International media have been invited to cover the major anti-mine exercises taking place in the Persian Gulf region. Here, Rear Adm. Ken Perry talks to the press aboard the base ship Ponce. (U.S. Navy)
The major mine countermeasure exercise underway in the Arabian Gulf region is a signal that the U.S. and at least 30 of its allies are prepared to keep open the Strait of Hormuz should any attempt be made to close it. But the maneuvers are also an indication of the rising importance of mine warfare in the U.S. Navy.
Six mine countermeasures ships (MCMs), a newly converted afloat forward staging base (AFSB) ship and mine-sweeping helicopters are among the most visible U.S. assets taking part in the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise, dubbed IMCMEX 12. They’re joined by a host of divers, explosives experts and unmanned vehicles.
And, in line with recent changes in the mine warfare command structure, a mine flag officer and his staff are deployed to Bahrain, where they’re running the exercise.
“I’m deployed as the theater mine warfare commander,” Rear Adm. Ken Perry, vice commander of the San Diego-based Naval Mine and Anti-Submarine Warfare Command, said during a Sept. 19 phone interview.
“My home command is chartered to maintain a deployable mine warfare commander battle staff and provide MCM command support to each of the numbered fleets,” Perry said. “So I and my battle staff are deployed to support [Bahrain-based] Commander 5th Fleet. As part of that, I was ordered to develop and execute this international exercise.”
Perry and his staff have deployed and supported several exercises, including Bold Alligator last winter off the U.S. East Coast. But the gulf assignment is larger — and longer — than most.
“This is a significant deployment, longer than our normal exercise deployments,” Perry acknowledged. “We have totally engaged with the 5th Fleet staff and my fellow task force commanders here, and all the elements [constituting] the 5th Fleet command structure,” including the international forces deployed to the region.
Perry, a submariner, came to the mine command a year ago and is part of a revitalization effort still going on in the mine warfare community.
A significant development, he said, “is the level of leadership attention that is on this mission area today. The chief of naval operations directly and personally engaged. The [Central Command] combatant commander, 5th Fleet commander, directly and personally engaged.
“That’s been backed up with significant investment — improved material condition of the minesweepers, improved training regimen [and] the level of attention to personnel assignments. Physical improvements to the pier in Bahrain — and they’re expensive.”
Overall, “the level of investment to mine warfare is significantly higher,” he added, pointing to the AFSB ship Ponce, converted this year from an amphibious ship and kept in service rather than being put in reserve.
“Keeping Ponce in commission, and upgrading her capabilities, and deploying and manning the ship, all that comes at a cost,” Perry noted. “Along with improved parts supply and repair capability here, all that requires resources.”
The commitment, he observed, comes “in an environment where resources are tighter, as the relative priority of mine warfare has gone up. That is very significant.”
An Event To Be Noticed
IMCMEX — the largest mine warfare exercise ever executed in the region — began Sept. 16 and is taking place in three key locations, each with a dedicated task group. One group is exercising in the middle of the gulf, off Bahrain. Another is in the Gulf of Oman, just outside the Strait of Hormuz, while the third group is operating farther south, in the western Gulf of Aden.
“It’s organized to demonstrate international interoperability and the various elements of mine warfare,” Perry said. “Aircraft, ships, support ships, force protection and underwater forces, including divers and undersea vehicles.”
Ponce is acting as the command ship for the midgulf force. Command ships for the other two task groups are the British amphibious ship Cardigan Bay and the Japanese minesweeper tender Uraga.
A major public relations effort has accompanied the exercise. Perry and Vice Adm. John Miller, 5th Fleet commander, have done numerous briefings and media interviews, and Perry recorded videos running on YouTube. The exercise has a Facebook page and is posting updates on Flickr and Twitter.
Regular media briefings are taking place in Bahrain, and the operations are being heavily reported in the international media. That’s a key goal of the exercise, intended to demonstrate international resolve should Iran choose to close the strategically significant, 21-mile-wide strait — a major worry, particularly should Iran view such an action as appropriate retaliation following a possible Israeli attack on the Persian country’s nuclear facilities.
About 500 ships — more than half of them energy carriers — pass every week through Hormuz. Outbound ships carry about 35 percent of the world’s oil shipments.
But while the mine exercise’s public relations effort is notable, it’s accompanied by a veil of secrecy. Only 13 of the 30-plus nations taking part in the effort have publicly acknowledged their participation.
But the Iranians are out watching — state media reported a destroyer and submarine put to sea Sept. 19 to observe the proceedings.