The destroyer cruised lazily along her patrol route near the island. Her antisubmarine patrol line had been offset from an area where the Navy previously had discovered enemy mines, but the destroyer’s patrol area was deemed safe. The crew had been at a heightened state of readiness for weeks. Though there had been no direct contact with the enemy, it seemed as though hostilities might break out at any moment.
Not long after midnight, at the end of the patrol line, the officer of the deck ordered the ship about. At five knots, the turn would take time. The ship suddenly shuddered. A 40-foot water geyser shot up near the stern. The ship began to heel over as the sea rushed in. The port shaft seized amid gut-wrenching sounds. A few minutes later, after severe rumbling and vibration, engineers were able to stop the starboard shaft and prevent further damage. The destroyer called for help as damage control parties rushed aft, only to find the stern completely missing. Seventy-one sailors were asleep in their bunks, never to be seen again.1
In July 2018, a team of scientists found the stern of the mystery ship—the USS Abner Read (DD-526)—which had struck a mine off of Kiska Island on 18 August 1943.2
Former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson’s A Design for Maritime Superiority 2.0 states that the Navy must accept that once again it is in a great power competition and “adapt to this reality and respond with urgency.”3 In the past decade, Chinese maritime strategists increasingly have looked to mines as a significant asymmetric advantage against the United States. Mines are a critical capability to delay, degrade, and deny the U.S. Navy and other allied nations access to the western Pacific.
The United States lacks the capabilities and operational concepts to deploy large-scale mine countermeasures against a peer competitor, let alone conduct a serious offensive mine warfare campaign. The Navy’s ability to generate access through the island chains into the Chinese seas is a strategic imperative for U.S. control in a potential conflict. The Navy must adapt to this reality and develop and deploy new strategies and capabilities to regain the advantage.
Chinese Mine Warfare
The first and second island chains constitute China’s lines of defense, and the waters coming through them are shallow enough to be mined.4 In recent years, People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) strategists have been focusing on naval mines for their asymmetric advantage. According to PLAN literature, sea mines are “easy to lay and difficult to sweep; their concealment potential is strong; their destructive power is high; and the threat value is long-lasting.”5
Mines fit in well with China’s strategy to keep the United States and allied forces away from Chinese seas, even if it results in near- to midterm economic degradation for themselves. Long-range antiship missiles threaten major surface action or carrier strike groups out thousands of miles. Antisatellite capabilities threaten to degrade or eliminate the United States’ ability to conduct precise navigation and satellite communications. U.S. submarines are expected to flow into the region in force, which still presents the PLAN with its biggest threat. Naval mines, or even the threat that particular straits might be mined, would slow the advance of U.S. submarines and warships into the battlespace during the crucial opening phase of a conflict. The PLAN, aircraft, and the maritime militia could lay more than 2,000 mines per day.6 China has the tools to deny U.S. or allied forces access to the western Pacific region and to set the conditions for a protracted attritional struggle.
Current Capabilities Lacking
The U.S. Navy is not prepared to confront that level of mine threat, nor does it have a robust strategy for offensive mine warfare. The current operational concept relies on manned surface platforms and sailors in or near the minefield for detection and clearance operations. The systems rely on a slow, methodical pace to complete the end-to-end countermine kill chain. The Avenger-class mine countermeasures ships and Freedom- and Independence-class littoral combat ships (LCSs) lack the survivability to conduct mine clearance operations in a denied environment—assuming the mine countermeasures module for the LCS ever reaches the fleet.
Escorts provided to mine countermeasures forces would face antiship missile threats, but without the depth of magazine to survive and enable the mine countermeasures ships to open a corridor into Chinese seas. A new concept of operations and complementary set of offensive and defensive capabilities are needed to ensure the United States can maintain or regain the advantage in a fight with China.
Agile Mine Warfare
To regain the advantage at the operational level of war in a great power fight in the western Pacific requires a different approach to capabilities, employment, and acquisition. Mines are one of the most cost-asymmetric maritime weapons, and fielding expensive systems against them does not balance the equation. A new approach must embody the principles of an agile Navy: fielding a minimum viable product, disposability, flexibility, and speed.
As an antiaccess or area-denial weapon, defensive mines shape the battlespace to force adversaries through predefined avenues that are more easily defended. The closing of the straits through the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia would force the United States through a limited number of straits where PLAN and Chinese air force assets could concentrate firepower. Disrupting that mode of operation requires the United States or allied forces to covertly reopen straits, an option the United States lacks today.
The United States still enjoys a significant tactical and operational advantage undersea, which it must exploit. At present, the submarine force is the only branch of the Navy that would be able to generate access to Chinese seas and deliver operational effects. The PLAN rightly worries over the presence of U.S. submarines, whose superior stealth, lethal armaments, and consistent deployment to the region can place large swaths of the Chinese mainland, nuclear forces, and Navy at risk when and where they choose.7 U.S. commanders in the Indo-Pacific Command recognize this advantage and continue to call for even greater numbers of submarines than the Navy.8 To leverage these strategic advantages, a new concept of operations must focus on covert methods to generate access where and when the United States chooses and the willingness to conduct an aggressive, offensive mine warfare campaign. With that in mind, two new concepts of operations may provide the necessary capabilities.
Autonomous Weapon Systems
U.S. submarines can do what they do well: employ disposable, lethal autonomous weapon systems to neutralize adversary targets. Many may scoff at the correlation of torpedoes with mine countermeasures, but the broader analogy is quite relevant.
The submarine force has spent decades perfecting the software and hardware necessary for a torpedo or a submarine to find its target in a cluttered ocean environment. Those capabilities can be leveraged to engineer a new weapon system with an emphasis on simultaneous localization, mapping, and, if required, neutralization of minefields. The recent development of antitorpedo torpedoes provides a much smaller weapon that can eliminate nearly all mine-like objects—sonobuoy-sized weapons would be even better.9
The current culture of positive identification of a mine before neutralization must be overturned in favor of eliminating all mine-like objects to generate access. Reengineering a torpedo or unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) to carry several smaller weapons would enable mine countermeasures operations on a larger and faster scale than currently possible. The coming delivery of the Orca extra-large UUV, with a focus on mine hunting, will further grow the capability and capacity.10 From an offensive perspective, the submarine force historically has possessed the capability to deploy naval mines. It is a capability that can be reconstituted to provide greater flexibility to combatant commanders.
Marine Corps Raiders
The United States can revive a capability largely dormant since World War II: submarine-transported coastwatchers and Marine Corps Raiders. During World War II, the submarine force routinely delivered coastwatcher teams onto islands in the Pacific for intelligence gathering, or Marine Corps Raiders for battlespace preparation prior to major combat operations ashore. Reviving such an operating concept would fit well with new Marine Corps Commandant General David H. Berger’s Planning Guidance and his desire to more closely integrate with the Navy. He states, “Marines will focus on exploiting positional advantage and defending key maritime terrain that enables persistent sea control and denial operations forward.”11
The Chinese have not achieved continuous persistence in their maritime surveillance systems. The deployment of small Marine Raider or coastwatcher teams onto remote islands near mined straits would enable the covert mapping and potential neutralization of minefields, in addition to the broader surveillance and reconnaissance activities that those deployments would bring. The small size of unmanned systems and the payload capacity of U.S. submarines, especially the Ohio-class guided-missile submarines, would allow small Marine teams to come ashore to operate submarine-delivered, seabed-deployed systems and Orca UUVs for mine countermeasures or offensive mine warfare operations.
Accelerated development and deployment of systems similar to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA’s) Hydra network would provide small human teams with larger scale unmanned systems and their supporting infrastructure, concealed beneath the ocean waves.12 Hydra systems could be deployed independently, but coupling them with shore-based human teams would provide commanders with better control over mapping and neutralization operations or activation of offensively-oriented minefields. The Hydra infrastructure enables not just mine warfare, but also submerged launch of long-range antiship or land-attack missiles, which would reduce the footprint of Marine Raiders ashore and increase their effectiveness in the region. In addition, these systems have the potential to be reloaded at sea with additional unmanned systems, including logistical resupply for the Marines ashore, by submarines flowing into theater.
Both concepts can be combined at the same or multiple geographic points to generate access for follow-on forces and provide greater covert capabilities without exposing human teams to higher levels of risk. Indeed, the risk levels likely are far lower than placing a relatively defenseless mine countermeasures ship in the denied environment.
To achieve an effective mining program, the Navy must embrace agility in acquisition. It must break from current practice and accept a minimum viable product to enable speed to the fleet. The recently established Naval Expeditions (NavalX) office under the Secretary of the Navy provides an ideal organization to foster that change.13 Run by Secretary James “Hondo” Geurts, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition, NavalX seeks to enable naval agility, which it defines as:
- Dramatically accelerating capability development and acquisition processes to outpace adversaries.
- Rapidly adopting and scaling disruptive technologies to create new asymmetric advantages.
The Navy needs this approach to bring a disruptive set of capabilities to its combatant commanders. Emphasizing the minimum viable product will protect against long timelines seeking the “perfect” end-to-end system. If an agile sprint with the right stakeholders, hardware, and software can produce a system that performs acceptably and can be deployed from a current submarine, why not advance it into limited production to deliver a portion of the capability to the warfighter sooner? Additional refinements, new features or capabilities, and better technology can come later, but the fleet will have the capability it needs now.
The U.S. Navy is unprepared to conduct mine warfare operations in a high-end fight with China, defensive or offensive. The magnitude of this shortfall jeopardizes the possibility of a positive outcome for the United States in that fight. As such, China will make mine warfare a central element of its maritime strategy. However, the United States can still shift the calculus back in its favor. Execution requires a cultural shift within the Navy to embrace radically different operating concepts, quickly combine developed technologies into new systems, and speed them into inventory. What are we waiting for?
1. “Destroyer Report: Torpedo and Mine Damage and Loss in Action, 17 October 1941 to 7 December 1944,” War Damage Report no. 50, U.S. Hydrographic Office, 1 May 1945.
2. “Stern of World War II U.S. Destroyer Discovered Off Remote Alaskan Island by NOAA-supported Scientists,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 15 August 2018.
3. Hamlin Caldwell, “Air Force Maritime Missions,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 104, no. 10 (October 1978).
4. Scott Truver, “Taking Mines Seriously: Mine Warfare in China’s Near Seas,” Naval War College Review 65, no. 2 (Spring 2012): 45.
5. Andrew Erickson, Lyle Goldstein, and William Murray, United States Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, vol. 3: Chinese Mine Warfare: A PLA Navy Assassin’s Mace Capability (Newport, Rhode Island: U.S. Naval War College, 2009), 1.
6. Lyle Goldstein, “Old School Killers: Fear China’s Mines,” The National Interest, 14 October 2015.
7. Sebastien Roblin, “Why Russia and China Fear America’s Ohio-Class Submarines,” The National Interest, 21 January 2017.
8. Paul McLeary, “Pacific Commander Wants Subs the Navy Just Doesn’t Have,” Breaking Defense, 29 March 2019.
9. Sam LaGrone, “Navy Develops Torpedo Killing Torpedo,” USNI News, 20 June 2013.
10. Joseph Trevethick, “Boeing Is Building Big Orca Drone Subs for the Navy to Hunt and Lay Mines and More,” The Drive, 15 February 2019.
11. GEN David Berger, USMC, “Commandant’s Planning Guidance: 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps,” U.S. Marine Corps, 2.
12. Andrew Nuss, “Hydra,” Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency.
13. NavalX, Office of the Secretary of the Navy (2019).