Storm Warning: The Minesweeping in Mina al-Ahmadi – Part Three

From By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command 

Editor’s Note: At the time Desert Storm began, NHHC Director Sam Cox was an active duty Lieutenant Commander, serving as an assistant intelligence officer on the staff of Vice Adm. Stan Arthur who commanded the U.S. Seventh Fleet and U.S. Naval Forces Central Command embarked on the command ship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19)  operating in the Arabian Gulf. This is part three of a five-part series. To read part two from this series, click here.

 

A starboard bow view of the amphibious assault ship USS NEW ORLEANS (LPH-11) as it lies at anchor with several MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters and AH-1 Sea Cobra helicopters on its flight deck. The NEW ORLEANS is serving as a platform for mine-clearing operations in the gulf following Operation Desert Storm

FILE PHOTO: A starboard bow view of the amphibious assault ship USS New Orleans (LPH-11) as it lies at anchor with several MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters and AH-1 Sea Cobra helicopters on its flight deck. New Orleans served as a platform for mine-clearing operations.

Although throughout December we went through the motions of planning an amphibious assault, we focused most of our energy on other problems, especially when we started encountering the first drifting mines. The real surprise came in early January when we were told that the commander of Marine Forces Central Command (MARCENT), Lieutenant General Walter E. Boomer, had made a last minute revision to his plan. The general moved his planned main thrust into Kuwait further to the west, and determined that for it to work, he would need a real simultaneous supporting amphibious assault to occur somewhere around the oil refinery or just south of Kuwait City.

My reaction to this news, to use my boss’ frequent written shorthand expression, was, “YGTBSM!” (You’ve got to be [kidding] me!). We’d been deliberately advertising our intent to land on the Kuwaiti coast to draw the maximum number of Iraqi troops to the beaches, so that General Norman Schwarzkopf Jr.’s famous “Hail Mary!” flanking plan had a better chance of success, and now we were being ordered to plan to land right in the teeth of the defenses the Iraqis had been so obligingly setting up? This struck me as folly on the scale of the Peleliu landing. It also set off a mad scramble to resume serious planning.

NAVCENT created the Naval Offensive Campaign Working Group to plan the now “real” landing, and I was assigned to provide the intelligence support. This group included a number of officers who had augmented the staff just before Blue Ridge (LCC-19) got underway a few days before the start of the air campaign. Most of the people in the group were truly extraordinary officers; two that I remember by name were Commander Phil Balisle and Captain Gordon Holder, both of whom went on to be three-star admirals. Despite this high-priced talent, there were some bizarre moments.

A Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 1 (HC-1) CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter stands on the deck of an amphibious assault ship during Operation Desert Storm

FILE PHOTO: A Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 1 (HC-1) CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter stands on the deck of an amphibious assault ship during Operation Desert Storm

In one case, an excruciatingly protracted discussion bogged down in minutia right after the start of the air war. The question concerned how soon would we have to start minesweeping operations in order to clear enough waterspace for the safe passage and operations by the amphibious and naval gunfire support ships? Our working assumption was that the ground campaign would start about one month after commencement of the air campaign, which had just started. The minesweeping experts estimated it would take six weeks of sweeping to achieve the desired level of mine clearance. This estimate caused extensive discussion of the metrics for determining the level of confidence that all the mines in an area had been swept.

The minesweeping experts had the data, but they were completely incomprehensible to anyone outside the minehunting priesthood, and even they couldn’t explain it so anyone else could understand. Does cleared to a 90 percent confidence level mean there is a 10 percent chance that a ship operating in that area will hit a mine? (It doesn’t.) How does the measure of risk increase the longer the ship operates in that area? The answers were gobbledygook.

After everyone’s head began to pound, with no clear resolution, the discussion then shifted to meteorological/climatology conditions, trying to answer the question, “In a typical January/February in the Arabian Gulf, how many days of the month would the seas be too rough to conduct minesweeping operations?” Bad weather days would have to be added to the six-week minesweeping time estimate. This also led to interminable discussion over how accurate the climatology estimates were.

DESERT STORM

FILE PHOTO: Sailors in a 26-foot motor whaleboat from the amphibious assault ship USS Tripoli (LPH 10) assist the ocean minesweeper USS Adoit (MSO 509) during mine-clearing operations.

As the most junior person in the room, and not an “operator,” I sat mentally scratching my head. I was a history major not a math major, but as I made the mental calculations I quickly reached the conclusion that the whole discussion was pointless, thinking that, “Even if the weather were perfect, four weeks minus six weeks meant that we were already two weeks late getting started, any weather delay would only make us even later.”

Once this dawned on the group, the discussion then shifted to, “What percentage of Iraqi threat systems needed to be destroyed in order to determine that the amphibious operating area would be safe enough for the ships to operate in?” This was especially critical since most of the minesweepers were allied and not American, and the British in particular wanted assurance that the risk to their ships had been mitigated to an acceptable level.

At this point, I was directed by the working group leader to conduct research and assemble a briefing for the next day that would describe the percentage of attrition on Iraqi threat systems so far and project when we would achieve 50 percent attrition. Having determined in my own mind that every day was now of the essence, I balked, “Sir, I can give you that brief right now, and you’re not going to like it.”

Editor’s Note: The offensive action against Iraq, codenamed Operation Desert Storm was carried out under provisions of twelve U.N. Security Council resolutions and resolutions of both houses of the U.S. Congress. Forward deployed naval forces provided protection for early introduction of land-based ground and air assets, and may well have deterred further aggression by Iraq. Maritime superiority and unchallenged control of the sea enabled the safe and timely delivery of equipment, supplies and spare parts necessary to support the allied campaign. Naval aviation complemented allied air operations, added flexibility to the air campaign, and deterred reintroduction of Iraqi aircraft from Iran into the conflict while Tomahawk cruise missiles took out heavily defended targets in Iraq and significantly degraded enemy air defenses. For 38 days, coalition forces mounted continuous air attacks, which, according to historical documents, grew to more than 1,000 sorties a day. During that time, Iraq’s air force was destroyed along with its anti-aircraft and command and communication capabilities, as well as military targets in Iraq and Kuwait. The ground offensive began at 4 a.m. on Feb. 24 (8 p.m. EST on Feb. 23) as U.S. and coalition forces began moving into Iraq and Kuwait for the ground assault phase of the operation. The ground offensive advanced quickly, with coalition troops making steady progress against Iraqi troops, many of them deserters waving white flags. By the third day of the offensive, allied troops had liberated Kuwait City. President Bush declared a cessation of hostilities at 8:01 a.m. Feb. 28, just four days after the ground war began. On March 3, Iraqi leaders formally accepted the cease-fire terms, and the first U.S. combat forces returned home five days later. Forward deployed naval forces, which had operated in the region for decades, stayed on station and remain so today. Presence mattered then and continues to today.

 To read part four from this series, click here

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