Old-School Killers: Fear China's Sea Mines

Chinese naval strategists have gone to school on naval history and concluded that sea mines will be vitally significant in any future naval contest for the Asia-Pacific.

In the closing phases of the Pacific War, American military strategists ingeniously combined two weapons systems, the revolutionary long-range B-29 bomber and the comparatively simple parachute-retarded influence sea mine with magnetic or acoustic exploders, to wreak havoc on the Japanese economy and Japanese morale. The effort to sow Japan’s waterways thoroughly with thousands of mines was named, aptly enough, Operation Starvation and this effort proved highly effective in helping to reduce Japan to its knees.  Nevertheless, the U.S. Navy has also been on the “receiving end” of skillfully employed mine warfare and these cases are more recent. The classic case is from the Korean War when mines laid off North Korea prevented U.S. forces from making an efficient invasion at Wonsan. A number of allied mine warfare ships were sunk in that operational fiasco.  During the Persian Gulf War, two U.S. Navy ships, the Tripoli and also the Princeton, were both seriously damaged by Iraqi mines.

Today, the evidence continues to mount that the employment of sea mines remains a core tenet of Chinese naval war-fighting doctrine. This edition of Dragon Eye will review a few examples from this evidence. Unfortunately, American defense analyses continue to downplay this threat, for example in the recently released (and generally well done) RAND report, the US-China Military Scorecard. Sea mines, which have been employed since ancient times, are certainly not as mesmerizing as anti-ship ballistic missiles, supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, or the hypersonic weapons that Beijing is also apparently working on. Nor are sea mines likely to directly threaten U.S. aircraft carriers, as the above weapons might. However, skillfully deployed mines in massive numbers could prove a critical difference maker during the early phases of naval combat in the Western Pacific.

A fascinating interview appeared several years ago in the Chinese military magazine 兵工科技 [Ordnance Science and Technology]. The interview was with a professor from the Qingdao Submarine Academy, but the subject matter exclusively concerned methods for deploying sea mines. Of course, that is telling in itself:  the very fact that the theme of mine warfare was treated so comprehensively by a submarine academy professor suggests the great importance of these weapons in China’s conception of naval warfare.  The professor goes on to cite yet another example of a U.S. Navy ship, the frigate Samuel B. Roberts, holed by an Iranian mine back in 1988. He says explicitly that “甚至渔船经过简单改装” [even fishing boats that undergo a simple modification] can deploy mines effectively. After insisting that submarines provide the most ideal method for laying mines, he goes on to suggest that “专门的外挂装置” [specialized external conformal apparatus] can be used to increase a submarine’s mine payload by a factor of 1-2 times.

The above interview is especially disturbing because submarine-laid mines could provide the most unpleasant and deadly surprises in a U.S.-China naval conflict. In another article, I have discussed the troubling possibility that Chinese submarines would purposefully seek to strike America’s “soft rib” by the strategy of “破交” [attacking transport nodes], which could mean striking key American bases in the mid and eastern Pacific, or even in the Atlantic. If a single submarine could sow a highly challenging minefield of in excess of 50 weapons, as suggested by the Qingdao submarine academy professor above, the threat to close critical U.S. ports for a week or more seems a very troubling possibility.  

Just as perturbing is a brief report on Chinese mine warfare in the August 2015 issue of the naval magazine 现代舰船 [Modern Ships]. This article in turn cites a study from China’s National Defense University, which envisions a Chinese mine blockade in response to a Taiwan declaration of independence. That Chinese study apparently envisions a first phase lasting 4-6 days in which 5-7,000 sea mines would be deployed into the water. That would be followed by a second phase planting another 7,000 mines. For a reference point, that total number of mines would exceed the number placed around Japan in Operation Starvation in 1945–the very effective U.S. military campaign referenced above.

The Chinese article goes on to suggest that laying 2,000 mines per day should be relatively easy for Chinese ships and aircraft. In combination with these two phases above, moreover, “阻止外敌干预方面, 中国海军飞机潜艇和部分渔船只要在第一岛连关键水道布设一定数量水雷…”  [For the purpose of blocking foreign enemy intervention, Chinese ships, submarines, and some fishing boats would need to plant a certain quantity of sea mines in critical sea passages of the first island chain…].”  A chart in the article labeled “布雷实力” [Mine-laying Strength] suggests nearly 500 military ships and aircraft (putting fishing boats aside) that could be employed in the campaign described above, with many of these platforms able to carry two dozen or more mines.