The shift in U.S. national security policy and defense strategy to the Asia-Pacific region is going to put additional pressure on the Navy. Over the past decade there has been a global proliferation of threats to U.S. air and naval forces led by China. The various arms of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have been investing in a wide variety of advanced systems, not just air defense systems, attack submarines, sea mines and ship-killing ballistic missiles, but the integrated command and control capabilities to find and target U.S. forces. Western observers see in these investments and the writings of Chinese military experts a strategy to create an anti-access/area denial (AA/AD) umbrella across the Western Pacific and over Chinese territory.
In the event of a military confrontation between the United States and China – say over Taiwan – Washington could be deterred from intervention in support of an Asia-Pacific ally by the need to fight its way through Chinese defenses. Even if the United States decided to counter Chinese aggression, there would still be the problem of putting ships and aircraft in harm’s way in order to defend friends and allies and take the battle to China.
There are reports that the Pentagon is working hard to figure out how to shift the focus of its military activities and force deployments more towards the Asia Pacific region. In that context, there is a lot of analysis taking place on the AA/AD threat and how to counter it.
But I wonder if the U.S. Navy is really serious about developing capabilities to counter the AA/AD threat. Here is one example that gives me trouble. At a recent Expeditionary Warfare Conference, an official announced that the Navy is planning to completely divest itself from submarine-launched mines by the end of this fiscal year. The MK 67 Submarine-Laid Mobile Mine (SLMM) is launched like a torpedo from a submarine and can travel under its own power to a remote location where it lies in wait for a passing ship, using multiple sensors to identify and target its prey. Based on 1950s technology, the SLMM is certainly a candidate for replacement based on its age alone.
Supposedly, the Navy is weighing its options on future offensive mine-laying capabilities. But we all know that if there is not an active program underway it will be at least a decade before a new U.S. sea mine could see deployment. Moreover, it is not clear that the Navy even has an interest in pursuing such an option. Those familiar with Navy thinking on the subject say that the Navy suffered from the “Princess Di effect” which means an aversion to any form of mine warfare. In truth, the leadership of the U.S. Navy never paid much attention to mine warfare even before the start of the anti-mine campaign.
For the U.S. Navy, countering the PLA’s AA/AD threat does not just mean figuring out ways of driving forward through the teeth of the adversary’s defenses. There is no virtue in a 21st century version of Admiral Farragut’s strategy at the Battle of Mobile Bay: “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” Rather, the U.S. Navy needs to invest in means and methods that get inside the PLA’s strategy, undermine its preferred approaches and forces it to pursue additional and complex investments that both take money away from areas of current advantage such as ship-killing ballistic missiles and put it towards areas where China is deficient militarily.
One of these means and methods is strategic mine warfare. It would only take a relative handful of modern U.S. sea mines to threaten any PLA Navy amphibious operation, bottle up its combatants in port and interdict China’s sea lines of communications. The PLA Navy has not invested a lot in the necessary capabilities and training to hunt for enemy mines. A modern version of the SLMM would be an excellent weapon to deploy from the best AA/AD platform in the U.S. Navy’s inventory, the Virginia-class attack sub.
While the Navy weighs its options, the AA/AD threat grows more severe. Fortunately, the Navy is moving forward with a new mine countermeasures capability to be deployed on the Littoral Combat Ship. Now if the Navy could just figure out what to deploy in the way of a strategic mining capability.
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