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Damn the mines — full speed ahead?

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Early in the morning of Feb. 18, 1991, the helicopter carrier USS Tripoli struck a primitive Iraqi mine in the Persian Gulf, tearing a huge hole below the waterline. Less than three hours later, an even more formidable vessel, the Aegis cruiser USS Princeton, triggered two mines in quick succession. Only luck and well-trained crews prevented the loss of two capital ships and an unknown number of sailors. Postwar evaluations found U.S. countermine capabilities lacking, and today, with another war looming, some say this unglamorous necessity of naval warfare has failed to get the attention warranted after those two close calls.

Official navy records and postwar evaluations make clear that the impact on the Tripoli and the $15 million damage sustained by the Princeton — though major — did not threaten the outcome of the war. But the explosions showed, once again, what an unsophisticated weapon might do to a force whose attention is focused over the horizon. The mine threat kept Navy warships far from the coastline for the rest of the conflict, a large part of the reason U.S. Marines never stormed the Kuwaiti shore. Iraqi commanders knew nothing of the havoc wrought by their $1,500 mine at the time, and they kept several crack Republican Guard divisions facing the Kuwait coast in the belief that the Marines were coming. This time, however, Iraqi commanders won’t be so gullible.

Other priorities

Whether Iraqi mines would pose a threat in a war this time around is unclear. United Nations weapons restrictions imposed on Iraq’s biological, chemical, missile and nuclear facilities said nothing about sea mines, and Iraq may have produced quite a few over the past decade given the success of these cheap weapons in keeping the U.S. amphibious forces at bay in 1991.

“Mines are so dangerous and hard to find that it’s much better if you can prevent them from being laid than trying to sweep up afterward,” says retired Marine Gen. Bernard Trainor, who saw his hopes for an amphibious assault during the Gulf War dashed. “You want to take care of the arrow before it leaves the quiver.”

Most officials believe that a Marine landing this time — as in 1991 — would merely be a feint. Still, capturing Iraq’s main port at Basra would be on the wish list of any commander seeking to supply an army at war. Even if it is taken from the north, eventually mines would need to be cleared if cargo ships and oil tankers are to put in.

“If you make an announcement that there are mines in the water, you’ve succeeded in 75 percent of your mission,” says former Rear Adm. Stephen Baker, now a senior fellow with the Center for Defense Information.

Course corrections

After the Gulf War, congressional critics ordered the Navy to upgrade its mine countermeasures force. During the intervening years, critics say plans for a real expansion were thwarted by Navy voices — those of carrier aviators, nuclear submariners and surface warfare officers — with more clout.

“The 1990s were very much the story of defense leadership trying to encourage the Navy to spend more in this area,” says Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment in Washington. “It may not be that big a problem in this war, but it is a problem that hasn’t been addressed.”

One example: Budget issues have left the minesweeper fleet without a mother ship. The Navy decided last year to decommission the USS Inchon, which supplies and repairs the small minesweepers on distant missions, three years before its replacement can be built. The reason: insufficient funds for repair and maintenance.

Some steps were taken, however.

Command of mine hunting ships and helicopters was centralized under one officer; equipment was upgraded and money was budgeted for new technologies.

Anti-mine warfare depends on a troika of helicopters, minesweeping vessels and unmanned submersibles. Fourteen ships of the Avenger minesweeping class joined the fleet during the 1990s, featuring fiberglass-sheathed wooden hulls to thwart magnetic mines and state-of-the-art mine-detection gear. The Navy has also introduced a mine neutralization vehicle, or MNV, a robot submarine with sonar and video cameras. The submersible is connected to its mother ship by a cable and is controlled with a joystick. After a mine is located, the MNV is launched. The craft has arms that can attach small explosive charges to a mine or to its mooring cable.

In the air, MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters drag long cables through suspected minefields, cutting their mooring cables and allowing them to float to the surface, where they can be destroyed by gunfire. The Navy is also adding a similar submersible to its Los Angeles-class submarines, giving them their own mine countermeasures. It is adding limited minesweeping capabilities to each aircraft carrier battle group, instead of focusing all of its mine countermeasures on a dedicated unit.

A long-term problem

While the Gulf War’s problems may not recur, critics see a danger that in conflicts that may require amphibious landings — for instance, against a foe with a long shoreline like North Korea or Iran — the Navy still won’t be ready. That means, by implication, the Marines won’t be ready, either. Marine officers who have fought so hard for the troubled Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft cite, in part, the Navy’s inability to clear the way for their traditional landings during the Gulf War.

Marine Corps Major Gen. William Whitlow, who heads the Expeditionary Warfare Division, told Congress last April that efforts to find effective mine countermeasures for use in shallow water — 10 feet or less — had failed.

Even Navy officials acknowledge that the unsexy mine warfare service often finds itself on the short end of budget battles. In a post-Cold War age, with most threats now coming from rogue states or terrorist groups, sea mines — like the explosives-packed inflatable boat that nearly sank the USS Cole in 2000 in Yemen, or the truck bombs that have leveled U.S. embassies and barracks since Beirut in 1983 — have to be taken as seriously as attack jets or long-range missiles.

“More than any other weapon system of comparable cost, mines have the ability to level the playing field,” Navy Lt. Cmdr. Janice Lawrimore wrote in an analysis of mine warfare two years after Desert Storm. “They can nullify the advantages of overwhelming force and firepower with relatively low risk.”

That lesson is not a new one for U.S. forces. In 1950, after the successful amphibious landing at Inchon during the Korean War, Gen. Douglas MacArthur proposed a two-pronged land and sea pincer movement to trap the retreating North Korean army and end the conflict quickly. But the minesweepers could not clear the Korean coast in time, the assault was canceled and the war dragged on for years, costing 50,000 U.S. lives.

“We have lost control of the seas to a nation without a navy, using pre-World War I weapons, laid by vessels that were utilized at the time of the birth of Christ,” bemoaned Rear Adm. Allan E. Emith, who at the time commanded MacArthur’s amphibious task force.