Flash Mob in the Shipping Lane!

By Commander Timothy McGeehan and Commander Douglas Wahl (Retired), U.S. Navy

Mines are cheap and plentiful. In this age of asymmetric threats, they are one of the most effective. Mines can deny naval forces the freedom to maneuver and can have a devastating effect on seaborne trade. They can be delivered by aircraft, ships, or submarines.

Historically, their use in naval warfare has been highly effective. Between March and August 1945 in the Pacific theater of World War II, more than 12,000 mines were laid in Japan’s shipping routes, territorial waters, and ports as part of Operation Starvation. 1 These mines sank or severely damaged 670 Japanese ships and strangled maritime commerce around the Home Islands, achieving what Admiral Chester W. Nimitz (then Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet) dubbed “phenomenal results.” 2

In October 1950 North Korean mining near Wonsan cost several ships. Rear Admiral Allen E. “Hoke” Smith, commander of the United Nations’ 250-ship amphibious task force, lamented, “We have lost control of the seas to a nation without a navy, using pre–World War I weapons, laid by vessels that were utilized at the time of the birth of Christ.” 3 In the Vietnam War, over 330,000 mines were laid. Eleven thousand were laid in Haiphong Harbor and cut off approximately 80 percent of the supplies and all oil to North Vietnam, forcing its government to the negotiating table. 4

Despite these historic successes, the U.S. Navy and its allies remain focused on detecting and neutralizing mines with little thought to their offensive use. At present, the Navy can only deliver mines with aircraft or submarines and lacks a surface deployment capability. If called on to aggressively execute a mining campaign, the United States would rely heavily on Air Force strategic bombers to aerially deploy them.

Emerging technology has created an opportunity to reinvigorate the Navy’s offensive mining capability. The use of unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) will allow the clandestine deployment of mines, much like a submarine’s traditional mining role but extended into shallower, more restricted waters. However, there are opportunities beyond these incremental advances. New technologies must be exploited to develop “smart” mines for use in forward-deployed offensive minefields that are distributed, persistent, adaptive, and reconfigurable.

Seabasing from Below

A flash mob is a contemporary social phenomenon in which people assemble suddenly for a brief time to participate in a particular act. Applications thus far have included everything from spontaneous concerts to the looting of stores. This concept could be adopted for offensive mining to deliver a swarm of mines at the time and place of our choosing, overwhelming an adversary’s ability to cope. These mines could be launched from seabased, pre-positioned bottom canisters or “glide” into position from afar.

The U.S. Navy has traditionally staged platforms and supplies at bases around the world. The recent seabasing concept goes a step further so that this capability is afloat and mobile, which can be particularly valuable when traditional basing is threatened or denied. However, a new option is emerging: staging supplies on the ocean floor itself. On average, the ocean is 2.5 miles deep and less than 10 percent has been surveyed to modern standards. 5 It is unlikely that an adversary has the capability or the will to spend the time, effort, and resources to effectively search this area.

This rationale has led to the Defense Applied Research Projects Agency’s Upward Falling Payload program, which takes advantage of the deep seafloor for concealment and storage. 6 This program envisions “deployable, unmanned, nonlethal distributed systems that would lie on the deep-ocean floor in special containers for years at a time.” When needed, these payloads would be “recalled to the surface,” floating upwards and activating. The program addresses the required “long-range communications, deep-ocean high-pressure containment, and payload launch.”

Imagine if instead of nonlethal distributed sensor systems, the canisters held mines. The effect would be a “minefield on demand” that only needed a signal to activate and deploy to the surface. The mines could be released in one large swarm, a series of waves, or a slow trickle to maximize duration. They could be staged years in advance, unarmed, awaiting orders from a UUV acting as a “robot Paul Revere” that would tell the dormant mines of an enemy’s approach and rouse them into action.

‘Smart’ Mines

Gliders are a type of long-endurance UUV used primarily for oceanographic sensing. Commercially available gliders have a deployable endurance of three to five years and a range of nearly 25,000 miles. 7 They are effectively highly efficient buoyancy engines and propel through the water as they dive up and down through the ocean’s water column. Their payloads are currently oceanographic-sensing packages. They collect data as they “fly” though the water column. When the gliders surface they establish a satellite link, transmit their location, offload collected data, and wait for further tasking. These gliders are currently used by both military and scientific organizations to collect information from data-sparse regions or areas that have been determined to be most important for ground-truth input for ocean-forecast models.

Imagine if these gliders, instead of carrying oceanographic payloads, carried guidance, trigger, and explosives, making them “smart” mines. Finding them in the water column would be even more difficult than finding a bottom canister mine, as these moving targets can hide throughout the three-dimensional volume of the ocean.

Just like a flash mob, which is often instigated with a text message, a tasking order would be sent to these smart mines to arm their payloads and converge on a shipping lane or choke point or create a barrier. When their mission was over, the remaining mines would disarm, revert to glider mode, and disperse, living to “mine another day.” This unique dispersal feature could be particularly useful and effective, allowing friendly units to transit the area and then re-establish the barrier once they have passed.

A2/AD Implications

The proliferation of technologies available to our adversaries is accelerating. Opponents have adopted anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategies that attempt to keep U.S. Navy forces at a distance, thereby limiting American power-projection capability. However, a distributed and persistent forward-deployed offensive mining capability could turn the tables, denying the adversary access to the battlespace instead.

A regional A2/AD alliance relying on antiship missiles could propose a “far blockade” in response to threatened regional security. Applying the concept to the Western Pacific, U.S. forces, allies, and partners could deploy land-based antiship cruise missiles (with ranges of between 60 and 125 miles) at various choke points such as the Strait of Malacca, the Java Sea Routes, or the waters between Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines to contain adversary naval vessels and merchant ships. 8 In the Persian Gulf, a similar alliance would have to cover much smaller distances to provide A2/AD and control the battlespace.

Mines can provide both a complementary and stand-alone capability. Unlike shore-based missile batteries that can be located and targeted by the enemy, mines can be “stored” in the deep ocean or throughout the water column. Their presence and locations would be unknown, adding a psychological dimension to the threat. Also, unlike shore-based cruise missiles, these mines would not require maintenance, protection, or a supply chain as they “flow” into the theater. The temporary dispersal feature, where they open the gates for friendly forces to pass and shut them afterwards, is essentially “selective deniability.” This could prove useful in enforcing an embargo or for use in limited operations, where political constraints inhibit the employment of more destructive weapons.

These mines can also play a deception role. Declaring an area mined, releasing a Notice to Mariners, and routing our ships around an area may be enough to make an adversary believe it is truly mined and avoid it, hence denying them the battlespace. Conversely, friendly forces transiting an area that is mined using the dispersal and re-aggregation feature may lead an adversary to believe it is safe water and sail directly into the minefield. (However, to execute such deception we must actually possess the offensive mining capability to make it believable.)

Getting There

The technologies described here either already exist or are under development. A commercially available technology used to release oceanographic moorings and other deep-ocean scientific sensing devices when they need to be brought to the surface for recovery can withstand the pressure at full ocean depth, has batteries that last for four years, can hold a payload over 4,500 kg, and can communicate with its associated transducer over an acoustic slant range of 7.5 miles. 9 Gliders exist and are in the water right now collecting data. The Naval Oceanographic Office has had a Glider Operations Center since 2007; “pilots” task and control the gliders using the ocean currents to efficiently route them into position. 10 As previously mentioned, a mine based on glider technology only needs to have its payload reconfigured. More elaborate means of mine deployment have emerged, such as the Naval Research Laboratory’s flying-swimmer UAV/UUV, also known as the “Flimmer,” which mitigates the slow emplacement speeds of traditional UUVs by giving the vehicle a flying emplacement capability and facilitates access to remote or denied areas. 11

Potential adversaries are also engaged in developing a diverse portfolio of mines, including several offshore options. The Russian PMK-2 rising encapsulated torpedo mines can be deployed in waters deeper than 1.25 miles. The Chinese Mao-5 rocket rising mines are also intended for use in deeper offshore waters and choke points, while their EM-52 rocket-propelled guided mine can be employed in depths exceeding 600 feet. 12 Furthermore, Chinese remotely controlled mines such as the EM-53 bottom influence mine can be “deployed and deactivated by acoustic codes to allow the safe passage of friendly vessels through a mined area and then reactivated to attack adversary ships and submarines.” 13

By 2002 mining had become one of the most common Chinese antisubmarine tactics. Unfortunately, this technology is proliferating; China reportedly markets its rising mines for export. 14 And not only are they in the battlespace—our adversaries are already training and developing tactics to use them.

The Hague Convention outlawed free-floating mines because they pose a threat to noncombatants as they are intended to indiscriminately sink ships. Technology may develop to the point where the mines can discriminate between warships and other shipping. However, one could argue that at a more strategic level, mines are really used to deter ships, not sink them.

Alternatively, what if the mines weren’t used to sink ships, but merely to detain them by fouling props and rudders or otherwise disabling them? This technology has been available since the 1960s and provides an entire realm of possibility. Think Iraq, Libya, or Syria, where we would rather neutralize instead of sink an adversary’s navy; these “nonlethal” mines could be used to enforce an embargo.

Like it or not, mines are a part of modern warfare. During the 1980s “tanker war,” the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) struck a contact mine of World War I design, resulting in damage exceeding $96 million. 15 On one day in February 1991, Iraqi-laid mines inflicted serious damage on two U.S. Navy warships. The billion-dollar Aegis cruiser USS Princeton (CG-59) suffered a mission kill from a $25,000 Italian Manta mine, and the USS Tripoli (LPH-10) suffered $5 million in damage in the shape of a 23-foot hole in her hull after she struck a World War I–technology-based contact mine. 16

The official history of the Army Air Forces (AAF), which delivered most of the mines in Operation Starvation against Japan, stated: “At the beginning of World War II, neither the Navy nor the AAF was keenly interested in the use of the mine as a strategic offensive weapon and consequently there was a serious lag in the mining program, both in the development of new weapons and in their employment.” 17 History is clear and will repeat itself if we don’t learn from it: Mines work and the range and complexity of current and future threats demand that innovative mine-warfare solutions be pursued, especially in light of decreasing budgets and shrinking fleets. The U.S. Navy must leverage emerging technologies to leap forward in offensive mine warfare now, before a crisis occurs. If technology allows, why not seabase mines forward on the sea floor or throughout the water column, ready to be called on when required?

Flexible, scalable, and agile, mines and minefields would allow the U.S. Navy take the fight forward and control the battlespace. This technology might even lead to the dawn of an age of “mining deterrence,” where possessing this bona fide mining capability will be enough to influence the behavior of an adversary. Whether or not they are used, the very threat of these weapons would influence events, possibly achieving Sun Tzu’s ideal that “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

1. Frederick Sallagar, “Lessons From an Aerial Mining Campaign (Operation ‘Starvation’),” RAND Report R-1322-PR (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, April 1974), www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/reports/2006/R1322.pdf , 1.

2. “Pacific Cinderella,” All Hands: The Bureau of Naval Personnel Information Bulletin, June 1946, www.navy.mil/ah_online/archpdf/ah194606.pdf , 41.

3. Scott Truver, “Taking Mines Seriously: Mine Warfare in China’s Near Seas,” Naval War College Review, vol. 65, no. 2 (Spring 2012), https://www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/19669a3b-6795-406c-8924-106d7a5adb93... , 31.

4. William Greer, “The 1972 Mining of Haiphong Harbor: A Case Study in Naval Mining and Diplomacy” (Alexandria, VA: Institute for Defense Analyses, April 1997), handle.dtic.mil/100.2/ADA355037.

5. International Hydrographic Bureau, “Establishing the DCDB as a Global Digital Bathymetry Reference Data Store,” 13th Conference of the Hydrographic Commission on Antarctica (Cardiz, Spain, 3–5 December 2013), Information Paper HCA13-INF6, www.iho.int/mtg_docs/rhc/HCA/HCA13/HCA13-INF6_Crowd_Sourcing_Bathymetry_... , 1.

6. DARPA, “Upward Falling Payloads,” 2014, www.darpa.mil/Our_Work/STO/Programs/Upward_Falling_Payloads_(UFP).aspx

7. Teledyne Webb Research, “Thermal Glider,” www.webbresearch.com/thermal.aspx .

8. Michael Cole, “How A2/AD Can Defeat China,” The Diplomat, 12 November 2013, http://thediplomat.com/2013/11/how-a2ad-can-defeat-china .

9. Teledyne Benthos, “R12K Acoustic Transponding Release,” www.benthos.com/index.php/product/acoustic_releases/r12k-acoustic-transp... .

10. RADM David Titley, USN, “Naval Oceanography in 2010,” Sea Technology Magazine, January 2011, www.sea-technology.com/features/2011/0111/naval_oceanography.php .

11. Naval Research Laboratory, “Flying-Swimmer (Flimmer) UAV/UUV,” www.nrl.navy.mil/lasr/content/flying-swimmer-flimmer-uavuuv .

12. Scott Truver, “Taking Mines Seriously,” 40.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid., 41.

15. Ibid., 31.

16. Ibid. “USS Tripoli,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Tripoli_(LPH-10).

17. Frederick Sallagar, “Lessons From an Aerial Mining Campaign,” 2–3.

Commander McGeehan is an Information Dominance Corps officer assigned to the OPNAV staff. He has previously served as speechwriter for the Chief of Naval Operations, Military Deputy at the Naval Research Lab, Staff Oceanographer for a carrier strike group, and Director Fellow on the Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group.

Commander Wahl, a former Information Dominance Corps officer, is a meteorology and oceanography systems engineer at Science Applications International Corporation.



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