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Just like in the movies but these are for real.

Summary: Twelve miles somewhere north of Bahrain, the sun is setting in the purple skies above the Arabian Gulf.

Twelve miles somewhere north of Bahrain, the sun is setting in the purple skies above the Arabian Gulf.

Metallica is blasting out of loudspeakers on the landing deck of the USS Ponce, a 42-year-old ship once destined for the scrap-metal heap and which has now been renovated by the crew on board to become the US Navy's first Afloat Forward Staging Base to counter the mine threat in the Gulf.

The risks mines pose

Mines are relatively cheap and easy-to-make self-contained explosive device which can kill, cause billions of dollars of damage to commercial or navy ships, and block a crucial trade route for days on end.

The significant disruptive nature of this threat is evident in the fact that mines don't even have to be identified to cause problems -- the simple possibility of them being there can be enough to disrupt the flow of commerce and halt ships in their passage.

While mines were used in World War One and Two, and are still being cleared today, the last time mines caused significant damage in this region was in 1991 in the first Gulf War.

However, the high level of participation at ICEMEX 13 shows interest is high in navies around the world at present, and in a world facing food and water security issues, it's no wonder politicians are nervous.

Less effective in wide areas, mines pose the biggest risk around shipping channels with high levels of traffic, and near ports and other infrastructure.

The immediate goal, according to Royal Navy captain Andrew Elvin, deputy commander of Taskforce 52 and captain of UK mine warfare, is not to remove all the mines but to allow safe passage.

"Our job is to find a safe route through there initially, and then go back and clear the area later -- but that takes time."

There are three common varieties, which can be deployed by nations or smaller entities such as terrorist or militant groups.

Contact mines, floating or attached to a cable anchored on the sea floor, detonate upon collision, while influence mines are detonated by a range of 'signatures' - acoustic, seismic, magnetic forces and pressure - which can all be set off by a ship passing overhead.

Command and control mines, detonated remotely, are more accurate but mean those deploying have to see their target.

New technology plays a crucial role in efficiently hunting these weapons and 'keeping the man away from the mines', with the use of sonar imaging, autonomous unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV), which are programmed to scan a certain area of seafloor, and remote-controlled UUVs such as the Seafox.

The Seafox-I is sent out to get data on the mine, and returns with images which are then used to send out a Seafox --c which uses a direct explosive force to destroy the mine.

Aircraft, and the Scan Eagle, a US remote-controlled drone aeroplane which takes video images, are also used to identify floating mines. Sweeping involves cutting tethered mines either by divers dropped in by helicopter, or by towing cutting wires and sleds from helicopters or ships. EOD divers can then go in, strap explosives to the mine, and activate detonation.

Influence mines can be detonated by two ships sweeping a cable or sled, with an electronic, acoustic or magnetic force, across the identified mine area to set it off.

Josh Ferguson, a US Navy chief mineman and RCB (Riverine commando boat) captain, says the influence mines are the riskiest to destroy, given they can be activated by a range of different pressures, or 'signatures'.

"Sweeping these is more dangerous than minehunting, because you have to actually drive over the mine.

Hopefully you've reduced your signature enough so you don't detonate the bomb."

Arm tattoos abound in the clusters of navy officers and civilians standing around on board, waiting for a barbeque dinner to be served beside the Blackhawk and Seahawke helicopters: old guys in jeans with long ponytails and beards, young men strutting around in singlets, rolled up cargo pants and bandannas tied around their heads, and make-up clad women with formidable posture and hair neatly rolled up. The Scan Eagle drone, otherwise known as 'the eyes of the sky', provides brief entertainment as it is bought down by flying into an almost invisible wire held on a small crane.

This sense of waiting is kind of like the mine threat itself -- considering the last publically-confirmed event of a ship being hit here was in the First Gulf War in 1991, the threat is a spectre at the moment, albeit an ominous one.

Mine warfare is indeed a hot topic now, thanks in part to the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX) 13, a two-week mine warfare exercise hosted by the US Navy 5th fleet, where 41 nations get together, defuse some fake mines, and learn some valuable lessons -- and hope these carry through into the real thing, should it ever occur.

To those from the outside, it seems just like the movies.

Central command centres with sonar and radar imaging light up black screens in waves of colours and bleeps, and real-time video images of ships around the Gulf, machine guns firing off 50 calibre rounds and making water spouts like a herd of whales doing a sychronised breathing exercise, divers dropping out of helicopters into the sea to strap explosives to dummy mines, camouflage-painted speed powerboats with grinning men seemingly too young to arm the guns, unmanned underwater vehicles sent out like mini-missiles to blow apart these big steel balls floating in the water.

But the threat is real, organisers say, although they deny the demonstration of capability is directed at Iran.

US Navy senior chief petty officer Jeremy Farr, onboard the USS Sentry, one of five minesweeper and hunters in the region, points out to the gulf and says "there is a big possibility these things do exist out there".

The threat is greater than the IEDs prevalent on land, given they can do so much damage to ships, stop the flow of trade, and kill personnel.

"The stakes are a lot higher," he says. "There's a history of using mines in this area which tells us, yes they can be effective. You don't even need a lot of mines to control an area. All you need is the threat of a mine."

While neither Farr nor the captain of the ship, Commanding Officer John Benfield have ever had to destroy a real mine, international cooperation and pre-emptive practice is critical given the stakes, the large geographical area and pressure on resources, Farr says.

Despite the best laid-plans and plenty of warm hospitality, the two-day media visit didn't all run smoothly -- demonstrating in a small way the difficulties of coordinating different navies.

There was a surreal Apocalypse Now-type moment as the group was taken for what Royal Navy lieutenant commander Andrew Mills described as a "two hour jolly around the Gulf", from the USS Ponce in search of their beds upon the Royal Navy's RFA Cardigan Bay. An estimated 15-minute trip became a long journey on board a Riverine Commando Boat (RCB) under the stars, the only light visible a single neon bulb illuminating the US flag at the back of the ship.

When a young man manning a machine gun is asked what is going on, he smiles apologetically in the darkness and shrugs. "Actually I've got no idea. They just asked us to check how much gas is in the tank ... (it's) mad communication."

The reasons given for the seemingly purposeless route differed, but both US and UK crew agreed there was "a communication mix-up", and this showed the value in practicing things like one point-of-contact and obeying a single chain-of command.

Mills puts it like this: "When you have mistakes like (this), there should be one person responsible for where boats are going ... it can seem like common sense but when you add in different radios, different terminology, the difficulties of operating in a big area of ocean ... it's like two different people organising a school reunion and not talking to each other and three months later people turn up ... who knows what they're going to be wearing, bringing or thinking they're there to do."

So what is it like for the men and women tasked with securing our waterways?

Attitudes seem mixed -- some of the younger ones seem nonchalant about the threat, saying the exercise is more like being on a "cruise", while others take it far more seriously.

Farr says healthy food and exercise, along with the occasional cookie and movie, are key to keeping morale up -- gesturing at the slightly worn and rusty gym equipment sitting on the deck amidst machineguns and boxes of bullets.

The navy might mean forsaking your own life and time, running 24/7 to someone else's schedule, and sleeping with up to 40 other men in one room on tiny bunks, but individuality, and the need for the human touch, still shines through.

You see it in the hand on a wire which lowers a data recording instrument into the sea, feeling for the slack to know it's hit the sea bed, the diver who gives a grinning thumbs-up to his comrades before being deployed to strap explosives around the mine, the singing heard from the 'culinary specialist' in the galley who feeds more than 90 men from a space the size of most people's bathrooms, or the nicknames for food (hamburgers are 'slingers', chicken cordon bleu are 'hamsters', the coffee they used to get prior to the automatic machines, also used as a cleaning product because of its acid content, was 'bug juice').

When asked what worries him the most, US Navy chief mineman and RCB captain Josh Ferguson says the thing about mines is that not only are they cheap and easy to make, but anything can drop them.

A worrying scenario would be getting reports of items dropped from military ships, boats, or aircraft in a strategic location which might be interpreted as an offensive mining operation, he says.

Two per cent of the items might contain mines, if any, but the whole lot need checked.

"This could take days, could take weeks. Meanwhile the area would be considered deadly for all traffic large or small."

Action taken by paramilitary organisations that aren't sanctioned by a government, clouding the true identity of the enemy and making it difficult to take action against, is another scenario keeping him up at night.

The experience of working in such a high pressure and potentially dangerous environment is different for everyone, he says.

"We train for the worst and hope for the best. Some people are hungry for 'real' action, I am not.

"Some thrive in this environment, some have a very hard time. My approach for my crew is to stay calm and encourage them to do the same. Focus on staying alive and understand that I don't want them acting fanatical or overzealous - until its necessary.

"It isn't exactly easy for anyone. A hobby is necessary - for me that's photography which isn't very destructive. Others have interesting ways of dealing with stress, of coping with being so close to their brothers-at-arms but getting no close attention or affection. Some people completely change out here. The pressure can and has overcome coping mechanisms since I've been here, but for the most part the men are staying safe and the job is getting done."

So he doesn't find it slightly nerve-wracking?He shrugs, and smiles. "It comes with the territory."

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Publication:Khaleej Times (Dubai, United Arab Emirates)
Date:May 17, 2013
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