A resurgent regional power in the Pacific has grown successively more aggressive in territorial claims to a number of disputed island groups. Unilaterally establishing air-defense identification zones and stoking nationalistic feelings among its population have spiked international tensions in the region as other nations resist this aggressive behavior. In this powder-keg situation, a tactical miscalculation on the part of one aggressor ship skipper results in a collision between opposing warships. Both countries begin mobilizing for war.
With significant economic and political interests in the region, the United States decides to intervene in the situation in a way that allows controlled de-escalation without imposing an overt loss of face for any of the countries involved. The United States would like to apply psychological pressure on the aggressor’s leadership, while providing a diplomatic off-ramp. The combatant command has directed its Navy component to control the adversary navy’s freedom of movement into and out of its main bases. The U.S. Navy component commander is considering options.
Asymmetric combat has been a force equalizer since David defeated Goliath, and its use has allowed less-influential and -equipped nations to defeat some of the most dominant nations of their era. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert clearly recognized the asymmetric effects of dominating the undersea realm through the use of submarines and mines when he directed Commander, Submarine Forces (CSF) to lead the development of the kindred warfare:
Undersea dominance provides strategic and warfighting advantages vital to our national security . . . I designated you as the Navy lead for the undersea domain, responsible for developing concepts and doctrine of undersea operations. You are directed to develop a comprehensive plan to maintain our dominance of the undersea domain, focused on the period from now until 2025 . . .This plan should address the requirements to achieve success, platforms, payloads, and partnerships. It should also establish priorities for anti-submarine and mine warfare capability gaps on behalf of the Fleet Commanders. (memo from the CNO to CSF, 2013).
In response, Vice Admiral Michael Connor (Commander, Submarine Forces) implemented his plan to sustain U.S. undersea dominance, one focused on innovation and rapid delivery to the Fleet. His vision clearly expresses the importance of mine warfare as it embraces the emerging technologies of the 21st century. “The torpedo of the future and the offensive mine of the future will be hard to distinguish,” he said in 2013. He also called for the use of distributed networks, autonomous unmanned underwater vehicles, firepower, stealth, and the ability to “act quickly with a profound degree of surprise, force, and lethality.”
Here, we aim to familiarize readers with some of the historical aspects of mine warfare, while presenting the Advanced Undersea Weapon System (AUWS), being developed by the Office of Naval Research to fulfill the vision of the future.
A Glimpse of History
Maritime mine warfare can be traced back to 1778, as U.S. forces used powder-filled kegs with contact devices as an attempt to break a British blockade of the Delaware River. During the Civil War, Confederate forces employed mines as defensive weapons that sank three times as many Union vessels as did gunfire. Admiral David G. Farragut, who famously “damned the torpedoes” at Mobile Bay, understood that while he viewed mines as less than chivalrous, the failure to implement their use against a country that employed mining gave the adversary a decided superiority.
The Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, which influenced mine warfare for both the Allied and Central Powers of World War I, showcased the ability to use mines both offensively and defensively. The implementation of mining during World War II had massive results. While battleships, submarines, and airplanes dominated the newsreels, the naval mine played a tremendous role.
Operation Starvation, which made great use of mines, could arguably have ended the war with Japan had nuclear weapons not been used. In just over four months of this operation, 40 B-29 aircraft laid mines that accounted for sinking 1,250,000 tons of Japanese shipping, and in the process lost 103 crew members. These are astounding numbers, considering 100 submarines were able to sink 4,780,000 tons of shipping while losing 4,000 sailors over a 44-month period. Furthermore, during the brief period of inner-zone mining, the monthly inbound shipping to Japanese ports decreased from more than 800,000 tons to less than 200,000 tons. The comparison is not meant to downplay the potency or sacrifice of the silent service, but to acknowledge that submarines and mines are very effective partners in undersea warfare. The correct application of mines not only reduces the risk to the silent service, but frees it from the hazards of littoral guard duty so it may focus on the missions for which it is uniquely designed and in conditions where only it thrives.
Contemporary Offensive Mining
Over the past 125 years, mines have damaged or sunk more ships than all other weapon systems combined. The United States has sadly added to that victims list. Since World War II, we have suffered over four times as many casualties to mines as we have to all other weapon systems combined. Our recent adversaries are keenly aware of the effectiveness of mines. In the gulf wars, as well as in Afghanistan and Iran, forces ill-equipped to rival the United States head-to-head with conventional power have resorted to asymmetric means. While this reality has not escaped the U.S. naval service, the near sinking of the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) in 1988 exposed a weakness in dealing with low-tech mines. As Middle East scholar Anthony Cordesman wrote: “Any force which is not tailored to respond to all known low level threats from a given country is poorly planned and improperly equipped.” Ironically, the United States was the first to use mines to combat a technologically superior navy, and yet has been remiss in defending itself from its own tactical invention.
The military value of a naval blockade is clear. The ability to establish and sustain an effective blockade reduces the capacity for the adversary to influence the United States or allies. However, with the continual investment by potential adversaries in anti-access/area-denial and other military-modernization capabilities, establishing a conventional blockade near their coasts would put American military assets at great risk. A persistent, unmanned blockade would create similar effects while reducing the risk to our high-value assets. The advantage of offensive mining is quite clear, as it allows for military action without the presence of high-value military forces.
Though the minefield is unmanned, it still takes manned operations to emplace it. As Burleson, Everhart, Swart, and Truver wrote in 2012, there is no surface mine-laying capability and a limited submarine-launched mining capability. Therefore, mining is mostly shouldered by the U.S. Air Force and supplemented by naval aviators. Yet we are reminded of the precarious nature of airborne mining while taking note of the tragic loss of an A-6 Intruder crew during a four-jet sortie in Operation Desert Storm. While the Air Force does maintain the capacity for high-volume mining, the availability of aircraft and resources that may commit to the task is questionable, as there will be many competing missions for finite assets. Swart in 2013 further expands on the complexities of mine warfare as the need for reseeding fields after an adversary sweeps them, noting that every vessel an adversary sends into a minefield is a minesweeper. Inevitably the mines will be removed, and should enemy efforts during conflict fail to clear a field, our own forces will be tasked to clear the field following hostilities.
Visions Becoming Tangible
Vice Admiral Conner recognizes that the United States’ and its allies’ current and future interests in national security will depend on a survivable, lethal undersea force. Such a force will consist of smart payloads and unmanned vehicles in an affordable manner to satisfy financial and industrial constraints. Technical advances have opened a floodgate of possibilities for asymmetric solutions, and clandestine, unmanned offensive mining is just the beginning. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) has invested in an affordable idea to minimizing risk and task to traditional forces.
The Advanced Undersea Weapon System (AUWS) is a group of unmanned systems (sensors, effectors, communications, and vehicles) that can be pre-positioned to autonomously and persistently influence the adversary at a time and place of our choosing. The ONR capabilities are specific components of the AUWS program currently being developed in conjunction with a large unmanned undersea vehicle (UUV), a relatively few miniature torpedoes, and many distributed mine sensors to address the threat of adversary ships and submarines. The AUWS will give commanders the ability to deploy sensors and weapon nodes as a minefield while maintaining the capability to remotely activate and deactivate the weapons. It will also maintain positive control of lethal weapons throughout the operation to ensure the ability to recover unused weapons when desired. The AUWS is a lower-cost force multiplier that will force adversaries to invest in mine-countermeasures capabilities.
This concept provides asymmetric clandestine solutions that will free traditional platforms to be more effectively employed in a capacity for which they were designed. The AUWS provides commanders with unique operational and tactical options in contested waters without regard to air superiority or water depth, freeing them to act aggressively with autonomous inexpensive tools. Its modular design will allow operators to integrate a wide variety of sensors and weapons, thus tailoring the system for specific missions. Sensors of choice may include short-, mid-, and long-range devices. Kinetic options include submarine-launched mobile mine (SLMM) warheads, torpedoes (CRAW or Mk-54), AIM-9X missile, and projectile explosives. Commanders may also apply deliveries to distort an adversary’s tactical picture through deception (decoys, noisemakers, etc.), ISR packages, and real-time intelligence. The AUWS may be delivered from surface ships, submarines, or aircraft, or it may self-deploy from a friendly port within range. Unmanned vehicles to transport AUWS deliveries may be reusable or expendable.
While the initial focus will be offensive mining, future AUWS missions will include defensive mining, antisubmarine, antisurface, and antiair warfare, intelligence, surveillance. and reconnaissance, pre-positioning of electronic-warfare and strike assets, supporting protective safe havens for resupply, and political leverage through deterrence. This modular architecture allows warfighters, military planners, and engineers to work symbiotically to maximize current capabilities while simultaneously developing new configurations of the AUWS. Such relationships were clearly demonstrated in 2012 through war games hosted both by the Naval War College and the ONR Concepts to Technology 13. Research, exercises, and discussions at Naval Surface Warfare Center Division Panama City, the Naval Postgraduate School, and throughout the country are contributing to rapid delivery of the AUWS to the Fleet. While the United States is certainly the front-runner in the race to provide asymmetric solutions, foreign navy interest in the 2012 UUV short course at the Pennsylvania State University Applied Research Laboratory shows that many other countries are interested in developing AUWS-like capabilities.
Concepts of Employment
Extending the scenario introduced previously, the naval component commander decides to clandestinely emplace AUWS at the ingress/egress routes of key adversary naval bases. The operational objective is to eliminate naval traffic into and out of these bases using psychological pressure during a period of rising tensions. Should psychological pressure prove inadequate, the AUWS will be activated at the onset of military hostilities to damage or destroy the adversary’s naval ships.
Delivery to the operational area will be done by a large-diameter UUV delivered by a cruise-missile (SSGN) submarine. The UUV will be released from the D-5 tubes 50 miles from the port of interest and will navigate from there on its own power while providing intermittent communications as it makes designated waypoints. Once the UUV is in the operational area, it will contact command and verify the intent to continue the mission. On confirmation, the UUV will release the sensor nodes to create a mine line, and it will then update command of its progress and await further instruction. When clearance is given to activate the minefield, the UUV will take position on the bottom and activate miniature torpedoes installed in containers mounted on its sides and belly.
Once installed, the AUWS provides the commander with tremendous flexibility to send messages to the adversary’s military leadership. For example, the Navy commander can discreetly announce the minefield and detonate one or two weapons to demonstrate its reality. Should the adversary continue to operate, the AUWS can be activated to destroy transiting ships until the adversary stops all movements.
The adversary may attempt channelization of traffic by sending fishing boats and other local ships to discover or create a safe passage. This tactic might have worked for a traditional field in which mines are distributed randomly. In that case, once a ship successfully transits the minefield, it is a safe bet that that route is clear of mines. For the AUWS, however, the torpedoes have a range of several thousand yards and reside on a portable platform (UUV), which can move from location to location. As long as the UUV is in the area and has a torpedo available, there is no safe route for the adversary.
‘Target of Interest’
The distributed sensor nodes await a target of interest to cross the mine line and signal the weapons node to shoot one of its torpedoes at the transiting ship. The explosion rocks the vessel, and water pours into the sinking ship as she goes dead in the water and lists to one side. Damage-control efforts may have saved the ship from sinking, but it will be out of commission for an extended period. The UUV confirms the mission kill and reports its first catch of the day to command. Traffic at the port stops, and the UUV awaits further instruction for the AUWS.
During this time, command receives intelligence that the adversary is preparing to mobilize its naval forces at a base 30 miles away and instructs the AUWS to head to that base and lay another minefield. As before, the UUV lays out the mine line, and an SLMM warhead is placed as commanders announce the minefield. One SLMM warhead is detonated as a show of force, and the AUWS awaits any ships of interest that may cross the mine line. Adversary naval forces in port are unable to exit, and forces at sea are unable to resupply in domestic ports, rendering them ineffective. The adversary eventually agrees to negotiate a diplomatic solution to its territorial disputes. A second SLMM mine is detonated in port after a third week as a reminder that there will be no relief until a diplomatic solution is reached. On diplomatic solution, the sensor lines scuttle, the UUV returns to port, and the unused weapons are stored for the next potential conflict.
Given its flexibility, the AUWS is useful in a variety of military situations that require asymmetric effects delivered clandestinely from long range, using unmanned platforms with remote activation/deactivation. Suppose an aggressor nation has blocked a U.S. ally’s ports with submarines, halting all maritime traffic. U.S. commanders recognize the need for decisive action to deter similar responses from questionable nations, and politicians wish to demonstrate a strong show of force to their ally, so the response is to activate the AUWS units. Immediately AUWS is sent via air cargo transport to the allied nation to be deployed to clear the blockade, provide our ally with a safe haven for maritime travel, and blockade the renegades’ submarine bases. Taking advantage of the allied air power, the distributed sensors and weapon nodes armed with CRAW and Mk-54 torpedoes are laid at night via aircraft to create multiple mine lines within allied waters. These lines are created to set up safe havens to support safe travel for commercial shipping. Large UUVs are dispatched from recreational boat ramps with sensors and weapon nodes armed with torpedoes. The allied nation announces that minefields are laid throughout their entire coastal waters and that any unauthorized vessel will be deemed hostile. The AUWS field is activated, and the intruding submarine fleet is decimated as it experiences the destructive force of torpedoes. The United States expresses its enthusiasm to open negotiations, end hostilities, and avoid further damage. The aggressive nation humbly accepts. The large UUVs return to port, and the stationary defensive-weapon nodes are strategically removed, while some remain in place for a period of time as tension subsides and commercial shipping returns to normal.
There is a historical stigma associated with mines that has kept them from being used despite their ability to provide persistent effects for months, act as a force multiplier, and reduce the need for traditional platforms. Traditional arguments against mining include: Multiple sorties are needed to deliver an adequate minefield, restrictions on the rules of engagement, post-operation mine removal requires too much effort, and mines limit our own freedom to maneuver.
The AUWS negates all of these shortcomings. This concept fills the gaps with an affordable, asymmetric weapon system to allow traditional platforms the freedom to operate with minimized contention. This capability provides commanders with aggressive and subtle options without endangering lives and high-value vessels. It gives politicians and commanders a clear conscience to employ an offensive capability that will protect the interests and citizens of the United States and its allies. The AUWS is the embodiment of asymmetric thinking from the greatest naval force the world has ever seen. The versatility of this weapon platform is only limited by the imagination of its wielders.
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Captain Gallagher is a submariner in the Navy Reserve. An operations research analyst, he has served in multiple international, joint, and fleet commands. He is currently commanding officer, Naval Warfare Development Command, Detachment 101.