Magazine article National Defense

Shallow-Water Mines Remain 'Achilles' Heel' of U.S. Navy

Magazine article National Defense

Shallow-Water Mines Remain 'Achilles' Heel' of U.S. Navy

Article excerpt

After nearly a decade of research and at least $70 million spent on engineering and testing, the Navy and Marine Corps are nowhere close to having suitable equipment to detect and breach minefields in shallow waters, dose to the beach.

Shallow-water mine countermeasures today, said experts, are not much mote advanced than what Army and Navy engineers had at Omaha Beach in 1944.

"We've been talking for 10 to 15 years about how we are going to deal with the mine threat in the littorals," said Lt. Gen. Emil Bedard, the Marine Corps deputy commandant for plans, policies and operations. "We are still talking about it," he said in a briefing to the National Defense Industrial Association's expeditionary warfare conference, in Panama City, Fla. The most critical issue for amphibious operations," said Bedard, is the inability to find and destroy mines in shallow waters, less than 40-foot deep.

Last month, the Navy's office of expeditionary warfare was expected to release a solicitation to industry seeking proposals for mine-breaching systems that can find and destroy mines buried in the "surf zone," in order to dear lanes for Marines to land safely.

The surf zone is a term that describes the region extending from the mean high water line on the beach to a water depth of 10 feet. This is considered the most difficult area to conduct mine detection and clearing.

Today, the inability to clear mines from the surf zone is the "Achilles' heel of our maneuver force," said the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James L. Jones.

Jones is a long-time advocate of the need to develop mine countermeasures. He often has pointed out that enemy sea mines were responsible for 14 of the 19 Navy ships destroyed or damaged since 1950. During the Gulf War, two Navy ships--the USS Princeton and the USS Tripoli--were severely damaged and seven sailors injured by sea mines. Navy studies reported that approximately 50 nations possess sea mines--a 40 percent increase since 1986. At least 30 of those countries are able to produce mines.

In a previous assignment, Jones was director of naval expeditionary warfare, a position that is now held by Marine Maj. Gen. William Whitlow.

The "10-feet in" problem, Whitlow said, is now on the agenda of the secretary of the Navy, Gordon England. "He is intent on resolving that issue," Whitlow said at the symposium.

The solicitation for industry proposals, he explained, specifically asks for capabilities to breach minefields in waters less than 10-foot deep.

Several industry and government officials interviewed for this article noted that the current problems were prompted by the failure of two shallow-water mine countermeasure programs that had been under way for seven years. These projects were called the distributed explosive technology (DET) and the shallow-water assault breaching system (SABRE). Both programs were supposed to provide breaching and clearing systems for the surf zone.

About a year ago, senior officials from the Navy and the Marine Corps decided to cancel both DET and SABRE, because the systems developed thus far were considered ineffective and too costly.

These programs failed for several reasons, officials said. The systems, for one, were too cumbersome to operate, a hindrance that is known in military-speak as a "large logistics footprint." Additionally, there appeared to be a disconnect between the program requirements and the user needs. It was a case of a product that was built without enough input from the customers, said several officials at the conference.

The section from the very shallow water zone through the craft landing area presents a difficult environment for detecting mines, because there is a lot of clutter and the water is thick with mud. Additionally, it exposes mine countermeasures forces to hostile fire.

In the waters off the Korean peninsula, for example, "there are places where the divers cannot tell where the bottom is," said Capt. …

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