Sea Transportation: The Chinese Nightmare

June 10, 2007: What China fears the most from the U.S. Navy is an attack that plants naval mines outside Chinas principal ports. China has a long (14,500 kilometers) coastline, and has been putting a lot of effort into defending it, and the ports that are a key part of the booming economy. Mindful of Americas efforts to build a new class of coastal warships (the LCS), China has developed a family of anti-ship missiles that can be launched from coastal positions. The 220 pound C701 has a range of 15 kilometers. The C704 weighs 700 pounds and has a range of 35 kilometers. The C802 weighs 1,600 pounds and has a range of 120-180 kilometers, depending on the version. The C602 weighs 3,000 pounds and has a range of over 280 kilometers. China has bought anti-ship missiles from Russia with even longer ranges, and is adapting their technology to their own designs. While all these missiles make it difficult for hostile warships to get close to the Chinese coast, stopping enemy aircraft and submarines are another matter. Since World War II, the United States has continued its preference for delivering naval mines via aircraft and submarine. China has invested heavily in the most modern Russian anti-aircraft systems. While comparable to the U.S. Patriot, the Russian equipment is untested in combat. China is even worse off when it comes to anti-submarine warfare. Keeping out those American naval mines looks like an impossible task. The U.S. B-2 Stealth bomber was designed for solo missions like this, in addition to aircraft from carriers.

During World War II, 2,665 ships were lost or damaged by "offensive" 100,000 naval mines (placed where ships were expected to move). That's one ship for every 37 mines. Some 208,000 mines were used defensively to inhibit enemy movement and tie up his resources.

During World War II, naval mines proved more destructive to the Japanese war effort than the atom bombs. During a 10 week period between April and August 1945, 12,000 mines were delivered by American bombers. These destroyed 1,250,000 tons of Japanese shipping (670 ships hit, 431 destroyed). That's 18 mines for each ship hit.

A conventional submarine campaign was also waged against Japanese shipping, but the mines turned out to be a more effective weapon. A hundred submarines were involved in a campaign that ran for 45 months from December, 1941 to August, 1945. Some 4.8 million tons of enemy shipping was sunk. For every US submarine sailor lost using submarine launched torpedoes, 560 tons of enemy ships were sunk. During the mine campaign, 3,500 tons were sunk for each US fatality. On a cost basis, the difference was equally stark. Counting the cost of lost mine laying aircraft (B-29's at $500,000 each) or torpedo armed submarine ($5 million each), we find that each ton of sunk shipping cost six dollars when using mines and fifty-five dollars when using submarines. These data was classified as secret until the 1970s. It indicates that mines might have been more effective than torpedoes even if the mines were delivered by submarine.

The Germans waged a minelaying campaign off the east coast of the United States between 1942 and 1944. Only 317 mines were used, which sank or damaged 11 ships. This was a ratio of 29 mines used for each ship hit. In addition, eight ports were closed for a total of 40 days. One port, Charleston, South Carolina, was closed for 16 days, tying up not only merchant shipping but the thousands of men, warships and aircraft dealing with the situation. American submarines also waged a limited mine campaign in the Pacific. For 658 mines used, 54 ships were sunk or damaged (12 mines per ship). No subs were lost. Considerable Japanese resources were tied up dealing with the mines. On the Palau atoll, the port was closed by the mines and not reopened until the war ended. Even surface ships were used to lay mines. Three thousand mines were laid by destroyers. Only 12 ships were hit, but these were barrier fields, not the ambush type mine fields that a submarine can create by sneaking into an enemy held area.

Since World War II, naval mines have not lost their edge. The mines have become more capable, and have more than kept up with methods used to find and destroy them. This has been demonstrated numerous times in the last sixty years. At the moment, China is more vulnerable to naval mines, than to any other type of American naval weapon. Any Chinese plans for naval operations has to deal with this vulnerability. At the moment, China comes up short in defending against any American naval force determined to deliver those mines.

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