ABOARD THE USS FEARLESS IN THE PERSIAN GULF — U.S. Navy vessels searching for mines in the Persian Gulf soon will be equipped with robotic underwater devices that will vastly enhance the 35-year-old minesweepers' ability to find mines, officials on one of the wooden-hulled ships said Wednesday.
Commercially available submersibles known as Super Sea Rovers, carrying cameras and sonars, will enable the Fearless and her five sister ships to pinpoint and identify moored explosive mines without running the risk of sending divers out in rubber rafts to examine suspicious objects that might be deadly mines.
On Wednesday, the American minesweepers were anchored in the central gulf for a respite from weeks spent hunting and destroying mines farther north, in the vicinity of Farsi Island, where Iran maintains a military base and has been observed laying mines.
The skipper of the Fearless, 34-year-old Lt. Cmdr. John K. Ross of Savannah, Ga., said he believes those waters had been "pretty close if not completely cleared" of mines. But months of continuing operations to prevent ships from hitting mines lie ahead.
The mines found by two ships, the Fearless and the Inflict, appeared to have been laid months before, and were covered with inches of marine vegetation, he said.
Officers of the Fearless said the American minesweepers have been working by painstakingly mapping the relatively shallow waters of the Persian Gulf with sensitive sonar sets that detect virtually anything lying on the bottom or floating near the surface.
One crewman manning a sonar scope explained that the instruments listen to echoes and paint a picture of the waters in much the same way that an obstetrician's sonogram detects a fetus floating in the womb.
But the sonar signals can be deceptive. One day the crew of the Fearless found what looked like a cluster of mines moored to the bottom in the classic fashion used by Iranian forces.
Divers, summoned from an accompanying warship, swam deep into the seas, only to discover that the presumed mines were tires floating by ropes above a barge that sank years ago.
On another occasion, Navy men recalled, the divers moved gingerly toward real mines, planted explosives and blew up the mines in spectacular plumes of water that killed hundreds of fish.