Both the Iranian and American navies, along with a spattering of naval assets from other nations allied with the U.S. are playing footsy in the Persian Gulf as of late, as Iran continues to lay amphibious mines while the U.S. grudgingly sweeps them up.
This obnoxious game is the latest in an attempt by the Iranian navy to show force, and America’s attempt to make that force look moot in comparison. But the scales are tipped in Iran’s favor, as their mining and naval warfare capabilities in general are superior to the United States’ within the Gulf region and Strait of Hormuz.
Sea mines have come a long way since the last time you saw a picture of them, which was probably the World War 2 vintage. Nowadays, mines come in all shapes and sizes, some of which can be disguised as floating waste, driftwood, or attached to other objects. U.S. efforts to find these mines are excruciatingly tedious, as investment in this technology has been unnecessary until now and is therefore severely lacking, akin to the metaphoric mental image of a Marine slogging through mud with a knife, prying up mines as he moves under concertina wire at a snail’s pace.
Even if U.S. efforts to sweep the Gulf of floating mines were successful, they would still contend with Captor mines, which sit on the sea floor and launch a projectile when they sense a ship is approaching. Iran purchased these sophisticated systems from China, who tends to lead the way in sea mining technology. The EM52 system, for example, is capable of picking up the distinctive acoustic signature of an American ship and then launching its payload accordingly.
None of this bodes well for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, but the almighty Navy has been beefing up its abilities elsewhere, mostly in order to fend off Iran’s terrifyingly adept ability at waging guerrilla naval warfare. The U.S. has started outfitting its aircraft carriers with short range, rapid-fire missile batteries that can simultaneously target numerous fast-moving vessels from long-range. Not to be outdone, the Iranian navy began rolling out a fleet of super fast, super stable speedboats in 2009 that are capable of an astonishingly fast 72 knots, or about 83 mph.
The U.S. has plenty of cause for concern, as simulations have shown the Navy taking on heavy losses in a high seas battle with Iran. The question is whether the U.S. will be able to outfit its major vessels with spiffy new technology in time for a potential high seas grudge match, or if Iran will simply outpace U.S. efforts given their obsessive compulsion to study U.S. strategy and counter it since the early 1990s.
With any luck, tensions will calm, cooler heads will prevail, and talks about Iran’s nuclear program will bear fruit as the U.S. realizes that it cannot demand such lofty concessions without giving of itself first. However, the way things have been moving, it doesn’t appear that this path of common sense has been adopted by either side.