By Barbara Starr
Four Navy minesweepers will be on their way to the Persian Gulf within weeks as part of an effort to boost American military capability in the region amid rising tensions with Iran, a Navy official says.
The minesweepers will be loaded onto cargo ships leaving the United States in late April, according to the Navy official.
The deployments were publicly confirmed by Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, earlier this month in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"We are moving four more mine sweeps to the theater," he said. "That'll make eight. We are moving airborne mine countermeasure helicopters. That'll take us to eight in theater. And ... those, working with the British mine sweeps there, which we exercise with frequently, sets us up a little bit there."
Each of the ships - the USS Sentry (MCM 3), USS Devastator (MCM 6), USS Pioneer (MCM 9) and USS Warrior (MCM 10) - carries a crew of about 60. All are equipped to detect and neutralize mines.
The Navy this month also sent to the region four additional MH-53 Sea Dragon helicopters, which also have the capability to locate and destroy mines.
The additional deployments are part of an effort by Gen. James Mattis, head of the U.S. Central Command, to beef up the American military presence in the region in the face of Iranian threats to shut down the Strait of Hormuz.
The United States has long believed that if Iran tried to shut the strait down it would begin by seeding the waters with mines, which would keep both commercial and military shipping from operating. The Navy is increasingly concerned about Iran's use of undersea mines, which may be tethered to the sea floor and are difficult to detect.
New detection and destruction technologies including lasers are being developed but have yet to be deployed.
So far, Mattis has not requested additional aircraft carrier deployments, but several military officials say the effort is to keep two carrier groups in the region as much as possible. None of the officials would speak on the record due the sensitivity of discussing military deployments to the region.
The Navy is also finishing up refitting the USS Ponce (LPD-15) as a floating staging base. It's expected to also be sent to the region in the next few months, manned by a military and civilian crew. It will provide refueling, resupply and maintenance operations for minesweepers, aircraft and patrol craft at sea in the region.