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By Lieutenant Ernest Fortin, U.S. Naval Reserve
By the time Rear Admiral David Farragut sailed through the Confederate minefield protecting Mobile Bay, he had learned many valuable lessons about mine countermeasures. Today, 128 years later, the U.S. Navy is still learning them.
Many historians and naval professionals point to 5 August 1864 as the birth of U.S. Navy mine countermeasures. On that day, Admiral David Farragut led his naval forces into Mobile Bay and uttered the famous and oft-quoted (and oft-misquoted) line, “Damn the torpedoes, Captain Drayton, go ahead!” Go ahead they did, and Admiral Farragut sailed into the history books as the greatest naval hero of his time. In fact, Admiral Farragut’s foray into Mobile Bay involved much more than boldly disregarding the threat of Confederate mines. From 28 July to 3 August, Farragut’s aide, Lieutenant John C. Watson, led small boat expeditions into Mobile Bay under cover of darkness. On these missions, Watson and his men searched for and carefully charted the positions of Confederate mines, sank mine-flotation buoys, and conducted thorough reconnaissance of the bay. When Farragut damned the mines, therefore, it was not just bravado—he had taken the threat seriously and had made every effort to minimize it.1
This recognition of the mine threat and the serious efforts necessary to counter it should be the lesson of Mobile Bay. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Instead, the focus has been on Farragut’s famous statement and its most frequently drawn inference: With sufficient heroism and bravery, the mine threat can be successfully ignored.
When Admiral Farragut damned the torpedoes in 1864, he unwittingly damned the future of mine countermeasures in the U.S. Navy to a third-rate existence—struggling for funding, equipment, personnel, and attention against the more glamorous, technologically advanced warfare areas. The result has been a perpetually poor state of readiness for mine countermeasures forces and a general lack of concern with mine warfare. Successive generations of naval leadership have ignored Farragut’s prudent course of action and latched on to the damn-the-threat attitude. This dangerous attitude has dominated naval thought for nearly 13 decades.
Recent mine countermeasures operations in the Persian Gult generated many “lessons learned.” The fact is, however, that there are very few new lessons to be learned from Desert Storm mine-clearance operations. There primarily are lessons to be relearned—relearned from Earnest Will, Vietnam, and even from Korea and the World Wars. The painful reality is that these lessons were forgotten, ignored, or unlearned each time.
It is appropriate, therefore, to approach the Persian Gulf lessons learned from a historical perspective. Table I shows some noteworthy uses of sea mines in U.S. naval history. In addition, there are many more incidents that did not involve the United States. For example, mines were used in the Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian War, the usso-Turkish War, the Russo-Japanese War, the Six Days Kippur wars, the India-Pakistan War, Nicaragua ( 2), the Red Sea (1984), and the Falklands Conflict.
ost recently, during the ongoing civil war in Yugoslavia, a German passenger ship on the Danube River in Yu- gos avia was sunk, apparently by a homemade Croatian mine. More than a million sea mines have been used in con ict. Thousands of ships have been sunk or damage , commercial and military sea traffic has been stopped or a tered, and the outcomes of both major and minor conflicts have been affected.
mong the so-called lessons of mine-countermeasures operations in the Persian Gulf are the obstacle the Iraqi mine t reat posed to planning or executing amphibious operations, the lack of advanced technological systems m e*Per*enced personnel for mine countermeasures, and T 6 th 1f>US’ nature of mine-clearing operations,
o e ew experienced naval professionals in mine war- are, ese lessons are axiomatic. In fact, they are all longs an mg documented deficiencies, amply supported by is ory. e only true lesson is that the same lessons con-
mue to e learned and unlearned in each successive war or operation.
Although an amphibious landing was never attempted m e u War, planning estimates suggested that, had suen an assault been attempted, the results could have been isas rous or the invading forces. The difficulties asso-
Table 1: Noteworthy Uses of Mines in American Naval History3
U.S. Civil War
Contact & controlled mines widely used by Confederates
Manila & Santiago
World War I
World War II
Iran-Iraq War (Earnest Will)
Persian Gulf War (Desert Storm)
1 boat sunk 27 Union ships sunk
No significant effect
966 Allied & Central Powers merchants, warships, and subs sunk or damaged
More than 3,200 Allied & Axis merchants, warships, and subs sunk or damaged
4 U.S. minesweepers & 1 tug sunk, 5 U.S. destroyers damaged. Several South Korean ships sunk or damaged '
Ship movements ceased in Haiphong Harbor & approaches
- U.S. warship damaged. At least 15 other ships/boats sunk or damaged 2
’^edings / July 1992
ciated with mine clearance in preparation for an amphibious assault had, in fact, surfaced in a much earlier operation: the amphibious landing at Wonsan during the Korean War.
In Korea, U.S. forces were unable to rapidly locate and neutralize the antiquated Soviet mines laid by the North Koreans at Wonsan. Two U.S. and one South Korean minesweeper were lost. The amphibious landing was delayed for almost a week, because the nine days allowed for mine countermeasures proved insufficient, despite the assistance of eight Japanese minesweepers. When the landing was finally made, ground forces had already taken Wonsan. Rear Admiral Allan Smith, commander of the amphibious task force summed up his frustration in a report to his superior: “We have lost control of the seas to a nation without a navy, using pre-World War I weapons, laid by vessels that were utilized at the time of the birth of Christ.”4
After the Wonsan episode, Vice Admiral C. Turner Joy, Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Far East, noted: “The main lesson of the Wonsan operation is that no so-called
subsidiary branch of the naval service, such as mine warfare, should ever be neglected or relegated to a minor role in the future.”5 This main lesson apparently went unlearned.
The Wonsan landing took place more than 40 years ago. Nevertheless, when faced with another potential amphibious landing through mined waters off Kuwait in 1991, the situation had not improved. Mine countermeasures forces still were not integrated into the overall war-planning and war-fighting process.
When necessity forced immediate and serious attention to the Iraqi mines liberally sown in the northern Persian Gulf, the technological deficiencies of mine countermeasures forces were “discovered” once again. The result was a myriad of hasty, even frantic efforts to find quick-fix, high- technology systems for mine countermeasures.
Similar facts were noted after Vietnam. “Current mine countermeasures are not really very
U.S. NAVY (J. HUDAK)
modern. They are, for the most part, merely refinements ot equipment and techniques developed several wars ago. Mine countermeasures have usually evolved as a result of innovations in mining itself. Thus, the min- mg experts have always managed to stay at least one step ahead of the mine countermeasures people.”6 Mine coun- 1 termeasures technology is developed in response to, not in preparation for, the mine threat. The magnetic minesweeping performed by our ships today, for instance, j t ers little from the system developed to counter Ger- ' man mines in World War II.
Rear Admiral Brian McCauley, commander of the mine countermeasures forces of Operation End Sweep in letnam, lamented that mine countermeasures helicopters were not night-tow capable, and, nearly 20 years later, this , same tact was a lesson learned in Desert Storm. This was a so t e case with the lack of self-protection for mine countermeasures forces. Admiral McCauley also called or eve opment of sweeps against pressure mines, buried tm'"e7 J^ectors’ and helicopter mine-neutralization sys- terns, these systems still do not exist. Admiral McCauley
recommended a broad mine-countermeasures research program to develop new technology. His comments were soon forgotten.
Forgotten, too, was the expressed need for experienced tnine warfare personnel. More and more over the last 20 years, mine warfare has been relegated to the Naval Reserve. As a result, in both Earnest Will and Desert Storm, reservists were required to augment crews and staffs and to provide some of the expertise lacking in the active forces. In 1982, one officer noted:
“The largest single deterrent to an effective U.S. mine warfare force has been our failure to train and develop mine warfare officers. Officers from all naval communities are assigned generally on a one-time haphazard basis. There is no progression in the community because there is no community....The first action necessary to turn things around for the U.S. Navy in mine warfare must be to remove the negative stigma of [mine warfare], . . ,”8
These sentiments are not new. In 1970, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, noted: “I think that we in the U.S. Navy...have frequently been accused of not giving sufficient interest to the field of ntine warfare, and, in part, I believe this is the result of the fact that our Navy is made up of three unions: the aviation union, the submarine union, and the destroyer Union, and I have therefore made myself the head of the mine warfare union to hy to get an equal balance °f interest within the United States Navy in this Very important field.”9 Admiral Zumwalt knew that, because mine warfare had n° “union,” it could not attract or retain quality Personnel or develop true expertise. Recent experience has shown him to be correct.
Uesert Storm mine- c°untermeasures operations revealed the difficult nature such operations.
Iraqi mines kept the U.S. and Coalition forces from controlling the northern Persian Gulf.
Mines interfered with ^ealift, including cargo bound for Saudi Arabian ports.
Mines prevented the battleships USS Wisconsin (BB-64) and USS Missouri (BB-63) from maneuvering freely to Provide gunfire support to forces ashore.
(l This led Congress to conclude that the Navy was woefully short of mine countermeasures.”1" Actually, °ngress had heard this before, including a 1981 report y the General Accounting Office that “the Navy would nd it hard to conduct even the most limited...mine countermeasures operations” and testimony in 1985 by Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf that “no element of our Navy is as deficient against the threat as is the mine countermeasures force.”"
After Desert Storm, one naval officer said: “We had ships operating right up at the northern end of the Persian Gulf....Were we constrained in our ability to operate? Yes. But were we defeated? No. There was a mine threat, but it was also played up.”12
This statement perfectly embodies a 1991 version of the damn-the-torpedoes attitude. Two of the ships to which the officer referred were the USS Tripoli (LPH-10) and the USS Princeton (CG-59)—the only U.S. or allied ship casualties from any cause during Desert Storm, both of which were damaged by mines in the northern Persian Gulf on the same day. Fortunately, there were no fatalities, and both ships eventually were repaired and restored to full combat capability. In fact, the last three U.S. Navy ships to sustain combat damage were victims of mines—the other being the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) in 1988.
The lessons learned from the Samuel B. Roberts incident were damage-control lessons, and these apparently were learned and applied successfully by the crews of the Tripoli and the Princeton. As long as the mine-countermeasures lessons go unlearned, damage control will indeed be important.
Warships today are no better equipped to operate in mined waters than they were in World War II. Even our most modern warships, such as the Princeton, have no capability to detect, avoid, or counter even the most primitive mines. The mines themselves, however, have become increasingly more sophisticated, incorporating modem computer and microchip technology. Modern mines have broad capabilities to detect targets, distinguish between target types, and attack under specific circumstances.
U.S. mine countermeasures forces performed superbly in the Persian Gulf. They did so, however, despite their many deficiencies. Their success must be attributed largely to the dedication and hard work of the officers and men involved. The question that remains is: Faced with a growing threat and without adequate attention and support throughout all levels of the Navy, how long can these neglected forces in a neglected warfare area continue to succeed?
learned mine-warfare lesson in our naval history, this one dating back to that fateful day in Mobile Bay. The Tecumseh, a 1,034-ton ironclad, was the lead ship in Admiral Farragut s attacking column. In a moment of that famous day that is generally overlooked, the Tecumseh struck a Confederate mine, turned on her side, and sank within a few minutes.
Damn the torpedoes, indeed!
development, and implementation of countermeasures technology; and a new attitude throughout the Navy that recognizes the importance of mine countermeasures as part of the overall maritime strategy.
If a concerted effort is not made finally to apply the years of lessons learned, the mine-countermeasures lessons of Desert Storm may also go unheeded. Mines will continue to be used in conflict, and, unless the Navy takes steps to deal with this threat, there will be more cases like the Tripoli and Princeton, the Samuel B. Roberts, and even the Tecumseh.
The USS Tecumseh offers yet another un-
Tamara M. Melia, “Damn the Torpedoes": A Short History of U.S. Naval Mine ^ountermeasures, 1777-1991, Washington, D.C., Naval Historical Center, 1991,
Tom Phtlpott & David S. Steigman, “Deadly as Ever,” Navy Times, No. 47, 2 September 1991, p. 12. 7
Melia, op. cit., Gregory K. Hartmann, & Scott C. Truver, Weapons That Wait, jj naPp » ■' Naval Institute Press, 1991; and Robert C. Duncan, America’s
v ea meS’ ^ver Spring, Md., U.S. Naval Ordnance Laboratory, 1962. Melia, op. cit., p. 76.
Malcolm W. Cagle & Frank A. Manson, The Sea War in Korea, Annapolis. Md., Naval Institute Press, 1957, p. 151.
Prn Jam,es M McCoy, USN, “Mine Countermeasures: Who’s Fooling Whom?/’ Proceedings, July 1975.
*11 ph B™nt McCauley, USN, “Operation End Sweep,” Proceedings, March 1974. 1982 War °&ers’ USN, “Mines Wait But We Can’t!,” Proceedings, August
3^*1979 ^0^Illa^, *^le U S- Navy: Mine Countermeasures,” Proceedings, FebrU'
'Thilpott & Steigman, op.cit., pp. 12-14 Melia, op.cit., p. 133.
^Philpott & Steigman, op. cit., p. 12.
Melia, op. cit., p. 111
Navy News & Undersea Technology, 4 November 1991.
B(,erf?re,'eaving active duty in 1991, Lieutenant Fortin was a staff offi- f r6 mm<L cour|termeasures department of Commander, Mine War- .u ,,°"""an ; at Charleston, South Carolina; and navigator on board min Rlchmon<i K Turner (CG-20). His first tour, on board the th p ear ess (MSO-442), included a six-month deployment to
sian u to clear mines in support of Operation Earnest Will,
At the time of Operation End Sweep, Admiral Isaac Kidd said: “Minesweeping seems to acquire sex appeal once every 25 years. The intervening hiatus is quite a hurdle to overcome.”13 He was quite correct on both counts. Years of neglect, interrupted by brief periods of interest and attention will never solve the long-standing deficiencies of mine countermeasures in the U.S. Navy. Mines are, and will undoubtedly remain, an exceptionally popular weapon. They are economical and anonymous, making them an attractive option for small and poor countries, as well as terrorist groups.
If the United States is to remain a true world power into the 21st century, ability to control the seas is essential. Controlling the seas, in turn, necessitates an adequately equipped, trained, and supported mine countermeasures force. The U.S. Navy must move beyond “damning” the mine threat and finally apply the many lessons learned and relearned over the years.
 U.S. warships damaged
Some efforts are under way to bolster and develop mine countermeasures forces. At the center of ongoing initiatives is a proposed reorganization of the Navy’s Mine Warfare Command. The commander of the Mine Warfare Command will no longer be merely an adviser, but will assume operational control of mine countermeasures forces. This new position has been referred to as the “Mine Warfare Czar.”14
The establishment of a single responsible officer for mine countermeasures will help resolve many deficiencies, but much more is required. The Navy must dedicate itself at all levels to maintaining a capable mine countermeasures force. This will require sustained funding; assignment of quality and experienced personnel; research,