Lessons Learned or Lessons Observed: The U.S. Navy’s Relationship with Mine Warfare
Of the 19 U.S. ships sunk or severely damaged since 1945, 15 were victims of mines, and yet mine warfare is carelessly neglected while U.S. allies, partners, and adversaries continue to expand their programs’ capability and capacity. During the initial weeks of Russia’s invasion, Ukraine hardened its defenses by laying mines in littoral waters. While the mines helped prevent Russia from mounting an amphibious assault, since then, both military and civilian vessels have struck mines resulting in major disruptions to an important sea line of communication and threatening maritime operations. More than 18 months later, Russia continues to lay mines in the Black Sea. While they lack the pageantry of munitions like hypersonic missiles, a year and a half into the conflict in the Black Sea, mines have again demonstrated that they are a lethal cornerstone of sea power. The question the U.S. military must ask now is, is it simply observing these events, or is it learning from them?
The Taiwanese government is scrutinizing every aspect of the conflict in Ukraine and absorbing these “lessons learned” by bolstering their mine laying and mine countermeasure exercises. At the same time, the U.S. military’s mine warfare capabilities have deteriorated. Legacy platforms, such as the Avenger Class Mine Countermeasure Ships and MH-53 helicopters, have reached obsolescence and the Navy has struggled to employ disruptive technologies or innovative ideas to compensate for these gaps. U.S. Navy leadership should consider recent events as both a warning and a call to action.
Given the challenges of mine warfare, it is critical that the Department of Defense rapidly reconstitute mine countermeasure and mining capabilities. The department should do so by leveraging emerging technologies, embracing rapid experimentation and integration, as well as bolstering relationships with allies, partners, and the engineering community. These recommendations can help mitigate existing mine warfare capability gaps as well as address challenges the U.S. Navy might face in a future conflict.
A Humble Challenger
Mines may not be flashy, but as an array of actors have recently reaffirmed, minelaying is relatively easy and incredibly effective. One major reason for this efficacy is that mine countermeasure is very difficult. The ocean is an extremely challenging environment, and outsized effects like corrosion, background noise, false sonar contacts, and a host of other factors complicate efforts. Furthermore, successful mine countermeasure operations require specialized, expensive equipment and extremely capable operators. Thus, mine countermeasure efforts are exceptionally demanding, taking weeks, months, or years, and requiring persistence that is difficult to achieve without reliable, globally deployable, and highly capable assets.
Additionally, mining is associated with an extremely low barrier to entry paired with a high return on investment, making it attractive to a wide variety of actors. As incidents including mine strikes of USS Princeton and USS Tripoli and the U.S. Navy’s failure to protect motor vessel Bridgeton during Operation Earnest Will in the Persian Gulf underscore, even advanced warships are vulnerable. Recent attacks on Saudi Arabian shipping further demonstrate the effectiveness of using even old and poorly laid mines. In a future conflict, U.S. naval forces and objectives will again be threatened by mines; thus, the Navy must not let the lessons of past events be merely observed.
Mining’s tactical, operational, and strategic impacts on major operations and (potentially entire) force movements are obvious, but the fact that a few old, inexpensive, poorly made, or even ad-hoc mines could cripple world trade is not universally understood. Mining is fully capable of stopping shipping traffic through key choke points, thereby lengthening global economic trade routes and achieving — for minimal cost — an effect nearly unmatched by other warfare areas. These vulnerabilities are brought into sharp relief as the advent of highly capable and advanced stealth mines, paired with ease of use, has led both partners and adversaries to implement “porcupine strategies.” This type of strategy will likely only increase the proliferation of mines, intensifying the need for the Department of Defense to develop an enduring advantage in mine warfare.
A Neglected Warfare Area
As the threats and consequences become more significant, the state of U.S. mine warfare capability lags, exposing significant gaps and increasing risk to naval forces. It is no surprise that U.S. Navy Avenger-class mine countermeasure ships are long past their expiration dates, being held together largely due to their dedicated and persevering crews. Only 8 remain, and all are due to decommission by 2027. They are set to be replaced by the Littoral Combat Ship as the surface mine countermeasure platform. Yet, in their current state, the Littoral Combat Ship mine countermeasures mission packages will struggle to replace the Avengers as a viable, full detect-to-engage capability. While promising initiatives are underway, the Littoral Combat Ships must be equipped to operate under a more expansive set of environmental conditions and mission parameters, and crews must achieve operational proficiency, both of which are likely years away. Additionally, where the number of surface combatants can change regional force balance and strategic decision-making, it will likely be difficult for leadership to dedicate many Littoral Combat Ships to full-time mine countermeasure operations when they are capable of performing other duties.
Airborne mine countermeasures capability mirrors the Avenger’s plight. The 45-year-old MH-53 helicopter received scant funding over the past decade, and after retiring Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron 14 earlier this year only two operational squadrons remain. Like Avengers, they require constant care and unparalleled dedication to remain operational. As a stop-gap, this capability is transitioning to the MH-60 helicopter whose airborne mine neutralization system achieved initial operational capability in 2016 and which conducted a successful live-fire event in August 2022. However, the MH-60 is too underpowered to tow the associated sonar, requiring another asset to detect and classify mines before the MH-60 can neutralize it. Compounding this challenge, the MH-60’s airborne laser mine detection system is reliably able to detect mines only in clear water, near the surface. Thus, though a step in the right direction, the MH-60 still falls short.
The Navy’s explosive ordinance disposal’s expeditionary mine countermeasure capability, however, provides some promise for the future. Over the last decade, these companies developed a full detect-to-engage capability, pairing clearance divers, unmanned systems, and small surface craft with skilled operators and mission analysis personnel. Challenges remain, but their ability to exploit mines and operate from a variety of platforms, as demonstrated by USS Sioux City’s 2022 deployment with a detachment, is promising.
While hope exists for mine countermeasures, the state of U.S. mining capabilities is alarming. Disturbing deficiencies in material readiness and inventory compounded by aging technology have rendered the U.S. mine arsenal nearly useless on the modern battlefield. The core technology of both Quickstrikes and Submarine Launched Mobile Mines is approximately 50 years old, and while several initiatives were set to bolster their potency, an apparent indifference paired with underfunding hinders progress, solutions, and innovation. For example, robust programs targeting both wing kits and propelled means of standoff mine delivery have stalled since the late 2010s.
While the state of U.S. mine technology is troubling, delivery platforms represent the greatest challenge. Quickstrike mines must be air delivered, principally accomplished by Air Force B-52s and Navy F/A-18s. Yet, an offensive mining campaign using B-52s would require crews to fly low and slow. This is an unrealistic expectation during high-end conflict, and the F-35 is not slated to replace the F/A-18 for mine delivery. Additionally, while B-52s and F/A-18s maintain capability, it is unlikely that a Combatant or Fleet Commander would allow their use for mining, as competition for these airframes would severely deprioritize mine warfare. Though an ongoing initiative for a submarine-delivered mine (and possibly a future Clandestine Delivered Mine / Hammerhead delivered via the subsurface ORCA XLUUV autonomous vehicle) exists, at-sea testing is still in progress. Furthermore, achieving the initial operational capability planned for Fiscal Year 2026 seems unlikely given a recent Government Accountability Office report‘s conclusions that this urgent operational need is now “many years over schedule” and “64% over budget” due to the Navy’s failure to “require the contractor to demonstrate that it was ready to build the subs within the planned cost and schedule.” There are initiatives underway to fit nearly any surface combatant with minelaying capability, like the Danish contractor SH Defence’s containerized solution, but engagement from senior leadership is minimal. The near-term state of mining should be considered dismal at best.
Luckily, U.S. partners are rapidly surpassing our withering mining capabilities. In support of their own “porcupine strategy”, the Taiwanese Navy established the First and Second Mining Operations Squadrons including two new ships designed with automatic mining capability — cutting labor-intensive minelaying manpower. Plus, the Taiwanese military has begun mine laying training, focusing on protectively mining areas around the island. Additionally, NATO nations such as Spain, Finland, and Italy produce significantly more advanced, smart, and stealthy mines. These allied capabilities, along with some of the other U.S. allies and partners who specialize in mine warfare (like the Danish, Dutch, and Belgian navies), are extremely valued and would be critical in a NATO conflict. By focusing efforts on mine warfare, these countries efficiently and effectively leverage their smaller budgets and navies to meaningfully complement the United States’ existing capabilities, necessitating close collaboration. However, complete reliance and dependence on others’ capabilities would naturally mean that U.S. objectives would be beholden to others’ equities first. In great power conflict, potentially spanning multiple theatres, these competing interests could pose acute challenges and limit U.S. ability to address global objectives or execute time-critical operations.
Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea have advanced mine inventories 20-40 times larger than the United States. As numerous historical examples have demonstrated and the Ukraine crisis has emphasized, maintaining a robust inventory is imperative — and the fragility of that stockpile can be a key weakness. While a copious inventory is not necessarily a threat in and of itself, even a reasonably trained adversary can achieve strategic goals by laying vast minefields. Without a robust countermeasure capability, the U.S. Navy can become quickly overmatched, struggling to muster enough forces to clear critical sea lines of communication in a timely manner.
Unlike our adversaries, we lack a mine supply capable of making a sizable difference in conflict, and the deficit in capability is striking. Consider that China’s EM-56 mine is self-navigating, and Russia’s PMR-2 is rocket-propelled. These are capabilities that far outmatch reciprocal U.S. systems. Even worse, while nearly all U.S. mining is conducted by aircraft vulnerable to enemy radars and batteries, potential adversaries will use an array of platforms to lay their mines, both military and civilian, introducing gray zone complications and challenges. It quickly becomes apparent that our lack of commitment to mining has placed us squarely in a defensive posture. The bottom line is: U.S. adversaries have the advantage.
With civilian and military leaders warning of a potential future Chinese invasion of Taiwan, there should be a greater sense of urgency to reform our mine warfare capabilities. Should conflict erupt, we will find ourselves backed into a corner and commencing the fight with one hand tied behind our back as we struggle to leverage mine warfare to our advantage. We have experienced this before; let’s not let it happen again.
Getting Real and Better
Given the challenges and current state of our mine warfare enterprise, several immediate steps can and must be taken. These include enhancing partnerships with the engineering community, leveraging advances in autonomy, AI, and machine learning, bolstering international cooperation, and better leveraging existing talent within the U.S. Navy.
One of the surest ways to improve U.S. capabilities is to pair the warfighter with the engineer, focusing on rapidly developing, testing, and deploying cutting-edge technology. Home to the U.S. Navy’s mine warfare research and development organization, Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Detachment is full of extremely smart, capable, and dedicated individuals, yet can sometimes feel disjointed from the fleet. A continuous emphasis on pairing the warfighters from across the Navy’s mine warfare community with the detachment’s scientists and engineers would significantly bolster and streamline collaboration and coordination efforts to support the delivery of rapid, viable capabilities. An easy addition would be to station Warfare Tactics Instructors and/or senior enlisted mine specialists at the detachment for 12-18 months.
Further, emerging improvements in autonomy enable rapid experimentation and offer great promise — particularly in addressing the complex challenge of locating small, stealthy mines in a large, congested domain. Unmanned vehicles are already used in an array of other applications and can be augmented with an additional low-cost sensor like a small towed array and leveraged within mesh networks to increase the area covered and enhance persistence while simultaneously reducing risk to the warfighter. Enhancing these sensors by integrating machine learning and leveraging artificial intelligence can help increase the efficiency and efficacy of these operations. Even if only used to detect and classify, other assets such as MH-60S or expeditionary teams can rapidly and reliably neutralize threats. Further, the lessons learned, especially when vast amounts of data are captured by unmanned vehicles, can be leveraged and integrated into other naval platforms to increase safety and lethality fleet-wide. The mine warfare community should look to Task Force 59 in U.S. 5th Fleet as an example of how to rapidly implement these new technologies, streamline communication to senior leadership, and achieve decisive effects.
In an era of great power competition, leveraging the robust capabilities of others and working to better integrate our capabilities with allies and partners is critical to success. Luckily, a tremendous platform already exists in the Euro-Atlantic theater in NATO’s two standing mine countermeasure groups. They are composed of multiple NATO mine countermeasure ships and already operate and train together, epitomizing a well-trained, experienced force. Yet, there is currently zero United States participation in these groups. While this is largely due to the lack of historical deployments of Avenger Class ships and MH-53s to that area, we are missing out on an opportunity. Furthermore, the only U.S. mine countermeasure units that regularly participate in the annual Baltic Operations Exercise are expeditionary companies. Better integrating them into NATO’s standing groups is achievable today, as is integrating other U.S. platforms in the medium term. This would further enhance U.S. growth, interoperability, and capability, and could serve as a test bed for capabilities while demonstrating U.S. commitment to its NATO allies. Likewise, in the western Pacific, there is a tremendous opportunity to integrate U.S. forces with the Taiwanese navy’s mine warfare forces, similar to the United States’ significant work with the Republic of Korea Navy. Given the presence of U.S. naval assets in theater, this integration is rapidly achievable.
Another essential task is retaining and leveraging the immense talent that already exists within the Navy. The Warfare Tactics Instructor program includes experts in mine warfare but is largely leveraged for Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training exercises for Avengers, Littoral Combat Ships, Carrier Strike Groups, and tasks within the Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center and schoolhouses. While ensuring U.S. surface forces are reducing vulnerability and susceptibility to mines is incredibly important, these instructors can, and should, be leveraged well beyond current bounds. As mentioned, a mine warfare instructor at the Naval Surface Warfare Center’s Panama City detachment providing constant tactical input from the fleet, leveraging their robust network at the development center as support, would provide tremendous value to the community. Additionally, Warfare Tactics Instructors should be key players within Program Executive Offices at Naval Sea Systems Command, as well as the acquisition pipeline and resource sponsor groups like OPNAV N95, in order to inform effective requirements development. In comparison to other warfare areas, the cadre of mine warfare professionals has historically not been as involved in such communities, yielding an opportunity for significant impact and critical feedback to senior leadership and decision-makers.
Mines have led to U.S. losses in nearly every conflict it has been involved in. Future high return on investment campaigns could include protectively mining the Gulf of Finland/Black Sea to trap Russian ships or the approaches to landing beaches in Taiwan to deter a Chinese invasion. Mine countermeasure missions could include opening sea lines of communication and seaports of debarkation to enable critical re-supply, breaching a minefield to facilitate movement in the Persian Gulf (Strait of Hormuz) clearing the path for an amphibious assault, or conducting clearance operations to facilitate acceptable levels of risk for sub-surface assets.
By now, the U.S. military should have internalized the lesson that continual neglect will lead to a dire situation. However, the U.S. military has let naval mine warfare suffer from personnel shortfalls, equipment deterioration, capability delays, and a diminishing cadre that truly understands the domain — all while U.S. adversaries get better. This is a lesson observed, not learned. While the 2022 Navigation Plan is a comprehensive vision that outlines plans and projections to modernize the Navy in the areas of air, surface, subsurface, Naval Special Warfare, unmanned systems, AI, cyber, information, logistics, and expeditionary capabilities, there is no mention of mine warfare. The United States needs to heed past lessons or the country will find itself starting the fight in a corner.
Lieutenant Tom Wester, U.S. Navy, is a Surface Warfare Officer serving as a Battle Watch Captain at NATO’s Maritime Command in Northwood, England. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and Stanford University, where he earned his master’s focusing on technology policy. He was also a plank owner and project manager at the Defense Innovation Unit. He recently completed his division officer tours in USS Howard stationed in Yokosuka, Japan.
Lieutenant Commander Joe Mancini, U.S. Navy, is a Surface Warfare Officer and Mine Warfare Tactics Instructor serving in the technology and concepts department at Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center, Mine Countermeasure Technical Division, in San Diego, CA. He’s held at-sea and ashore mine warfare billets and collaborated with 14 Navies during exercises and real-world operations. He recently completed his department dead tours in USS Howard stationed in Yokosuka, Japan.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.