Sunday, July 19, 2015

Offensive Mine Warfare

What has been the most effective naval weapon since WWII?  I think you all know it’s the mine.  I won’t even bother to list the statistics concerning damage done to the US Navy by mines.  You either know them in a general sense or can readily find them on the Internet.  With the demonstrated combat and cost effectiveness – mines are among the cheapest weapons available – you’d think navies would be heavily focused on the offensive use of mines.  Indeed, most countries are except for the US.  Now that’s a head scratcher.  The US would, apparently, prefer to spend billions on questionable ships and aircraft rather than spend thousands on proven and highly effective mines.

Let’s look closer at the Navy’s state of offensive mine warfare (MIW).

According to the Navy document, “21st Century U.S. Navy Mine Warfare” (2009), the only active mines in the Navy inventory as of 2009 were the Mk62 (500 lb bomb), Mk63 (1000 lb bomb), and the Mk65 Quickstrikes.  The Navy website lists the Mk62/3/5 and SLMM as the active mines in the Navy’s inventory as of Dec 2014 with the SLMM having been reactivated. 

Here’s a quick review of our offensive mines.

Mk60 CAPTOR (Encapsulated Torpedo), ship/aircraft/sub laid, bottom, acoustic – Phased Out

Mk62 Quickstrike, aircraft laid, bottom, magnetic/seismic/pressure, converted 500 lb general purpose bomb;  highly inaccurate for laying out a precision minefield

Mk63 Quickstrike, aircraft laid, bottom, magnetic/seismic/pressure, converted 1000 lb general purpose bomb;  highly inaccurate for laying out a precision minefield

Mk65 Quickstrike, aircraft laid, bottom, magnetic/seismic/pressure;  dedicated 2300 lb version

Mk67 SLMM (Submarine Launched Mobile Mine), submarine laid, shallow, magnetic/seismic/pressure, converted Mk37 torpedo

Improved SLMM – proposed program to replace the Mk65 SLMM with a conversion of the Mk48 torpedo – Cancelled (4)

We see, then, that our mine inventory is antiquated and ad hoc in nature with adapted general purpose aerial bombs being our main mine weapons.  Why is this?  Surely the Navy must be more focused on MIW than I’m suggesting, here?

Well, aside from the pretty damning evidence of our obsolete inventory, consider that the “21st Century U.S. Navy Mine Warfare” document has approximately one page of the 31 page document devoted to offensive mine warfare.  The remainder is dedicated to mine countermeasures (MCM).  For some reason, the Navy considers MCM to be far more valuable than MIW.

Here’s an example that further illustrates the near total lack of MIW emphasis.  An official Navy news release dated Oct 2013 described an SLMM exercise that involved the training, certification, and launch of an SLMM (inert) by a Los Angeles class submarine (1).  The implication in this is a bit disconcerting as it implies that submarines are not routinely trained and certified for offensive mine operations.

On the plus side, work is underway to convert or modify the SLMM to be deliverable by Large Diameter Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (LDUUV) as documented in a Navy presentation (2).  Again, the lack of emphasis on MIW is evidenced by the single slide addressing the subject out of seven.

The LDUUV delivery is, apparently, part of a developmental effort by the Navy to construct an Advanced Undersea Weapon System (AUWS) which is envisioned to be a networked system with nearly unlimited options and power.

“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 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. …

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.”

Wow!  Who wouldn’t want that kind of do-anything capability using any kind of sensor or weapon deployed by any kind of platform?  Unfortunately, this sounds exactly like the LCS in its original description.  Remember the enthusiastic, near-raving descriptions of the LCS as a network node in a vast battle management system that would revolutionize warfare?  Yeah …  How’d that work out?

There’s nothing wrong with shooting for the moon with respect to technology as long it’s kept to a minimally funded research project.  However, if this is another example of the Navy betting the farm on a fantasy dream that can never happen, we’ll never get anywhere with MIW.  You’ll recall that the Navy bet the MCM farm on the LCS?  Here we are years later and we still do not even have a base level of deployable MCM capability by the LCS while we struggle to keep neglected Avenger class MCM vessels afloat.

According to Second Line of Defense website, even the SLMM was scheduled to be deactivated but was rescued by CNO Greenert (4).

Further evidence of the lack of MIW focus is that the military’s mine deployment capability is severely limited.  The Navy currently has no surface mine laying capability (4).  The only significant mine laying capability resides with the Air Force in the form of B-1 and B-52 bombers.  The B-2 has the capability but does not train for the mission (4).  The B-52 can carry 10-45 Quickstrike mines depending on the base bomb size while the B-1 can carry 8-84.

“A handful of obsolescent SLMMs––with perhaps less than optimum reliability, accuracy, and standoff characteristics––constitute the Navy’s only clandestine mining capability. The air-launched Quickstrikes have less-than-optimal accuracy and are best deployed in less-than-contested environments.”

Thus, the Navy has almost no submarine mine laying capability.

The Navy supposedly conducted an Analysis of Alternatives in 2012 to address MIW, however, that report, if completed, has never been released.

Another small plus is that a Quickstrike wing package has been developed to allow standoff delivery of mines by allowing the bomb/mines to glide for some distance.  A Sep 2014 test involving a B-52H demonstrated a Mk62 mine release with a 40 mile standoff deployment (4).  Presumably, heavier Mk63/4/5 versions would have progressively smaller standoff ranges.  However, given today’s thousand mile A2/AD zones, long range SAMs, and high speed, stealthy fighter aircraft, a standoff range of 40 miles for delivering mines is still way to close to expect the mine laying bombers to survive the attempt.

The only clandestine mine laying capability lies with the submarine launched SLMM, however, the SLMM is based on an obsolete torpedo that is no longer in production.  Further, there are doubts about the functionality of the SLMM due to the age of the Mk37 torpedo that constitutes its base (4).

Who’s responsible for this lack of focus on MIW?  Well, aside from CNO Greenert, it would be the Naval Mine and Anti-Submarine Warfare Command (NMAWC) which has responsibility for the Navy’s mine warfare (MIW) function.

Just as the Navy has, for decades, focused on defense (Aegis, bigger Standard Missiles, BMD) to the detriment of offensive strike and only lately begun to re-emphasize offensive missiles, so too has the Navy focused on the defensive aspect of mine warfare, MCM, to the detriment of offensive mining operations, MIW.  We look at the A2/AD challenge and bemoan the difficulty in combating Chinese activities inside that zone while ignoring the, arguably, most effective weapon we could deploy.  Imagine the havoc caused by minefields laid in Chinese harbors and naval bases as well as around key transit and chokepoints.  We’re focused on billion dollar technologies when simple, basic mines costing mere thousands could offer an enormous “bang” for the buck.

(1)ComSubPac Public Affairs Office,, Oct 2013

(2)Navy OpNav N95 Update, Mine Warfare Association Government-Industry Day slide presentation,

(3)USNI Proceedings, “Mine and Undersea Warfare for the Future”, Edwards & Gallagher, Aug 2014,

(4)Second Line of Defense, “Closing the US Navy’s Mine Warfare Gap”, Scott Truver, 20-Jun-2015



    Legally, its something of a minefield......
    Even *if* the US is in a declared war with another state, there is a questionable legal case that says they are allowed to mine said nations ports and deny "innocent passage" to other nations vessels.
    Mining law appears to be strictly defensive in nature.

    1. TrT, thanks for the link. I read both it and another USNWC paper that analyzed the Hague VIII convention. It's clear that mining of a belligerent's ports and waters is perfectly allowable as long as it is not done for the SOLE (emphasis from the report) purpose of impeding commercial shipping.

      Further, the convention applies very specifically to the traditional horned contact mine and excludes every other mine that existed at that time.

      Still further, combining the Hague VIII convention with the accepted practice of declaring military exclusions zones in a time of conflict (the British did so during the Falklands conflict, for example) further legitimizes mining by demonstrating the mine laying nation's due regard for the safety of neutral commercial shipping. It is the due regard aspect that is the fundamental concern of Hague VIII.

      In short, Hague VIII not only does not prevent mine laying, it recognizes the RIGHT (my emphasis) to lay mines in a time of war provided due consideration of commercial shipping is recognized and the mines are not laid for the sole purpose of disrupting commercial shipping. It's a pretty easy case to make that mining an enemy's harbor is for military purposes.

      Thanks for the link!

  2. A much better concept has been proposed, the harbor torpedo.

    Here is part:

    These would look identical to current heavyweight torpedoes, but operate differently. They have a small engine and greater fuel capacity to allow greater range at a much slower speed, only around ten knots rather than forty. They can be programmable to make specific turns at specific times. For example, a harbor torpedo can be programmed to make a right 31 degree turn 1832 seconds after launch, then turn 24 degrees left 843 seconds later, then explode 925 seconds later. This allows a submarine to launch several preprogrammed torpedoes at known targets inside a harbor from outside its entrance, then depart. The captain may program two torpedoes to strike a dry dock, two an oil terminal, two at the main pier where ships are berthed, and have two homing torpedoes circle about listening for moving ships that they can attack. After a leisurely firing routine from outside the harbor entrance the submarine will have an hour to safely escape before the torpedoes explode.

    1. Hitting selected targets with these is going to be quite hard. Harbours are cluttered, things move around and there are often currents from the river the harbour is built on, tides, etc. You're going to need the inertial navigation system that's mentioned a few paragraph down on that page, and better target information than a submarine can obtain by itself.

      But a missile that scatters pressure or magnetic mines into the harbour sounds a lot cheaper, and probably as effective.

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    1. Smitty, you know much more about AF ops than I do. What's your take on AF mine laying? I look at it and see a requirement for big slow aircraft to have to approach known points at low, slow speeds and I see a LOT of attrition. What are your thoughts? Is it still a viable and survivable mission?

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    3. Smitty, how accurate is aerial mine laying, especially if the mines are glided in from 10-40 miles? I would think it would be a challenge to get a reasonably distributed field under those conditions. Any thoughts?

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  4. Yes, the fact that mines and counter mine warfare is not sexy remains a huge problem.

    Another thing to consider is that a well defended modern harbor will likely have aircraft watching it over. Perhaps not large numbers, but enough that a force might lose surprise if they attacked or try to lay mines.

    What I am most troubled by is the fact that other navies have done well on much smaller budgets.

  5. How can you justify a Class of $12B Carriers, with F-35s on them, and then seek purchase of $100k mines to keep the Chinese from crossing to Taiwan? The answer to this issue is in the bureaucratic money minds set.

    1. Anon, I'm not sure I completely understand your question but I'll take it at face value and address it, as I understand it.

      A mine serves one purpose and only one and there is no ability to "adjust" the magnitude. A carrier is built to perform a variety of missions across the entire spectrum of peace and war. I won't bother listing all the missions but I'll give you one example. A carrier can send a single aircraft to simply observe a trouble spot with an option to take action if warranted. By comparison, a mine is an all-or-nothing action. It can't gather intel, make decisions, or provide a nuanced response.

    2. CNO

      My point is that you will NEVER get a bureaucrat to spend money on a cheaper single use solution when there is an expensive do it all solution.

      We know the carriers cannot survive near Taiwan, so using offensive mines should be a logic thing to buy. Instead we will spend $Bs to try to make the carriers survivable close to the Mainland (convince ourselves really) or spend $Bs on new attack platforms or weapons rather than on a $100k mine.

      What is the mission here? Deny Mainland Chinese boots a toehold on the Island. Mines offer an extremely cost effective way to do that.

  6. im curious what will be the chinese response if US military started to mine chinese's harbours.. will they activate one of their nuke-in-a-container-on-a-container-ship secret weapon ?

  7. Re carrier air wing: Mines laid from go fast jets like F-18 and then the old A-6, S-3, A-7 or even P-3 minelayers were very accurate dropped from low altitude hi speed, and the most important factor- One Pass.. It also takes a lot of practice like all precision drops and I am sure GPS makes it more accurate. Don't forget about that aero drag I mentioned above... But of course none of us know whether we still have that airwing mission in our set from the responses above. Seems the USAF does it though.. just like Haiphong Harbor in '72.

    Different bottoms and targets (mines can be "selective" or not) call for specialized mines. "Glide mines" are as far/close to operational use as "glide ASW torpedoes" probably. What you scan in the glossies may not be 100% valid...

    Mine laying is also psychological warfare. After one deploys the mines one informs the adversary or waits until he discovers it. BTW, how is the PRC situated for mines sweeping?

    Oh yeah did I remind you that mine warfare is an act of war? IE- a mission not to be taken lightly.



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