Why Naval Mine Warfare Is Key to American Maritime Strategy

Why Naval Mine Warfare Is Key to American Maritime Strategy

Mine warfare can serve as the lynchpin for deterring aggression in the maritime domain, and if necessary, for defeating adversaries at sea. 

Imagine two EABs in the South China Sea. The sensors and shooters they employ provide some span of sea control, but those forces are targetable and the control they provide is dependent on their ability to sense and shoot. If these two EABs were connected by a series of mines, one of which also pressed itself forward of the EABs, not only is their control reinforced, but they also have a kind of picket that simultaneously provides sea control and force protection. If they were stones in the game of Go, they would have attained connectedness.

Further, mines offer more than a way to reinforce emerging force design concepts that support sea control, but might serve as a primary means by which to establish sea control and denial. Viewing this maritime strategy as deterrence in depth, stand-off forces are farthest out from our key maritime terrain until conditions are right. Stand-in forces are the next layer forward, persisting inside the WEZ and providing some level of sea control and a check against A2/AD. Finally, mines employed by stand-in forces are the most forward projected capability, providing sea denial and pressing enemy naval forces against the wall.

If this were a game of Go with the South China Sea as the board, U.S. mines could serve as the lynchpin in this series of stones that connect key maritime terrain across Singapore, the Riau Islands, the Spratly Islands, the Philippines, and through the Ryukyus toward Japan. Having occupied all of the opponent’s liberties, we gain control of the greatest amount of territory, deny the opponent options, and have the greatest leverage as the game unfolds.

Employing Mines for Sea Control in a Contested Environment

The final challenge is employing mines in strategic chokepoints in a contested environment. Adversaries will not idly stand by while U.S. naval forces deploy mines and restrict their freedom of maneuver. While existing mine deployment methods provide some capability, they are hardly ideal for an environment of competition, or where the first goal is deterrence rather than outright conflict. Thankfully, current and emerging technologies offer a plethora of means by which mines can be employed per the above framework.

Commander Timothy McGeehan and Commander Douglas Wahl (ret.) ably described potential applications of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s (DARPA) Upward Falling Payload (UFP) program. DARPA developed the UFP to provide distributed, unmanned containers that could lie on the ocean floor for years at a time, providing materiel on demand in maritime theaters across the globe. McGeehan and Wahl envisioned applying the UFP to create a minefield on demand, replacing materiel with mines.13 Taking this a step further, and deliberately in line with DMO and EABO concepts, this capability could instead be deployed well before tensions escalate with potential adversaries, and should the need arise, be employed by naval stand-in forces who could use distributed command and control systems to maneuver these minefields wherever they would best support sea control and denial requirements. Further, the knowledge that such an asset could create a stranglehold in key maritime terrain would further deter aggression and escalation among adversaries.

While promising, the UFP has its own vulnerabilities, and such mines may be detected and swept by adversaries. Another method of deploying maneuverable minefields is through a modification to the current mechanism used for deploying the Quickstrike-ER Mine. Currently, the Quickstrike-ER is dropped by an Air Force B-52 bomber, and moves onto target with an attached Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) kit. While this provides a shallow-water mine that can be deployed outside of enemy anti-aircraft fire range, the Quickstrike-ER cannot be moved to another location. By combining the Quickstrike-ER package with that of the UFP, we can provide a maneuverable minefield that can be deployed on demand, that can be controlled by naval forces, and maneuvered as needed to best support sea control requirements.

Another method of deployment and employment of mines is by modifying the Expeditionary Mine Counter Measures (ExMCM) company, training and equipping it instead to execute mine warfare in key maritime terrain. The ExMCM company is trained to employ unmanned systems for the purposes of executing the MCM mission. While usually deploying its systems from rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIB), they recently validated the employment of Zodiac combat rubber raiding craft (CRRC) to conduct MCM in a clandestine environment.14 Pursuing this and similar clandestine insertion methods, a newly formed Expeditionary Mine Warfare (ExMIW) company could instead emplace and control fields of naval mines at key maritime terrain, in support of sea control and denial. Alternatively, Marines training for EABO might add this task to their mission profile.

With ever increasing flexibility provided by automation and human-machine teaming, the possibilities for deployment are almost endless. While the sea services can be solution agnostic, the end state is a maneuverable naval mine that can be controlled by naval forces operating at strategic chokepoints in order to control key maritime terrain, deter adversary action, and if needed, to win the maritime fight.

Mine Warfare: A Pillar of Deterrence by Denial

The potential of mine warfare in major military conflict is a matter of historical record beyond repute. Despite this, the utility of MIW is often ignored by American military planners between periods of conflict. The direction of the NSS and the NDS to prepare for great power competition demands more from naval leaders. The development of MIW capabilities in support of deterrence by denial must begin today.

While DMO and EABO provide the essential building blocks of sea control and denial, their deterrent power can be exponentially increased through the integration of MIW. Whether deployed between EABs by ExMIW companies, activated from UFPs and maneuvered into place as the situation dictates, or fired into shallow waters with the modified Quickstrike-ER and moved as required by C2 systems, MIW is the most promising yet underdeveloped capability for today’s maritime strategists. With these and similar innovations, the sea services can deliver on the promise of sea control and deterrence by denial, and win this global game of Go.

Brian Kerg is a Marine Corps officer and writer currently stationed in Norfolk, VA. He is a Non-Resident Fellow at Marine Corps University’s Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and CreativityHis professional writing has appeared in War on the RocksProceedingsThe Marine Corps Gazette, and The Strategy Bridge. His fiction has appeared in The Deadly Writer’s PatrolLine of Advance, and The Report. Follow or contact him @BrianKerg.

This article first appeared at the Center for International Maritime Security in June 2020 and is being republished due to reader interest.

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr


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13. Timothy McGeehan and Douglas Wahl, “Flash Mob in the Shipping Lane!”, Proceedings 142 no. 355 (Annapolis, MD: USNI, 2016).

14. Allan Lucas and Ian Cameron, “Mine Warfare: Ready and Able Now,” Proceedings 144, no. 357 (Annapolis, MD: USNI, 2018).