Several studies and analyses have outlined the potential military and particularly economic impacts from just a few mines or underwater IEDs placed in U.S. rivers, harbors, and coastal waters.
It isn’t that we don’t have the means to find and neutralize mines in our home waters. “There are several components of legacy capability systems that we have today that we could bring into play,” said Murdoch. “We have some MH-53 helicopters here in the U.S., the HM-15 Squadron in Norfolk, and we have six of our mine countermeasures vessels in San Diego as well as explosive ordnance disposal teams that have some pretty good capability. Those are the tools that we would use. But it is definitely something we worry about every day.”
The Threat from China?
By now the modernization and buildup of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is something everyone knows about. In the course of 20 years, it has gone from a primarily coastal navy to the second-largest navy in the world. Though the Chinese now have an aircraft carrier, nuclear submarines, and guided-missile destroyers, their mine countermeasures force has had only minimal growth during this period. On the other hand, the Chinese do recognize the asymmetrical potentialities of the naval mine and are not averse to exploiting it in war. They are believed to possess a massive inventory of sea mines, and while most are of the “obsolete-but-still-deadly” variety, an increasing amount are modern influence mines. Some are even rocket-propelled rising mines, and others can be planted by submarines and aircraft.
Experts believe that in the event of a naval war, China could be counted on to conduct an aggressive mining strategy that would include mining the waters around Taiwan and possibly even Guam, since it is where American air strikes would likely originate. This has led other experts to wonder if it would therefore be in our interest to be capable of fighting a similar war, involving aggressive mining, against them?
The problem is that while the Navy’s mine countermeasures force appears to be moving ahead, the contingent that focuses on mining itself has steadily deteriorated. U.S. inventories of mines continue to decrease without replacement. Last year the Mk. 67 Submarine Launched Mobile Mine (SLMM) left the inventory, and the Navy ability to clandestinely put mines in enemies’ waters left with it. Similarly, the Navy has not had the capability of laying mines from surface ships in several decades. The American mine warfare industrial base is also atrophying. Recently the manufacturer of a critical component for the Quickstrike mine went out of business, leaving the Navy scrambling to find a replacement. While there have been some successes in developing new mine warfare technologies, they have largely died in the budget battles. “Without our own mines,” a recent report warns, “we essentially give our adversaries a free pass. The United States should make them have to solve their MCM problem posed by us and our maritime partners’ mines.”
Problems Today and a Glimpse at the Future
While Rios acknowledged there are problems with the industrial base, he said the warnings of inventory shortfalls are somewhat exaggerated. “The way we generally operate, we normally use aircraft-delivered bombs – 500-, 1,000-, and 2,000-pound bombs – and we modify them for use as mines at the bottom of the ocean, and they are effective in shallow water areas of 40 feet to 200 feet. So when you look at that, we have literally thousands of mines that we could use for this purpose.”
Rios said the Navy is looking at possibly acquiring sophisticated mines from foreign sources. “We are looking into it,” he said. “Before we start trying to develop something on our own, we need to do a due diligence to see what our allies are doing, and if what they’re doing is good and makes sense, why not just buy that technology? I’d say that’s prudent use of the taxpayers’ money.”
Donna Carson-Jelley, the head of PMS-495, the Navy’s Program Office for Mine Warfare Technology, agreed. “I think right now, there is sparked interest in the Navy for resurrecting the mining mission. That would mean we’d have to increase our inventory,” she said, adding, “I can tell you I’m supporting OPNAV [the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations] with an analysis of alternatives, to look at what material solutions are out there.”
When asked about future mine systems, Rios described it this way: “We’re getting heavily pushed to utilize long-duration, large UUVs to perhaps hold mines in a bomb bay and deliver them in a clandestine way, to not put submarines, aircraft, or surface ships at risk. We are looking at all kinds of different options in order to try to do this asymmetric warfare against our potential adversaries.”
Rios broadly hints that alternative propulsion technologies will be a key aspect in developing future-generation mine-laying UUVs. “The biggest challenge we have to solve is not sensors; it’s endurance of the UUV, getting that long-endurance power generation to not only get it to where you want to go, but also to have the power in order to do what you want it to when it’s on station, and return.”
This article first appeared in Defense: Review Edition 2011/2012.