SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — As the USS Patriot steamed down the western coast of Japan under blackout conditions, Senior Chief Petty Officer Jesse Kenner and several junior sailors pored over radar and communications screens in the ship’s combat information center.
Cascaded in dull blue light, and with the sound of computer servers whirring around them, the sailors were on the lookout for the roadside bombs of the sea: underwater mines.
Underwater mines are a real threat and have the ability to level the playing field in a conflict between two disparate naval powers.
China and North Korea are each reportedly taking steps to neutralize the naval supremacy of the U.S. in case of a conflict, with the latter allegedly developing nuclear sea mines and the former prepared to deploy upward of 80,000, according to U.S. military officials.
"Mines are very dangerous to all sizes of vessels," the Patriot’s skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Suzanne Schang, said as her ship headed to Kagoshima in late October to meet the Japanese for sea exercises. "Much of the threat is also psychological, so if vessels know there are mines in an area, even if they don’t know much about it, it will affect commerce and impacts the sea lanes."
Mines are quite prevalent and their use has not dropped in recent years, even though usage often goes unnoticed. And those left over and forgotten from past conflicts sometimes break away from their tethers and float onto beaches around the world.
Underwater mines can be purchased for as little as $1,500, so even sanction-wary despots like Saddam Hussein have traditionally built up stockpiles. The BBC reported that as recently as April, NATO warships intercepted forces loyal to now deposed Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi as they tried to mine the harbor of Misrata to keep ships from evacuating the wounded.
To meet this challenge, the Navy plans to replace all 14 aging Avenger-class minesweepers with new multifunction Littoral Combat Ships over the next 15 years, Navy officials said.
The new all-purpose ships can be fitted with different packages, from minesweeping to surface warfare depending on the mission, according to Lt. Richard Drake, spokesman for Commander, Amphibious Force 7th Fleet. Of these ships, 24 will have the capabilities to find and eliminate surface and underwater explosives.
Until these upgraded ships are ready, keeping the world’s shipping lanes open and allowing amphibious insertions falls on the small, gray, unassuming, mine countermeasure ships and the men and women who helm them.
Jacks of all trades
The sailors who search and destroy these mines serve on the Navy’s smallest forward-deployed ships, at 224 feet long, and are tossed unmercifully in swells as high as 10 to 12 feet. There are almost as many officers on board the Wasp-class multipurpose amphibious assault ship USS Essex as there are total sailors on the Avenger-class Patriot.
The comparatively miniscule crews of about 85 are forced to work long hours, even longer during combat situations, and learn many jobs on board.
"Administration and maintenance requirements are the same [as on a big ship], only we have less people," said Lt. Shane Dennis, who oversees work in the engine room.
The sailors aboard the Patriot refer to themselves as jacks of all trades.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Tyler King, 25, a mineman from Utah, re-enlisted on Oct. 26. That day, he trained with the .50 caliber guns; he spent the next day working with the ship’s mine neutralization gear — his primary job onboard. Later, he performed a watch in the engine room and finished his day in the ship’s mine-hunting combat information nerve center.
He is a prime example of a hybrid sailor, able to perform a myriad of duties that make him invaluable on a ship with a small crew.
"Everyone has to do more. They’re more qualified [than other sailors] out of necessity," Schang said. "They are some of the hardest working sailors I have ever met and some of the most versatile."
These traits make minemen sought after by other ships and commands, Schang said, but most tend to stay in the mine community for their entire Navy careers.
In addition to cross-training, Schang said, the crew does all of the sustainability work. On bigger ships, there are sailors dedicated to specific jobs like maintaining the armory or working the lines.
As she spoke, Schang turned to Petty Officer 2nd Class Derek Smith, 26, the ship’s assistant leading petty officer of the deck, whose main duties include minesweeping and small boat operations. Smith, from Rohnert Park, Calif., stood a few feet away, stoically steering the Patriot.
"Here’s a perfect example" of the range of duties one person might handle, she said. "We have a surfer kid from Cali driving a warship."
Smith’s superior on the deck and close friend, Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Halbrooks, said that he also feels comfortable out of his element.
"I came to the ship as a sonar technician, which is completely different than what I’m doing right now," Halbrooks said. "I went from using my brains to using my hands."
Focused on the job
Two years ago, the number of mine countermeasure ships permanently stationed in Sasebo was increased from two to four after a Navy review found that it was more prudent than constantly rotating in two ships.
There are 14 total, and they are also based out of Bahrain and San Diego. Sasebo’s mine ships are the only ones with permanent crews, and they travel farther than all of the others, taking trips out to sea for two weeks to six months at a time, Drake said.
Another Sasebo-based mine ship, USS Guardian, traveled 14,000 miles on a recent mission.
Earlier in October, the Patriot was operating in the waters off South Korea.
"You make sure everybody is staying focused and having good exercises and preparing," said Chief Petty Officer Jeffery Harper, of the Sasebo-based USS Avenger. "God forbid we actually ever have to [go and hunt for mines]. You just make sure you’re prepared as best as you can."
The real thing
Harper recalled how he — as a crewmember of the mine countermeasure ship USS Dextrous — was able to use that training in the days before the ground war kicked off in Iraq.
On a calm night in March 2003, Harper, 40, stood on the deck of the Dextrous in the north Arabian Gulf, watching cruise missiles from other Navy ships fly overhead: Operation Iraqi Freedom had begun.
The Bahrain-based mine ship traveled north up a river called the Khawr az-Zubayr, passing the skeletons of Iraqi ships. The days were extremely warm, and the nights cold. Despite that, the majority of the crew slept on the ship’s deck to increase their chances of survival should they hit an underwater mine. The ship’s small deck was already cluttered with mine neutralization equipment.
Their destination was the southern port of Um Qasr, and clearing mines for humanitarian relief was one of the first missions of the war.
"It was difficult," the Missourian recalled. "There were people sleeping everywhere top-side."
The Dextrous sailors couldn’t help but be nervous. In addition to finding small boats on the banks that were rigged with improvised explosive devices, they received word that more than 100 underwater mines had been captured by coalition forces from Iraqi barges and tugboats within their area of operations.
Harper and the rest of the crew knew it wouldn’t take long before they encountered the real thing.
"We flew on a lot of mine-like contacts because with the clarity of the water, you couldn’t identify if it was a mine," Harper said referring to the deployment of their mine neutralization vehicles, which operate like miniature unmanned submarines and check out suspicious objects underwater. "There were some pictures taken of mines that you could see when the tide went down."
If a mine-like object is detected by the ship’s sonar, Kenner said, a slow and methodical process begins. Investigation is needed to determine what the object is, by one of the ship’s unmanned mine neutralization vehicles or by sailors with explosive ordnance disposal.
In Iraq, the burden fell heavily on the mine neutralization vehicles, Harper said, due to currents and clarity of the water. Once a suspicious object was detected, it was announced to the crew that they were to "fly" the vehicle.
"You rely heavily on your sonar operators to identify mine-like contacts," Harper said, adding that there were so many in Iraq that he has trouble remembering them all.
If it turns out to be a mine, a danger area is set up, Kenner said. Mines can be taken care of in many ways, depending on the type, size, depth, water clarity and weather.
The majority of the mines they saw in Iraq were hidden on the bottom, Harper said.
Mine neutralization vehicles carry a missile package and are equipped to destroy mines, or disposal technicians can get in the water to inspect and detonate them. Harper said there is protocol for how far away ships, neutralization vehicles and technicians have to stay from the mines.
Depending on the time of day, the majority of the crew would come to the deck to watch the mine explode, Harper said. Watching a detonation brings the power of mines into perspective.
"The training kind of prepares you for what you’re going to see," Harper said.
"A lot of times it’s not as amped up as they say it’s going to be."