By Humphrey Carter

NO sooner had the US warship USS Ainzo set sail from Palma the USS Ponce put into port yesterday on her way home from the Gulf and the Iraq War.
The USS Ponce is an Austin class Amphibious Transport Dock, a warship that embarks, transports and lands elements of a landing force for a variety of expeditionary warfare missions. The USS Ponce set sail from Norfolk, Virginias for the Gulf on January 10 carrying part of 7'000 Marines from North Carolina as part of the first phase of the 62'000 extra US troops the United States deployed to double its forces in the Persian Gulf in the build up to the strike against Iraq. The primary role of the USS Ponce and other 11 Austin Class ships, is to transport and land Marines, their equipment and supplies using conventional landing craft, helicopters and vertical take-off and landing aircraft. They are extremely versatile ships and in this latest conflict, apart from marines, also had two dolphins on board as it participated in counter mine operations. The USS Ponce played a key role in clearing a safe path for ships into the port of Umm Qasr, the first being British relief ship RFA Sir Galahad carrying vital humanitarian aid for the Iraqi citizens. There was a total of nine mine-hunting dolphins, specially trained to use their natural sonar to root out deadly underwater bombs, operating in the Gulf alongside divers, helicopters and of course Royal Navy mine-sweepers. The dolphins are referred to as “MARK VII Systems,” meaning they are trained to seek bottom hugging anti-ship mines and were used in the two feet of soft mud in the harbour of Umm Qasr and the tidal flats of the Khawr Abd Allah waterway. The dolphins are also trained to locate mines floating from anchors in deeper water.
The dolphins circle the water ahead of divers in black rubber boats and are trained to touch with their nose a yellow tennis ball hanging off the boat if they find a mine. Their reward is fish.
When mines are found, divers place a nose cone on the dolphin which swims back and uses it to mark the location of the contact.
A small buoy floats to the surface and the Navy divers then swim over to investigate.
The divers however have to be extremely careful as the dolphin leads them in, right on top of the suspect device.
A considerable number of floating and bottom-hugging mines were found in stranded boats, intercepted barges and stored in a captured warehouse in Umm Qasr. Both kinds of mine were blamed for explosions which crippled USS Tripoli and USS Princeton in the 1991 Gulf War.


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