By Philip Ewing Monday, May 9th, 2011 4:21 pm
Any ship can be a minesweeper — once. Or so goes the old Navy joke. Ideally, you want a real minesweeper or another specially equipped vessel to clear a channel through waters you suspect are mined. But the U.S. Navy has gotten rid of a lot of its minesweeping capability over the last decade, and the mine community doesn’t get nearly the same respect and attention as the sleek Aegis ships, or even the Marine-centric gator navy. Which has created a risky situation, as Stripes’ John Rabiroff describes, because even though the Navy has gotten rid of a lot of its dedicated minesweepers and their equipment, there is still a huge risk from the dreaded “weapons that wait:”
“(Sea) mines are just as much of a threat today as they have ever been … so the importance of having a credible counter-mine capability is just as important for the U.S. Navy and our allies,” said Paul Ryan, president of the Mine Warfare Association in California, a group whose mission is “to continue to advocate for a robust mine warfare capability.”
According to the Navy’s 2009 report, “21st Century U.S. Navy Mine Warfare; Ensuring Global Access and Commerce,” there are more than a quarter-million sea mines in the inventories of 50 navies around the world. More than 300 kinds of sea mines are produced by 30 countries. “These figures are for sea mines, proper,” the report said. “They do not include underwater improvised explosive devices, which can be fashioned from fuel bladders, 50-gallon drums, and even discarded refrigerators.”
Sea mines not only come in all shapes and sizes, but they can be deployed from aircraft, ships, pleasure boats, submarines, and even pickups crossing bridges, the report said. Some rest on the ocean floor, some are designed to float freely, while others are moored by chains or other means at or below the surface of the water. Once in place, it said, “a mine is a terrible thing that waits.”
Rabiroff concludes by pointing out that the Navy’s Avenger-class minesweepers will be phased out in favor of new littoral combat ships, which have mine countermeasure equipment as a part of their interchangeable mission gear. But that equipment is still in the early development phases. The Navy will conduct more tests of its mine-countermeasures LCS gear later this year, an official said at last month’s Sea-Air-Space show, but it’ll be years late and probably will not include what was to have been the high-tech centerpiece of the system: A helicopter-mounted, super-cavitating gun that sailors were supposed to be able to use to blast mines from the air. The Navy is looking into other systems to help LCS actually destroy the mines it’s supposed to be able to find. It has no choice but to get it right, because once the Avenger-class MCMs are gone, LCS will be the fleet’s main line of mine defense.