by Andrew Erickson, Ph.D., Lyle Goldstein, Ph.D., & William Murrayimage of Chinese sailors

Sea Mines Constitute Key Element of PLA Navy’s ASW

 Author’s Note: This article represents the opinions of the authors and not the official assessments or policies of the Department of the Navy or any other agency of the U.S. government. The authors thank Mr. Gabriel Collins for translation assistance on several articles.

Traditionally a continental power, Beijing has not wielded strong naval forces in the modern era. But this is beginning to change now and China is making rapid strides, particularly in the arena of undersea warfare. According to the New York Times, China launched 13 submarines during the period 2002-041—and this number does not include the recent sale of eight Kilo-class diesels from Russia that was accomplished by 2006. Indeed, China commissioned thirty-one new submarines between 1995 and 20052. Less well understood by naval analysts and planners is the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s dynamic mine warfare component. It is important to understand this emerging capability, because sea mines appear to be a big component of Beijing’s Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) strategy.

This article is part of a larger study that surveyed nearly one thousand Chinese language articles related to mine warfare. The major conclusions of that study are that China’s naval mine inventory likely contains some of the world’s most lethal systems and that Beijing may be on the cutting edge of mine warfare (MIW) technology and concept development. The study elucidates a preliminary outline of a Chinese MIW doctrine that emphasizes speed, psychology, obfuscation, a mix of old and new technologies, and a variety of deployment methods that target very specific U.S. Navy platforms and doctrines. Two research questions from that larger study are explored in this article: first, what is China’s potential capability and its ramifications? Second, how is the PLA Navy exploring the linkage between submarines and mine warfare to create new and significant operational capabilities?

Strategic Context

The PLA Navy is making rapid strides in its modernization drive, not only in the arena of submarine development, but lately also in the areas of air defense, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and amphibious warfare. Chinese ASW, however, seems to continue to lag behind. There is still, as yet, no modern PLA Navy (PLAN) surface combatant that is truly optimized for ASW. Moreover, the Chinese Navy continues to be weak in maritime patrol aircraft and helicopters for ASW. Beijing does seem to recognize this flaw in its fleet development program and an increasing pattern of ASW exercises reflects Chinese concern. Indeed, articles in China’s military press evince acute concern regarding the capabilities of the U.S. Submarine Force. It seems that the PLA Navy sees mine warfare as a feasible “poor man’s ASW”—providing a stopgap measure until Beijing has put a more robust ASW posture into place. Chinese strategists note that “submarines are acutely vulnerable to mines, because passive sonar is not likely to be effective in locating mines, and because submarines have very limited organic mine counter measures (MCM) capabilities.”3

Lacking a substantial modern naval history, Chinese naval analysts are scrupulously analyzing foreign naval history for lessons to facilitate their development, and have duly noted the potential for mine warfare to “baffle the enemy, and thus achieve exceptional combat results.”4 As a Chinese textbook relates, 2,500 ships were sunk by sea mines during WWII.5 Another Chinese analysis notes that in the same conflict Germany lost 27 U-boats to mines.6 Perhaps not surprisingly, Chinese naval strategists have a keen understanding of Soviet naval doctrine, appreciating in particular how mine warfare was revived during the late Cold War in part for the purpose of countering American nuclear powered fast-attack submarines (SSNs). Indeed, one Chinese survey of ASW explains how new mines emerged in the 1980s “that are more appropriate to the requirements of modern anti-submarine warfare.” A detailed Chinese analysis of Russian rocket mines concludes: “…these weapons will attack SSNs too rapidly for countermeasures to engage, and are also rated to be highly effective against the mono-hull construction of U.S. submarines.”7 Chinese strategists have also very closely analyzed the mine warfare aspects of the Persian Gulf War during 1990-91, noting that although two U.S. Navy (USN) ships were severely damaged, Iraq’s MIW campaign had numerous flaws, including an “inappropriate reliance on moored mines [and a failure to execute] long range offensive mine warfare operations.” It is now conventional wisdom in the PLA Navy that “relative to other combat mission areas, [the U.S. Navy’s] mine warfare capabilities are extremely weak.”8

PLA Navy strategists envision a wide array of platforms (including non-military vessels) for delivery of sea mines for operational deployment. Having systematically analyzed the advantages and disadvantages of these mine-laying platforms, they appear to have concluded that submarine delivery of mines is optimal for offensive, and especially long-range offensive, mining missions. According to one analysis, “The restrictions imposed on submarines by air and naval forces are relatively small, [so] penetrating the enemy’s rear area to lay mines is much easier.”9 Also, according to another report, this platform “has the highest qualities of stealth and potential for surprise … [because] a vessel set at a distance of 10-15 km outside of a harbor, in a sea area with a depth of about 40 m, will be capable of launching an effective mobile mine to penetrate a sea port…”10

China’s Naval Mine History

China reportedly possesses between 50,000 and 100,000 mines,11 consisting of “over 30 varieties of contact, magnetic, acoustic, water pressure and mixed reaction sea mines, remote control sea mines, rocket-rising and mobile mines….”12 People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) submarines are said to use the Chen-1, -2, -3, and -6 type influence mines, “appropriate for use in the sea area immediately outside of harbor mouths;” the T-5 mobile mine, “appropriate for port channels and sea areas immediately outside a port;” and the Soviet-produced PMK-1 and the Chinese-developed Mao-5 rocket rising mines, “appropriate for waters up to 15 kilometers outside a port.”13

China’s remotely controlled mines, such as the EM53 bottom influence mine, are thought to be deactivated by coded acoustic signals to allow the safe passage of friendly vessels, and again
activated to prevent the transit of those of an enemy.14 Remotely controlled mines are well suited to defensive mining purposes, but could be useful in offensive operations as well.

China likely also possesses an inventory of submarine launched mobile mines (SLMMs).15 Called “self navigating mines” (zihang shuilei) in Chinese, these mines are simply torpedo bodies that carry a mine payload to waters inaccessible by other means. Apparently derived from Yu-class torpedoes, China’s SLMMs would travel along a user-determined course for a set period of time. When SLMMs arrived at their programmed destination (e.g. in the middle of a harbor), the torpedo’s engine would shut off, and the weapon would sink to the bottom where the warhead would be controlled by a fuse similar to that of any other bottom mine.

Significantly, China began to develop rocket rising mines in 1981 and produced its first prototype in 1989.16 Thus, Beijing has been working on this technology for well over two decades. Today, China reportedly offers two types of rising mines for export.17 Rising mine systems are moored, but have as their floating payload a torpedo or explosive-tipped rocket that is released when the mine system detects a suitable passing vessel. The torpedo or rocket rises from deep depth to home in on and destroy its intended target, typically a submarine. As one source notes, “The so-called ‘directional rocket rising sea mine’ is a type of high technology sea mine with accurate control and guidance and initiative attack capacity.… Attack speed [e.g., against a target submarine] can reach approximately 80 meters per second.”18 China’s EM52, a guided rocket propelled destructive charge, reportedly has an operating depth of at least 200 meters.19 Russian rising torpedo mines such as the PMK-2 are said to be capable of being laid in waters as deep as 2,000 meters.20

Recent focus on rocket rising mine development indicates for China “a new understanding of the art of sea mine warfare [whereby] it is essential to implement effective sea mine warfare over a vast range of deep sea areas [and to] develop and equip rocket sea mines capable of … mobile attack.”21 The PLA Navy is therefore augmenting its existing inventory of 1970s-80s mines designed to defend littoral areas, most of which “can only be deployed in shallow seas,” and only a fraction of which can be deployed in medium depths. In particular, China’s navy has “started to outfit vertical rocket rising sea mines, and is energetically developing directional rocket sea mines, rocket rising guided missile sea mines and rocket assisted propulsion sea mines.”22

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