China Has Found the U.S. Navy's Achilles Heel: Sea Mines
Sea mines remain a core tenet of Chinese naval war-fighting doctrine.
Key Point: The U.S. Navy’s recent record in coping with the mine warfare challenge is not particularly encouraging.
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.
A final article to consider when taking a measure of Chinese mine warfare might be a Chinese technical study published in 2014 with the title “激光指导技术在出水攻击水雷上使用的可行性探讨” [A Feasibility Study on Laser Guided Technology for Water-exit Attack Mine]. Well, what is a “water-exit attack mine,” you might reasonably ask? This is a sea mine, which upon detecting a suitable target, does not explode as most mines do, but rather surfaces and launches a missile at close range. As the authors, from the PLAN Dalian Naval Academy, point out, this type of mine could radically compress the reaction time for surface combatant crews attempting to employ countermeasures to defend their ships. Rather more disturbing even, however, is the clear suggestion in the study that such mines would be used to target aircraft. Understanding the huge role that aircraft, fixed wing and rotary, play in U.S. Navy surveillance, anti-submarine, mine-countermeasures (MCM), etc. missions, this development is rather troubling. And yet seasoned watchers of China’s military are beginning to get used to the idea that Beijing has advanced to the cutting edge of military technology development in a variety of areas, including mine warfare.
It needs to be stated one more time that the U.S. Navy’s recent record in coping with the mine warfare challenge is not particularly encouraging. An official history of the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf War calls out MCM problems as the service’s primary shortcoming in that conflict. The report reads: “The mine warfare operations in Korea and Vietnam did not set off the Navy’s alarm bells, as they should have. The relative ease with which the Navy’s MCM helicopters and surface units seemed to handle their duties masked the inadequacy of these platforms and their command and control establishments.” Nor are the teething problems experienced by the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) particularly encouraging in this regard as that vessel type is set to replace the aging and expensive specialized MCM force, raising numerous doubts among close observers of mine warfare.
Of course, another way to respond to Chinese mine warfare prowess is by increasing U.S. offensive mine warfare capabilities. This has been done to some degree, for example in exercises demonstrating U.S. Air Force bomber capabilities to deploy sea mines in the Asia-Pacific. It is quite true that China’s navy and indeed its whole enormous maritime trade is vulnerable to mine warfare. Of course, it will be necessary to maintain a “big stick” to keep the peace in the volatile Asia-Pacific region, but it might be even more important to “speak softly”–an approach that has not been adequately attempted by either the current administration or its predecessors.
Lyle J. Goldstein is Associate Professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI. The opinions expressed in this analysis are his own and do not represent the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. Government. This article first appeared several years ago.
Editor’s Note: The following is part an occasional series called Dragon Eye, which seeks insight and analysis from Chinese writings on world affairs. You can find all back articles in the series here.