Amphibious Planning in the Gulf War
The most recent encounter with enemy minefields was during Desert Storm. The proposed amphibious assault at Ash Shuaybah, Kuwait, during Operation Desert Storm in February 1991 called for the landing of two regimental landing teams abreast under the control of the 4th Marine Brigade. Although the mine threat was just one of several reasons that the landing at Ash Shuaybah was not carried out, the lessons learned at the time were illustrative of some of the weaknesses in the Navy’s approach to inshore mine countermeasures (MCM) that are still with us today.
Traditional thinking at the time assumed a variety of mines from deep water off the coast through the surf zone (SZ) and across the beach. This proved not to be the case and thus represented a major intelligence failure on the part of the Navy and the U.S. Central Command. The minefields that were laid by the Iraqis were in effect placed in an arc that was some 50 miles east of the beaches around Ash Shuaybah. As it turned out there was clear water from these mine belts all the way to the SZ in the landing area. In the craft landing zone and on the assault beaches there were barbed wire obstacles and antitank (AT) and antipersonnel (AP) mines in the sand up to and behind the high-water line. In specific areas the Iraqis had dug trenches for the troops, while fortifying certain high-rise buildings for crew-served weapons behind the beaches. Much of this information came from the Kuwaiti resistance movement and imagery from national sources. This combination of Iraqi mines and beach defenses had little depth and was not comparable to the heavy beach defenses last encountered in World War II.
There were two primary reasons for the U.S. intelligence failure. First, the Commander, Navy Central Command (COMNAVCENT) knew that the Iraqis were laying mines in the Northern Gulf at night but did not know exactly where.
Although this was a clear violation of international law, COMNAVCENT was prevented by the commander in chief (CINC), U.S. Central Command from tracking and attacking the minelayers north of the seaborne extension of the Saudi border for fear of starting the war early. The second reason was that the Navy lacked any effective intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms and sensors with which to conduct covert reconnaissance from the deep water around the Durra Oilfield west to the SZ in the designated landing area. COMNAVCENT did request support from national assets, but U.S. Central Command assigned a low priority to maritime requests early on. Navy sea-air-land (SEAL) teams assigned to the Joint Special Operations Task Force did do some mine reconnaissance well south of the Ash Shuaybah area, but they did not find any mines. This was unknown to COMNAVCENT because these units did not report to him.
At the time the conventional MCM assets belonging to COMNAVCENT were in the process of getting organized and were not available for deployment north even if the CINC had given COMNAVCENT permission to use them. The airborne MCM helicopters were sitting on the pier in Abu Dhabi waiting for a ship, and the surface MCM platforms were just arriving in the Gulf. Lacking any clear intelligence picture, command estimates of the amount of time required to search and clear the sea echelon and gunfire support areas off the landing beaches varied between extremes. The commander, amphibious task force (CATF) estimated that it would take at least 13 days to clear both the sea echelon and fire support areas, and other estimates went as high as 24 days—and all estimates were based on faulty intelligence.
Since the end of the Gulf War, the Navy has carried out numerous initiatives to create a mine warfare force that can operate effectively if ever confronted with such a threat again. The United States now has a well-trained and motivated force, part of which is forward deployed in potential trouble spots in Southwest Asia and the Western Pacific. Efforts are under way to bring organic mine warfare capabilities to the battle groups, and there is developmental work ongoing in a variety of areas to field systems consistent with today’s funding constraints. At the same time the Marine Corps is developing concepts that are more in line with world realities involving amphibious power projection in scenarios that do not call for the traditional assaults so prevalent in World War II. The piece that is still missing in this positive picture is the integrated intelligence collection and dissemination capability that will give future commanders what they will need to operate effectively in potential inshore mined areas in the littorals. This is not just a Navy or Marine Corps issue; it is a joint issue. The Navy cannot solve this problem alone without relying on joint assets to collect the necessary information, and it is the responsibility of the Navy through its component commanders to keep the CINCs informed about what is required.