In the October 1994 issue of Naval Institute Proceedings, Ensign Jim Crimmins had a marvelous Capstone essay titled Mine Warfare and Submarines. In writing that, he managed to capture the essence of a vital issue that repeatedly surfaces, so to speak, at high level gaming of regional conflicts such as the annual GLOBAL series at the Naval War College in Newport.
Specifically, the sequence of arrival of U.S. mobile forces (primarily naval) at the littoral of a suddenly emerging crisis are SSN(s) within a couple of days, a battle group inside of a couple of weeks, and amphibious assault forces some time later. Unfortunately, when adversarial defensive mining has been employed (or even implied) during this period or before, the risk management realities of U.S. involvement in regional conflict loom large. The need for traditional sea mine localization and neutralization with uncertain assets from an uncertain location then inserts another large time constant issue into the presence and engagement equations. This easily injected impediment can often undo or significantly degrade the intrinsic advantages offered by mobile From the Sea power projection.
As Ensign Crimmins so properly highlighted, the key to untangling this operational gridlock, is that the first warships on the scene, the SSNs, be an integral part of the mine warfare solution.
However, conventional wisdom (almost always being an oxymoron-being neither) steps in at this point to point out that submarines are historically particularly vulnerable to mines, and cannot be jeopardized at this point due to their expense and the extreme U.S. public sensitivities to losses of platforms and people in conflict abroad. At this point, as always, it is advisable to review entering assumptions of the paradigm in question.
Many submarines have indeed been lost to mines-German U-boats in the North Sea and its approaches in both WWI and WWII, and U.S. platforms in and about Japanese home waters in WWII-most to moored contact mines. However, closer examination reveals that the great majority of these were lost while they were, in fact, operating as a particularly vulnerable surface ship-one designed that if holes (vents) were made in the outside (ballast tanks) of the vessel, it should quickly submerge-however, in this case with an OOD on the bridge and an open bridge hatch.
When this submarine is completely involved in its medium, though, it is an entirely different story. The ballast tanks are already full, and a hole in them raises some interesting (but not insurmountable) future operational problems, but does not equate to a platform kill. Furthermore, for those who would step in at this point with .. Ah-ha” that the bottom vice moored mine hasn’t been considered, the kill mechanisms of that insidious weapon should now be addressed.
Bottom mines kill essentially the same way that a perfectly delivered and fuzed torpedo does when fired against a surface ship. They (it)) explode under the hull, lift the middle part of that horizontally oriented and hydrostatically supported structure out of the water, at which point both ends fall off. This damage mechanism isn’t available against a totally submerged object. Many readers will remember that there was some concern as to whether the half-tonnish TNT equivalent Mk 48 warhead would be effective against such as the Soviet OSCARs and TYPHOONs, where detonation would occur at the outside of the ballast tanks a few tens of feet from their pressure hull. As the ultimate argument against the effects of a 300-500 pound bottom mine somehow initiated a few hundred feet beneath a submerged SSN, consider the fact that the Navy has purposely detonated 5-6 tons of high explosives about 100 yards from submerged and manned SSNs just to see what circuit breakers would pop open and what equipment foundations needed strengthening so that they could be redesigned. This shouldn’t be taken to mean that crew members weren’t well advised not to have any loose dental fillings during this deliberate test, and also goes a long way to explain even a retired submariner’s obsession with secure and proper stowage of things.
In any case, having defined a rather limited risk to the submarine, compared to a surface craft if a bottom mine were initiated, let us now address the available fuzing mechanisms which could trigger the mine.
Table 1: Submarine Mine Activation Hazard as a Function of Type and Fuzing
Table 1 provides a matrix of essentially most mine types and fuzing options where moderate (M), low (L), very low (VL) and not applicable (N/A) are purely qualitative (and subjective) evaluations of relative hazard. It is to a large degree self-explanatory, and although what goes without saying should, the floating (illegal-but!) and most third-world moored mine variants (exceptions such as the U.S. CAPTOR are submarine-specific, relatively expensive, and appear not to have yet proliferated to any significant extent) can be essentially discounted, considering the operating domain and the modem small object locating sonars now at sea on U.S. SSNs and noted so well in Ensign Crimmins paper. As he also noted, organic remote or tethered sensors would be an enormous help, and are under development to provide enhanced capabilities for detection of the family of bottom mines.
But, if an SSN does inadvertently expose itself to a bottom mine:
- The ship would be a sound-quieting nightmare indeed if it were to initiate an acoustic sensor.
- Perhaps might provide an adequate signature to a magnetic mine trigger now, but should not in the future as we move from deperming to degaussing.
- Is absolutely invulnerable to that bane of minesweepers, the pressure mine-which requires a large displacement volume hull interacting with and at the air-water interface.
With all this good news, however, it must still be kept in mind that the SSN is not a minesweeperbut merely a platform who, during the Cold War and the realities of shallow water operations in support of the Maritime Strategy, was forced to develop a, but merely a platform who, during the Cold War and the realities of shallow water operations in support of the Maritime Strategy, was forced to develop a credible ability to detect and avoid mines in a relative sense, not necessarily localize them in an absolute sense, since navigational uncertainties could easily be a mile or two. That part of the Revolution in Military Affairs which now enables the new mission of detection, localization and reporting are vastly improved navigation (i.e., the Global Positioning System (GPS) plus or minus tens of feet) and far superior connectivity through better communications equipment and procedures (to include Link 11). It is indeed thinkable that the battle group and/or amphibious ready group will have a detailed knowledge of opposing minefields many days before their arrival.
Also, in spite of the reclama that the SSN is not a minesweeper, the Submarine Force’s ongoing relationship and exercises with Special Forces provides an enviable capability for unseen selective neutralization of some number of mines that are really in the way. Although Special Forces are not usually permanently attached to deployed submarines, their equipment is often pre-positioned aboard, and it only remains to pull off some distance to receive a covertly air-delivered team of swimmers.
In admittedly redundant summary, it’s beginning to be a common event among those who game future defense contingencies in a post-Soviet world. A situation develops with little strategic warning and proceeds to deteriorate rapidly. U.S. forces begin the process of mustering and moving, and among the more flexible of these, a carrier battle group (CVBG) or two are vectored towards the problem. Almost invariably, nuclear attack submarines either attached to the battle group, enroute for duty with the battle group, or otherwise deployed, are detached to proceed independently to the scene at high speed as the eyes and ears of the CVBGs. The show stopper for rapid and effective military From the Sea response occurs, however, when mining of the littoral is observed or suspected.
The advance party of SSNs in the reconnaissance and surveillance role is reminiscent of 19th century employment of cavalry ashore, and is in fact not far removed from that concept in a larger sense. The significant modern advantage is that technology now permits a superb degree of connectivity, and current General’s Lee are spared the anxieties and worries about where J .E. B. Stuart is as be circumnavigates the Army of the Potomac. It was certainly among the roles and missions of these swift and stealthy scouting forces to note and report (and sometimes deal with) hazards along the route. We should expect no lesser tasking of today’s swift and stealthy naval counterparts.