Mine the Gap: How Washington and Canberra Can Improve Their Asymmetric Capabilities

USS Avenger Action

As a new surface warfare officer, your time is split between running a division and getting qualified. While much of qualifying means opening every publication and tactical handbook you can find and learning it cold, a great deal of your oral examination is based on “gouge,” which is informal information about the board and the questions you’ll be asked. I clearly remember my gouge: “Don’t worry about mine stuff, we’ll never do it. Focus on missile detect-to-engage sequences for the bigger ships, that’s the real threat. Subs? Leave that to submarines.” I wasn’t going to argue with senior officers at the time. But looking back, it was as if I was told to ignore the biggest threats to allied naval vessels.

Over nine years as a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy, I spent most of my time in the Pacific and repeatedly saw firsthand how the United States and its allies in the region were falling behind with respect to nonconventional tactics, planning, and procurement. In order to preserve the deterrent capability of the U.S. Navy within the Indo-Pacific, a greater emphasis should be placed on building out asymmetric and non-conventional capacities within the armed forces.

The AUKUS agreement between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom that was signed in 2021 offers a unique chance to address these shortfalls. At its core, AUKUS is a technology sharing and development agreement divided between two “pillars” encompassing different lines of effort. Pillar one covers the transfer of U.S nuclear-powered attack submarines and the required training to Australia. Pillar two focuses on joint research and development of critical military technology such as hypersonic missiles, AI, and electronic warfare. Australia’s focus on asymmetric anti-access/area denial operations provides an opportunity to address both American and Australian strategic visions synergistically under AUKUS’ pillar two. To do so, Washington and Canberra should devote greater energy toward developing more capable Integrated Undersea Surveillance Systems, autonomous vehicles, and mine warfare.



Tracking the Unseen Enemy

With China’s large lead with respect to sea mines and rapidly modernizing and expanding submarine fleet, the United States and its allies face a daunting strategic challenge detecting and tracking so many undersea contacts over an immense area. This is compounded by the manning issues plaguing the U.S. Navy, which has been suffering from retention and recruitment shortfalls and perpetually undermanned ships. Without improved Integrated Undersea Surveillance Systems capacity, the United States is at risk of giving China nearly complete freedom of maneuver under the waves and jeopardizing surfaces vessels and combatants.

While the geographic scale and manning issues are steep with respect to Integrated Undersea Surveillance Systems, they also offer an opportunity for great leaps forward regarding the integration of U.S. Navy and Royal Australian Navy forces with new technology. I have written about several opportunities for greater joint integration that will be key to eliminating the learning curve of both forces as they move forward, but the equipment for this still needs to be procured or developed. With the Royal Australian Navy’s purchase of modular towed array platforms (based on current U.S. Navy and Japanese Self Defense Force systems), there has been some progress. But more is needed.

One of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s senior analysts, Dr. Malcolm Davis, has well articulated that what is needed is greater integration of autonomous vehicles and AI processing. The U.K.’s burgeoning AI expertisecould be vital in supplementing these developments. There have been exercises focused on testing next generation autonomous vehicles within the AUKUS framework, and these should certainly continue. But this still fails to address the near-term challenges facing the United States and its Indo-Pacific allies. Cooperation could be further strengthened by expanding access to AUKUS pillar two to other regional allies, forming a robust “AUKUS+” network of technological exchange and cooperation.

The judicious use of currently available technology will help fill the short-term Integrated Undersea Surveillance System capacity gap as these next generation systems come online. Currently available AI has proven its ability to process massive amounts of data, identify patterns and trends, and generate reports that human analysts can utilize for rapid decision-making. Utilizing AI would dramatically lower the number of analysts required to search for and track undersea contacts. This should be taken a step further — to address not only the manning but also the geographic challenges. The deployment of large arrays of hydrophones, the acoustic sensors used for Integrated Undersea Surveillance System, with built-in AI data processing would allow for monitoring large swaths of the Indo-Pacific remotely. These hydrophones could be fixed sensors or designed for mobility by attaching them to recoverable buoys. These systems are already in widespread use within the U.S. Navy and Royal Australian Navy. Upgrading them with AI would be cost effective, making them ready for delivery far sooner than next generation systems will be. Working within the auspices of AUKUS while developing these systems would share the costs, improve interoperability from the start, and give more range for scaling up Integrated Undersea Surveillance System operations to counter the increasing undersea threats in the region.

Human versus Machine

Ships operated by the U.S. Navy and its allies are some of the most advanced vessels afloat and outperform competitors on a one-to-one basis. China, seeing this, has outbuilt the United States in order to counter this capability gap. Based on current projections, the Chinese fleet will outnumber the U.S. Navy by well over 100 ships within the decade. Given the more regional focus of Chinese forces, the United States will face this force with far less than its full navy at the outset of any conflict. This will lead to costly losses in the initial salvos, severely hamstring any efforts to resolve a conflict to America’s satisfaction. There is the planned expansion of U.S. shipbuilding, but this won’t fill the near-term needs of the U.S. Navy fast enough to offset the quantity differential.

Autonomous vehicles will play a pivotal role in mitigating the disparity in quantities faced by the U.S. and its allies. But this requires integrating these assets into current force structures. Creative deployment, such as using currently operational amphibious vessels as “drone carriers” and launching swarms from well decks, will allow the United States and its allies to leverage existing platforms in novel ways. As Air Commodore Ross Bender of the Royal Australian Airforce told the Hudson Institute: “[W]hen you talk about integration it might be… send[ing] a chat message from one vehicle to another, that might be success.” I would push this argument and say, “the simpler, the better.” Having hundreds of simple vessels that can perform rudimentary operations in a joint task force would offset the numerical advantage the Chinese have. Collaborating on getting commercially available tools in the hands of the sailors in the Royal Australian Navy and U.S. Navy now will allow rapid innovation. The sailors know what problems they have better than anyone, they live them.

Mine the Gap

Mine warfare has been neglected terribly by the U.S. Navy and most of its allies for decades. Whether it’s due to a preference for flashier tools of war, strategic oversight, an aversion to the time-intensive nature of disposal, or some combination of these factors, this neglect has left U.S. forces vulnerable and trailing potential competitors. The primary counter-mine warfare platform for the U.S. Navy is the Avenger class mine countermeasure ships designed and purchased in the 1980s. Chronically underfunded and undermanned, they were always the last ships picked at ship selection for both the Naval Academy and Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. Moreover, there are only eight active in the fleet now. This imbalance in numbers means that even if the U.S. Navy were faced with lightly mined waters, it would have trouble responding rapidly. Offensively, the U.S. Navy took 40 years to begin updating its own mines and has no current plans to expand stockpiles or capacity. This means that the U.S. Navy must rely primarily on crewed surface and subsurface vessels to conduct anti-access/area denial operations and deter malicious actors at sea, stretching the fleet as noted above.

Mine warfare operations can play both offensive and defensive roles, and can be carried out at scale for what would amount to pocket change for the U.S. military budget. The very same autonomous vehicles that are being developed could serve as mine clearance or mine delivery vehicles, allowing for safer operations. The ability to threaten freedom of navigation for Chinese vessels would also help mitigate their greater numbers, potentially forcing them to operate in closer proximity to each other while they conduct counter-mine warfare and making them easier to track, target, and engage. Developing these capabilities alongside the Royal Australian Navy, with a focus on autonomous mine delivery units, would give the United States and Australia another valuable tool to counter China. While both navies should also build more counter-mine warfare vessels, developing a modular system that would allow for the integration of drones into vessels of opportunity should take priority. Explosive ordinance disposal is inherently dangerous and is best left to unmanned vessels. Cooperation between the United States and Australia should proceed along both the offensive and defensive lines of effort.

Fair Winds and Open Seas

While  AUKUS also includes the United Kingdom, there has been relatively little discussion within the United Kingdom itself about AUKUS. The United Kingdom is taking the lead on designing the AUKUS class submarine, and its navy is central to the development of pillar one of the agreement. But besides this, Britain’s policy debate and implementation is lagging behind its counterparts. To maximize the benefits of joint innovation and development, all three partners should fully engage one another, identify barriers to collaboration, and leverage their unique strengths. Finally, as the AUKUS relationships mature, members should consider the expansion of partner countries within pillar two. The eventual development of an “AUKUS+” for pillar two would greatly boost the depth of talent available to conduct research and development, bring greater economies of scale to bear, and vastly improve allied regional interoperability. There has already been some movement on this front: Japan seems set to be the first country brought into the pillar two agreement.

The United States is faced with mounting, but not insurmountable, challenges in the Indo-Pacific. If security throughout the region is to be maintained, then the United States should pay greater heed to the asymmetric capabilities of its armed forces. Integrated Undersea Surveillance Systems, autonomous vehicles, and mine warfare not only offer the best return on investment but would also align the security interests of the United States and Australia. This opens avenues for increased cooperation under AUKUS pillar two that would be foolish to pass up. Deterrence through denial will play to the strengths of America’s regional allies and mitigate the numerical advantage of Chinese forces.



Eric Lies is an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Washington, D.C. office, specializing in security strategy and military affairs. He previously served in the U.S. Navy as a nuclear-trained surface warfare officer and holds bachelor’s of science with a major in international affairs from the U.S. Naval Academy and a master’s in international service from American University.

Image: Seaman Brian Stone