The War in Ukraine and Naval Mines

Soviet anti-landing mine PDM-1M (

With the current Ukrainian offensive in Zaporijia Oblast, Ukrainian sappers are having to deal with the consequences of being in the “most mined country on earth[1].” Sappers are encountering in some areas up to 5 mines per square meter of land. Land mines are the most visible, due to the very active nature of the land war and the countless videos showing the effect of both anti-tank and anti-personnel mines have had and are having during this war, however the mine threat exists also underneath the waves.

Naval mines have been used since the first day of the war by both sides, both as a defensive measure and an interdiction method. At the offset of the war, Ukraine deployed a number of mines to dissuade any Russian landings and as the Russian “Special Military operation” didn’t go according to plan, the Russians deployed mines as well to interdict the use of Ukraine ports to both commercial and military ships. The mines they used were the ones they had in stock, i.e., old soviet sea mines. While both sides blame the other for the deployment of these soviet-era mines, the reality is that the mooring of these was as strong as it once was. The Black sea having quite strong currents and multiple storms ended up untying these mines which then became drifting mines[2]. A drifting mine can be extremely dangerous as it doesn’t discriminate between who laid it, between which sides it hits and more importantly between military targets and civilians. The best-case scenario is that these mines drift onto shore where members of the public can warn authorities who will then dispose of the mine. However not only have Ukrainian civilians already been killed by these drifting mines[3], but a number of ships have also been hit by these including a Romanian minesweeper that was trying to dispose of the mine that hit it[4]. This highlights not only the difficulty to detect these mines but also the difficulty in neutralizing them, which currently consist only in shooting directly at them with small arms fire or canons. We must also remember that drifting mines are only the problem we see, a good portion of these mines are still under the water and will need to be cleared once the war is over to reopen the sea lanes. Furthermore, mine density off the Ukrainian shore is most likely on the rise as, since pulling out of the Black Sea grain deal, Russia has laid new mines of Ukrainian ports[5].

Another threat that has emerged during this war is the use of loitering munitions. Once again due the more active nature of the ongoing land war, when we hear loitering munitions in Ukraine we mostly think of drone dropped grenades and suicide drones. But at sea, Ukraine is working hard to developing systems to harass the Russian navy. The most famous of these are the Ukrainian USVs that have been able to hit an oiler and a Ropucha I-class landing ship[6]. These asymmetric threats are important the Ukrainian strategy as they keep the powerful Russian Black Sea Fleet at bay with relatively small investment in military hardware but Ukraine is also developing smaller and more passive systems such as their Toloka torpedo[7]. While the project is in its early stages and is not clear what the performance of the torpedo is, the deployment of these types of munitions will have an effect on the operability of the sea at the end of the war and the neutralization of these threats will come down to the MCM branch of the navies in the area.

A final threat of interest that has appeared in Ukraine has come following the Russian sabotage of the Kakhovka dam and the emptying of the reservoir. With the drop of the water level a large number of anti-landing mines were revealed[8]. Furthermore, Russia has laid a number of anti-landing mines on the coast of Kherson Oblast[9]. Anti-landing mines are some of the most dangerous threats for the civilian population and they will need to be cleared after the end of the war. These mines pose and interesting problem in the realm of mine clearing operations as they are at the border between being the responsibility of the ground forces or naval forces. In truth the responsibility comes down to the person who controls the shore and the nature of the operation being undertaken. Should an armed force which to undertake an offensive amphibious landing on a mined beach, it will mostly likely be the responsibility of the navy to clear said beach. These anti-landing mines are challenging to clear as they are in very water shallow zones and are often half, if not fully buried. Much like the drifting mines, current MCM systems do not have tailored solutions that can effectively detect and neutralize these threats, thereby posing an operational challenge to the forces facing these threats.

Some hesitates believe it may take as much as 757 years to cleat Ukraine of all the land mines that have been laid during the ongoing war[10], however, this estimate does not even include all the munitions used at sea. What is clear is that mines and munitions use at sea still pose a great threat and although the Ukrainian shore is currently not very active as the naval part of the war is very unbalanced (yet Russia manages to lose a large number of its assets, but that is another matter entirely.) the threat remains and clearing operations will need to take place. One can wander why Russia decided to not undertake any amphibious operations at the onset of the war, despite the fact that speed was the key element of their operation. Were they thinking off the USS Princeton (CG-59) that was hit by an Iraqi mine and which put off any amphibious operations for the rest of Desert Storm? What is sure, is that the threat of Naval Mines will remain in the Black Sea until major mine clearing operations are undertaken once the war is over. For Ukraine to be able to trade freely once more, its sea-lanes will need to be reopen and its beaches cleared, only then will the Ukrainian people be able to regain their full sovereignty. In order to accomplish this, new tools and assets must be developed to help navies detect and neutralize these mines and munitions.