Mine warfare involves more creativity and flexibility than any other type of naval warfare, yet its importance is widely underestimated. It is the epitome of asymmetric warfare; a small investment in mines can deny a vastly superior force a critical objective. Today, as adversary mines become ever more complex, inexpensive, and readily available, the Navy faces the threat with aging mine countermeasures (MCM) assets that have no adequate next-generation replacements. Therefore, innovative solutions need to be found in existing fleet capabilities.
Any understanding of current threats must be founded on mine warfare’s history. Historically, the most prolific and effective user of defensive naval mines has been Russia. In his book, North Korean Protective Mine Warfare: An Analysis of the Naval Minefields at Wonsan, Chinnampo and Hungnam during the Korean War, Lieutenant Commander Jason D. Menarchik demonstrates how Russian mine warfare innovation influenced the strategy of North Korea in the early 1950s and Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. Clear implications for future mine warfare were evident in both conflicts.
The North Koreans used minefields to channel naval forces into areas advantageous to their shore batteries, denying freedom of movement in constrained waters. By forcing U.S. naval gun support outside 12 nautical miles, the mines severely limited the Navy’s ability to cover its MCM forces or accurately target the shore batteries and denied access to the sheltered areas behind the harbor islands. Furthermore, the shore batteries were sited to cover the minefields, allowing areas already swept to be reseeded without U.S. intervention. The Navy’s MCM operations were time-consuming processes that placed mine clearance units under constant threat.1
In the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq used Russian mines and Chinese missiles to create a naval barrier 50 nm off the coast of Kuwait, proving that mines can be strategically integrated into a multilayered, technologically sophisticated defense.2 For today’s U.S. helicopters and other air mine countermeasures (AMCM) assets, such integration means an increased likelihood of encountering an antiair threat. Furthermore, traditional U.S. MCM surface units now face the risk of being overwhelmed while on task by the swarm tactics of groups such as the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy.
These immediate challenges must be met before expensive, time-consuming research can produce new MCM systems. In the interim, the Navy can field a more capable MCM force by repurposing and investing in the upkeep of current fleet assets. Amphibious ships, small-boat delivery systems, and surface and expeditionary assets are proven Navy assets that sailors already have experience operating.
Use Patrol Boats and Amphibs
The MCM operations of the future have to be more flexible and mobile. The
Navy’s legacy surface assets are limited to specific home ports with limited areas of operation, and the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) community requires its personnel and equipment to be airlifted to the region before they can set up and deploy. A mobile force comprising surface, underwater, and air MCM assets is a better option. Existing well-deck amphibious ships are capable of becoming mobile MCM delivery platforms and would only require minor changes in a few existing equipment systems to radically increase the Navy’s ability to mobilize MCM forces.
Any landing helicopter dock, amphibious transport dock, or dock landing ship (LHD, LPD, or LSD) could deploy versatile MCM units into minefields and act as the command-and-control station for the assets working inside the mine threat area (MTA). Instead of Avenger-class minesweepers or littoral combat ships carrying mine-hunting and neutralization equipment, amphibious ships could carry and deploy the Mk VI patrol boats. With a range of approximately 700 nm, a maximum speed of 35 knots, and a suite of weapons and communication equipment for self-defense, the Mk VI is an ideal delivery vehicle for mine-hunting assets in a contested MTA. An amphibious ship with multiple MCM-configured Mk VI patrol boats in its well deck, as well as MCM-configured helicopters and drones operating from its flight deck, is a self-contained, mobile MCM force able to operate anywhere in the world on short notice.
For example, the USS Makin Island (LHD-8) could carry up to eight Mk VI patrol boats, each with multiple mine-hunting unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), that would cover a large MTA in a fraction of the time and using fewer resources than traditional surface MCM assets. The Mk VI already is configured to carry EOD personnel and deploy the Mk 18 Mod 1 Swordfish and Mod 2 Kingfish UUVs. The Swordfish and Kingfish are the primary mine-hunting UUVs used by Navy expeditionary forces. They are autonomous assets that operate on a preprogrammed route once deployed. After retrieval, the data collected is downloaded and analyzed. If used effectively, this operational pause would allow MCM planners to coordinate the available neutralization options, reducing the time it takes for individual elements to find and prosecute each contact. MCM ships would no longer have to operate for long periods of time in areas vulnerable to enemy missiles, shore batteries, and surface and air units. Operating small, inexpensive, mobile craft with limited crews reduces the threat from defenses designed to target larger ships and limits the loss of equipment and personnel if a boat is destroyed.
Another advantage of using a ship such as an LHD, LPD, or LSD as a mobile MCM force is the ability to share combat information with supporting elements, such as surface combatants and carrier air wings. Currently, MCM ships do not have high-end data sharing and communication abilities compatible with supporting units outside the MTA. With a better support network, the Navy could effectively respond to multiple different threats, allowing Mk VI boat crews the necessary time to deploy divers or other neutralization assets.
The Constraints Are Minimal
The Mk VI patrol boat is not designed to operate in heavy seas or open water, but that limitation may not be important because adversaries cannot lay most types of mines effectively in water deeper than 300 feet. With few exceptions, mines are designed to be used in littoral waters to control access to important passageways such as the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca, to blockade ports, or to deny access to amphibious landing zones. The primary areas of operation for MCM forces are within the Mk VI’s operating parameters.
Another limitation of the Mk VI is that currently it cannot operate a mine neutralization system (MNS). As an alternative, it can carry an EOD dive team, but a better solution would be a few adaptations and a variable-depth sonar to vector an MNS to contacts for identification and prosecution. In that case, the most suitable MNS would be the AN/SLQ-60 Seafox UUV. Operating the Seafox from the Mk VI patrol boat would require at least two investigative rounds for contact identification and a magazine of combat rounds for mine neutralization. Currently, the Seafox is restricted to waters with a current of less than five knots and is difficult to maneuver in more than three knots of current.
Current tactics and technology guarantee that any mines the Navy encounters in the future will be in areas with a multitude of threats. Finding innovative tactics and diversifying the assets responding to these threats will enhance fleet capabilities while minimizing risk to both personnel and objectives. This is the Navy’s best approach to providing immediate MCM security and laying the foundation for the next generation of MCM tools.
1. Jason D. Menarchik, North Korean Protective Mine Warfare: An Analysis of the Naval Minefields at Wonsan, Chinnampo and Hungnam during the Korean War (Washington, DC: War College Studies, 2015), 70.
2. Menarchik, North Korean Protective Mine Warfare, 76–78.