U.S. Is Betting Big On Naval Mine Warfare With These New Sub-Launched and Air-Dropped Types

In the next few years, the Navy hopes to develop four new mines to help deny enemy navies freedom of movement during major conflicts.

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With naval mines seeing a renaissance of sorts in recent years, the U.S. Navy has been work to modernizing its mine-hunting and sweeping capabilities. At the same time, the service is also developing its own new and improved air-dropped and submarine-launched mines, which could be important weapons for itself and the U.S. Air Force to have in any future high-end conflicts against a major adversary with a large conventional navy.

U.S. Navy Captain Danielle George, the service’s Major Program Manager for Mine Warfare, gave an overview of the systems in development now and projects that have just recently begun at the National Defense Industry Association’s (NDIA) annual Expeditionary Warfare Conference on Oct. 16, 2018. NDIA just posted her presentation online earlier this week.

At present, the Navy fields the Quickstrike family of air-dropped naval mines and the Submarine-Launched Mobile Mine (SLMM). The U.S. Air Force also employs Quickstrike types on various aircraft, but the program is Navy-managed.

The Quickstrike family includes 500-, 1,000-, and 2,000-pound class types, known as the Mk 62, Mk 63, and Mk 64 respectively. Theese converted from Mk 80-series high-explosive bombs and feature a fuzing system that detonates the weapon when it detects an appropriate acoustic, seismic, or pressure signatures from a passing vessel. A fourth type, Mk 65, is another 2,000-pound class Quickstrike mine, but is based on an actual purpose-built mine casing rather than an existing bomb.

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An airmen prepared to load a Mk 65 Quickstrike mine onto a B-1 bomber during a drill.

For more than four years now, the Navy has been pursuing two related upgrade programs, known as Quickstrike-J and Quickstrike-ER, for the Mk 80-series members of the Quickstrike family. The first of these simply combines the mine with a GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) guidance package, while the latter adds a pop-out wing kit.

These are game-changing upgrades that allow aircraft to precisely employ the mines from any altitude and, in the case of the -ER types, loft them at targets up to 40 miles away. This speeds up the process of laying the minefields overall and dramatically reduces the vulnerability to the aircraft carrying the weapons, which would otherwise have to fly low-and-slow to perform the mission. You can read about both of these mines in more detail in a recent profile of them here at The War Zone.

In addition to these upgraded Quickstrikes, the Navy is developing a new air-dropped mine called Hammerhead. This will serve as a replacement for the Mk 60 Encapsulated Torpedo, or CAPTOR, which the service retired years ago.

A very different type of weapon from the Quickstrike mines, CAPTOR consisted of a Mk 46 lightweight torpedo inside a launch canister. After hitting the water, an anchor would deploy, holding it in place at depths up to 2,000 feet.

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Airmen prepare to load a Mk 60 CAPTOR onto a B-52G bomber during an exercise in 1989.

The weapon had a Reliable Acoustic Path (RAP) passive sonar targeting system that could discriminate between hostile submarines and surface vessels and friendly submarines that might also be operating in the area. Once it detected an enemy target, it would fire the torpedo, which would then use its own guidance package to home in on the opponent. The Mk 67 SLMM, which is still in service, is of the basic design, but gets shot out of a submarine’s torpedo tube.

Unlike the shallow-water Quickstrike mines, CAPTOR did not require the target vessel to pass directly overhead. Its deep-water capability also made it more effective against enemy submarines and difficult for opponents to detect in general. 

The Navy’s Hammerhead program plans to leverage the older CAPTOR’s basic casing and air-drop components, such as the lugs to attach it to an aircraft. However, the new weapons will have improved targeting sensors, electronics, and software, along with better batteries to power the upgraded systems. 

The mine will also have a modular design and use open-architecture software with an eye toward adding in new and improved detection and other capabilities in the future. Depending on the improvements made to the batteries in Hammerhead, the weapon could potentially lie in wait even longer than the CAPTOR, which could remain active for months.

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A graphic showing Hammerhead's internal configuration and what components it will leverage from the earlier Mk 60 CAPTOR 

Work on the Hammerhead only began in 2018. The Navy expects to issue a classified request for information to defense contractors interested in building the weapons in 2019, Captain George’s briefing explained.

It’s not clear whether submarines will be able to launch Hammerhead, as well, at which point it could serve as a replacement for the Mk 67 SLMM. The Navy had initially planned to retire these existing submarine-launched mines in 2012, but U.S. Navy Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, interceded personally to save that capability.

Separately, the Navy is developing a new mine that both submarines and future large unmanned undersea vehicles will be able to employ, known as the Clandestine Delivered Mine (CDM).   

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A low-quality image of one of the CDM prototypes that accompanied Captain George's breifing. 

Very little information appears publicly available on this particular system, development of which began in 2016. Prototypes are in testing now, according to Captain George’s briefing.

In its budget request for the 2018 Fiscal Year, the Navy asked for $5.8 million specifically to work on developing an unmanned underwater vehicle that could carry two CDMs at once. That same request also outlined plans to investigate integrating the Mk 67 SLMM into an underwater drone.

A full end-to-end test of the system is scheduled to occur in 2019. The Navy hopes to begin taking delivery of the first production mines in 2020.

The Navy is already set to gain a major boost in capability with the Quickstrike-J and -ER. Being able to rapidly emplace complex minefields over a wide area can only prompt an opponent to reconsider their plan of action and make them leery of operating in certain areas. It also requires them to dedicate additional resources to searching for and clearing the hazards, which can be a time-consuming and dangerous process under the best of conditions. 

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A Quickstrike-ER mine under the wing of a B-52H bomber.

Since these Quickstrike mines don't require a low-altitude release, stealthy aircraft will also be able to penetrate deeper into hostile territory and lay them down in rivers and canals. Add in submarines or unmanned undersea vehicles, or submarine motherships carrying underwater drones, able to discreetly seed mines in certain areas, potentially well away from a main theater of operations, and the threat to enemy naval movements and logistics chains would be even more pronounced.

The Hammerhead will likely have a major anti-submarine role just like CAPTOR did previously. This comes at a time when the Navy, in particular, is sounding the alarm about expanding submarine threats from potential "great power" adversaries, such as Russia and China. Advanced non-nuclear submarine technology is steadily proliferating, too, meaning that smaller states will increasingly be able to field more capable types.

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A graphic from the US Navy's 2004 roadmap for unmanned undersea vehicles discussing possible payloads for underwater drones, including mines.

Altogether, the Navy's forthcoming naval mine arsenal will be extremely valuable in constrained naval environments, such as the Baltic Sea, where minefields could effectively block access entirely to an opposing force. The mines will be just as important in expeditionary and distributed operations across large maritime environments, such as in the Pacific Ocean, where the known presence or threat of mines could slow down a hostile force or help channel them in specific directions.

Naval mines also have defensive applications and being able to rapidly emplace them could provide an additional layer of defense around strategic naval bases and ports, as well as established or temporary outposts on small islands, during a crisis. In the latter case, they could be useful in deterring immediate enemy amphibious counterattacks and give ground units some extra breathing room to continue establishing a beachhead for follow-on forces.

With American aircraft able to rapidly create shallow-water minefields and the threat of submarines and underwater drones covertly emplacing threats in deeper waters or behind the front lines, an opponent might find themselves wary of just leaving port when it matters most. The Navy's new and improved stockpile will help ensure the service maintains these important capabilities to deny enemies freedom of movement and force them to reconsider their plans of attack.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com