Abandoning Cold War precautions leaves U.S. ports vulnerable to mines
By OTTO KREISHER, Special Correspondent
Whose Job Is It?
At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. Navy
took the threat of sea mines blocking major
U.S. ports seriously. Plans were developed
and assets assigned that would have allowed rapid
action to restore access to strategically important harbors if that happened. Those preparations, however,
generally were abandoned when the collapse of the
Soviet Union appeared to remove that threat.
But with the emergence of global terrorist networks
determined to inflict the greatest possible damage on
the United States with any means available, national
leaders must again consider the possibility that deadly
underwater weapons could shut down a vital maritime
gateway or naval base.
America’s vulnerability to such a threat is high.
“Under the cloak of legal activity, groups that would do
us harm can enter the U.S. homeland anywhere along
more than 95,000 miles of coastlines and through some
360 ports from Maine to Guam,” Scott Truver, national
security adviser at Gryphon Technologies and a contributor to Navy and the Naval Institute’s publications on mine
warfare, wrote in the latest Naval War College Review.
And the potential consequences of mines or less
sophisticated improvised explosive devices — dubbed
underwater IEDs — in a major
port could be enormous in human
and economic terms.
“While small devices might have
no more than nuisance value …
larger mines can be placed surreptitiously in channels and harbors to
achieve spectacular effects —
against, for example, the Staten
Island Ferry, crammed with 2,500
commuters during an evening rush
hour, or a cruise ship with 4,000
vacationers and crew onboard leaving Miami or Seattle,” Truver wrote.
Beyond the potential human
tragedy, the economic loss of a single day of operations at the ports of Los Angeles and
Long Beach, which combined are the nation’s busiest
container entry point, was estimated at more than $2
billion by a University of California–Berkeley study
done following a strike by dock workers along the U.S.
West Coast in 2002. That strike paralyzed more than
20 West Coast ports for 10 days.
There also could be serious military impact.
A single mine sinking a large ship in the narrow
entrance to San Diego Harbor could trap one-third of
the Pacific Fleet for days. Mines in other critical ports
could delay the movement of vital military cargo during a crisis.
The ease with which mines can wreak havoc on key
waterways was demonstrated in 1984, when at least 23
ships were damaged by underwater explosions in the
Red Sea near the Suez Canal, one of the world’s busiest
maritime routes. It took a multinational minesweeping
force weeks to declare the route clear.
Later, it was revealed that Libya had used a commercial ferry to sow dozens of mines in the critical waterway.
During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Iraq used
innocent-appearing dhows to spread mines in the Persian
Gulf, which caused damage to two U.S. warships.
The threat of mines blocking U.S. ports looms large, but the strategic
plan and assets to meet that threat are decidedly absent.
■ While the Coast Guard has a presence in every significant U.S.
port and waterway, the appearance of a mine becomes the
■ Navy fleet commanders say the service does not have sufficient
assets to sweep mines in continental U.S. waters.
■ Several U.S. agencies are working together to define the best