In recent months, the Pentagon has more than doubled the number of U.S. minesweeping assets deployed in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility, which encompasses the waters around the Arabian Peninsula. The reinforcements include Avenger-class ships, MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters, a retrofitted Afloat Forward Staging Base and SeaFox remotely operated submersible mine-clearing vehicles.Minesweeping is often described as more of an art than a science, one involving painstaking, meticulous work. This reality, combined with the recent arrival of additional anti-mine assets, made the international exercise necessary to improve collaboration and familiarize new personnel with the operating environment. Moreover, the exercise stems from a more fundamental need by the U.S. Navy to bolster its mine-clearing capabilities. Since the end of World War II, naval mines have inflicted more losses on the U.S. Navy than any other weapon, yet the Navy still spends less than 1 percent of its budget on mine countermeasures. Future efforts to redress this deficiency will likely involve similar large-scale training exercises.
The Iranian Threat
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Commander Brig. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari said Sept. 16 that the Strait of Hormuz, which is just 39 kilometers (24 miles) wide at its narrowest point, would become a legitimate target for Iran should the country be attacked. The United States has been adamant that the ongoing training operations are not targeting any particular threat or country, but the naval exercise has nonetheless sent a clear signal to Iran that mine-laying or any other threatening action in the strait will be met with a strong and, more important, international response. The exercise also seeks to demonstrate that an Iranian move to close the strait would harm the vital interests of dozens of countries across multiple continents and almost completely isolate Tehran diplomatically.
More than 35 percent of the world's seaborne crude and 30 percent of the world's liquefied natural gas passes through the Strait of Hormuz each day, so closing the strait undoubtedly would spark a massive backlash. Stratfor believes that the Iranian government will rationally pursue its national interests. Considering the outsize risks of closing the strait, Iran is unlikely to attempt to do so unless the country is severely threatened. Still, as illustrated by Tehran's rhetoric and Iran's own exercises in or near the strait, Iran can leverage the threat it poses in the strait for temporary financial gain by spooking markets and raising the price of oil. More important, Iran can use the threat as a deterrent against attack.
Naval mines, of course, are not the only weapon the Iranians can employ in an attempt to block the Strait of Hormuz, although mines do form a key part of Iran's arsenal — especially considering the relative dearth of U.S. anti-mine assets in the Persian Gulf before the recent buildup. An Iranian attempt to close the strait would consist of a combination of tactics such as laying mines and then using anti-ship missiles and other assets to counter minesweepers. Thus, the ongoing anti-mine exercise will likely take into account scenarios beyond just the diffusion of mines.
The exercise is a natural part of the U.S. effort to improve its long-neglected anti-mine capabilities. Still, the Pentagon would not be placing such an emphasis on building up its minesweeping strength, especially in the Persian Gulf, without the Iranian threat.