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Just like in the movies….. but these are for real

A visit to the US Navy’s first Afloat Forward Staging Base to counter mine threats

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-yearold ship once destined for the scrapmetal 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. 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.”