SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan
- As the USS Patriot steamed down the western coast of Japan under blackout conditions, Senior Chief Petty Officer Jesse Kenner and several junior sailors pored over radar and communications screens in the ship’s combat information center.
Cascaded in dull blue light, and with the sound of computer servers whirring around them, the sailors were on the lookout for the roadside bombs of the sea: underwater mines.
Underwater mines are a real threat and have the ability to level the playing field in a conflict between two disparate naval powers.
China and North Korea are each reportedly taking steps to neutralize the naval supremacy of the U.S. in case of a conflict, with the latter allegedly developing nuclear sea mines and the former prepared to deploy upward of 80,000, according to U.S. military officials.
"Mines are very dangerous to all sizes of vessels," the Patriot’s skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Suzanne Schang, said as her ship headed to Kagoshima in late October to meet the Japanese for sea exercises. "Much of the threat is also psychological, so if vessels know there are mines in an area, even if they don’t know much about it, it will affect commerce and impacts the sea lanes."
Mines are quite prevalent and their use has not dropped in recent years, even though usage often goes unnoticed. And those left over and forgotten from past conflicts sometimes break away from their tethers and float onto beaches around the world.
Underwater mines can be purchased for as little as $1,500, so even sanction-wary despots like Saddam Hussein have traditionally built up stockpiles. The BBC reported that as recently as April, NATO warships intercepted forces loyal to now deposed Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi as they tried to mine the harbor of Misrata to keep ships from evacuating the wounded.
To meet this challenge, the Navy plans to replace all 14 aging Avenger-class minesweepers with new multifunction Littoral Combat Ships over the next 15 years, Navy officials said.
Until these upgraded ships are ready, keeping the world’s shipping lanes open and allowing amphibious insertions falls on the small, gray, unassuming, mine countermeasure ships and the men and women who helm them.
Jacks of all trades
The sailors who search and destroy these mines serve on the Navy’s smallest forward-deployed ships, at 224 feet long, and are tossed unmercifully in swells as high as 10 to 12 feet. There are almost as many officers on board the Wasp-class multipurpose amphibious assault ship USS Essex as there are total sailors on the Avenger-class Patriot.
The comparatively miniscule crews of about 85 are forced to work long hours, even longer during combat situations, and learn many jobs on board.
"Administration and maintenance requirements are the same [as on a big ship], only we have less people," said Lt. Shane Dennis, who oversees work in the engine room.
The sailors aboard the Patriot refer to themselves as jacks of all trades.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Tyler King, 25, a mineman from Utah, re-enlisted on Oct. 26. That day, he trained with the .50 caliber guns; he spent the next day working with the ship’s mine neutralization gear — his primary job onboard. Later, he performed a watch in the engine room and finished his day in the ship’s mine-hunting combat information nerve center.
He is a prime example of a hybrid sailor, able to perform a myriad of duties that make him invaluable on a ship with a small crew.
"Everyone has to do more. They’re more qualified [than other sailors] out of necessity," Schang said. "They are some of the hardest working sailors I have ever met and some of the most versatile."
These traits make minemen sought after by other ships and commands, Schang said, but most tend to stay in the mine community for their entire Navy careers.
In addition to cross-training, Schang said, the crew does all of the sustainability work. On bigger ships, there are sailors dedicated to specific jobs like maintaining the armory or working the lines.
As she spoke, Schang turned to Petty Officer 2nd Class Derek Smith, 26, the ship’s assistant leading petty officer of the deck, whose main duties include minesweeping and small boat operations. Smith, from Rohnert Park, Calif., stood a few feet away, stoically steering the Patriot.
"Here’s a perfect example" of the range of duties one person might handle, she said. "We have a surfer kid from Cali driving a warship."
Smith’s superior on the deck and close friend, Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Halbrooks, said that he also feels comfortable out of his element.
"I came to the ship as a sonar technician, which is completely different than what I’m doing right now," Halbrooks said. "I went from using my brains to using my hands."