Key point: The bombers themselves are no longer safe from the Chinese military, but what if...?
China steadily is building up the forces it could deploy in an attempted invasion of Taiwan. The Chinese navy is acquiring aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships while the Chinese army and marine corps add modern fighting vehicles and the air force trains for intensive air-to-air combat.
But in crossing the Taiwan Strait, a Chinese invasion fleet would face not only Taiwanese forces, but probably Americans forces, as well. The United States is obligated by law to assist in Taiwan’s defense. A U.S. Air Force wing commander in August 2019 revealed one form U.S. intervention could take.
Bombers. Dropping mines. Lots of them.
The commandant of the Air Force’s Weapons School, part of the 57th Wing at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, recently visited Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, home to the 2nd Bomb Wing, the U.S. air arm’s biggest bomber unit with nearly 30 B-52Hs on its rolls.
“I told him to go eat some fried alligator,” 57th Wing commander Brig. Gen. Robert Novotny wrote on Facebook. “Instead he went dropping sea mines out of a B-52 Stratofortress!” Novotny posted several photos depicting one of the 1960s-vintage B-52s hauling a whopping 15 Quickstrike air-dropped sea mines. Six externally and nine internally.
Quickstrike mines are not new. “The Quickstrike family includes 500-, 1,000-, and 2,000-pound class types, known as the Mk. 62, Mk. 63 and Mk. 64, respectively,” reporter Joseph Trevithick explained at The War Zone in late 2018.
“These [are] converted from Mk. 80-series high-explosive bombs and feature a fuzing system that detonates the weapon when it detects an appropriate acoustic, seismic or pressure signatures from a passing vessel. A fourth type, Mk. 65, is another 2,000-pound-class Quickstrike mine, but is based on an actual, purpose-built mine casing rather than an existing bomb.”
As the Pentagon pivots back to great-power conflict, the mines are enjoying a renaissance of sorts. And upgrades. Trevithick detailed the efforts.
For more than four years now, the Navy has been pursuing two related upgrade programs, known as Quickstrike-J and Quickstrike-ER, for the Mk. 80-series members of the Quickstrike family. The first of these simply combines the mine with a GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition guidance package, while the latter adds a pop-out wing kit.
These are game-changing upgrades that allow aircraft to precisely employ the mines from any altitude and, in the case of the -ER types, loft them at targets up to 40 miles away. This speeds up the process of laying the minefields overall and dramatically reduces the vulnerability to the aircraft carrying the weapons, which would otherwise have to fly low-and-slow to perform the mission.
The Air Force operates more than 70 B-52s and, in the event of war, could deploy dozens of the huge planes to the Asia-Pacific region or fly them from the United States for missions over the Pacific war zone.
It’s not hard to imagine formations of B-52s quickly laying hundreds or even thousands of mines.
Of course, the bombers, if forward-deployed, themselves would be targets. China could target America’s main Pacific outposts -- in particular, the bomber base at Guam -- with ballistic and cruise missiles.
A sudden Chinese attack quickly could wipe out U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region and block the United States from intervening in a regional war. That’s the startling conclusion of an August 2019 report from the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney.
“America’s defense strategy in the Indo-Pacific is in the throes of an unprecedented crisis,” the study’s authors Ashley Townshend, Brendan Thomas-Noone and Matilda Steward
warned. “America no longer enjoys military primacy in the Indo-Pacific and its capacity to uphold a favorable balance of power is increasingly uncertain.”
Dispersing B-52s across a wider area could help to protect them from attack. It’s not for no reason that the Air Force in recent years has begun sending B-52s to the Australian air base in Darwin.