Iran's threat earlier this year to close the Strait of Hormuz highlighted what many experts view as a longstanding fundamental weakness in U.S. naval strategy: the inability to effectively and economically spot and neutralize naval mines.

Such mines can cost as little as $1,000 each and are relatively easy for Iran to put in place. Finding and neutralizing them might take U.S. naval forces a month or more, essentially allowing Iran to achieve its strategic goal of blocking trade in the narrow body of water.

In fact, mining the strait would be a strategy roughly similar to what insurgents have been doing on roads in Iraq and Afghanistan for the past eight years, using crude bombs for strategic influence. “We've been there before, we just called it an IED [improvised explosive device] and put it on land,” Navy Rear Adm. Frank Morneau, deputy director for the Expeditionary Warfare Division, told an audience at the Navy League's annual Sea-Air-Space Exhibition near Washington.

And like the hunt for IEDs, many naval experts believe the technology for tackling sea mines is woefully underdeveloped. “Mine warfare for the Navy has never really truly been a priority,” said Rene Osias, who works on L-3's Side Scan Sonar Systems.

That neglect has translated into a lack of new technology to deal with naval mines, even though the potential threat is growing fast. “I would submit to you that in the water mass we're still back to at best, binocular stage,” says retired Rear Adm. Robert Sprigg, vice president of naval activities at Thales. And compared to where aviation was prior to the development of radar, “It's not even that good.”

Mine warfare, Sprigg says, “is one of the easiest, cheapest, most effective area-denial things that's ever existed and we haven't found a solution to it yet.”

The Pentagon is acutely aware of this weakness. Last year, the director of operational test and evaluation determined that the Littoral Combat Ship's AN/AQS-20A Sonar Mine Detecting Set and the Airborne Laser Mine Detection System (ALMDS) were both “deficient.” The LCS “is not expected to be survivable in a hostile combat environment,” the report stated [see LCS story, p. 26].

The Navy has started taking some steps to address the shortcoming. At the Navy League exhibition in April, the service announced a new Surface Mine Countermeasure Unmanned Undersea Vehicle, called Knifefish, which will help protect LCS. Knifefish would essentially be an unmanned minisubmarine launched from the LCS to collect information about the location of mines using its sonar.

But Knifefish, which will not be operational until at least 2017, does not address the immediate threat facing U.S. naval forces in the strait, and it is not clear that building a better mine-hunter using sonar is even enough. “The real solution to modern warfare in some of the areas that we are exploring are outside of sonar,” says Sprigg.

The challenge is not just building technology that can clear mines, but finding a way to do it quickly and affordably. In effect, Iran is playing a numbers game. It knows that mines can eventually be cleared, but probably not before damage to trade is done. “The experience of past mine-warfare campaigns suggests that it could take many weeks, even months, to restore the full flow of commerce, and more time still for the oil markets to be convinced that stability had returned,” academic Caitlin Talmadge wrote in 2008.

Little has changed in this calculus over the past few years. Defeating mines comes down to time and money. If a mine neutralizer costs $50,000, it is important to screen out false positives and ensure you are not blowing up discarded refrigerators, said Morneau. “I want to be discriminatory and know that I'm blowing up a mine,” he added.

Whether it is looking at the economics of mine-hunting, or the development of new technologies, one of the biggest barriers to mine clearance may be the simple law of economics. With the defense budget expected to go down in coming years, there is little, if any, money for the types of new developments the Navy may want. Companies also know any new approaches will have to compete against established Navy technology programs like ALMDS.

“As a company, we sell mine-warfare solutions all over the world,” said Kevin Peppe, Raytheon's vice president for seapower capability systems. “But the biggest problem that we've had is truly trying to sell them to the U.S. Navy.”