Chinese Mines Pose Taiwan Blockade Threat
Exercises to rapidly deploy or preposition U.S. minesweepers to Taiwan could deter such activity.
The People’s Republic of China is building the necessary infrastructure to mine the ports of Taiwan should military conflict break out between the two governments. This capability would give China an effective blockade ability without the risk of escalation that would emerge from a direct military confrontation with the United States.
China’s desire to reunify the island with the mainland was emphasized recently with the unopposed adoption by China’s National People’s Congress of a measure authorizing the use of force against Taiwan in response to any move by the island toward independence. Lacking the naval and air power to blockade or invade Taiwan, even if the U.S. fleet did not respond, China could see the maximum gain from mines with minimum investment and risk. Taiwan has only 12 minesweepers compared to hundreds of People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) mine warfare forces in 2000. Covert PLAN mining operations off Taiwan ports would be conducted by air, surface or underwater platforms.
A People’s Republic of China (PRC) commitment to blockade or close off Taiwan’s two major ports by using intermediate range ballistic missiles rather than mines—which are inexpensive, invisible, hard to clear and more efficient—was good media. However, the effectiveness of a mining campaign means that its potential should not be overlooked.
U.S. and allied forces have a commitment to maintain free movement in the Taiwan Straits, and any mining in those straits could pose a severe threat to surface travel. In recent years, a U.S. Navy command ship and an Aegis cruiser have been crippled with World War II vintage contact mines in the Middle East. Exercises to rapidly deploy or to preposition U.S. Navy and allied mine sweepers to Taiwan should be a high priority, as they would offer the potential of maximum payoff and deterrence of mining activity by the PRC.
Open information on PLAN mine warfare is limited to sketchy descriptions of the number of layers or sweeps believed active. The organization or command structure is never mentioned. Based on known dates of construction of various mine vessels, one estimate is that a formal mine warfare group would have been created about 1954. This would have taken place with Soviet naval technical assistance, although a rudimentary group would have had loose control over the few foreign World War II relics available since 1948.
Rather than establish a unified navy mine warfare command, the PLAN apparently has split minesweepers into various controlling organizations, which is unique to China. Oceangoing minesweepers are attached to the three PLAN fleet commands. The location of the mine warfare headquarters with command over all units, if there is one, could be either Dalian in the North Fleet area or Shanghai in the East Fleet zone. There was mention of a mine school in Dalian years ago, but many times the port of Lushun was included in Dalian references. Large surface warfare schools are at Dalian and Shanghai. Most photos of mine vessels have been taken in Shanghai, but that also could be said of most warship classes.
Analysts believe that there is one mine squadron in each fleet. The eastern and southern fleet headquarters are probable mine squadron homeports, but the northern fleet headquarters of Qingdao has had a minimal number of mine vessels sighted. Because of historic Chinese invasion traumas concerning Tianjin and Beijing, Lushun’s location at the mouth of the Bohai Sea would seem likely as the northern mine squadron home port.
The first Chinese minesweepers were nine coastal vessels delivered on the heels of World War II. Four former Japanese AMS-class 222-ton units were delivered to Tsingtao on October 1947, and five 350-ton former U.S. Navy YMS-class minesweepers were delivered in 1948. The first postwar minesweepers, and the beginning of a credible mine warfare force, were four T-43 minesweepers obtained from the Soviet Union in 1955. China immediately began building copies at Wuchang Shipyard in Wuhan and Donglang Shipyard in Canton (Guangzhou). The first two copies were launched in 1956, and by 1976 23 had been built. In 1960, Wuchang ceased production, but Donglang continued until a total of 40 minesweepers were built. Approximately 27 T-43s remain active.
Chinese mine countermeasure equipment on the T-43s includes variants of Soviet TEM-522 magnetic sweeps, MT-1 sea contact sweeps, and acoustic sweep type BGAT or two type BAT-2 towed units. The Type 053HT high frequency sonar is based on the Soviet Tamir. Electrical power sources were one 25-kilowatt and two 75-kilowatt generators.
PLAN minesweeping forces are strictly coastal and harbor vessels except for the T-43 minesweepers and one command ship. The mission and main purpose of the PLAN mine forces are mostly defensive, but an offensive posture would not be needed for pre-emptive Taiwan offensive mining operations.
Many of the T-43 minesweepers have been assigned duties as oceanographic ships, customs or survey vessels, which is similar to the Soviet Navy conversions. About 1980, the Chinese copied German remote control Troika minesweepers, designated Type 312, and more than 50 were produced. Although several PRC minesweepers have been marketed for export, the only sales were drones exported to Thailand and Pakistan.
In 1988, the PLAN built one large 2,100-ton combination mine layer/ sweeper named Wolei. This unique vessel would serve in a command and support role in a mine-clearing operation. The unit’s home port would probably be where the PLAN mine warfare command/training center is located, but it would move to other ports during large mine exercises or actual operations. Another one-of-a-kind unit is the 320-ton Wosoa hull 4422. It was designed for export, but there were no customers. In 1976, about 20 Shanghai II patrol boats were built for minesweeping and named Fushun class to fill a need for additional minesweeper hulls.
China’s 70-odd smaller coastal and auxiliary minesweepers are attached to various Maritime District control roles. Typical are the 400-ton Lienyun class minesweepers that are designated with district letters, such as the J-141 and J-143 under the Shanghai Maritime Military District. A Fushun 250-ton coastal sweeper has the hull designator E-303. To reinforce the disassociation with the PLAN, these MSC letter designators—for mine sweep coastal—would stand for submarine support (J) and diving tender (E) on fleet units.
All of the coastal and harbor minesweepers are equipped solely with simple, mechanical sweeps that counter only crude contact mines. China has not announced its laying or sweeping of minefields, but tensions with Russia and Taiwan made the North and East Sea fleets’ mine warfare fleets larger than the South Sea Fleet. Several naval conflicts with Vietnam in the 1970s and 1980s expanded South Fleet units. Notice-to-Mariner warnings to avoid Yulin waters in south Hainan in the 1990s either cast doubt on PLAN mine sweep efficiency for destroying 50-year-old Japanese minefields, or they are useful to keep outsiders away from a main naval and submarine base.
The PLAN has realized the need for local maritime district minesweepers in fleet naval exercises in the past decade, and it even mixes naval ocean minesweepers with district coastal minesweepers as it does for other warfare types. Observers have noted China’s use of helicopters flying ahead of frigates to detect mines visually. Seagoing limitations make interfleet or even long coastal distance transfers impractical. China has used land railroads to move numbers of small vessels quickly for long distances for naval operations, which would be ideal for the many small MSC craft. One example involved transporting Shanghai gunboats by rail from Shanghai to Fukien for the 1958 Matsu and Quemoy crisis.
China has thousands of contact mines based on old Soviet technology, but it also boasts newer magnetic and acoustic combination types. The export of EM-52 rocket boost rising mines to Iran several years ago highlighted modern advances in PLAN naval mines. The EM-52 can be laid in waters down to 110 meters deep, and it has an electronic trigger for its 140-kilogram warhead. Soviet ADM or MDM series mine copies are common, and they can have air-, ship- or submarine-launched variants.
The units to lay mines off of target areas, such as Taiwan ports, likely would not be mine warfare vessels. The PLAN has several options among other naval assets. About 150 maritime patrol aircraft and naval bombers can carry several mines. For example, China’s H-5 bomber can carry six Chinese copies of the ADM-500 type mines. More than 90 PLAN submarines can sow mines in complete secrecy. Earlier Type 033 Romeo boats can carry 28 mines, and newer diesel and nuclear boats can carry 32 mines each. A variety of surface warships are equipped to lay mines. The modern 24 Jianghu frigates can carry 60 mines, and older frigates and 60 Hainan patrol craft can carry 30 mines each. The 15 large Luda-class guided missile destroyers can carry 38 mines, and more than 300 Shanghai II patrol boats can carry 12 mines each. Of note is the fact that most sea mines laid worldwide since 1950 have been by merchant ships, fishing trawlers or junks. China has thousands of these vessels available.
Some information is available on a mine industry infrastructure in China. Plant number 884 in Taiyun and a satellite facility near Houma in Shanxi province began producing contact mines in 1958. The technology advanced to non-contact mines by 1965. All were based on Soviet models. Naval civilian research facilities on demagnetization and mines are focused in Institute 710 in Yichang. PLAN mine warfare testing was concentrated in Huludao, with other test facilities at Lushun, Zhoushan Island and Changshan Island. Dalian is the location of the mine warfare school adjacent to the major Surface Warfare Officer School. Nearly all mine facilities noted are in the North Fleet area except for Yichang and Zhoushan.
One subject critical to PLAN mine warfare that has escaped much notice is the use of degaussing ships, or ADGs. Because Russia had more than 40 such vessels scattered at all ports to support deperming of warships, submarines and especially mine warfare units, one would expect China to adopt the Soviet philosophy. China did not use unique hull letters as Russia did with letters SR for sudno razmagnichivaniya, or “ship demagnetizing.” In addition to neutralizing magnetic mines, degaussing is critical for magnetic compass calibration, which is especially important for North Fleet higher latitude navigation. The first Chinese degaussing vessels were four former-U.S. 387-ton infantry landing ships (LSILs) that were converted in the 1950s. These probably carried 60 KSM-type accumulator batteries providing 10-volt external and 110 or 220 volts for internal coils, as in Soviet SR barges. Cable reels for 240-millimeter-diameter cables, along with magnetometers to measure vertical and horizontal fields, would be required.
But, by the mid-1960s, China needed additional deperming ships. Two Yen Fang-class and two 460-ton Yerka-class ships were built by 1980. Four new 460-ton Yen Pai-class vessels were built in the 1990s, which brought to 12 the total of degaussing vessels distributed among the three fleets. By 1993, the four World War II vintage LSILs had to be scrapped, which left eight known active PLAN degaussing ships. Although three different class names have been noted, a common thread is the name Hai Dzu attached to five units. These vessels probably move around to meet degaussing needs in various ports that lack the capability. The larger ADGs can handle vessels up to 7,000 tons, but most PLAN units displace less.
James C. Bussert is employed at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren, Virginia, where he works on surface-ship antisubmarine fire control systems.