Photo: Robert Johnson
The US Navy and allies just completed a 12-day mine clearing exercise in the Strait of Hormuz. While the military avoided mentioning the standoff with Iran, the message was clear.The allied nations were here and would do anything it takes to keep this critical 21-mile channel open.
Here’s what we saw in the Persian Gulf >
It was August when I put up a post saying I wanted to attend this week’s Persian Gulf mine clearing exercise.
After reporting Iran’s incessant threats to mine the Strait of Hormuz and choke the global oil supply, I wanted some reality.
I thought the words out of Iran would have a different meaning 50 miles offshore of the Islamic Republic, and would carry greater weight to the troops sailing through the Strait on a regular basis.
I expected answers. Some concrete, hang-your-hat-on opinions and experience from U.S. Naval troops that would give face to the threat.
To that end, I was disappointed. I mean, I should have known better. Known that the lower ranks are so busy performing the mission that they have little time to consider anything else. And the upper ranks aren’t going to express anything outside policy: “The Iranian Navy has been nothing but professional and courteous,” was the inescapable line last week.
When I asked why the enlisted troops I spoke to had little awareness of what was happening in the Gulf, one Navy Lieutenant Commander told me, “We need them to be occupied every second of every day.” He was referring to keeping sailors from dwelling on home and family and preserving morale, but the effect applies to current events, as well.
Most sailors had little idea of Iran’s bluster. And the few I talked to who were aware, just shrugged and laughed. “Doesn’t matter much,” they said. “The mission is the mission.” In the end, it’s still hot and they still get paid.
Fear is something that may flicker through the cockpit of an F/A-18 desperate to find its mark on a carrier deck at night, or appear full blown for an instant during one of the disfiguring accidents that plague carrier flight crew, but it rarely settles in for the night.
Still this fails to explain how complex marine mines are, and how daunting the task of neutralising them really is. With about a dozen variations, knowing a mine is laid remains only a fraction of the fight. Magnetic, resonant, triggered … there are mines for every occasion.
Several admirals we spoke with pointed out how it costs as little as $1,000 to $1,500 to create a marine mine that could cause billions of dollars in damage. It’s an almost romantic idea; biblical in its David-like ambition, but perhaps unlikely.
What officials refer to when they mention this figure and contraption is an animal bladder filled with fuel, placed near the surface of the sea. While not only being easy to identify but difficult to control and ignite, surface mines lack a formidable favour of physics.
The deeper a mine, the greater the pressure imposed upon it by the water above, which results in a more powerful explosion when it detonates.
Just one of many slippery perceptions out here in the Gulf about a device that invites no easy answers.
If Iran does manage to dump a string of mines into the Strait without the U.S. stopping them, it will take a long, long time to conclude an acceptable risk of passage.
And as one Navy LT,—an oceanographer—told me, that is what it will come down to: acceptable risk. I pressed him, “So what? 80 per cent, 70, 65 per cent secure? What’s the number that sends commercial traffic back through the strait? Is it even a number?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “But, yes, it is a number.”
Acceptable risk. If you’re crewing a vessel through the Strait, you may want to check your company’s insurance policy.
As simple as it sounds, the only way to know all the mines are gone is to see that nothing explodes. If one gets missed, chances are someone will find it, but that won’t keep the strait from serving global vessels and ensuring tankers make their way to the marketplace.
But as picturesque as the strait may seem, it could just as easily become ground zero for the planet’s next big global conflict.
Every once in a while there comes a spot on the planet able to wreak all sorts of havoc on the world's plans
Right now it's the 21-mile-wide Strait of Hormuz, which accommodates a third of the world's oil and faces constant threat from Iran's marine mines
If this were a novel, we'd say here that 21 miles are all that stands between peaceful commerce and untold havoc
Supporting the Ponce are at least four Avenger class mine countermeasures ships never far from the Iranian coast
Avengers have wooden hulls and fibreglass shells; they're beautifully old-school with low acoustic and magnetic signatures — a couple of details that keep them from exploding in an unexpected minefield
Ideally the ships will have an Arleigh Burke DDG destroyer laying down 360-degree radar and defensive protection, but there's no guarantee
Because in addition to the mines, the US fleet will have to watch for heavily-armed Iranian speedboats
On the plus side, If Tehran's boats are made of metal they can be picked up on radar and dealt with at a distance
But if made of wood they'll offer no radar signature, and if disguised as fishing boats they could slip past the most advanced radar perimeter
These are the concerns of every senior officer in the Gulf — especially those on the Ike — the carrier supporting most every US vessel in the region
Able to sling dozens of F/A-18s into the skies within moments, carriers are the prize should missiles start to fly -- everyone here knows it
And all do a lot to ensure both laser, and GPS guided, JDAM smart bombs find their targets when needed
And just to stay sharp, the Strike Eagles fly with Mark 76 practice bombs that mimic the trajectory and strike performance of much larger bombs
But Admirals don't have to answer much outside the halls of the Capitol and even here on the Ike, the admiral has his own bridge, seen here at night. Cigar ashtrays are optional.
It may have been frustrating for Admiral Miller knowing the ship leading this week's international exercise isn't actually assigned to his detachment
The US is looking for a ship like this last seen dropping marine mines in the Persian Gulf on Iran's behalf
But it's not only the Ponce out here this week for the international exercise; in this shot, the Japanese ready the Uraga for our team to visit
The Uraga is fantastically different from the 41-year-old Ponce but strikingly the same in its capabilities, like the well deck seen here
The radar stations seem to be older and less sophisticated than US systems, and the captain told me he had 1st generation sonar while the USS Warrior had fourth
Radio commands were coming in via English and it was interesting to see Japanese nationals answer back in clear American accents
The Brits also sailed in support of the mission and offered the Japanese Captain a hat during this lull in the maneuvers
Following that exchange our Nipponese hosts put us aboard the mine sweeping vessel Uraga to see how the Imperial Navy might address mining challenges in their own waters
On their way to launch the underwater drone many sailors paused before this shrine beside the stairs
Placid just seconds before, the Uraga's crew assumed control of the MK-105 mine sweeping device and readied it for submersion in seconds
From there the massive crane spools out the cable needed to slip the drone into the warm waters of the Persian Gulf
In a genuine magnetic mine environment the next step would be deploying these steel grids behind the ship attached to a charged steel cable
This underwater guide would help keep the shape of the charged cable while it trawls the mined waters
And something like this weighty anchor would hold the lowest portion of the lasso down and allow the loop to keep its shape as the ship trolled for mines
The magnetic field generated by the plates, buoys, cables, and weights will detonate magnetic mines that may look like these dummies found on the USS Eisenhower
After getting the full rundown on the MK-105 from the Captain, we're shuffled off to our US Navy transport back to the Ponce
We're there in minutes as the Ponce XO bumps the throttle and sends a refreshing wake over all of us
Back in the Ponce's well deck is Admiral Allen fielding questions from some annoyed members of the media who want to know why they haven't seen any mine clearing going on...
I split off looking for what's been going on aboard the Ponce while we were aboard other ships, and find this MH-53E Sea Dragon on deck
Inside I find the MK-104 mine sweeping device that complements the MK-105 we'd just seen on the Japanese ship
I grabbed pictures of the 104 and its steel and video cables before getting booted by flight crew — nicely though, they even apologized
I'd actually come up during the night to see the crew washing it down and prepping it for today's mission, so I had an idea we'd be getting to see it in action
But before anything, the ship's eyes were put into the sky — the Scan Eagle drone shoots from the deck via 600 pounds of pressurised air and can maintain 20 hours of flight on just 1.5 gallons of gasoline
Most mine clearing is done in two parts and almost always requires a dive team — here the French team is prepping for their mission. That's a cinnamon Pop-Tart there the dive leader just set down on the box.
Back up on deck military and civilian crew are preparing to drop the D-Rib boat into the Gulf with two REMUS 100 submersible mine hunting drones
Once the boat's in the water and the crew have affixed the US flag and necessary antennas they're on their way
They're headed out to receive the dive teams that'll follow shortly and the two elements will work together to locate, identify, and neutralize the mocked up mine threat
From above, the Scan Eagle starts feeding back live and close-up images of how the teams are faring about seven miles from the Ponce
As the final piece of today's hunt goes to work, we're called topside to see the MH-53E that'd I'd been kicked off of floating starboard of the ship
Inside crew slowly let the MK-104 into to water and set their equipment up in preparation for monitoring
The 104 will be towed by the chopper via that line -- it's kind of hard to see so I filtered this shot hoping it'd be easier to find
While all this is going down, visual surveillance is constantly applied — radar only works so well, especially on the region's wooden boats that radar wont pick up at all
The dive teams are crucial to mine clearing, not only because they can visually confirm a mine, but they also report back water conditions like salinity and other factors valuable to achieving accurate sonar readings
Once everyone is either in the air, or in the water, I make my way to Mission II where the data from the hunt is being sent for review and am re-introduced to the coolest Netherlander I ever met
And highlights how the submersible REMUS vehicles will interact with the teams and where they'll work in relation to each other
Finally the dive master shows me an example of the 60-meter-wide side scan sonar picture picked up by the REEMUS
As well as some examples of what they often find out on the sea floor — to save time they can overlap new data with old — highlighting any changes helps but it's still a very time consuming process
For every hour of video collected out here, inside teams will spend an additional hour going over the footage. Clearing the strait, one officer told me, could take years using one method alone
As we were getting rushed off back to Bahrain, I interrupted Shawn Reardon and Daniel McCarthy and asked them to show me the mine hunting technology on board we'd not seen
Then, just like that, we're herded back on the MH-53 for the ride back to Bahrain and on to the States
But behind us the day is far from over, as the mission to keep the Strait of Hormuz open to all commercial shipping continues
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