Where Are U.S. Minesweepers? Out of Service and Out-of-Date, Says Arms Expert William Lind

updated 08/24/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/24/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Three weeks ago, while flying an American flag and heading up the Persian Gulf under the protection of a U.S. Navy task force, the Kuwaiti tanker Bridgeton struck a mine, probably an Iranian one. Last week there was a second blast: Cruising just outside the Gulf, the U.S. supertanker Texaco Caribbean was holed by another of the World War II-era mines. The incidents made the absence of minesweepers from the escort force seem a glaring omission and suggested to some critics that the U.S. Navy was missing some important parts from its fleet inventory. In contrast to the Soviet navy, which has 125 oceangoing minesweepers, the 563-ship U.S. Navy has but three Korean War-vintage ships of that type on active duty. They are currently berthed in U.S ports and are used for research and training. Pentagon admirals chose not to send any of these elderly vessels to the Gulf. "There's something very wrong with our Navy," says William Lind, 40, president of the nonprofit Military Reform Institute in Washington, D.C. A Cleveland native with history degrees from Dartmouth and Princeton, Lind was former presidential candidate Gary Hart's military adviser and Hart's co-author on a book titled America Can Win: The Case for Military Reform. In conversation with correspondent Maria Wilhelm, Lind offered a provocative view of the mine-sweeper gap and other concerns about America's risky commitment in the Persian Gulf.

Why are there only three active minesweepers in the U.S. Navy?

The Navy is run by three powerful "unions": the surface union of cruisers, destroyers and frigates, the air union of aircraft carriers and planes and the submarine union. Anything that doesn't fit into one of those categories gets almost nothing in the way of resources. Captaining a minesweeper is not a good career path.

Can't we afford a minesweeper fleet?

The Navy has been wallowing in money under the Reagan administration, but bureaucratic politics has determined where that money goes. The U.S. does have a $3 billion minesweeper program with eight ships under construction and plans for 19 more. It's still a very small program that will leave us with only a fraction of the capability we would need to keep our ports open in wartime. Also, the program is coming in two years late and way over budget.

How did the "minesweeper gap" come about?

It happened gradually. We haven't faced a naval opponent since World War II. In theory, everybody recognizes the mine threat, everybody knows about the Soviet mining capability. But it's just that real threats play very little role in the Navy's decisions.

How do naval mines work?

The mine the Bridgeton hit was extremely simple, probably a ball with horns that act like triggers. When the ship bumped against the mine, it depressed one of the horns and set it off. This type of mine is moored to the seabed and floats near the surface on a chain. Other mines rest on the sea bottom or launch themselves upward when activated by the magnetic signature of a ship's hull, the sound of a ship's propeller or changes in water pressure.

Aren't mines rather primitive weapons in modern warfare?

Once again we see that old-fashioned, simple things often perform better in combat than the technologically complicated equipment on which we spend so much money. Mines are the classic weapon for a weak naval power. They are something we are likely to encounter not only from Iran in the Persian Gulf but in almost any conflict with a Third World country. If they can't do much else, they can at least lay mines.

How do you "sweep" for mines?

There are two parts to the job: finding the mine, then disabling or destroying it. The technique depends on the type, depth, location and other factors. Locating mines can be done either from a surface ship or from a helicopter. In most cases a cutting device severs the mine's mooring, allowing it to float to the surface, where it can be detonated harmlessly.

Do you think the minesweeping helicopters we're sending to the Gulf will be effective?

Helicopters are less effective in some instances. Their range, endurance and night capabilities are limited. They are not a complete replacement for minesweeping ships.

Is the Navy vulnerable in other ways in the Persian Gulf?

If the Iranians launch air attacks against our ships, other weaknesses may be revealed. One is that the Navy has no small Iranian aircraft carriers. It is loath to risk one of its few big carriers in the confined space of the Gulf. The small speedboats that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are using present another problem. Our ships have few weapons that are effective against them. Our weapons are radar-guided, and those small boats have almost no radar signature. We desperately need small, fast boats of our own to provide an outer defensive screen, but, again, the Navy has refused to consider them. Also attacks by low-flying Iranian aircraft could pose a serious threat since our antiaircraft weapons are not effective against this tactic.

In what ways is the U.S. at greatest risk in the Persian Gulf?

No one has a crystal ball, but the risk of major embarrassment to the United States is high, and we haven't thought through our options. If, for example, the Iranians sink one or more of our warships, what do we do then? Bomb their cities?

The world is no longer one of superpowers and nonpowers. Increasingly, even a small nation can block a superpower in its own backyard. In the Persian Gulf we are taking a Third World country's nationalism head-on, and that is not a smart thing to do. Iranian suicide squads are the kind of thing this nationalism can create. One would think we should have learned this lesson from Vietnam and that the Soviets would have learned it in their break with China. But neither Moscow nor Washington seem to be very good students.

From Our Partners