageways. Ospreys could find bottom-tethered, deep water, and magnetic mines that threaten the massive steel hulls of large oil tankers, while the helicopters that will be on the deck of the Ponce are useful only against mines at or near the water’s surface.
Too bad we don’t have any. Or do we?
At one time, there were twelve Osprey mine hunters in the U.S. Navy; two were home ported in Bahrain. All have been decommissioned and a number have been sold.
Two (MHC 51 and MHC 54) are berthed in Beaumont, TX. MHC 52 and MHC 53 have been transferred to Greece. MHC 55 and 59 have been sold to Taiwan, but are still under refurbishment in Texas. MHC 56 and 57 were offered to Lithuania but not sold, and are thus still available. MHC 58 and MHC 62 have been authorized for sale to Turkey and MHC 61 and 62 have been sold to Egypt.
While eight Ospreys can be considered gone, at least four are retrievable and could be put back in service in a few months. Between two and four would be optimal for service in the Gulf.
Every serious littoral country has its own mine hunting ships — except the United States. If it is U.S. policy to protect tanker transit in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf, the Osprey beats the Ponce hands down.
So, the US Navy has no minesweeping ships? Sounds familiar.  During the Iran-Iraq War back in the 1980s, we had an issue with Iranians attacking oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.  As a countermeasure, many tanakers based in the Gulf were re-flagged as US tankers and given US Navy convoy escort.  Sure enough, on July 24, 1987, the tanker MV Bridgeton struck an Iranian mine.  The Bridgeton was double-hulled (no Exxon Valdez here) and heavily compartmentalized, so the ship did not sink and was able to continue to its destination.

The embarassing part for the US Navy was that the US escort ships and the other tankers in the convoy had to move into column formation behind the Bridgeton, using the supertanker as a "blocking back" to detonate any mines in the way.  This was not cutting-edge anti-mine technique.  This was not even World War II anti-mine technique.  But the US Navy was so limited in its minesweeping capability -- it had a few very old minesweepers, mostly relying on minesweeping helicopters -- that the officer in tactical command had little choice.

If the US Navy's anti-mine measures had not improved in the quarter-century since the Bridgeton, if we still had no minesweepers, that would indeed be scandalous.

But is the article true? Is it true that we really have no minesweeping ships?

The US Navy would seem to disagree:

Mine Countermeasures Ships - MCM

Ships designed to clear mines from vital waterways.

In the early 1980s, the U.S. Navy began development of a new mine countermeasures (MCM) force, which included two new classes of ships and minesweeping helicopters. The vital importance of a state-of-the-art mine countermeasures force was strongly underscored in the Persian Gulf during the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war, and in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991 when the Avenger (MCM 1) and Guardian (MCM 5) ships conducted MCM operations.

Avenger class ships are designed as mine sweepers/hunter-killers capable of finding, classifying and destroying moored and bottom mines. The last three MCM ships were purchased in 1990, bringing the total to 14 fully deployable, oceangoing Avenger class ships. These ships use sonar and video systems, cable cutters and a mine detonating device that can be released and detonated by remote control. They are also capable of conventional sweeping measures. The ships are of fiberglass sheathed, wooden hull construction. They are the first large mine countermeasures ships built in the United States in nearly 27 years.

Point Of Contact
Office of Corporate Communication (SEA 00D)
Naval Sea Systems Command
Washington, D.C. 20376

General Characteristics, Avenger class
Builder: Peterson Shipbuilders, Sturgeon Bay, Wis.; Marinette Marine, Marinette, WI.
Date Deployed: Sept. 12, 1987 (USS Avenger)
Propulsion: Four diesels (600 horsepower each), two shafts with controllable pitch propellers. Length: 224 feet (68.28 meters). Beam: 39 feet (11.89 meters).
Displacement: 1,312 tons (1,333.06 metric tons) full load.
Speed: 14 knots (16.1 mph, 25.76 kmph).
Crew: 8 officers, 76 enlisted.
Armament: Mine neutralization system. Two .50 caliber machine guns.
USS Avenger (MCM 1), Sasebo, Japan
USS Defender (MCM 2), Sasebo, Japan
USS Sentry (MCM 3), San Diego, CA
USS Champion (MCM 4), San Diego, CA
USS Guardian (MCM 5), Sasebo, Japan
USS Devastator (MCM 6), San Diego, CA
USS Patriot (MCM 7), Sasebo, Japan
USS Scout (MCM 8), Manama, Bahrain
USS Pioneer (MCM 9), San Diego, CA
USS Warrior (MCM 10), San Diego, CA
USS Gladiator (MCM 11), Manama, Bahrain
USS Ardent (MCM 12), Manama, Bahrain
USS Dextrous (MCM 13), Manama, Bahrain
USS Chief (MCM 14), San Diego, CA

Last Update: 10 November 2011
That we had not built any minesweepers in the 27 years before the Avenger class sounds somewhat like an admission of negligence on the Navy's part.  And I can't say I like having no minesweepers on our East Coast. Still, it looks like we do in fact have ample minesweepers.  In fact it looks like we have four in the Persian Gulf theater.  This seems like a rather sizable omission from the article.

The purpose of the article seems to be criticism of the demise of the Osprey class.  Understandable, but do not present the Osprey as the last minesweepers in the US Navy when we very obviously have more.  Additionally -- and I'm going from memory here -- as I recall it, the new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), with which I have been unimpressed so far, was supposed to have a modular minesweeping package that could be swapped in and out (along with an anti-submarine package, anti-air package, helicopter package, etc.)  Dumping the Osprey makes sense if you have something new that can hadle it.

Still, theis bears watching.  With Obama stupidly cutting our military, as I knew he would, "little" functions like minesweeping can fall by the wayside, as littoral combat has since the Vietnam War.

1 comment:

  1. The Osprey class MHC was riddled with constant propulsion problems. The Avenger Class has all of the same capabilities as the MHC plus the ability to sweep. The Avenger class is a better return on investment than the MHC's where.