How Worried Should the U.S. Navy Be About Chinese Sea Mines?

Lyle J. Goldstein

Key point: China wants to push the U.S. Navy far from its shores.

In the closing phases of the Pacific War, American military strategists ingeniously combined two weapons systems, the revolutionary long-range B-29 bomber and the comparatively simple parachute-retarded influence sea mine with magnetic or acoustic exploders, to wreak havoc on the Japanese economy and Japanese morale. The effort to sow Japan’s waterways thoroughly with thousands of mines was named, aptly enough, Operation Starvation and this effort proved highly effective in helping to reduce Japan to its knees.  Nevertheless, the U.S. Navy has also been on the “receiving end” of skillfully employed mine warfare and these cases are more recent. The classic case is from the Korean War when mines laid off North Korea prevented U.S. forces from making an efficient invasion at Wonsan. A number of allied mine warfare ships were sunk in that operational fiasco.  During the Persian Gulf War, two U.S. Navy ships, the Tripoli and also the Princeton, were both seriously damaged by Iraqi mines.

Today, the evidence continues to mount that the employment of sea mines remains a core tenet of Chinese naval war-fighting doctrine. This edition of Dragon Eye will review a few examples from this evidence. Unfortunately, American defense analyses continue to downplay this threat, for example in the recently released (and generally well done) RAND report, the US-China Military Scorecard. Sea mines, which have been employed since ancient times, are certainly not as mesmerizing as anti-ship ballistic missiles, supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, or the hypersonic weapons that Beijing is also apparently working on. Nor are sea mines likely to directly threaten U.S. aircraft carriers, as the above weapons might. However, skillfully deployed mines in massive numbers could prove a critical difference maker during the early phases of naval combat in the Western Pacific.

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