June 01, 2012
Credit: Credit: US Navy
Iran's threat earlier this year to close the Strait of Hormuz highlighted what many experts view as a longstanding fundamental weakness in U.S. naval strategy: the inability to effectively and economically spot and neutralize naval mines.
Such mines can cost as little as $1,000 each and are relatively easy for Iran to put in place. Finding and neutralizing them might take U.S. naval forces a month or more, essentially allowing Iran to achieve its strategic goal of blocking trade in the narrow body of water.
In fact, mining the strait would be a strategy roughly similar to what insurgents have been doing on roads in Iraq and Afghanistan for the past eight years, using crude bombs for strategic influence. “We've been there before, we just called it an IED [improvised explosive device] and put it on land,” Navy Rear Adm. Frank Morneau, deputy director for the Expeditionary Warfare Division, told an audience at the Navy League's annual Sea-Air-Space Exhibition near Washington.
And like the hunt for IEDs, many naval experts believe the technology for tackling sea mines is woefully underdeveloped. “Mine warfare for the Navy has never really truly been a priority,” said Rene Osias, who works on L-3's Side Scan Sonar Systems.
That neglect has translated into a lack of new technology to deal with naval mines, even though the potential threat is growing fast. “I would submit to you that in the water mass we're still back to at best, binocular stage,” says retired Rear Adm. Robert Sprigg, vice president of naval activities at Thales. And compared to where aviation was prior to the development of radar, “It's not even that good.”
Mine warfare, Sprigg says, “is one of the easiest, cheapest, most effective area-denial things that's ever existed and we haven't found a solution to it yet.”
The Pentagon is acutely aware of this weakness. Last year, the director of operational test and evaluation determined that the Littoral Combat Ship's AN/AQS-20A Sonar Mine Detecting Set and the Airborne Laser Mine Detection System (ALMDS) were both “deficient.” The LCS “is not expected to be survivable in a hostile combat environment,” the report stated [see LCS story, p. 26].