The 41-year-old refurbished transport vessel overseeing an international Middle East mine-hunting exercise can defend itself from Iranian speedboats with two new machine guns cued by long-range cameras bought under a special Pentagon program.
The USS Ponce is also carrying an underwater drone being tested that’s capable of taking sonar and video images of the Persian Gulf’s bottom in search of mines as deep as 300 meters (984 feet).
The BAE Systems Plc 25mm guided ‘‘Mark 38 Mod 2,” and Kingfish unmanned underwater vehicle are among the programs the Pentagon this year accelerated under a “Fast Lane” initiative to counter Iranian naval weapons. One of the most serious threats, the Navy says, are Iranian speedboats that can employ “swarming” tactics.
The U.S. is boosting its naval presence in the area, which includes the Strait of Hormuz, through which a fifth of the world’s traded oil flows. Iranian officials have threatened to close the waterway in response to threats to force the Islamic Republic to abandon its suspected nuclear weapons program.
More than 30 nations are participating in the 12-day exercise that’s taking place in three locations from the mid-Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman to Djibouti and the Gulf of Aden.
Ships from the U.S., U.K., Japan and Iraq are participating. Countries including Yemen, Jordan, New Zealand, Estonia, Italy, Singapore and Australia are also taking part or acting as observers. The exercise is scheduled to end on September 27.
On the USS Ponce, the 25mm gun’s rotating “Toplight” camera can spot small boats “seven or eight miles out” and “even in haze,” said Gunners Mate Second Class Adam Waddell. He can fire the gun, effective to as much as 2,700 yards, by pressing a button on his joystick.
“It’s a very efficient, very accurate weapon,” Waddell said. He spoke as the Ponce was located about 80 miles from the Iranian coast and 280 miles north of the Strait of Hormuz.
The new weapons and sensors are in addition to other steps the U.S. has taken this year to improve naval capabilities in the Gulf.
This includes doubling to eight the number of Avenger-class mine hunting vessels. One of the newly deployed Avenger vessels, the USS Warrior, is taking part in the exercise.
The Navy has also installed on the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier that’s now in the Gulf a long-range, day-night camera system called the “Stalker.”
The Ponce is the overall command vessel and is equipped with a Boeing Co. ScanEagle drone, the same craft used by Navy SEALs in Afghanistan to track down Taliban fighters.
The drone provides commanders with live video feeds of allied vessels and can provide an early warning if Iranian vessels approach.
“I can get video 75 miles away from ScanEagle,” Ponce Captain Jon Rodgers told reporters in his office, while zooming in on a Zodiac carrying French divers.
“The hardest part about defending a ship is understanding the intent of a potential adversary,” Rodgers said. A boat can approach and personnel need to quickly assess “does it have a capability to hurt you? Does it have an opportunity to hurt you? Do they have the intent?”
The ‘TopLight’ camera on the gun system allows Ponce personnel to zoom in and determine “what are they pointing at? They’re taking pictures of the ship. They’re not shooting at the ship,” he said. “That’s a critical factor.”
The gun and ScanEagle cameras also help the U.S. in its “battle of the narrative” with Iran, Rodgers said.
“If you are ever in an engagement you want to be able to film that to tell the world the” truth, Rodgers said.
The Ponce also is home to two 11.5-foot long, 600-pound Kingfish prototype unmanned underwater vehicles made by ITT Exelis.
The vehicle is capable of descending to a depth of 984 feet on a preprogramed mission of as many as eight hours.
“You can use the equipment to find just about anything,” said Juliana Jackson, a Navy employee monitoring its use.
The bottom of the Persian Gulf can be crowded, Lieutenant Commander Scott Nietzel of the USS Warrior said in an interview.
“We’ve seen a Volkswagen Beetle on the bottom, tires, microwaves -- you name it,” he said. “A lot of things get thrown overboard. Sorting out the garbage from the mines from the natural environment is, of course the challenge. That’s why we’ve brought so much technology to bear.”
-Editors: Louis Meixler, Digby Lidstone.