MANAMA, Bahrain — British and American forces have long cooperated in a variety of endeavors, but here in the Arabian Gulf, where both navies maintain sizable mine countermeasures forces, the bonds are especially strong against a common enemy: the sea mine.
“We are more coordinated and combined than any other U.S.-U.K. cooperation effort,” Cmdr. Jim Buck, commander of the U.K. mine forces here, declared Feb. 28 during an interview aboard the minesweeper Quorn. “I’ve got U.S. knowledge and U.K. knowledge plugged in 24-7, plus U.S. logistics.”
Four U.S. Avenger-class minesweepers are permanently based in Bahrain, complemented since last year by an additional two deployed from San Diego. Two more that had been operating here were sent home in early March. The ships are aided by minesweeping MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters from Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron 15.
The British also base four mine countermeasures ships, two Hunt-class minesweepers and two Sandown-class minehunters. The Royal Navy has continually stationed minesweepers in the gulf since 1992, while the U.S. has maintained a permanent minesweeping presence here for almost that long.
The emphasis on countermine warfare has grown in recent years with ongoing worries that Iran could mine and close the strategic Strait of Hormuz, through which about a fifth of all oil in trade passes each day. The U.S. surged four additional minesweepers here in early summer 2012 and has been investing more heavily in new technologies and equipment to defeat enemy mines.
Largely based on experience watching the British, the U.S. Navy is fitting its minesweepers in the gulf with the Seafox mine neutralization system, replacing the older SLQ-48 system, which has suffered from reliability and maintenance issues. The Sea Dragons and both types of British mine ships use the system, developed by Atlas Elektronik.
The Gladiator was the first U.S. ship here to get Seafox, completing sea trials in February. The Sentry got its system during a winter maintenance period and was conducting trials late that month. The Dextrous was next in line for the upgrade.
The two nations also are developing a command structure for the mine ships here.
The standing Surface Mine Countermeasures Commander (SMCMC) has been used periodically for mine exercises, but negotiations are ongoing to make it a permanent position, reporting to the U.S. commander of Combined Task Force 52 (CTF 52).
“Both countries maintain a credible MCM force forward-deployed in this region. And it only makes sense that we operate together,” British Capt. Andrew Elvin, deputy commander of CTF 52, said during a March 5 phone interview. “Development of the SMCMC is a natural progression where we’re looking at aligning staffs to improve that capability.”
Both nations will retain command and control over their own forces.
“There will always be a national ability to maintain an independent capability,” Elvin added.
The command structure will get another tryout in May during the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise. More than two dozen nations are expected to participate in the three-week exercise, including two French minesweepers transported by heavy-lift ship to the region.