The United States confronts the formidable task of protecting some 95,000 miles of coastlines and thousands of miles of inland waterways, including 361 ports. The nation’s maritime economic zone comprises more than 3.4 million square miles of ocean space and at any time is cluttered with thousands of naval warships, commercial vessels, fishing boats, tugs, ferries and pleasure craft.
Mines and underwater improvised explosive devices can be placed surreptitiously in channels and harbors for spectacular effects — against the Staten Island Ferry crammed with 2,500 commuters during an evening rush hour or a cruise ship with 4,000 vacationers and crew on board leaving the port of Miami or Seattle.
Mines can greatly harm the flow of trade. More than 90 percent of U.S. exports and imports transits U.S. ports. The consequences from just a few mines could be catastrophic. Even if no ships were sunk or damaged, explosions in a few key ports on East, Gulf, and West Coasts and in the Saint Lawrence Seaway, would have a chilling effect on commercial shipping from increased insurance costs and vessel lay-days.
And the economic tremors would reverberate throughout the nation and among trading partners overseas.
Mines are easy to acquire or build, and are relatively cheap, ranging from a few tens of dollars to $25,000 for the most advanced weapons. They can be deployed by aircraft, submarines and surface vessels.
They are designed for operations from the surf zone (less than 10-foot water depth) to deep water (greater than 200 feet). They can range from a few pounds to several tons of high explosive and can have a variety of firing mechanisms, including remote control and command, contact, magnetic, acoustic, seismic or pressure.
Mines can be buoyant and suspended, close-tethered to the bottom, resting on the bottom or even buried under sediment to confound mine hunting and sweeping. Some mines are mobile, capable of being launched from submarines thousands of yards from intended minefields, while others have torpedo or rocket-propelled warheads that dramatically expand potential damage zones against submarine and surface targets.
Limpet mines are designed to be placed directly on targets by combat swimmers or, in the future, unmanned undersea vehicles. Old mines can be refitted with modern, highly sophisticated components and all mines can be equipped with counter-countermeasure features to frustrate sweeping and hunting operations. They can be fabricated from fiberglass and plastic, making them extremely difficult to detect, identify and counter, once in the water.
According to Navy data, more than a quarter-million naval mines are in the inventories of more than 50 navies. More than 30 countries produce and more than 20 countries export these weapons. These do not include mines that can be fabricated easily, such as the Iraqi floating anti-small boat mines that were employed in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The USS Samuel B. Roberts almost sank with potentially great loss of life after striking a Soviet-designed contact mine in April 1987. Repairing the damage caused by a $1,500 weapon cost about $96 million.
Since the end of World War II, mines have damaged or sunk 15 U.S. Navy ships.
In U.S. coastal waters, the responsibility for security falls to the Coast Guard. The Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also figures prominently in investigations involving explosives. The Navy is the lead agency for mine countermeasures expertise and operations.
The lines of responsibility in an actual attack, however, are murky.
The federal government has a lead role under the national response plan. But regional, state, local, and commercial partners must also be closely integrated and informed. Indeed, a multi-agency team is needed for each U.S. port — or at least the 17 “tier-one” facilities having significant military or economic importance.
The Coast Guard’s “captains of the port” play a crucial role as local federal maritime security coordinators.
But the Coast Guard has no capabilities — and perhaps even no desire — to conduct countermine operations. Retired Coast Guard Vice Adm. James D. Hull, who served as Atlantic area commander, said that countermine is “primarily the Navy’s responsibility … The Navy has the expertise and equipment to do the job. The real question is whether the Navy’s forces can respond in the appropriate time to neutralize a threat.”
Since 2003, the Navy and Coast Guard have collaborated to address the mine threat. Three war games on the West Coast have uncovered surprising capabilities and strengths, but showed many more areas that need close attention, especially the command-and-control relationships involving non-military participants. Other exercises have identified technological issues that also need focused attention and funding.
For domestic operations, the Navy’s airborne, surface and underwater countermine forces — particularly the shallow-water Naval Special Clearance Team One, with its marine mammals and robots — will be “chopped” to the Coast Guard’s captains of the port, as they have overall command and control responsibilities for maritime homeland security.
Naval countermine forces are concentrated in Charleston, S.C.; Norfolk, Va.; and San Diego. A countermine explosive-ordnance disposal mobile unit detachment is based at Whidbey Island, Wash. Last year, the Navy disestablished the Mine Warfare Command in Corpus Christi, Texas, and is moving the staff to the revamped Naval Mine and Anti-Submarine Warfare Command in San Diego.
All assets will be out of south Texas in the next few years. The helicopter squadrons, EOD mobile units, and special teams can be airlifted anywhere in the world within 72 hours or so. Helicopters can self-deploy within the United States, but surface countermine vessels have top speeds of some 10-12 knots, making a quick response in some scenarios problematic.
One of the Coast Guard’s contributions will be the new deployable operations group. They could become the Coast Guard’s “first-responders” to a mine incident, well in advance of the Navy’s minesweepers that might require several days if not longer to respond.
“I’m not sure we’ve done all our homework concerning who could or should hunt for real weapons,” said retired Navy Capt. Thomas B. Davilli, a former commander of countermine forces. “One thing I do know, [the Navy’s] assets are designed to operate safely in the presence of the threat. Whether others will have the capability is doubtful.”
Participants in a recent war game, he said, “pointed to a local law-enforcement organization that has an EOD-like response dive team.” But the presence of an anti-tamper countermeasures device on the mine or underwater explosive device certainly complicates matters, he added. “Others have suggested hunting for actual mines from small craft towing commercial side-scan sonars. … The thought of sending crewed assets into a mined threat area without signature silencing or some sort of ‘safe track’ procedures is foolish.”
Exacerbating the challenge for federal, state, and local actors is the fact that no two ports are alike. Each differs in geography, channels, bathymetry, winds, tides, currents, bottom sediments, turbidity, climate, and critical infrastructure — piers and wharves, moorings, navigation markers, cables and pipelines.
The best strategy is to interdict the minelayers before the mines can be put in the water. If that fails, the Coast Guard, Navy, FBI, ATF, and other federal- and non-federal first responders will need to understand what is known as the “intelligence preparation of the environment.”
Agencies must be aware of potential mining areas, at least for each of the 17 “tier-one” ports.
It has been years since the Navy, as part of its Cold-War port-breakout concepts, conducted routine bottom surveys and mapping of “Q-Routes” to assure safe egress of warships and auxiliary vessels in support of national strategies and war plans.
The Royal Navy has already embarked on such an effort in several U.K. ports. Some experts have proposed resurrecting the ill-fated mid-1990s’ COOP — Craft of Opportunity — program and have Navy Reserve units conduct periodic surveys and sonar mapping of bottoms. Others have recommended that the maritime transportation industry and port authorities take the lead. Another option is to outsource the survey and mapping responsibilities to contractors. In short, there is yet no coherent plan, staffing or program.
Many useful lessons learned by the Navy in clearing the port of Umm Qasr, Iraq, in 2003, could be applied to domestic countermine operations.
“The Umm Qasr port operations show what we might confront in a domestic mining incident,” said Navy Capt. Terry Miller, who has more than 20 years of experience as a surface mine warfare officer. An international force comprising Royal Australian Navy and Royal Navy EOD specialists and U.S. divers, aided by marine mammals and robots, cleared some 900 square miles.
“The Australians worked in some very confined areas, alongside piers, and among numerous obstacles and clutter,” Miller noted, “and were aided by their extensive training for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.” Because the mine-clearance team had no prior knowledge of the port and its approaches, however, it took nine days of intensive operations to clear the channel.
While in some cases it will be appropriate to “blow-in-place” weapons that are discovered, in others this might pose unacceptable risks to critical port assets that could be damaged severely by a detonation. When blow-in-place is not feasible, the Navy would have to raise and neutralize or render-safe the mines. But doing so would increase the danger and the duration of the countermine process.
“Until we have an approved homeland countermine concept of operations it’s hard to say what level of capability is missing,” Miller offered. “Most certainly confined waters inside an inner harbor pose challenges for the current force construct, although we did adapt and overcome the Umm Qasr challenge with some innovations in systems and [tactics, techniques, and procedures] … Sydney had an extensive harbor defense plan that accounted for mines and floating IEDs and is a blueprint for any mine scenario and domestic countermine planning.”
The harbor and port countermine problem “will not ultimately be resolved using traditional assets,” said retired Rear Adm. Deborah A. Loewer, former commander of the Mine Warfare Command. “These tactics won’t work in the confined waters of ports, harbors, and approaches.” This problem, she said, “will be solved using a combination of small vessels and helos, towed sensors, unmanned underwater vehicles, EOD, change detection and a variation of the tools currently under development for the [Navy’s new] Littoral Combat Ship. Moreover, industry needs to take the lead and transform these tools and systems to make them suitable for the homeland security role.”
Scott Truver is vice president of national security programs at General Dynamics Information Technology.
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