Underwater Mine Warfare--the Future

What ‘Weapons That Wait?’


 “I have always deemed it unworthy of a chivalrous nation,” Adm. David G. Farragut wrote in 1864, after he “damned the torpedoes” at Mobile Bay. “But, it does not do to give your enemy such a decided superiority over you.”

 The AirSea Battle Concept (ASBC) has captured the imagination of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review called for the Air Force and Navy to develop a new concept for defeating adversaries — principally China, Iran and North Korea — that possess sophisticated anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities.

The ASBC is to help guide the development of future capabilities for effective power-projection operations. Surprisingly, this seems to include innovative ideas for using naval mines to defeat adversaries’ naval forces and strategies. In light of the Navy’s “love-hate” relationship with mines and mining, however, there’s great doubt that these ideas will ever see the light of day.

While still being refined in late spring, several observers note the ASCB seems to address future naval mining capabilities:

Offensive mining appears particularly attractive, given its comparatively low cost and the time-consuming, difficult nature of countermine operations. Mining will generally be effective in areas close to hostile territory, near the approaches to ports and naval bases, and in chokepoints.

Significant numbers of smart, mobile mines capable of autonomous movement to programmed locations over extended distances will enable offensive mining.

Stealthy mine-laying platforms capable of penetrating A2/AD systems are preferred for conducting this mission, primarily submarines and stealthy Navy and Air Force bombers.

These AirSea Battle mining initiatives are years, if not decades, away from bearing fruit and depend upon a commitment to design, engineer and acquire modern mines, which is problematic at best.

The U.S. Navy used mines offensively on only two occasions during the Cold War — the 1972 mining of North Vietnamese ports and in the northern Persian Gulf in 1991 to prevent Iraqi naval craft from leaving their bases. Until recently, the Navy maintained a large stock of mines, including general-purpose bombs fitted with mine fuzes (“Destructor”), the Mk 67 submarine-launched mobile mine (SLMM) and the Mk 60 CAPTOR (enCAPsulated TORpedo) anti-submarine mine. But with the end of the Cold War, the Navy’s mine capabilities have atrophied.

Today, the United States lacks modern mines and there is only a handful of trained mine specialists. The U.S. stockpile is significantly smaller than North Korea’s estimated 50,000 mines, while the Chinese Navy might have on the order of 100,000 and Russia has been estimated to have 250,000.

The CAPTORs are gone, and the SLMMs will be phased out in 2012. At that point, the Navy will have no mines capable of being launched from submarines. There is no surface mine-laying capability, although the U.S. Navy might investigate rolling Quickstrike mines off virtually any available ships and craft — something Libya, using a Russian mine, did from a ferryboat in the Red Sea during the summer of 1984 — but that doesn’t seem to support ASBC stealthy mine-laying ideas.

Once the SLMMs are phased out, the nation’s sole mine-laying capabilities will reside in naval aviation and the Air Force. The Navy’s P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft and F/A-18 Hornet/Super Hornet can drop Quickstrike mines, but the P-3Cs start leaving service in 2013. They will be replaced by the P-8 Poseidon Multi-Mission Maritime Aircraft, which also will have a modest mining capability, but the ability to do so in meaningful numbers is years away.

The Air Force’s B-52H Stratofortress, B-1B Lancer and B-2A Spirit strategic bombers comprise the nation’s only high-volume mining capability. The 66 B-1s and 20 B-2s can carry more Quickstrike mines than the seemingly ageless 77 active B-52s (expected to remain in operation through 2040, the first B-52H entered service in 1961), and the B-52s and B-1s — but not the stealthy B-2s — regularly train and practice this mission.

However, in wartime, high-volume mining will be only one of several missions demanded of Air Force bombers and, if the minefields are at great distances, their supporting fleet of aerial tankers.

There were a few, half-hearted post-Cold War efforts to develop new mines: An improved submarine-launched mobile mine based on the Mk 48 torpedo was initiated, but died in 2002; the U.S. Navy-U.K. Royal Navy joint concept for a Littoral Sea Mine was pursued, then dropped; and there was the “2010 Mine” to complement the Quickstrike mines. That program was to provide the fleet with a modern air-dropped mine by 2010. But that, too, was canceled, as was another offensive “networked” mine concept, the Sea Predator 2020 mine.

Suggestions that the Navy acquire modern foreign mines have been met with “not invented here” indifference. And it took some 15 years for the Navy to develop an advanced, highly sophisticated target detection device (TDD) for the three Quickstrike variants — for which there is only one manufacturer, an indication of the “brittleness” of the nation’s mine technological/industrial base.

Today, there is no U.S. Navy mine program, other than the Quickstrike TDDs. The inability to invest in an advanced new mine looks to be held hostage to resource competition. The Navy’s mine warfare resource sponsor has a difficult challenge: balancing mines/mining with mine countermeasures (MCM), while having to fund legacy and future MCM systems as new systems are being brought on line, with no growth in total funding.

That underscores the fiscal truth of U.S. Navy mine warfare: mines and MCM — from the labs and industry, and from the Pentagon to deployed forces — usually accounts for less than 1 percent of the Navy’s annual budget. In light of the reality lurking behind the AirSea Battle naval mining concepts, it looks like our A2/AD adversaries will continue to enjoy a “decided superiority” over us.        

Scott Truver, PhD., is director, National Security Programs, at Gryphon Technologies LC. He has supported the U.S. Navy mine warfare community since 1979 and is the co-author of the Naval Institute Press book, “Weapons that Wait: Mine Warfare in the U.S. Navy” (1991). He thanks Norman Polmar for his insight that helped shape this commentary.

 “A Point of View” is a Seapower forum wherein experts and analysts express their views on a variety of thought-provoking topics. Publication is at the editor’s discretion. The views expressed here are the author’s and not necessarily those of the Navy League of the United States.

Reprinted with permission from SEAPOWER, the official magazine of the Navy League of the United States.




Derick S. Hartshorn - 2009-present
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