The mine countermeasures ships Sentry (MCM 3), left, and Dextrous approach for an astern replenishment at sea while deployed to the 5th Fleet. The Navy is going to add two MCM crews with all-volunteer crews. (MC2 Toni Burton / Navy)
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The need for a beefed-up mine countermeasures force in the Arabian Gulf isn't going anywhere, so the Navy is adding two new crews to help man the ships. And, in an unusual move, the crews will be largely made up of volunteers serving as individual augmentees.
This spring, four mine countermeasures ships were shipped to the gulf from San Diego, doubling the number of U.S. mine sweepers in the region. The moves were a response to a request from U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and strengthened 5th Fleet's ability to react should Iran force a closure of the Strait of Hormuz.
But unlike the four MCMs permanently forward-deployed to the region, the movement of the four additional ships was termed a deployment. The ships left San Diego on May 9 and arrived in Bahrain on June 23.
The added deployments have put a severe strain on the mine force. The four ships sent from California — Sentry, Devastator, Pioneer and Warrior — don't normally deploy and do not have permanent crews. Rather, the San Diego-based ships, along with the forward-deployed Scout, Gladiator, Ardent and Dextrous, are manned by rotational crews.
Ten rotational crews have been manning the eight MCMs for an average of six months, said Rear Adm. Frank Morneau, deputy director of expeditionary warfare at the Pentagon, in a Nov. 9 interview. Anecdotal reports, however, indicate many sailors are serving longer, some with as little as three months at home between deployments.
To relieve the stress, the two additional crews are being stood up to help with the 5th Fleet mission.
The two crews, Morneau said, "will offset dwell constraints and help us rotate the MCM crews through next year," giving sailors "a better quality of life."
Each 84-man crew — the MCMs are not configured to accommodate female sailors — will be known as IAMCM crews. Sailors selected for the duty will report to San Diego on Dec. 31 to begin the 365-day assignment. Though they are called IA crews, it's not mandated they will all be volunteers, a Navy spokeswoman said.
The details are laid out in a newly released message, NAVADMIN 339/12.
"They'll train and deploy together," Morneau said, and sailors with prior mine experience are especially welcome. "We're looking for folks who potentially have done MCM in the past," he said.
Experience is most critical for officers and chiefs, according to the message, "due to the rapid training timeline."
The crews will train in San Diego for about 20 weeks, then make a six-month deployment to one of the Fifth Fleet ships. At the end of the year, they'll disband.
If a sailor is interested, he'll have to act fast. Commands have until Nov. 29 to submit nomination information to U.S. Fleet Forces Command.
Fewer ships, better tech
The Navy is planning additional changes to its mine force to include bringing some extra ships home, relying more heavily on newly introduced technologies.
Two ships might come home in the early part of next year, while the other two could remain for all of 2013, Morneau said..
"We think we're going to bring two ships home in February," he added..
The reduction doesn't mean a lessening of mine sweeping capability, he said. "It's based on the performance of new gear to make up that capability," Morneau said. "A lot of the new technologies have given us some breakthroughs."
Among the new gear is the deployment of the SeaFox mine neutralization system, being purchased to replace the SLQ-48 system in use. The aging SLQ-48 reportedly is plagued with reliability problems, while the SeaFox, a German-developed system used by British mine sweepers also stationed in the gulf, has proven its effectiveness.
NAVCENT last year sent an urgent need requirement, which led to the procurement of a limited number of SeaFox systems. The systems are being used on ships and MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters in the gulf and for training in San Diego.
SeaFox, the Navy has said, is seen as a stopgap measure until a more permanent system can be acquired, but a follow-on order was announced in October by supplier ATLAS North America.
Another new system making an impact is the Mark 18 Mod 2 Kingfish unmanned underwater vehicle. The torpedo-like vehicle, guided by GPS and a WiFi connection, is able to search a wide area, classify objects and map them, and operate in shallow water. Each system includes three Kingfish vehicles.
The nearly-12-foot-long Kingfish can be operated from a rigid-hull inflatable boat, greatly enlarging the number of vessels that can deploy a mine hunting system. The system was evaluated by explosive ordnance disposal teams in San Diego, and such teams are operating the system in the gulf, where the first Mod 2 system was deployed in July, Morneau said.
More Kingfish systems will be delivered to 5th Fleet in February, Morneau added, although he declined to specify a number.
Made by Hydroid, the Kingfish was developed from the earlier Mod 1 Swordfish UUV. Improved Mod 3 and 4 systems also are under development.
Added up, the new technologies reflect a change in the way the U.S. is conducting mine warfare.
"We're focused on increasing the speed, collapsing the timeline," Morneau said. "We're really trying to reduce the time it takes us to do mine warfare."
With more Mark 18s available, "I actually may have more capability" than with the current number of ships, Morneau declared. "We're not going to take ourselves below our current capability."