NAVAL MINEWARFARE: POLITICS TO PRACTICALITIES

April 16, 2020
Posted by: Lt Cdr Ott Laanemets, Estonian Navy

Finally, a comprehensive treatment of naval mine warfare (MW) is published in the English language. Since WWII, MW is a little researched and written topic compared to general naval history, warfare and strategy. It seems that not much about modern MW has leaked out from the navies. Surprisingly, there is even no consensus between Western naval doctrine, i.e. NATO’s/US’s, and academic literature of how to name the types of minefields. The terms offensive, defensive and protective minefields are identified in both, but defined differently. Therefore, a book by a professional mine clearance diver and a mine warfare officer, such as Captain O’Flaherty, is a valuable contribution, giving insight into the modern discipline based on first-hand experience in addition to academic research.

The book starts with chapters about mines and mine countermeasures (MCM), explaining types of mines and MCM equipment, how they function, how they are commonly used and related concepts. These chapters are a good refresher for practitioners and a simple introduction to non-insiders. Then the mining events through history are covered. While mining before WWII is described in general terms, all 24 events after WWII are described in detail. Although Captain O’Flaherty clearly states that his intent is not to predict the future of MW, his analysis of post-WWII mining events, all of which took place in the context of limited war, gives food for thought of what future MW in a hybrid type scenario might look like.

Thereafter the book turns to legal issues related to both minelaying and MCM. This chapter does not give definite answers, but sheds light on the complexity and unregulated nature of MW in international law. While during standard MW training courses the students are informed about the content of The Hague Convention (VIII) relative to the Laying of Automatic Submarine Contact Mines from 1907 (the only international treaty on naval MW), there seems to be no consensus whether this applies to all states as a customary law or still only to those 29 states that have ratified it. In addition, MW activities are put into context of international maritime and humanitarian law, which do not specifically mention MW.

The book continues with the strategy and doctrine of MW. The author identifies two warheads of mines – the kinetic, which most practitioners are normally concerned of, but also the psychological warhead, which is more complicated to grasp, which brings second and more order effects, and might even be more important than the kinetic one. Thus, the treatment of strategy and doctrine is built upon models of naval suasion – persuading the enemy of doing or from doing something you want.

Thereafter, statecraft related to MW is elaborated, showing with historical examples how naval suasion has worked and not worked in statecraft. A point made is that successful achievement of one’s objectives with mines requires communications. Covert and unattributed mining has rarely worked, but rather backfired strategically for the minelayer. Lastly, the measures of effect are analysed, making the point that counting tonnage sunk is not always the appropriate measure of effectiveness. Although it is hard to prove the negative, but if the objective is to deny enemy access to a certain sea area or prevent him from doing something, it does not matter if any ships are actually sunk.

The book is well written, with footnotes preventing potential misunderstandings. Of extra value is the checklist for ship owners, port authorities and merchant captains of how to prepare and what to do when sailing through a mine threat area and when a mine actually strikes. This is in contrast to NATO’s ATP-2.2 naval cooperation manual for the merchant community, which contains only generic guidelines.

Highly recommended for general understanding and as a reference book of contemporary MW and compulsory reading for mine warfare practitioners.