Серия статей о минном оружии и его восприятии в США
This is the second in our exclusive series on the crucial but neglected question of sea mines and how well — or not — the United States manages this very real global threat. Only 4.7 percent of the US Navy’s 275 warships are dedicated to mine warfare. Those small numbers face Iran’s several thousand naval mines, North Korea’s 50,000, China 100,000 or so, and Russia’s estimated quarter-million. If you just count the numbers, the US seems to be at a staggering disadvantage. But there’s some good news. Read on. The Editor. The Navy can field only 13 Avenger-class minesweepers – a fourteenth, the USS Guardian, was wrecked in 2013 – and 31 MH-53E helicopters to cope with the more than 400,000 sea mines in the hands of US competitors and enemies. But war is never just about the numbers. Nor is it about simply opposing each kind of attack with a specific defensive countermeasure. The best defense against sea mines is a good offense. Instead of trying to find and destroy the mines after they’re already in the water, you find and destroy the enemy’s minelayers before they can get anything in the water in the first place – something that the US Navy and, just as important, the Air Force have plenty of ways to do. In March 2003, for example, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Australian forces intercepted four converted civilian vessels carrying 86 mines, including 20 of the advanced Italian-made Manta type. A single Manta had nearly sunk the USS Princeton during the First Gulf War a generation before, when the Iraqis had laid 1,500 mines off the Kuwaiti coast. “We didn’t catch any of the ships before Desert Storm,” said Bob O’Donnell, a retired Navy captain and veteran minesweeper. Sowing the sea with thousands of mines is a massive logistical effort, one with multiple steps that the US can detect and disrupt. To start with, an adversary must get its mines out of storage and arm them. Typically, “countries will have their mines in ammo dumps somewhere, without any sensors in them,” said O’Donnell. “The first step is they take them out of the dumps and take them someplace where they put the sensors in.” The more mines they move, the more people and trucks they need, which makes it more likely someone will let something slip or that US spy satellites will notice suspicious activity. Then the bad guys need to get the mines in the water. Typically that is done by a surface vessel, but some specialized mines can be dropped from an aircraft or even launched into position by a submarine. Planes are much faster and subs are much stealthier, but for sheer volume, you need to go with ships. So how many ships? Consider China, the worst-case adversary. “They’ve got a lot of weapons, but the means of delivery are relatively few,” said mine warfare expert Scott Truver. By Truver’s estimate, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has 80,000 to 100,000 sea mines. The good news: it’s got only one purpose-built minelayer, which can carry 300 mines at a time. However, other PLAN ships can help. According to a study by three Navy War College professors, the PLAN has at least 43 warships built primarily for other missions – frigates, destroyers, and amphibious landing ships – that can also carry 30 to 60 mines each. It has “hundreds” of smaller vessels – gunboats, torpedo boats, patrol craft, and (ironically) minesweepers – that can carry at most a dozen mines apiece, although their range prevents them from going too far out into the open ocean. Still, if China actually used all these surface vessels at once, at the price of other missions, they could dump thousands of mines in the water before they ran out and had to go back to port for more. If Beijing really wanted to go for broke, though, it could mobilize its largely state-controlled fishing fleet: 30,000 trawlers able to carry 10 mines each and, for defensive mine-laying just off China’s own coast, some 50,000 sailboats that could carry two to five mines. Turning all those vessels into minelayers isn’t easy, however. Civilian craft are certainly the best way to lay mines covertly in small numbers, but a large-scale effort would involve so many civilians that it would be impossible to keep quiet. Just the process of loading mines aboard hundreds of ships, let alone thousands, would be difficult for spy satellites to miss. Once the US and its allies spotted the beginnings of such a massive minelaying effort, they would have to decide what to do about it. It is in fact entirely legal under international law to lay mines in international waters, as long as you make public what areas you’ve mined so civilian shipping can stay away. Strategically, though, it is unlikely that Japan would sit still if China tried to mine the waters around the disputed (although uninhabited) Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyus in Chinese), or that the Philippines would tolerate China mining the disputed (and potentially oil-rich) Scarborough Shoal, or that Taiwan would shrug off China mining their shipping lanes in an effort to blockade the island nation.
This is the third in our exclusive series on the crucial but neglected question of sea mines and how well — or not — the United States manages this global and very real threat. Here we’re looking at the most promising technologies, ships and aircraft that can give the United States the edge in this crucial and complex battle. What works? Read on. The Editor. Clearing sea mines is so murderously hard that the best defense is to sink the ships or shoot down the planes carrying them before they can be put in the water. But politics, surprise, or fear of escalation might keep the US military from stopping the minelayers “left of splash.” That means somebody had better be ready to go after the deadly explosives in their natural habitat. The great leap forward today is that “somebody” is increasingly likely to be a robot. For over a century, clearing mines was a brutal, crude and close-up business. Specialized ships, divers, and even trained dolphins had to go right into the minefield. The US Navy has led the world in counter-mine equipment that could be towed from helicopters, but that still means flying low, slow and in a predictable pattern in airspace where enemy aircraft or missile launchers might be watching. There are even reports that China has developed anti-helicopter mines designed to launch themselves out of the water. For more than a decade, the Navy has increasingly invested in technologies to “keep the sailor out of the minefield” by sending unmanned systems in, both under water and on the surface. Since 2002, when the Navy officially launched its controversial Littoral Combat Ship program, this new remote-controlled approach has been intimately linked with LCS. When fitted with its Mine Counter-Measures module, whose first iteration goes into full-up operational testing this year, LCS will replace the Navy’s remaining 13 wooden-hulled Avenger-class minesweepers. So it might seem like bad news for mine warfare that the LCS has faced relentless criticism since its inception, culminating in Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s decision in January to truncate the program and develop a better-armed successor. The upgunned LCS unveiled last Decemeber will focus on hunting submarines and fast attack boats, while dropping the minesweeping mission — which has always been a Navy stepchild. The Navy ethos has been thoroughly aggressive since its birth: “I wish to have no Connection with any Ship that does not Sail fast for I intend to go in harm’s way,” wrote John Paul Jones in 1778. The fleet has always favored fast ships that can take the battle to the enemy: aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines, guided-missile destroyers. By contrast, minesweeping is slow, inherently defensive and, well, just not sexy. New Anti-Mine Technologies But there are two substantial silver linings for mine warfare. First, the LCS is not all dead. The Navy still plans to build 32 (down from 52) of the original design, the one that can perform mine-hunting missions. Second, new mine-clearing technologies are no longer tied to the LCS program. Iran’s threats in 2011-2012 to close the Strait of Hormuz jolted the Navy into taking mines more seriously and speeding new equipment to the fleet. Instead of waiting for LCS, sailors have launched mine-seeking underwater drones and mine-killing mini-torpedoes from current vessels, even including inflatable boats. Helicopters have tested a new technology to find mines with a laser beam, the Airborne Laser Mine Detection System (ALMNDS). The Navy even repurposed a decommissioned amphibious ship, the USS Ponce, as what’s called an Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB), primarily to support counter-mine operations. Two more purpose-built AFSBs will follow, and “the primary mission of the Afloat Forward Staging Base aviation mine countermeasures,” said Capt. Henry Stevens of Naval Sea Systems Command at January’s Surface Navy Association conference. While the AFSB can potentially accommodate a multitude of missions, from special operations to V-22 Ospreys, its design is driven first and foremost by the needs of the massive MH-53E helicopter used for aerial mine-clearing. Precisely because the Littoral Combat Ship’s design is modular, it’s relatively easy to break off specific systems and use them independently. “The various MCM mission systems are programs of record in their own right, which the LCS Mission Modules program then integrates,” Naval Sea Systems (NAVSEA) spokesman Matthew Leonard explained. A former top aide to the Navy’s top admiral, Bryan Clark, has proposed taking the entire MCM module and installing it on ships other than LCS, including both future Afloat Forward Staging Bases like Ponce and the smaller Joint High-Speed Vessels (JHSVs). So, in spite of the decision to curtail the LCS buy, new mine-clearing technologies may end up spreading widely through the fleet. With increasingly aggressive Russia and China amassing hundreds of thousands of increasingly sophisticated naval mines, a revolution in minesweeping might be just what we need.