Possible future conflict scenarios between the United States and an increasingly aggressive and capable China suggest the United States will be at a significant and immediate disadvantage. By initiating the conflict through surprise and deception, China may be able to “attack effectively first,” seizing on and exploiting one of the late Navy Captain Wayne P. Hughes’ cornerstones of maritime warfare.1 This would allow China to optimally position its military, incapacitate frontline U.S. forces, and establish sea control.
Understanding this situation, the United States must find a means of disputing Chinese sea control. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (IndoPaCom) should aggressively pursue offensive mining capabilities to use in the Yellow Sea and Pearl River Delta. Mining these two key waterways would strike at a known Chinese vulnerability. Mines are effective and inexpensive weapons that can provide IndoPaCom with the time and space to build forces for an effective counterattack. Finally, mining would help the United States disrupt the Chinese economy.
Deteriorating U.S. Maritime Supremacy
China has spent the first part of the millennium expanding its capabilities to compete against the United States. A RAND Corporation study comparing the efficacy of U.S. and Chinese forces from 1996 through 2017 looked at several maritime warfare scenarios and was unequivocal that China had closed the capability gap and even gained superiority in several areas.2 U.S. Naval War College Professor Lyle Goldstein makes this situation even grimmer by illuminating the RAND Corporation’s omission of several key Chinese capabilities.3 Chinese mine warfare targeting U.S. submarines places these once unchallenged platforms at risk and disrupts IndoPaCom’s plans.4 Defending U.S. interests in the Pacific only becomes more challenging as Chinese capabilities increase.
China has a strategic edge in the western Pacific because of its geography, mature strike warfare forces, and sophisticated antisurface warfare capabilities.5 Despite China having fewer total forces than the United States, it initially would be able to exert near-total dominance in its near seas.6 The Chinese Second Artillery Corps brings the weaponry and expertise to incapacitate
U.S. forward-operating bases and threaten capital ships using antiship ballistic missiles.7 Chinese proliferation of numerous lethal subsonic and supersonic missiles could prove devastating to U.S. Navy warships.8 The threat these weapons pose makes it likely the United States would suffer catastrophic losses if its ships maneuver within effective missile range, necessitating more standoff distance.9 In concert with Chinese advances in air and subsurface warfare, the sum of Chinese forces poses a formidable bulwark for any force attempting to penetrate China’s defenses.
Advancements in Chinese capabilities make it increasingly difficult for IndoPaCom to develop adequate countermeasures. China has made itself a particularly difficult target to attack because of its sheer size, base hardening, and skill in force concealment.10 Legacy U.S. aircraft are increasingly at risk, and the United States lacks sufficient stealth and long-range standoff strike weapons for sustained operations.11 Instead, IndoPaCom should use offensive mine warfare to substantially disrupt Chinese military operations, contest Chinese sea control, and upset the Chinese economy.
Chinese Mine Vulnerability
If the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) had free use of its naval facilities during a conflict with the United States, China would be better able to attain and sustain sea control. Mining Chinese waters would exploit China’s relative weakness in mine countermeasures, challenge and deter PLAN activity, and disrupt logistics support for PLAN offensive operations.
China has not invested heavily in mine countermeasures partly because the United States does not maintain a significant mine inventory. The PLAN is aware of U.S. mine warfare capabilities and has acknowledged mining must be taken into account during a maritime conflict.12 China Central Television Channel 7 coverage of PLAN mine countermeasures exercises showed that China considers mines a serious threat.13 Although the PLAN maintains mine countermeasures platforms, its equipment is largely outdated except for a small number of newer vessels and unproven experimental unmanned underwater vehicles.14 PLAN mine countermeasure capabilities are “limited” and primarily focused on mine countermeasures in the nearshore and port environments.15 Mines are easy to lay, but even for sophisticated mine countermeasures equipment removal is a time-consuming and challenging evolution.16 Chinese weakness in mine countermeasures leaves them vulnerable to mining from the United States.
Offensive mining would hold at risk and blockade in port the PLAN’S ships and submarines. Although the PLAN could direct its vessels to challenge the minefields, that would cost valuable time, ships, and people.17 Improvements in PLAN ships and antiship cruise missile technology are essential to helping the Chinese maintain sea control.18 By offensively mining the Pearl River Delta and Yellow Sea, the United States could reduce the area in which China could threaten U. S. and allied forces, providing more room to safely maneuver.
Although the Chinese would attempt to clear any minefields. the PLAN logistics system would be stressed with a reduction in available port facilities. Supplies would be funneled through a smaller number of open ports, overburdening those facilities.19 This disruption in supplies would wreak havoc across the PLAN, as ships would have to compete for limited berthing locations. The concentration of supplies and other logistics elements in the few open ports would make the Chinese military supply chain more vulnerable to attack, allowing the United States to further disrupt Chinese operations and sustainment of combat capabilities.
Disputing Sea Control
The addition of a robust mining capability would be an economical method of building IndoPaCom’s sea control arsenal. The Quickstrike family of aircraft-deployed mines is the only mine currently in the U.S. surface force arsenal.20 Through fiscal year (FY) 2020, Quickstrike mines and the submarine-launched mobile mine cost less than $85 million for their lifecycle.21 For FY2020, the Navy weapons procurement budget was $4,134 billion.22 Of that amount, the Navy spent $5.183 million on mines, making offensive mine procurement 0.125 percent of the Navy’s annual weapons budget.23 Building the required stockpile of Quickstrike or more modem mines would be inexpensive compared with other Navy weapons purchases.
By using offensive mining to dispute Chinese sea control, U.S. forces can project power within China’s sphere of influence. One of IndoPaCom’s greatest areas of concern is how to minimize U.S. casualties. Mines provide the ability to place PLAN vessels at risk without committing the personnel and ships required for traditional sea control.24 Unlike personnel that operate ships and aircraft, mines are on watch 24 hours a day. This continuous on-station time provides an asymmetric sea-denial weapon whose removal is time consuming, requires specialized training, and is expensive.
Although mines cannot win battles, they can minimize the impact of initial Chinese surprise and momentum.25 With the PLAN’S movement and resupply disrupted, the United States can capitalize on the time created by Chinese uncertainty and confusion to build up sufficient forces for follow-on operations. Denying China its water space would shrink its area of control, allowing the United States to force entry into less-contested waters. Offensive mining would provide IndoPaCom a means of economically contesting sea control and allow the United States to regulate the pace and location of operations.
Mining the Pearl River Delta and Yellow Sea would also disrupt China’s economy by interrupting the flow of Chinese trade goods and oil imports. The container ship Ever Given's blockage of the Suez Canal in March 2021 showed the dramatic economic effect of a major maritime chokepoint closure. Although the primary purpose
Sailors conduct mine sweeping training on the USS Chief (MCM- 14). The United States does not maintain a significant inventory of mines. Thus, China has not invested heavily in mine countermeasures. of mines is deterring Chinese military forces, the economic impact of mining would be significantly more crippling on China than what the world experienced from the Suez Canal’s closure.
In 2019, 60 percent of Chinese trade by value traveled over the maritime commons.26 The ports in the Pearl River Delta and Yellow Sea regions constitute 92 percent of Chinese maritime trade by volume and more than 55 percent of all trade by value.27 Although the Chinese have been willing to undergo extreme deprivations in the past, the interruption of this sizable portion of China’s economy would be devastating.28 Such a severe economic impact could build pressure within China for a diplomatic resolution to the conflict.
Oil movement through Chinese ports also would be compromised. Domestically, China produces only one- third of the oil necessary to meet current demand.29 As energy demand has grown in China, domestic output has stagnated, becoming an increasingly smaller percentage of Chinese consumption. Eighty percent of the oil imported by China, constituting 55 percent of consumption, is delivered by tankers.30 Mining the Yellow Sea and Pearl River Delta would deprive China of more than 50 percent of the oil currently consumed. Starving the Chinese of oil supplies would affect the ability of the Chinese military to operate and would further weaken China’s economy.
IndoPaCom should use mine warfare in the Pearl River and Yellow Sea during a conflict with China. Finding a way to bring China into diplomatic negotiations on favorable terms to the United States is the goal, and offensive mine warfare can help achieve it. Mines complicate China’s military problem, placing PLAN forces at risk. The United States can also dispute Chinese sea control while preparing for a counteroffensive. Finally, China would suffer economically from the loss of trade and oil supplies. By investing in cost-effective mine warfare, IndoPaCom can deter Chinese aggression and buy time while it builds high-end warfighting capabilities to better counter China.
- CAPT Wayne P. Hughes Jr. and RADM Robert P. Girrier, USN (Ret.), Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, 3rd ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018), 29.
- “An Interactive Look at the U.S.-China Military Scorecard,” Project Air Force, RAND Corporation.
- Lyle Goldstein, “The U.S.-China Naval Balance in the Asia-Pacific: An Overview,” The China Quarterly 232 (London, 2017): 921.
- Lyle Goldstein, “China Is Using Sea Mines to Create an Underwater A2/AD Deathzone,” The National Interest, 6 March 2021.
- “An Interactive Look at the U.S.-China Military Scorecard.”
- Eric Heginbotham et al., The U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography and the Evolving Balance of Power, 1996-2017 (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2015), 21.
- Goldstein, “The U.S.-China Naval Balance in the Asia-Pacific,” 910.
- Heginbotham, The U.S.-China Military Scorecard, 174.
- Heginbotham, 175.
- Goldstein, “The U.S.-China Naval Balance in the Asia-Pacific,” 912.
- Heginbotham, The U.S.-China Military Scorecard, 114.
- Lyle Goldstein, “Chinese Mine Warfare: Insights from Chinese Writings,” lecture, PowerPoint provided to author, London, April 2013, 74.
- “Military Report,” CCTV 7 [China Central Television Channel 7], 24 April 2021.
- Lyle Goldstein, “Chinese Development of Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (UUVs),” lecture, PowerPoint provided to author, 24 January 2019, 74.
- Scott C. Truver, “Taking Mines Seriously: Mine Warfare in China’s Near Seas,” Naval War College Review 65, no. 2, Article 5 (Spring 2012): 60.
- Andrew S. Erickson, William S. Murray, and Lyle J. Goldstein, “Chinese Mine Warfare: A PLA Navy ‘Assassin’s Mace’ Capability” (2009), CMS I Red Books, Study No. 3, 41.
- Joshua J. Edwards, “Preparing Today for the Mines of Tomorrow,” Naval War College Review 72, no. 3 (2019): 59.
- Goldstein, “The U.S.-China Naval Balance in the Asia-Pacific,” 913.
- Chief of Naval Operations and Commandant of the Marine Corps, “Mine Warfare,” 2.1.
- Truver, “Taking Mines Seriously,” 54-55.
- Department of the Navy, “Justification Book Volume 1 of 1: Weapons Procurement, Navy,” Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 Budget Estimates (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, February 2020), 368.
- Department of the Navy, “Justification Book,” vii.
- Department of the Navy, “Justification Book,” 365.
- Joshua J. Edwards and CAPT Dennis M. Gallagher, USN, “Mine and Undersea Warfare for the Future,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 140, no. 8 (August 2014): 70-75.
- 25. Edwards, “Preparing Today for the Mines of Tomorrow,” 41.
- 26. China Power Team, “How Much Trade Transits the South China Sea?” China Power, 2 August 2017, updated 25 January 2021.
- 27. “One Hundred Ports 2020: The Definitive Ranking of the World’s Largest Container Ports,” Lloyd’s List Intelligence.
- 28. Lyle Goldstein, interview by author, Newport, RI, 21 April 2021.
- 29. Jeff Barron, “China’s Crude Oil Imports Surpassed 10 Million Barrels Per Day in 2019,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, 23 March 2020.
- 30. Barron, “China’s Crude Oil Imports.”