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November 1, 2011  

Sleeping tigers

Naval mines are China’s quintessential asymmetric ‘A2/AD’ threat

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Princeton Professor Aaron L. Friedberg focused on China’s asymmetric “anti-access/area-denial” strategies, operations and weapons that could neutralize U.S. forces and those of our Pacific Rim allies and friends in some future crisis or conflict. He wrote:

“Rather than trying to match American power plane for plane and ship for ship, Beijing has sought more cost-effective ways to neutralize it. It has been building large numbers of relatively inexpensive but highly accurate non-nuclear ballistic missiles, as well as sea- and air-launched cruise missiles. Those weapons could destroy or disable the handful of ports and airfields from which American air and naval forces operate in the Western Pacific and sink warships whose weapons could reach the area from hundreds of miles out to sea, including American aircraft carriers.

“The Chinese military has also been testing techniques for disabling American satellites and cybernetworks, and it is adding to its small arsenal of long-range nuclear missiles that can reach the United States.”

All good. But his concentration on ballistic and cruise missiles and 21st-century cyber threats ignores a more mundane but in the long run perhaps more prolific and dangerous threat: naval mines.

Since the end of World War II, mines have figured prominently in Korea, Vietnam, numerous Cold War crises and operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. In an accounting that usually comes as a surprise, since V-J Day, mines have severely damaged or sunk about four times more U.S. Navy ships than all other means of attack: one ship was struck by a missile, one by terrorists in a small boat, two were attacked by torpedoes and aircraft, and 15 ships struck sea mines.

Looking worldwide, perhaps a million mines of more than 300 types are in the inventories of more than 60 navies, not counting the U.S. More than 30 countries produce mines; about 20 export them. Even highly sophisticated weapons are available in the international arms trade. Worse, these figures are for sea mines proper; they do not include underwater improvised explosive devices that can be fashioned from 55-gallon drums and other containers — even discarded refrigerators — posing a terrorist threat to maritime safety and security in ports and waterways.

As Rear Adm. David G. Farragut wrote in his letter of March 25, 1864, to the secretary of the Navy, before damning “torpedoes” in Mobile Bay later that summer, “it does not do to give your enemy such a decided superiority over you.” But, in the case of the Chinese navy, we are at risk of doing just that.

America’s as well as other countries’ mine warfare experiences are not lost on the Chinese navy. Chinese naval analysts and historians understand the asymmetric potential for mine warfare to, as they put it, “baffle the enemy, and thus achieve exceptional combat results.” Mines provide China what some have described as “affordable security via asymmetric means.” China’s estimated 100,000 mines include more than 30 types of contact, magnetic, acoustic, seismic, infrasonic, water pressure and multiple-influence weapons, including remote-controlled, rocket-propelled rising and mobile homing mines. Most are based on older Soviet technology, but some are newer, more sophisticated and highly capable types. Even old weapons can be dangerous. In April 1988, the Navy frigate Samuel B. Roberts almost sank after striking a contact mine of World War I design.

Russia has an estimated 250,000 mines and North Korea reportedly has 50,000 weapons. U.S. Navy mine inventories pale in comparison with North Korea’s and are dwindling. Next year, the Navy’s obsolescent submarine-launched mobile mine will be taken out of inventory, ending the service’s covert mining ability from submarines. Only the “Quickstrike” shallow-water bottom mines will remain in service, but the Navy will rely on the Air Force for high-volume mining with those weapons. The Navy has no mines that can be laid by surface ships.

The Navy is particularly ill-prepared to cope with Chinese mines and mining — conducted from aircraft, surface ships and craft, and submarines. Although probably not show-stoppers, China’s mines can easily become speed bumps that directly attack our strategies and plans. If China were to employ these mines, and there is no reason to assume otherwise, it could greatly hinder operations, perhaps for an extended time, even in waters where the mines were only thought to have been laid. How would we know for sure? Look no further back than Feb. 18, 1991, when two Navy warships –– the amphibious assault ship Tripoli and the cruiser Princeton –– were damaged by mines in waters thought to be safe. The reality of the tactical situation exposed, a planned Navy/Marine Corps assault to open another front east of Kuwait City was shelved. The mines left 16,000 sailors and Marines cutting circles in the Persian Gulf with nothing to do until an administrative landing was conducted west of the city. In late 1990 and into 1991, Iraq laid more than 1,300 mines (including Soviet-supplied weapons unknown in the West and the near-ubiquitous Italian Manta mines, as well as Iraqi-designed mines) virtually under the noses of coalition forces, constrained as they were by rules of engagement. After the war, it took a multinational mine-hunting and mine-sweeping force more than two years to clear shipping channels in the northern Gulf.

Fast-forward to 2011: In addition to the Navy’s eight mine countermeasures ships in the region (four in Japan and four in Bahrain, with six in San Diego for crew training and virtually spare-parts lockers for the forward-deployed ships), only Australian and Japanese countermeasures forces appear to be up to the task of countering Chinese mines in approaches to ports and harbors, in choke points and in open sea areas. Other regional partners’ countermeasures capabilities are limited or obsolescent and will likely be held back for local/littoral mine countermeasures operations. Even Taiwan, which looks to have the most to lose in a future crisis or conflict, has at best a lackluster capability to deal with Chinese mines. The Taiwan navy has only 12 small coastal mine hunters and mine sweepers in service, eight of which are ex-U.S. and ex-Belgian vessels built during the 1950s. The four Yung Feng vessels commissioned since 1995 will be better, but like their older brethren are constrained to near-shore operations. In January 2010, the Obama administration announced its intent to sell to Taiwan $6.4 billion in defensive arms and equipment, which included ex-Navy Osprey-class coastal mine-hunting ships — Taiwan reportedly wants two — but the deal is still pending.

The Navy’s next-generation littoral combat ship and its tailored mine countermeasures mission package might eventually make the China-U.S. mine warfare balance more even. But that’s at least a decade away.

In the meantime, a mine is a terrible thing that waits. The easy way is always mined. And any ship can be a minesweeper … once. Of course, we need to be concerned about China’s aircraft, missiles and cyber attacks. But the U.S. and its regional maritime partners damn China’s “torpedoes” at their peril. AFJ

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