Get Ready, China and Iran: American Naval Super Mines Are Coming

The stand-off mine concept has slipped its tether. Naval warfare may never be the same.

Mines are the ninjas of warfare: silent, deadly and a bit unsavory. Sneaky weapons that are extremely effective not just for the damage they cause, but also for the fear and uncertainty they sow.

Naval mines are especially potent. American air-dropped mines in Japanese waters in 1945--chillingly but accurately code-named Operation Starvation--sank more ships than U.S. submarines in the final months of the war. The 1972 mining of Haiphong harbor helped drive North Vietnam to the peace table, while Saddam Hussein's underwater booby traps threatened U.S. naval supremacy in Desert Storm. “In February 1991 the Navy lost command of the sea—the North Arabian Gulf—to more than a thousand mines that had been sown by Iraqi forces. Mines severely damaged two Navy warships, and commanders aborted an amphibious assault for fear of even more casualties,” says a U.S. Navy mine warfare history.

But when a high-altitude B-52H bomber dropped a Quickstrike naval mine on September 23, 2014, something extraordinary happened: instead of falling into the sea below, the mine glided to a splashdown 40 nautical miles away. The reason? The mine had wings.

It was a hybrid weapon, a combination of a Quickstrike mine and JDAM, or Joint Direct Attack Munition, the clever concept that attaches fins and GPS guidance to conventional “dumb” bombs, thus turning them into cheap guided bombs. This Quickstrike mine had been fitted with JSAM-ER, which slips actual wings on to the weapons, enabling it to glide long distances. The new weapon, designated GBU-62B(V-1)/B Quickstrike-ER, has a range of 40 nautical miles when launched from 35,000 feet.

Welcome to the advent of the stand-off mine.

“This effort marked the first advance in aerial mine delivery techniques since 1943, and demonstrated a capability that substantially changes the potential of aerial mining in a threat environment,” writes U.S. Air Force Col. Michael Pietrucha in an article in Air & Space Power Journal.

The problem with aerial minelaying is that it is tricky and dangerous, requiring aircraft to fly low-level drops into the teeth of enemy air defenses.

“Typically, mine delivery has been a low-altitude operation, largely because of the drift of a parachute-retarded weapon,” Pietrucha writes. Today's minelayers essentially use the same techniques as B-29s did over the Sea of Japan in 1945, “often requiring multiple passes with inaccurate, parachute-retarded mines. A B-52 mine-laying pass occurs at 500 feet and 320 knots—too slow to be safe in fighters or the B-1B Bomber. The F-18 and P-3 employ similar profiles, leaving the laying aircraft low, slow, and predictable—a contributor to the loss of one aircraft and crew in Desert Storm’s only mine-laying attempt.”

But stand-off mines create a new world of minelaying. Many U.S. tactical aircraft, as well as the B-1, carry JDAMs now, so why shouldn't they be able to drop mines?

“There is no practical difference between JDAM employment against a fixed ground target or a fixed location under shallow water; no additional training for basic mine laying is required," writes Pietrucha. High-altitude glide mines also allow aircrews to drop their loads much farther outside enemy air defenses.

The threat of conflict in the South China Sea has focused attention on high-tech weapons such as the F-35 and Chinese ship-killer ballistic missiles. But the beauty of the JDAM mine is that it is fairly low-tech. The Quickstrike mine--a 2,000-pound aircraft bomb configured as an underwater weapon--dates back to 1983, while a JDAM kit costs about $20,000.