Over the past year, the United States has begun to shift operational strategies away from ongoing counter-terror operations and toward a resurgence of near-peer level threats presented by China’s rapidly expanding military and Russia’s aggressive use of their own limited military capabilities. Over nearly two straight decades of the War on Terror, the United States has, as U.S. Air Force Colonel Michael Pietrucha recently put it, taken its “eye off the ball” when it comes to developing strategies and technologies suited to countering threats posed by national level militaries. America has a deep stable to pull from when it comes to weapons technologies, allowing for some creative new solutions to long standing warfare problems, most recently involving the B-52 bomber.
One such threat America has a renewed focus on countering is the presence of encroaching enemy ships on and below the surface of the water. Earlier this year, for instance, Russia announced a successful training operation in which they deployed nuclear attack submarines to the waters just outside American naval bases all along the East Coast. The United States opted not to formally respond to Russia’s claims, but rapidly announced the return of the Navy’s formerly defunct Second Fleet — which will re-absorb operations as America’s primary line of defense along the East Coast and in the Northern Atlantic where Russian submarine activity is said to be at its highest since the Cold War.
Elsewhere in the world, the United States faces similar waterborne threats in places like the contested waterways of the Pacific. China’s rapidly expanding Navy may only truly be a regional power at the moment, but within that region, their power is becoming significant. A conflict in the Pacific would rapidly become a quagmire of complicated alliances and bloody naval battles, and while China employed their advanced hypersonic anti-ship missiles as a means to enforce an area denial “bubble,” America’s anti-ship strategies would have to remain rather traditional: using ships and mines to deter the approach of any opponents.
That’s right, the U.S. Navy and Air Force have taken a renewed interest in the laying of offensive mines, which serve as a powerful deterrent for surface ships and submarines alike. However, thanks to some off-the-shelf technology developed for other applications, America’s newest sea-mine laying methodology could offer a variety of new uses for one of the oldest Naval tricks in the book.
America’s storied B-52 bomber, which first took to the skies in the early 1950s, continues to find new life through advanced weapons technologies. Seen as too big and slow to fly in contested airspace, the B-52 remains an integral part of America’s defense apparatus thanks to its reliability and size — in short, it’s an extremely effective platform just as long as you can keep it out of contested airspace. That poses a problem when it comes to mine laying operations, which can be conducted from aircraft, but in order to do so, they traditionally need to fly low and slow in order to disperse the mines effectively. Putting a B-52 only a few hundred feet above the wave tops and telling it to cruise just north of its stall speed in an area of the ocean that will likely see enemy ships is a recipe for a lot of shot down B-52s.
That’s where combining existing technology comes into play. First, the U.S. Air Force took a Quickstrike mine, which is, in itself, just a Mark 80 series general purpose conventional bomb equipped with a detonator and detection device. Used in depths reaching up to 300 feet, these mines sit on the sea bed and wait for indications of a vessel overhead. Unlike the sea mines employed in conflicts like World War II however, these mines can offer a great deal of flexibility when it comes to defensive operations. They can be armed for certain periods of time or even be programmed to only engage certain types of vessels. These highly capable mines offer an excellent means of defending a waterway, but their value as a mine increases dramatically when coupled with technology developed for the JDAM-ER, which is effectively a kit that can convert some “dumb” bombs into highly accurate standoff weapons.
By equipping Quickstrike mines with the JDAM-ER kit, as Tyler Rogoway at the War Zone points out, these mines can be dropped en masse from a B-52 as much as 40 miles away from the aquatic mine field it’s laying. The mines will travel on their own to the target zone and then deposit themselves with a high degree of accuracy exactly where they need to be for maximum effect.
That means the B-52 can lay entire minefields in a single sweep without ever entering into contested air space, but it also offers new capabilities never before employed in such a defensive weapon. When launched from B-52s or even smaller aircraft like F/A-18 Super Hornets, these “Quickstrike-ER” mines could be launched at rivers or landlocked waterways that play a valuable role in an enemy’s domestic infrastructure. In fact, mines could be launched and placed in any body of water U.S. aircraft are able to get to within 40 miles or so of. When coupled with stealth aircraft, that means the U.S. could strategically mine just about any waterway on the planet.