Several middle-level Pentagon sources pointed, for example, to a quotation attributed by the Wall Street Journal to Gen. P. X. Kelley, the recently retired Marine Corps commandant who was a member of the Joint Chiefs when the escort mission was ordered: "Life is sometimes full of lousy options."
An 'Era of Neglect'
Some of the "lousy options," several naval experts acknowledged, are caused by an "era of neglect" of America's defensive minesweeping forces by a service that increasingly stresses offensive capabilities--aircraft carriers and submarines, for example.
"Minesweeping is a bastard stepchild," said one congressional staff member. "It's not attractive to the best guys, who went for the carriers or destroyers."
Less than two decades ago, the United States had nearly 90 active-duty minesweepers. Today it has three on active duty and another 18 attached to reserve units. All are of Korean War vintage and all are based in the United States, at least several weeks' steaming away from the Persian Gulf.
In 1981, as part of its drive for a 600-ship Navy, the Reagan Administration embarked on a $1.5-billion program to build 14 ships in a new class of minesweeper. But officials say that the program is $200 million over budget and two years behind schedule. The first ship is undergoing trials in Lake Michigan and will not be commissioned for another two months.
New Minesweeper Class
The Navy has had even greater trouble constructing a new class of minesweeper-hunters. As a result, it has been forced to lean heavily on its fleet of 23 RH-53D minesweeping helicopters, all based in the United States.
Eight of these Sea Stallion copters have been ordered to the Persian Gulf, but officials admit that the craft have limits. For example, they cannot search for mines at night, and their maximum time on station without refueling is barely two hours.
Because America's Arab allies have balked at giving landing rights to U.S. aircraft, the helicopters will not actually reach the gulf until sometime next week--far too late, in the view of some experts.
"I was astonished to find out that they sailed the first convoy without any minesweeping capability at all available from the United States," a former commander of the Navy's Middle East task force, retired Rear Adm. Robert Hanks, said Tuesday on the ABC program "Nightline."
4 Earlier Mine Attacks
Citing the mines encountered by four merchant ships in May and June, Hanks said, "I thought that would have alerted somebody to get at least the CH-53D choppers out there."
Another retired admiral, who asked not to be identified by name, told The Times: "It was a misjudgment not to expect them (mines) where the Bridgeton was hit and put sweepers out in front of the convoy.
"They should have been ultraconservative in their threat assessment, given the high visibility of the operation," he added. As for the future, he said, "It is possible a U.S. warship will be hit, and there will be sailors in the compartments, not empty like the Bridgeton.
"There is," he added, "a real danger of the loss of more U.S. personnel."
THE MINESWEEPER GAP Oceean-going vessels on active duty for minesweeping.
Soviet Union 251 Great Britain 40 West Germany 39 China 27 France 20 Italy 15 Netherlands 8 India 6 Cuba 4 United States 3*
* Another 18 manned largely by naval reserve forces. Source: Jane's Fighting Ships, 1986-87