Weapons: Russian Mines in the Black Sea


December 19, 2023: When Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, it mined the waters off the Crimean Peninsula. Russia expected to win its war but when that did not happen some of those mines either broke loose or were cut loose and drifted into shipping lanes used by Ukrainian and NATO ships. By early 2023 over 40 of these mines had been found and destroyed. It is unknown how many mines are still out there but the NATO countries that border the Black Sea continue to look for them. Some of these mines were bottom mines which, unlike floating mines, are kept in place by a chain attached to a weight on the seabed and sometimes the chain breaks. There are also bottom mines that are placed on the seabed and don’t drift around. Russia does not appear to have used bottom mines in the Black Sea.

In mid-2023 there was a sudden increase in the number of free floating mines between Crimea and the narrow straits Turkey controls that lead to the Mediterranean and the world’s oceans. Turkey and other NATO nations control most of the Black Sea coastline, especially the southern and western Black Sea coasts. The Russian navy still controls most of the eastern Black Sea and is believed responsible for more than 400 free floating naval mines showing up west of Crimean since mid-2023.

Few of these mines appear to be tethered mines that broke loose from their chains. That is an old problem with Russian made floating mines. Tethered mines are designed to have their weighted base sink to the bottom of shallow (less than 20 meters) water. Most of the mines currently in the Black Sea were apparently released into the water without any tether. The use of naval mines is diminished because they are not much of a threat to warships, which are constantly on the lookout for them, and most commercial ships are too big to sink after encountering one of these mines. There is some hull damage and flooding, but not enough to sink a ship.

The mines are a danger to smaller commercial ships, especially fishing trawlers, not to mention some large private vessels like yachts. Some NATO counties with Black Sea coastlines have organized a mine clearing operation. Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria contribute mine clearing vessels and equipment. NATO members that do not border the Black Sea but do have a lot of commercial shipping operating in the Black Sea are also contributing mine clearing ships and equipment.

The situation worsened because of a massive storm that ravaged the Black Sea coastline on November 26th and 27th. Such a storm has not occurred in the Black Sea for over a century and the damage was extensive. Military facilities and fortifications on the coast were damaged or destroyed. Ships at sea, especially smaller ones, were damaged or sunk. Some ships at sea ran ashore. The ten meter (30 f00t) waves were particularly damaging to ports and coastal military facilities in Crimea.

A less visible form of damage was the number of moored, by a chain to a weight on the sea bottom, naval mines. The powerful storm broke the chains and set these mines free. This added another hazard for commercial shipping in the Black Sea.

Floating contact mines are a 19th century development that has been improved on for over a century and is still used because they are cheap and effective. Iran has acquired a stockpile of 3,000 to 6,000 mines, mostly of Soviet/Russian, Chinese or North Korean origin. Most are unsophisticated but still dangerous moored contact mines, like those that damaged several American warships in the Persian Gulf during 1991. These mines had been released by Iraq. Iran's current arsenal of sea mines is estimated to number around 2,000 and includes the domestically produced Sadaf-01/02 moored contact mines as well as more sophisticated bottom mines that depend on battery-operated sensors to detect ships passing overhead and detonate when a ship of the desired type comes by. These mines put holes in ships’ bottoms, which causes serious flooding that often sinks them. Naval forces with the right equipment can easily find and disable bottom mines and that’s what happened to the ones Iran supplied to the Yemen Shia rebels. The rebels had only a few such mines, and apparently no more were smuggled in after so many were found and destroyed by naval mine clearing ships.

Some nations are still working on new mines and mine delivery systems. The U.S. Navy believes robotic subs carrying mobile mines would be an effective new ASW (Anti-submarine warfare) asset because the U.S. is already developing some of the new ASW technology needed for this. This includes UUVs (Unmanned Underwater Vessels) and mobile mines. Over a decade ago the navy adopted civilian underwater UUVs used for monitoring the oceans to do that as well as collect data useful for wartime submarine operations. With a growing number of civilian and military customers, American UUV developers and manufacturers have been coming up with new ocean research UUVs that also have military applications. The latest example of this is the new class of XLUUVs with the ability to go deeper, carry a cargo bay for other research gear to be stored and deployed from, and operate autonomously for up to six months. The first of these XLUUVs was the Echo Voyager, which Boeing developed from a research project and had the first one ready for testing in 2016. The tests were successful and have involved more complex and completely autonomous operations. In 2019 the navy ordered four militarized “Orca” versions of the Echo Voyager for $11 million each.

Both models are diesel-electric powered autonomous subs that are 16 meters (51 feet) long with a payload compartment 9.1 meters long, 2.6 meters (8.5 feet) in diameter and are wholly inside the pressure hull. Propulsion is by battery powered electric motors and diesel generators to recharge the batteries when on or near the surface. This XLUUV has no topside sail and can stay underwater for days at a time because there is no crew on board to sustain. While submerged these UUVs can move at 14 kilometers an hour and have sufficient generator fuel to travel 12,000 kilometers.

The main difference between Echo Voyager and Orca is that Echo Voyager is built to dive to extreme (3,400 meters/11,000 feet) depths. Orca does without that but adds additional passive sensors and signal processing computers to detect other submarines or surface ships. There is also an underwater communications system for arming the dozen Hammerhead mobile mines Orca is designed to carry and place on the ocean floor in areas like the South China Sea. These Hammerhead bottom mines carry a Mk 54 lightweight torpedo, which is normally carried by ASW helicopters and aircraft. Mk 54 has a range of ten kilometers and a guidance system that is regularly updated. Hammerhead is being used in a similar fashion to a larger version of this used during the Cold War that deployed a larger Mk 48 torpedo. Hammerhead is an encapsulated system equipped with passive sensors to detect and identify submarines and surface ships and attack specific types of targets, like diesel-electric subs larger than Orca.

Ever since the end of the Cold War a growing number of American naval officers and civilian experts have been urging that more attention be paid to dealing with naval mines. The United States was not alone and in 2012 that led to the U.S. and over 30 other nations conducting a joint mine clearing exercise, called the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise 2012 (September 16-27). The numerous training events were directed at dealing with Iranian attempts to block the entrance (Straits of Hormuz) to the Persian Gulf. The impact of that exercise led to another being held annually ever since. While Iran is the most immediate user of naval mines, it is not alone. North Korea, China and Russia have much larger naval mine stockpiles, but these three are not boasting of how and when they would use them.

Iran insists that because of its mines and other weapons it will have no trouble blocking the export of oil via the Straits of Hormuz. Some 35 percent of the world's oil shipments pass through these straits, which comes to about 15-20 tankers a day (plus a dozen or more non-tankers). The Persian Gulf, in general, is a busy waterway. It is 989 kilometers long and the average depth is 50 meters (maximum depth is 90 meters). Naval mines are Iran's best bet if they want to shut down the straits. The Iranian problem is that they have a small navy, an obsolete air force, and a poor track record when it comes to shutting down tanker traffic in the Persian Gulf or the Straits of Hormuz. They tried once before, in the 1980s, when they were at war with Iraq. The two nations began attacking each other's tanker traffic early on, in an attempt to cut off each other's oil sales and, thus, military purchases. Iran didn't want to shut the Straits of Hormuz because it needed the oil revenue more than did Iraq, which was also getting billions in aid from other Arab states. Each country concentrated on attacking shipping in the Persian Gulf. Over 500 ships were attacked, 61 percent of them tankers. Only 23 percent of the tankers attacked, mainly with anti-ship missiles, were sunk or immobilized. The attacks, using fighter-bombers and warships, only hit about two percent of the ship traffic in the Gulf. Iran lowered its oil prices to cover the higher cost of ship insurance and, in 1986, Russia and the United States intervened to protect Kuwaiti and Iraqi tankers, which were taking most of the damage.

The Iranian military realized it was in worse shape in 2012 than it was in the 1980s and would not last long trying to attack ships. That left the Straits of Hormuz. This is actually a wide, about 30 kilometers and deep channel. Normally, shipping sticks to narrow, as in a few kilometers wide, channels going in and out, to avoid collisions. The main Iranian threat has always been seen as naval mines. The Arab states have a lot of mine clearing equipment and more numerous air and naval forces than Iran. In addition, there are the United States and NATO forces in the area. The problem was that all these mine clearing forces had never practiced under realistic, simulated wartime conditions. In short it has long been unclear exactly what it would take to deal with Iranian mines in the straits. Many of those questions were finally answered in 2012 and during subsequent mine clearing exercises.

For an Iranian mining attempt to work they would have to get the mines onto the bottom of the straits and then prevent the rest of the world from clearing those mines. That would be difficult, as will Iranian attempts to plant additional mines. Such attempts would not be impossible as Iran has small submarines and speed boats along with sailors willing to carry out suicidal missions to deliver the mines. Even that may not be sufficient, as this sort of fanaticism failed against the Americans in the 1980s. While Iran has worked to overcome their shortcomings, most of the solutions appear to be publicity stunts mainly meant to make the Iranian population feel better.

Iran has a few thousand naval mines, which is a small arsenal compared to Russia, with over 200,000, China with over 100,000 and North Korea with over 50,000. It is generally agreed that all these mines are a serious danger. While often ignored, naval mines are a formidable weapon, though these passive weapons just don't get any respect. The historical record indicates otherwise.

Modern naval mines were widely used for the first time over a century ago, during the Russo-Japanese war (1904- 1905). These were contact mines, floating in shallow water and kept in place with an anchor and chain. When the tide was right, they would be just below the surface, ready to explode whenever struck by a ship. Some 2,000 of these mines were used to destroy sixteen ships during the Russo-Japanese war. That's one ship lost for every 125 mines used.

During the 1914-18 World War I, modern mine tactics and clearing methods evolved. Thousands of mines were laid to provide defensive barriers against enemy movement in the North Sea. Mines were also used offensively by secretly placing them across known enemy sea routes. More than 1,000 merchant and war ships were lost because of the 230,000 mines used. That's over 200 mines used for every ship lost.

During World War II there was a major effort to develop better mine clearing methods to deal with an even larger number of mines. Despite that, during 1939-45 World War II 2,665 ships were lost or damaged by about 100,000 naval mines. That's one ship for every 37 mines. Some 208,000 mines were used defensively to inhibit enemy movement and tie up his resources.

Naval mines achieved several striking successes during World War II. In the Pacific 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 to the Japanese coast 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. The Americans had air superiority, so losses during these 1,500 missions amounted to only 15 planes, most of them accidents. Had these missions been flown against opposition, losses would have been between 30 and 60 aircraft, plus similar losses to their fighter escorts. Either way it was a stunning success for naval mines.

A conventional submarine campaign was also waged against Japanese shipping using mines. Comparisons between subs using mines and torpedoes are interesting. 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 with torpedoes. 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 U.S. fatality. On a cost basis the difference was equally stark. Counting the cost of lost mine laying aircraft, B- 29's cost about $500,000 each, or torpedo armed submarines that cost $5 million each, we find that each ton of sunk shipping cost six dollars when using mines and fifty-five dollars when using submarines. This 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. More importantly eight major 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, at a cost of 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.

In Korea during the early 1950s, the Soviets provided North Korea with 3,000 mines, many of 1904 vintage. These were used to defend Wonson harbor. It took several weeks for UN forces to clear these, at a loss of a dozen ships hit. Half of those ships were destroyed.

During the Vietnam War over 300,000 American naval mines were used, primarily in rivers. The vast majority were not built as mines but were aerial bombs equipped with magnetic sensors instead of fuzes. These bombs/mines used a small parachute to insure that no damage occurred on landing. In shallow water these makeshift weapons sat on the bottom and performed as well as mines. Haiphong Harbor was actually mined with 11,000 of these destructors, as the US air force called them, and less than a hundred conventional mines. Haiphong Harbor was shut down completely for months, and it took years to clear out all the American mines. The destructor mine design was so successful that it is still in use, using more modern electronics, as the Mk 62 mine.

During the 1991 Gulf War the Iraqis laid over a thousand mines off the Iraqi and Kuwaiti coast. The predominantly US naval forces did not have sufficient mine sweeping resources to deal with this situation and had a helicopter carrier and cruiser hit and damaged while trying to clear the area. This effectively prevented any US amphibious operations, although the Marines were not going to be used for a landing anyway. It took over a month of mine clearing after the fighting ceased to eliminate all the mines. In the meantime, two U.S. warships were damaged by these mines. In 2003, the Iraqis again tried to use mines, but were hampered by prompt American, British, and Kuwaiti action.

In any future war naval mines will again surprise everyone with how effective they are. It is feared that terrorists might get their hands on some bottom mines, but so far, there do not appear to have been any attempts.

Meanwhile the 2012 international mine clearing exercise prompted the United States to make several moves to improve mine clearing capability. The U.S. Navy ordered several dozen more of the expendable SeaFox UUVs (unmanned underwater vehicles). These are used to destroy bottom mines, which sit on the seabed. These UUVs were sent to the Persian Gulf to deal with potential Iranian use of naval miles. The Seafox UUVs are used on Avenger mine hunting ships already in the Persian Gulf.

SeaFox is a small (1.4x.4x.2 meters/55x16x8 inches) battery-powered sub that weighs 43 kg (95 pounds) and has a fiber-optic cable connecting it to a surface ship or hovering helicopter. There the controller can move the SeaFox close to a suspected mine (using a small sonar unit to assist navigation), then turn on a spotlight for a video camera to examine the object and determine if it is a mine. If it is, SeaFox gets closer and detonates a shaped charge explosive, sending a shaft of hot plasma through the mine destroying itself and the mine. SeaFox has an endurance of about 100 minutes, a top speed of 10 kilometers an hour, and can dive as deep as 300 meters (930 feet).

The only American minesweeper ships are the 13 Avengers. These are 72.3 meter (224 foot) long ships that draw only 4.8 meters (15 feet) of water, enabling them to operate close to shore. The crews are supposed to be trained in navigating such shallow areas. The Avengers are armed with two .50 cal. (12.7mm) machine guns, two 7.62mm machine guns, two 40mm automatic grenade launchers, and have a crew of 84. In 2012 four Avengers were in the Persian Gulf, operating out of Bahrain. Another three were based in Sasebo, Japan. The other six are based at San Diego, California.

The U.S. Navy needs these minesweepers because replacements, like minesweeping helicopters, have been delayed by technical problems. Meanwhile the U.S. has upgraded the sonars on its Avenger class ships. The new AN/SQQ-32(V)4 mine hunting sonar improves the ability of the sonar to spot mines on sea bottoms cluttered with other stuff (natural or manmade). In many parts of the world shallow coastal waters are used as a dumping ground for junk that won’t float ashore. This has been found to help hide bottom mines. The Avengers have also received new engines. The four original diesel engines in each Avenger were never very reliable. With their new engines the Avengers can still move at up to 27 kilometers an hour. Normally, however, the Avengers move much more slowly, at 3-4 kilometers an hour when searching for mines. The Avengers also received improved hydraulics and new mine destruction systems. The Avengers entered service between 1987 and 1994. Most are scheduled for retirement by the end of the decade.

The navy also had a dozen smaller Osprey class coastal mine hunters. These were 900 ton displacement ships with a crew of 51. Most but these were given away to foreign navies and are to be replaced by new minesweeping helicopters.

The navy has equipped helicopters for mine clearing but is having a difficult time maintaining its force of 30 MH-53E helicopters. These are the only ones that can tow a sled containing naval mine detecting gear. This sort of thing is called AMCM (Airborne Mine Countermeasures) and is considered essential in areas, like the Persian Gulf, where Iran might use a lot of naval mines that would have to be cleared quickly in wartime.

The MH-53E is an update of the original 1960s era CH-53 and entered service in the early 1980s. Fifty MH-53Es were built and they have been working hard ever since. That’s why not many are left and few of them are fit to fly at any one time. Originally the navy planned to retire the MH-53Es in 2008, but replacements with lighter sleds that could be pulled by smaller and more modern helicopters did not work out as expected. Retirement was pushed to 2012, then 2017 and currently the navy hopes to keep some MH-53Es operational into the 2020s.

Meanwhile efforts continue to develop lighter equipment for the mine hunting task. Some of these projects have had limited success. The AQS-24A mine-hunting system looks like a torpedo with extra fins and attachment. It is lowered into the water and dragged by a helicopter at speeds of up to 34 kilometers an hour. The AQS-24A contains a high resolution sonar that seeks out mines that lay on the sea bottom, waiting for ships to pass over. The bottom mine then detonates if a ship type it was programmed to attack is detected. The U.S. Navy has been using this mine hunting approach since the 1980s. The original sled system went through several major upgrades and is considered very reliable and effective. The MH-53E sled carries more equipment and sweeps a larger area faster.

The U.S. Navy has also developed a complementary system, ALMDS (Airborne Laser Mine Detection System). Designed to operate from the MH-60S helicopter, ALMDS uses a Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging blue-green laser to detect and identify naval mines near the surface. Unlike the AQS-24A, ALMDS operates from the low flying, and smaller, helicopters. Surface mines are either moored via a chain to the bottom or floating, which is a favorite terrorist tactic. Many float just below the surface. The laser works very quickly and enables the ALMDS equipped helicopter to quickly check out large areas for surface mines. Terrorists have used naval mines before, of the floating variety. Navies tend to use the more sophisticated, expensive and hard-to-get bottom mines that lie on the bottom and in shallow water.

American allies have also developed new mine detection and clearing tools and some of the new U.S. equipment uses foreign tech. While new mine designs have become more effective, the basic problem is that the many older mine designs are still very dangerous, especially for the unprepared.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close