08 February 2012

Taking Mines Seriously: Mine Warfare in China’s Near Seas

Scott C. Truver, Taking Mines Seriously: Mine Warfare in China’s Near Seas,” Naval War College Review, 65.2 (Spring 2012), 30-66.

A mine is a terrible thing that waits. The easy way is always mined. Any ship can be a minesweeper—once. Sea mines and the need to counter them have been constants for the U.S. Navy since the earliest days of the Republic. In January 1778, patriot David Bushnell used floating kegs of gunpowder fitted with contact firing mechanisms to attack a British fleet anchored in the Delaware River above Philadelphia. Four British sailors died trying to retrieve the kegs—an early example of the challenges of explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) against an unknown threat—but the ships were unscathed. Since that uncertain beginning, mines and mine countermeasures (MCM) have figured prominently in the Civil War, Spanish-American War, both world wars, Korea, Vietnam, numerous Cold War crises, and Operations DESERT STORM and IRAQI FREEDOM.

In February 1991, the U.S. Navy lost command of the northern Arabian Gulf to more than 1,300 mines that had been sown by Iraqi forces virtually under the “noses” of multinational coalition naval forces constrained by their rules of engagement. Mines severely damaged two Navy warships, and commanders aborted an amphibious assault for fear of more casualties. That mirrored the Navy’s experience four decades earlier, off the east coast of North Korea, when more than three thousand mines (put in place in a matter of weeks) utterly frustrated an October 1950 assault on Wonsan by a 250-ship United Nations amphibious task force. Its commander, Rear Admiral Allen E. Smith, lamented, “We have lost control of the seas to a nation without a navy, using pre–World War I weapons, laid by vessels that were utilized at the time of the birth of Christ.” The initial clearance operations saw three mine countermeasures vessels sunk by mines and more than a hundred personnel dead or wounded. By the end of hostilities in July 1953, coalition MCM forces, which accounted for just 2 percent of all UN naval forces, had suffered 20 percent of all naval casualties.

The Korean War experience served as the catalyst for the U.S. Navy’s MCM renaissance in the 1950s and early 1960s, as did the Operation DESERT STORM MCM debacle for a renaissance that began in the mid-1990s and continues today (the latter revival much less extensive than the former, however). As Rear Admiral David G. Farragut wrote on 25 March 1864 to the Secretary of the Navy, “it does not do to give your enemy such a decided superiority over you.”

Traditional navies as well as maritime terrorists can and have used mines and underwater improvised explosive devices (UWIEDs) to challenge military and commercial uses of the seas. These “weapons that wait” are the quintessential naval asymmetric threat, pitting adversaries’ strengths against what they perceive as naval and maritime weaknesses. Indeed, sea mines are key to regional navies’ anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) and sea-control strategies and operations. Perhaps a million mines of more than three hundred types are in the inventories of more than sixty navies worldwide, not counting U.S. weapons. More than thirty countries produce mines, and twenty countries export them; highly sophisticated weapons are available in the international arms trade. Worse, these figures are for sea mines proper; they do not include UWIEDs that can be fashioned from fifty-five-gallon drums, other containers, and even discarded refrigerators.

Mines and underwater IEDs are easy to acquire or build and are cheap, but their low cost belies their potential for harm. With costs measured from a few hundred to several thousands of dollars, they are the weapons of choice for a “poor man’s navy,” providing an excellent return on investment: low cost but high effects. On 18 February 1991, for example, the billion-dollar Aegis cruiser USS Princeton (CG 59) suffered a “mission kill” from an Iraqi-laid Italian Manta multiple-influence bottom mine costing about $25,000; the warship was out of service for the duration of Operation DESERT STORM and longer. Several hours earlier that same day, USS Tripoli (LPH 10) struck an Iraqi contact mine, which ripped a twenty-three-foot hole in the hull and came close to sinking the ship. During the 1980s “tanker war” in the Arabian Gulf, only the heroic efforts of its crew saved USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG 58) from sinking on 14 April 1988 after it struck a contact mine of World War I design. The warship’s damage-repair bill came in at more than $96 million, in fiscal year (FY) 1993 dollars. In an accounting that usually comes as a surprise, since the end of World War II mines have seriously damaged or sunk almost four times more U.S. Navy ships than all other means of attack combined:

• Mines, fifteen ships

• Missiles, one ship

• Torpedoes/aircraft, two ships

• Small-boat terrorist attack, one ship

While mines and even UWIEDs might not be naval power–projection “showstoppers,” they could certainly be “speed bumps” in critical waterways and regions, slowing the movement of warships, military sealift, and humanitarian response in crisis and conflict.


The mine warfare experiences of America and other nations are not lost on the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Chinese naval analysts and historians understand the asymmetric potential for mine warfare to “baffle the enemy, and thus achieve exceptional combat results.” Mines provide what some have described as “affordable security via asymmetric means.”

The Chinese note that hundreds of thousands of mines served tactical sea-denial and strategic ends in both world wars. Throughout the Great War, Russia, Germany, Turkey, Great Britain, and the United States relied on sea mines. Their mining campaigns culminated in the “North Sea Mine Barrage” of June–October 1918, when British and American ships laid more than seventy-three thousand mines, sinking thirteen U-boats and keeping more in home ports until the armistice. Mines were also used successfully in all World War II theaters. Remarkably, Nazi submarines laid 327 mines from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to the Mississippi Delta, closing several North American ports for a total of forty days and sinking or damaging eleven ships. Toward the end of the war in the Pacific, Operation STARVATION showed the strategic value of mines. From March to August 1945, U.S. Army Air Forces heavy bombers and Navy submarines laid some 12,200 mines in Japan’s shipping routes and territorial waters and ports. The results were unequivocal: mines sank or severely damaged some 670 Japanese ships and strangled all maritime commerce around the home islands.

Testimony in 2007 before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission by a member of the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute can serve as a prelude to this discussion:

We have recently completed a two-year-long study of over 1,000 Chinese language articles concerning naval mine warfare (MIW). Our three most important findings are: (1) China has a large inventory of naval mines, many of which are obsolete but still deadly, and somewhat more limited numbers of sophisticated modern mines, some of which are optimized to destroy enemy submarines. (2) We think that China would rely heavily on offensive mining in any Taiwan scenario. (3) If China were able to employ these mines (and we think that they could), it would greatly hinder operations, for an extended time, in waters where the mines were thought to have been laid. The obvious means of employing mines are through submarines and surface ships. Use of civilian assets should not be discounted. But we also see signs of Chinese recognition of the fact that aircraft offer the best means of quickly laying mines in significant quantity. These aircraft would be useless, however, without air superiority.

With that as framework, this article addresses four broad areas of concern:

• What are the current and projected statuses of China’s naval mine technologies and of its inventory, delivery systems, doctrine, and training?

• How might China employ naval mines in “Near Seas” scenarios?

• To what extent are the U.S. Navy and allied/partner navies prepared to cope with Chinese mine warfare strategies and operations?

• How might the U.S. Navy employ mine warfare in Near Seas combat against Chinese forces?

There are broad MIW implications for U.S. strategies, plans, and programs, generally, but particularly for the nascent AirSea Battle Concept, which has captured the attention of the Secretary of Defense, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and the Chief of Naval Operations. As outlined in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Air Force and Navy are formulating this concept to defeat adversaries that possess sophisticated A2/AD capabilities. The concept is meant to help guide the development of future capabilities needed for effective power projection, including our own mines to defeat our adversaries’ naval forces and strategies. Before turning to these questions, however, some mine warfare terms of reference will be useful. …

To read the full text of the study cited extensively here, see Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, and William S. Murray, “Chinese Mine Warfare: A PLA Navy ‘Assassin’s Mace’ Capability,” Naval War College China Maritime Study 3, August 2009.

For related briefing slides, complete with detailed graphics and photos, Andrew S. Erickson, “Chinese Naval Mine Warfare: A PLA Navy ‘Assassin’s Mace,’” presented at Mine Warfare Association (MINWARA) Spring 2009 Regional Conference, “Mine Warfare—‘Home’ and ‘Away’ Game Challenges,” Panama City, FL, May 19, 2009.