Traditionally, particularly since the end of World War II, the US Navy has had a terrible weakness in its ability to defend against naval mines. The debacle at Wonsan in Korea is a prime example, but even more recently, the US has struggled against both Iranian and Iraqi mines in the Arabian Gulf.
What we’ve traditionally been pretty good at though, is offensive mine warfare.
Mines are the ninjas of warfare: silent, deadly and a bit unsavory. Sneaky weapons that are extremely effective not just for the damage they cause, but also for the fear and uncertainty they sow.
Naval mines are especially potent. American air-dropped mines in Japanese waters in 1945–chillingly but accurately code-named Operation Starvation–sank more ships than U.S. submarines in the final months of the war. The 1972 mining of Haiphong harbor helped drive North Vietnam to the peace table, while Saddam Hussein’s underwater booby traps threatened U.S. naval supremacy in Desert Storm. “In February 1991 the Navy lost command of the sea—the North Arabian Gulf—to more than a thousand mines that had been sown by Iraqi forces. Mines severely damaged two Navy warships, and commanders aborted an amphibious assault for fear of even more casualties,” says a U.S. Navy mine warfare history.
But when a high-altitude B-52H bomber dropped a Quickstrike naval mine on September 23, 2014, something extraordinary happened: instead of falling into the sea below, the mine glided to a splashdown 40 nautical miles away. The reason? The mine had wings.
My usual image when thinking of minelaying is the traditional round contact mine with horns sliding over the rails at the stern of a ship. And while the US had large numbers of ships for that role in World War II, * the fact is, it’s usually quicker and easier to lay an offensive field either via aircraft, or sometimes, via submarine.
As an historical aside, one reason for Operation Starvation was that the XXth Bomber Command ran out incendiaries temporarily, and the Navy was smart enough to have a large supply of air dropped mines on hand for them to use. As soon as stocks of incendiaries were replenished, the B-29s went back to torching Japan to the ground.
And of course, our own familial connection to aerial mining is that our father dropped the first aerial sea mine from a jet aircraft in combat way back in 1967.
Back to the linked article, first, where the author describes a JASM-ER, that’s pretty obviously a typo, as the program in question is JDAM-ER. The Joint Direct Attack Munition, which you’ve seen heavily used in Iraq and Afghanistan, take a dumb Mk80 series bomb, and straps an Inertial Reference System and some guidance fins, and adds a GPS update capability. JDAM-ER simply adds a pair of folding wings to the package, which gives it the ability to glide for considerable distance, up to 40 miles when dropped from altitude.
That standoff capability means the launching aircraft is that much further removed from the heart of any enemy air defenses.
Simply buy changing the fuze, a JDAM-ER can become an aerial laid mine. While the Mk80 series bomb bodies make imperfect sea mines (ideally a sea mine would have a much thinner case and more explosives) better an imperfect mine than no mine at all.
And it’s not at all inconceivable that the range couldn’t be extended by quite a bit. For instance, back in the 1980s, the Navy strapped surplus AGM-45 Shrike rocket motors to 1000lb GBU-16 Laser Guided bombs to produce the AGM-123 Skipper II guided missile. A similar arangement could give a Quickstrike/JDAM-ER combo a nice little standoff boost.
It should also be noted that aerial launched mines aren’t the only standoff mines available. When the US adopted the Mk48 torpedo, they found themselves possessed of a large inventory of obsolete M37 torpedoes. Many were converted to the Mk67 Submarine Launched Mobile Mine. Launched like a torpedo, it steers itself to a programmed point, then sinks quietly to the bottom, to await shipping traffic. While the SLMM is approaching obsolescence, there’s no real reason earlier models of the Mk48 can’t be converted to perform the mission.
What’s all this have to do with the real world? Remember that China’s current naval strategy is basically know as A2AD, Area Denial and Anti-Access. That is, they plan to deny the US Navy the ability to operate in the Western Pacific. There are various components to this, including an outer island chain as tripwires, cyber attacks, a massive fleet of cruise missile carrying ships and airplanes, quiet diesel electric subs, and the threat of offensive air and missile strikes on our bases in the region.
Current US thinking is that, should it come to shooting, China understands that the loss of its outer island chains, specifically the artificial islands it is currently building, is just the price of doing business. Strikes on the mainland of China, however, would be seen as a dangerous escalation, which, that’s something you have to think twice about with a nuclear armed state that has its own internal stability issues.
But mining the home ports of the Chinese Navy is altogether different than sending a Tomahawk** missile in the fleet headquarters building. And as an operational matter, denying the Chinese fleet access to the seas makes defeating the rest of their A2AD scheme much simpler. The point of A2AD is that it represents to many threat axes, that no fleet can overcome it. But if you can thwart the threat from one or two axes, the maneuver and initiative that sea room gives the US frees up options to achieve access.
Further, mining the waters denies China the ability to use those sea lanes that it is very, very dependent upon for world trade. Both the US and Chinese economies would be badly affected by a shooting war, but I’d argue that the US has sufficient trading routes that would not be blocked that it could better weather the economic disruption.
Finally, one neat thing about a minefield. How many mines does it take to make an effective minefield? Really? None. As long as the enemy believes you have seeded a field, it is a minefield. As a practical matter, one mine going off make a real minefield. And the enemy is forced to devote considerable resources to clearing that field. Whereupon you can seed that field again, starting him back at square one, and reacting to your actions, which is the definition of holding the initiative.
*Usually converted destroyers, known as DMs, or Destroyer Minelayer.
**One wonders, has anyone considered converting Tomahawks to standoff sea mines?