quarta-feira, 2 de janeiro de 2008

Navy decommissions last coastal minehunters

Navy decommissions last coastal minehunters

By Zachary M. Peterson - Staff writer

The Navy bid adieu to its last four Osprey-class coastal minehunter ships Dec. 1, leaving the service to rely on 14 Avenger-class minehunters and the nascent Littoral Combat Ship program to fill the niche mission of surveying shallow coastal waters for mines.

The decommissioning ceremony was held at Naval Station Ingleside, Texas. The ships — Black Hawk, Cormorant, Kingfisher and Shrike — were capable of clearing harbors and other coastal waters of various types of underwater mines.

The ships were commissioned between 1996 and 1999. The Navy began decommissioning its 12 coastal minehunters in June 2006. The Greek and Egyptian navies each own two of the ships; the rest remain in storage in Beaumont, Texas, according to the Navy.

The roughly 200 total sailors assigned to the last four ships have been reassigned, Naval Station Ingleside spokeswoman Fifi Kieschnick said. A “large portion” of these sailors will remain in the mine warfare community, but the Navy was unable to quantify how many sailors were going where, Kieschnick said.

The service retains its fleet of 14 Avenger-class mine countermeasures ships, which are stationed in Bahrain and Japan. The MCMs were designed for deep-water minesweeping, hunting and neutralization, and have a longer range than the Osprey ships. The first of these ships is slated to leave the fleet in fiscal 2016.

Lee Hunt, vice president for academic affairs for the Mine Warfare Association, said the departure of the last coastal minehunters robs the service of the ability to survey domestic harbors for mines.

“The loss of the Navy’s 12 [coastal minehunters] means that we have no capability to survey our harbors against terrorist mining,” Hunt said.

But Navy spokeswoman Lt. Jessica Gandy said the service is confident its other assets — including the Avenger-class minesweepers and helicopter anti-mine units — can respond to a harbor terrorist threat.

The service should purchase additional Small Waterplane Area Twin Hull, or SWATH, boats, such as the one used by Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 7 in San Diego, to fill the gap, Hunt said. The boats are relatively inexpensive, roughly $2 million each, and require a crew of five, he said.

However, the service has no plan on record to purchase more of these boats. The Navy’s mine warfare plan includes moving six MCMs to San Diego in fiscal 2009, according to briefing slides the service provided to Navy Times.

The Navy’s ability to retain mine-hunting capabilities will depend on the LCS, a multimission vessel that will serve as the service’s primary mine warfare ship when it hits the fleet in the next two years. The Navy plans to have 30 LCS sea frames by fiscal 2018.

“I don’t expect there to be a gap” in mine warfare capability, said Robert Work, a naval analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. “I think we’re in good shape.”

Nonetheless, Work noted a lot depends on how the LCS mine warfare module performs.

In the future, the question will be whether the LCS will “augment or replace” the Avenger-class MCMs, he said.

The mine warfare mission module under development for LCS features newer, more portable anti-mine technologies. The module was delivered to the fleet in September, but parts of the new system remain in development. The system will not be tested on an LCS until next year at the earliest. The module includes underwater autonomous mine-hunting vehicles, along with radars on LCS-launched MH-60S Seahawk helicopters.

Dedicated mine warfare assets such as minesweepers are often too slow, and the ability to put the mine warfare module on an LCS allows for “greater speed and endurance” in anti-mine missions, Capt. Michael Good, program manager for the modules, told Navy Times in September.

Further, the module uses autonomous systems to help “take sailors out the minefield” by keeping them out of dangerous waters. Instead, sailors will monitor the situation from the LCS, Good said.

Since 1950, enemy sea mines have damaged or destroyed 15 Navy ships — more than any other weapons combined, the Government Accountability Office noted in an October report on the Navy’s mine warfare module for the LCS.

Further, the GAO report says the Navy should delay full-rate production of certain mine countermeasures planned for the LCS program until the new ship is capable of testing such systems.

In a written response to the report, the Defense Department said delays in the full-rate production schedule for the mine warfare systems would harm development of the overall platform.

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