Can the U.S. Navy Cope with Iranian Mines?

The USS Ponce, a lightly armed and slow-moving amphibious transport dock built in 1970, is about to be upgraded by the U.S. Navy. According to The Washington Post, it will become a forward staging base aimed at Iran.

Navy specifications published in Federal Business Opportunities indicate that the refurbished ship will carry 370 personnel, plus four video teleconferencing centers each capable of holding 25 staff and an operations center of 20. It will be loaded with 10,000 gallons of extra fuel for helicopters, and store weapons and ammunition. The ship itself has only a couple of small guns -- a CIWS Phalanx gun (with an old and ineffective sensor) and a machine gun -- neither of which can challenge an incoming missile.

Why anyone would want to float nearly 400 people and a gazillion gallons of flammable liquid on an indefensible bucket in the world’s most hostile waterway is unclear, but three possibilities exist: staging SEAL attacks; meeting “local” surface threats; and minesweeping. The Obama administration denies the first, and the Ponce is optimal for none. Under the Navy’s specs, the Ponce is optimal only for becoming a very large fireball.

The Navy proposal includes adding cranes to raise and lower riverine command boats and 4 Zodiac RIBs (Rubber Inflatable Boats) which are typically used for SEAL-type missions – hence the belief that the Ponce will become a platform for SEAL missions. But SEAL missions, at least in theory, are surprise affairs that catch the target unawares. Any mission launched from an old, slow boat like the Ponce would be instantly known.

It could be that the SEALS will be used to go after local surface threats, which are anticipated mainly to be heavily armed Iranian fast patrol boats attacking oil tankers. The theory is that the SEALS would chase the patrol boats or, if necessary, capture them. This requires both capability and political will.

The Iranian fast patrol boats are well armed and numerous. Would the SEALS be authorized to fire warning shots or to take other aggressive action against them? It is one thing to rush out to meet what looks like a fishing boat but might be a vessel with al-Qaeda operatives or other terrorists, or a vessel stuffed with explosives like the one that hit the USS Cole; it is another to pick a fight with a warship.

In 2007, two RIBs manned by 15 British sailors and Marines dispatched from the British frigate HMS Cornwall were challenged by the crews of two Iranian fast patrol boats. The British did not resist. They were taken captive and held for 13 days before the Iranian government released them. Had the British fired on the Iranians, it is not clear that they would have survived to be captured.

Would American RIB boats or crews do better or fare better?

In addition, the Ponce is not the Cornwall; the Iranians weren’t about to take on a serious fighting ship. But in our case, the SEALs would also have to protect the Ponce, which is ill-equipped to defend itself. But RIB boats cannot do both missions. Iranian patrol ships are equipped with Chinese C-802 anti-ship missiles and torpedoes that could make short, explosive work of the Ponce and its crew.

So, if it isn’t a launch ship for covert action and it isn’t a response to local surface threats, what about anti-mine operations? The likely mission for the Ponce would be responding to Iran’s threat to mine the Strait of Hormuz and prevent oil tankers from passing through the Gulf.

The Navy probably plans to use the four MH-53 helicopters supported from the Ponce flight deck in counter-mine operations. Unfortunately, the MH-53 is old and has an aging mine sweeping capability. It will be hard pressed to do the job, and if it fails, there will be oil tankers burning in the vital and narrow Strait.