The Royal Navy currently has no offensive mine capability (Picture: MOD).
By David Hambling, technology expert
After years of neglect, the US Navy is upgrading its minelaying capability with a new generation of high-tech weapons. Should the Royal Navy follow suit?
The UK leads the world in mine warfare, but only when it comes to finding and destroying mines safely.
We currently have no offensive capability and the Royal Navy has not had live mines in its inventory since 1992, though some dummy mines are on hand to practice minelaying. The loss has been virtually unremarked; mines are a low-key method of warfare with few enthusiastic supporters.
“Mine warfare has often been overlooked in its capability to deliver results, despite delivering substantial strategic effects for minimal investments,” says Sidharth Kaushal, an expert in sea power at the Royal United Services Institute for defence and security studies.
Mines date back at least to the 17th century, when they were little more than floating gunpowder barrels.
By the Second World War, they were far more sophisticated, and mines sank more shipping than bombs, gunfire or torpedoes, and they are still effective in the modern era.
In the 1991 Gulf War, mines had a significant impact, severely damaging the American cruiser USS Princeton and amphibious assault ship USS Tripoli. General McChrystal abandoned plans for a mass amphibious assault because the risk of mines was too great even though the waters had been swept.
In the 21st century, the shallow waters of the South China Sea look a likely theatre for mine warfare.
“Chinese strategists have argued that their mine stocks constitute an ‘assassins mace capability’ - a means by which they could hold the US Navy at bay for long periods of time in order to settle a regional dispute before the US could effectively intervene,” says Kaushal.
Now America is looking at turning the tables with a refreshed mining capability of its own.
Three new weapons are being introduced: an ungraded QuickStrike air-delivered mine, the new Hammerhead torpedo mine and the Clandestinely Delivered Mine (CDM).
QuickStrike is the standard US naval mine, essentially a standard 500, 1,000 or 2,000-pound aircraft bomb fitted with a special magnetic/seismic fuse to act as an underwater mine.
It can be delivered rapidly to deny enemy access to a particular area. Recent upgrades include GPS guidance for precise positioning and an improved target detection device better able to sense and distinguish between different types of vessel.
The latest enhancement is an extended range kit, essentially add-on wings so the mine can glide for long distance after release. Tests are continuing this year.
Normally the aircraft has to fly over the spot where mines are being laid, but dropped from a B-52 bomber at high altitude, the QuickStrike Extended Range will have a range of over 40 miles.
Hammerhead is a modern version of the old CAPTOR (or enCAPsulated TORpedo) which was retired in the early 2000s. This type of mine is also dropped from the air. The big difference is that rather than just having an explosive warhead, it launches a torpedo.
A sonar sensor will allow Hammerhead to detect targets from long range, and it is armed with the Mk 46 Lightweight Torpedo.
As with the QuickStrike upgrade, modern electronics make Hammerhead smarter and capable than its predecessor when it comes to spotting and identifying targets. It is still under development, as the program only started in 2018.
All air-delivered mines have a significant limitation though, even when dropped from long range.
“The B-52 bombers which carry these mines may be vulnerable to ground-based long-range air defences such as the S-400 and the Chinese HQ-9, as well as local fighter aircraft,” says Kaushal.
This limitation can be overcome with a different sort of weapon, the CDM. Again, it is an evolution of an earlier concept, the old Submarine Launched Mobile Mine (SLMM).
The SLMM was fired from a torpedo tube, which might be described as a torpedo with a mine for a warhead.
At the end of its run, it fell to the sea bed and waited for a target to come by. By contrast, the new CDM will be delivered by an unmanned submarine, so it can stealthily be placed anywhere without being detected.
“The value of CDMs - their ability to get in close to hostile ports - seems to suggest a role against military shipping,” says Kaushal.
The CDM differs from in predecessor in that it has a remote control. CDMs can be activated or deactivated from a distance via an underwater modem. Control may also extend to changing the mine’s target set, to specify whether they should target submarines, small surface vessels such as warships or larger merchant vessels.
First deliveries of the CDM are expected next year.
The US Navy recently placed an order with Boeing for four Orcas, giant new robot submarines able to carry eight tons.
This would allow them to lay dozens of CDMs, but the Orcas will not be in service until the early 2020s. Budget documents reveal a crash program for an interim underwater robot called 'Bull Shark', which will deliver CDMs until then. This is smaller than Orca and only carries two munitions. No other details of Bull Shark have been revealed.
CDMs open up the possibility of covert, deniable operations outside of a declared war.
China has recently started building military bases in disputed territory in the South China Sea, and the US has responded with ‘freedom of navigation’ exercises, sailing close to Chinese forces.
Mining would be a more forceful means of getting the message across.
“Deniability might be a desirable trait,” says Kaushal. ”If, for example, the US wanted to seal off a Chinese-occupied atoll or island in the South China Sea in a peacetime grey zone competition without risking escalation, submarine-deployed CDMs could in principle be delivered without the explicit show of force that sending bombers would entail.”
Mine warfare does not have the appeal of aircraft carriers, frigates or even submarines. Unlike other types of operation, it does not produce immediate results and its main effect is not to sink enemy ships.
Instead, it may force them to stay in a harbour or to avoid certain areas, or create long delays while minesweeping is carried out. Being able to dictate the enemy’s actions makes mining a valuable tool.
The other advantage of mine warfare is cost. It is a force multiplier, which allows a relatively modest force to hold a much larger fleet at risk for extended periods.
A Royal Navy which wants the most bang for its buck might do well to consider whether it is time to restock with new versions of one of the oldest and most effective weapons in the naval arsenal.