The mine countermeasures ship Scout, seen detonating a simulated mine in an exercise, will be joined by four more minesweepers as the U.S. Navy beefs up its mine forces in the Persian Gulf. (U.S. Navy)
Four more minesweepers and four more minesweeping helicopters are to be sent to the Arabian Gulf, the U.S. Navy’s top officer said March 15, a move which will increase the number of mine countermeasure forces available to keep open the sea lanes around the Strait of Hormuz should Iran choose to mine that critical waterway.
“We are moving four more minesweepers to the region, making eight,” Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations (CNO), told the U.S. Senate Armed Services committee during a Navy budget hearing. “We want to improve our underwater minehunting capability.”
Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Greenert declined to say when the ships or helicopters would leave for the region. “That’s operations,” he said.
But he confirmed the mine countermeasures ships would make the journey from their base in San Diego to Bahrain aboard heavy-lift ships, the Navy’s preferred way to get the slow-moving minesweepers, which have a top speed of about 14 knots, to the operating region without unnecessary wear and tear on their hulls and machinery.
Heavy-lift ships are themselves rather slow, meaning it will likely be some weeks before the ships could get to Bahrain.
Greenert demurred when asked if the move was a surge, similar to when forces are built up for specific operations.
“I’m not going to define it as a surge,” he said. “You called it a deployment, how’s that.”
Initially, the CNO said, the ships’ crews would not be rotated, as is the case on other ships in the region.
Four minesweepers already are 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 home base in San Diego.
The four ships to be deployed from San Diego, Navy sources said, are the Sentry, Devastator, Pioneer and Warrior.
In the Arabian Gulf, they’ll join with the Scout, Gladiator, Ardent and Dextrous.
Left in San Diego will be only two ships, the Champion and Chief.
Four other Avenger-class mine countermeasures ships are forward-deployed to Sasebo, Japan — the Avenger, Defender, Guardian and Patriot.
The 1,379-ton minesweepers, crewed by 84 sailors, employ the SLQ-48 mine neutralization system to identify and destroy a variety of enemy mines. Support for the system, however, has waned in recent years as Navy planners looked ahead to new systems that would be operated by the Littoral Combat Ship. But the new systems remain in development, and mine force sailors have struggled to keep their SLQ-48s operationally capable.
The decline in mission effectiveness led to an urgent needs requirement last year from Central Command (CENTCOM), the combatant commander authority that oversees the Arabian Gulf region, demanding a more effective mine countermeasures system. The choice was SeaFox, from Atlas Elektronik and Ultra Electronics, used by all British Royal Navy minehunters.
Britain also maintains several minehunters in the gulf region, where they regularly operate with the U.S. ships.
The U.S. Navy is buying three Seafox sets for its ships, along with upgrading six Seafox aircraft units for use with MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters. Those new systems are not scheduled to be operational until early next year.
The Navy could not immediately provide details on the additional helicopters that will be sent to Bahrain. Both helicopter mine countermeasures squadrons, HM-14 and HM-15, are based in Norfolk, Va.
Navy planners have been considering how to provide continuing support to a mine countermeasures force operating around the Strait, nearly 400 miles from Bahrain. The Ponce, an older amphibious ship that was to have been decommissioned this winter, is being refurbished in Norfolk for use as an afloat-forward staging base specifically to support mine forces, and the Navy is hoping to build two new ships for the role.
Conversion work on the Ponce began last month. It is not clear if the Ponce is being figured into the mine force deployment involving the extra minesweepers and helicopters.
The plus-up in mine forces comes even as the Navy continues working to meet a CENTCOM surge requirement to maintain two aircraft carrier strike groups in the region to support operations ashore. The Navy has been able to keep two flattops on station about 70 percent of the time, although that pace of operations is straining ships, aircraft and people.
The surge has been in place since mid-2010. Adm. Gary Roughead, the former CNO, said early in 2011 that the pace could be maintained for two years, but the demand shows no sign of letting up.
Asked if the fleet could continue the “2.0” requirement, Greenert was adamant.
“We can maintain it well through this year and into next,” he told reporters. “There’s a price for that,” he cautioned. “What is the impact on other deployments, on maintenance, on the training, if you want to sustain that. That’s the debate that we’ll continue to have.”