The use of naval mines goes back more than two centuries, but the use of these weapons by both Russia and Ukraine has renewed discussion about the value of this technology for modern warfare. Beyond Ukraine, a naval mining operation from 50 years ago offers lessons that can be applied today and signals how naval power can be wielded to great coercive effect in various contingencies.
Naval mines are primarily known for having powerful tactical and operational impacts. Not only can they damage or sink ships, wounding or killing crews, but they can delay or disrupt the operations of entire fleets. However, as history demonstrates, naval mines can also be used to achieve specific strategic ends and as instruments of state power. A robust naval mining program could enable strategic coercion without bloodshed, as was the case when the U.S. mined North Vietnamese ports to coerce it to free American prisoners. Similarly, it can also overtly use these weapons to change other nations’ behavior in contexts below the threshold of full-scale conflict. The U.S. Navy can then clear the mines to ensure safe navigation in return for compliance. This is a cost-effective approach: naval mines can be relatively inexpensive, but investments in mine inventory, minelaying capacity, and training need to be made in advance.
Mining another state’s waters is an act of war, and the target state might fire at U.S. minelaying aircraft if they were able to do so. Against capable adversaries, mines could be laid via submarine: while the minelaying would be clandestine, the existence of the minefield would be publicly announced. Given limited technological developments, low-visibility uncrewed surface vehicles or uncrewed undersea vehicles could also be used as minelayers. Regardless of how the mines might be laid, this is an option worthy of consideration whenever the U.S. military is asked to use coercive force to shape adversary policy.
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