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Cheonan Sinking Highlights Naval Mine Threat

(South Korean Navy’s Ship Salvage Unit dispatching a patrol to rescue possible survivors from a sunken naval ship near North Korea. Source: Ahn Jung-hwa.)

By: Project 2049 Institute |

The South Korean Navy patrol ship Cheonan suffered a mysterious explosion and sank in the waters disputed between the two Koreas on March 26. While the cause of the explosion has yet to be determined, officials suggest that the vessel may have been the victim of a North Korean mine – either a relic of the Korean War or more recently laid by North Korean ships. North Korea maintains a large stockpile of mines and would be expected to use them to protect their coastline from attack during conflict on the Korean peninsula. Although an old technology, naval mines remain a potent threat to maritime transit as well as in potential theaters of naval conflict in Asia.

Along with North Korea, China maintains an extensive arsenal of naval mines. Noting the success of mine laying in WWII and first Gulf War, People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) strategists believe that mine warfare could play a significant role in China’s plans to defeat a technologically advanced American military. The PLAN is the only major navy to regularly practice mine-laying, conduct annual mine warfare exercises, and would likely make use of mines as part of its anti-access strategy in a cross-Strait conflict. Along the coast, mines could be deployed to blockade Taiwan’s harbors. Further offshore, mines could complicate anti-submarine efforts and restrict the maneuvering of warships making them more vulnerable to other forms of attack. The PLAN deploys submarines, surface combatants and aircraft capable of laying mines.

If the U.S. became involved in a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, or other regional hotspots, mine warfare would be a major concern for the U.S. navy. Concerns have been raised over U.S. readiness for mine warfare. Although the Navy currently maintains a fleet of mine countermeasures ships, including four permanently based in Japan, these ships are aging and in demand for minesweeping in the Persian Gulf. To replace dedicated mine countermeasures ships, the U.S. Navy has designed a mine warfare module equipped with sea and aerial sensors and autonomous vehicles for the planned Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). The LCS, however, has faced serious production delays and cost overruns which may lead to the ships entering service later and in fewer numbers, thereby restricting the ability of the U.S. to cope with the naval mine threat. Despite attention on new anti-access technologies such as nuclear submarines and ballistic missiles, naval mines remain a dangerous weapon. The United States needs to maintain and expand its ability to conduct mine warfare operations to meet potential challenges in Asia.