By Richard Dunley*
Mines are back. Mine warfare has long been something of a Cinderella within western navies. However, the announcement in the Strategic Update that Australia is going to be acquiring mines and investing further in mine countermeasures (MCM) is the latest in a growing trend focusing on these traditionally unfashionable weapons.
What does the strategic update announce?
Last week’s Strategic Update announced that Australia would regain a mining capability for the first time in a number of years. The government stated that they would invest in acquiring ‘area denial systems including an enhanced mine warfare capability’. The accompanying Force Structure Plan specifically mentioned a focus on ‘modern, smart sea mine systems’. The stated rationale behind these acquisitions is that they would provide additional capability ‘to secure Australia’s maritime approaches’.
In addition to this new mining capability the Update also announced a major expansion of MCM within the RAN. This includes the acquisition of up to eight new vessels, potentially based upon the Arafura Class Offshore Patrol Vessel design.
This new focus on mining echoes developments elsewhere, as it has come to be seen as an important capability in any future great power competition at sea. There has been a major shift in the US position on the weapon over the past five years. Considerable investment has been made in new mines and delivery systemsand there is even discussion of a new range of weapons that blur the boundaries between unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) and mines. The Chinese have long maintained a major mine warfare capability with some of the largest stockpiles of mines in the world. They are also paying increasing attention to MCM capabilities, with a focus on unmanned and autonomous technology.
Mine warfare has long been unfashionable in navies, with them tending to be viewed as weapons of the weak. Historically, however, they have proved to be a far more flexible capability than they are often given credit for. The Strategic Update gives little away as to how any new mining capability might be used, but three broad roles appear particularly relevant.
Mines were originally developed to protect coastline against superior naval forces, and they have proved extremely successful in this role. Following a disastrous attempt to clear a minefield at Wonsan during the Korean War, Admiral Hoke Smith famously declared that ‘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.’ More recently, during Desert Storm in 1991 an assortment of Iraqi mines badly damaged two US warships and helped ensure that a planned Coalition amphibious operation did not take place. As has been frequently noted by critics of the mine, any minefield can be cleared, and the weapons should not be seen as a defensive panacea. However, mine clearance remains a slow and frequently dangerous business. In delaying a prospective enemy’s approach to Australian shores, mines would greatly complicate their strategic equation and complement other capabilities outlined in the Update including the submarines and land or air launched anti-ship missiles. Furthermore, a quick glance at a map will confirm that maritime geography, particularly in the archipelago to Australia’s north is well suited to this type of operation.
The new mining capability is intended to secure Australia’s maritime approaches, and whilst this strongly suggests a defensive application, this is not the only method through which this can be achieved. It is frequently forgotten that historically the vast majority of mines have been laid by powers seeking control of the sea. In the Russo-Japanese War and the First World War the Japanese and the British respectively used mines to restrict their adversaries’ access to the ocean, and increase the cost of any such attempt. A similar logic lay behind NATO’s intention to deploy CAPTOR mines in the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap towards the end of the Cold War. For a nation so heavily reliant on seaborne trade, providing security through preventing an enemy from easily accessing the open ocean has considerable upside, but this would rely on Australia operating with major allies.
Finally, it is worth noting that whilst the focus of modern discussion regarding mines has been on their impact on enemy naval operations, they have historically proved to be hugely effective weapons against seaborne trade. Their impact extends far beyond the number of ships sunk. As has been seen on regular occasions in the Gulf, the threat of mines can prove extremely disruptive, even where their direct impact is limited. There are relatively few effective legal restrictions on the use of mines in wartime, and Australia’s potential adversaries tend to be almost as reliant on seaborne commerce as she is. As such, mine warfare, or even merely the threat of mining, could prove an extremely useful capability.
The announcement poses a number of interesting questions. The first is around the type of mine and the deployment system. Current US developments are split between air delivered conventional mines and new clandestinely delivered smart mines, including an encapsulated torpedo weapon. The former are comparatively cheap and can be deployed by air in large numbers, the later are rather more bespoke weapons. Australia lacks the large strike aircraft the US can employ in aerial mining, and the focus in the Update on smart mines might suggest that submarines, and in the future potentially UUVs, are the intended delivery platform for any new mining capability. However, this raises the question as to whether Australia can acquire and deploy sufficient of these weapons to prove effective, particularly in a defensive role. The nature of mines means that their impact is, in many respects, directly tied to the number deployed, and thus investment matters. The attention paid to sovereign production of munitions within the Update also poses the question as to whether this is an area where Australia needs to have the capability to produce any such weapons.
The announcement in the Strategic Update that Australia will acquire mines will provide the ADF with an important new capability. Exactly what this will look like, and how it will fit into the broader provision of maritime security remains unclear, but it does seem certain that one of the oldest of naval weapons is going to remain relevant for some time to come.
Dr Richard Dunley is a the lecturer in naval history at the University of NSW Canberra. He is author of Britain and the Mine, 1900–1915 Culture, Strategy and International Law.