The Menace of Mines

Beach Landings Likely as Difficult Now as in Normandy

By David Abel  |  The Boston Globe  |   7/21/1999

WASHINGTON -- In the heat of this spring's conflict with Serbia, NATO ships in the Adriatic Sea patrolled close to the Yugoslav coastline, near Montenegro's port of Bar, scouring the seas for small objects capable of sinking the most mighty of allied ships.

Though the sailors did not find any mines, the threat of the bobbing or submerged explosives was ever-present, and continues to pose a risk to ships in the region.

In the more than five decades since the D-Day landing at Normandy, the US Navy has not improved much on its ability to ply shallow, mine-infested waters or to land Marines on heavily defended beaches,  senior Navy officials say.

The reasons: years of neglect which showed no improvement in the Navy's ability to counter even basic World War I-vintage sea mines, and an outdated Cold War strategy, which envisioned that NATO allies would deal with the mine threat, officials say.

"Right now, if you look at the problems in 'Saving Private Ryan,' we're not too far off from having still the same problems," said Commander Steven Lehr, director of the Navy's mine warfare and explosive ordnance division. "We've got a couple of technologies out there that we're working with, and a couple of systems to get the Marines on the beach."

But if the need arises in a future conflict, he said, "It's going to be difficult. It's going to be very difficult."

The most recent example of how mines can swamp an amphibious landing was in the 1991 Gulf War, when thousands of old Iraqi mines made it too dangerous to risk landing Marines on Kuwaiti beaches.

Countering the mines is just part of the problem. It's almost as much of a challenge getting to a conflict zone in a timely fashion. With most of the Navy's mine warfare ships based far from potential conflicts, in Ingleside, Texas, it would now take mine-clearing vessels traveling at top speed more than 45 days to reach many potential conflict zones.

"Now, take into account sea, environments, all that stuff, that could be slower," said Lehr, adding that two mine-sweeping ships have been based in Japan and two in Bahrain. "But, still, they're not enough force to take care of the problem."

The threat of mines to Navy operations has only increased since the end of the Cold War, as anti-mine warfare has failed to keep pace with the ever-increasing sophistication and proliferation of sea mines.

In the past decade, the number of countries with sea mines has increased 40 percent, to 50. And there are now more than 300 types of mines, 75 percent more than 10 years ago.

Today's mines come in at least four categories: moored, ground, tethered, and controlled. The moored is one of the simplest and is detonated by contact or the magnetic influence of a passing ship. Ground mines, also known as influence mines, are the most advanced, because they can't be detected by mine-sweeping boats and they can be programmed to explode based on the sound of a specific ship. Tethered mines are like anchored torpedoes that home in on targets as they approach. And controlled mines, the oldest, are underwater fuses detonated by an observer offshore.

A moored mine costs only $1,500. The damage it can cause far exceeds its price. For example, in 1988 the USS Samuel B. Roberts hit a moored mine in the Persian Gulf, causing $96 million in damage.

"The most cost-effective weapon in naval warfare, mines are small, easily concealed, cheap, require virtually no maintenance, are easily stored, and can be laid by almost any platform," said Samuel Loring Morison, a naval analyst. "To counter a mine and neutralize it requires an effort out of all proportion to its size and cost."

After the Gulf War and the crippling of the Navy ships, the service has listed mine warfare as one of its top readiness deficiencies. And since Defense Secretary William S. Cohen took office in 1997, the Navy has focused on improving its anti-mine strategy.

In next year's budget, the president requested $4.6 billion for research and development of mine countermeasures, $750 million more than Congress allotted this year.

The Navy is devoting the bulk of its anti-mine money to overhauling the way the service responds to mines by 2005, when the first aircraft carrier battle group will no longer rely on a dedicated force of mine-sweepers, the ships based in Texas. Instead, the Navy will have an "organic" ability to counter mines. That means each battle group and amphibious ready group will have its own air, surface, and undersea ability to seek and destroy mines whether buried in the ocean floor or bobbing in the surf.

The new technologies will include remote-controlled undersea vehicles capable of locating and neutralizing mines, a submarine-launched system that can patrol ahead of a battle group, and new ways to clear lanes for an amphibious landing.

The Marines' best hope for not repeating the slaughter of Normandy and other grisly World War II landings are two rocket systems, scheduled for deployment in 2001, that will launch from a high-speed hovercraft. The goal is to clear sea lanes wide enough for the hovercrafts, packed with Marines, to advance directly onto the beach. Like systems that neutralize land mines, the rocket sends explosives ahead to detonate anything in its path.

But Lehr, the Navy's mine warfare director, believes the technology is immature and the strategy possibly flawed. He said clearing lanes is dangerous, because it allows an enemy to focus its fire in a specific area and create killing zones.

"I don't want to say" our amphibious-landing capability "has fallen through the cracks," Lehr said. "But it has not been given any real serious consideration for a long time."

Copyright, The Boston Globe