Sea mines are back

24 January 2023

Long neglected by many nations as a key weapon, sea mines are proving their worth in the Black Sea, and armed forces are once again looking at them as a key armament for defending sea lanes and coastlines. Jim Banks talks to DA-Group in Finland, where the technology never went out of fashion, to find out how sea mines have evolved.

The nature of armed conflict around the world is constantly in a state of flux. The threat landscape always evolves, the theatre of operations changes, and the tactics of enemy forces adapt to the nature of the conflict. After years of gearing up to face guerrilla warfare and terrorist attacks, armed forces are once again having to prepare for the possibility of a more conventional conflict.

One of the reasons for this is the Russian war in Ukraine, which involves large forces moving by land and sea to occupy terrain and quell resistance from the local population. This is changing perspectives not only on tactics, but also on the choice of weapons systems utilised. “In terms of geopolitical issues, the megatrend is a change in how militaries and politicians have been thinking,” says Kristian Tornivaara, chief business officer for defence and aerospace at DA-Group.

“War was thought of as something far away, but this changed in 2014 with Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Now, homeland security and the defence of their territory is back on the agenda of politicians.” “Now there is a need to wage high-end warfare rather than fighting terrorists,” he adds. “Defence forces adapted to that threat but now they need tanks, bombers, sea mines and different kinds of ships for naval conflict.”

DA-Group is a Finnish company that provides advanced electronics and hightechnology solutions for customers in the industrial, defence and aerospace sectors. It is a leading specialist in the development of sea mines, which are once again becoming a frontline weapons system. “When we had the Gulf War in 1990–91, no one was talking about sea mines before that. But the Iraqis laid mines off the Kuwaiti coast and hit US warships, so sea mine awareness arose again having been neglected,” explains Vice Admiral (ret.) Kari Takanen, former chief of the Finnish navy and DA-Group senior advisor. “The mine threat is real and has never really gone away, but for the last 20 years we have been talking about terrorism rather than big naval actions.” “Now, Ukraine and Russia are using mines to protect their coastlines, and they are extensively used in the Black Sea,” he adds. “But the Finnish navy has never let mines go from our inventory.”

Engineering effectiveness

Although there is only limited information available about the weapons systems deployed in the Black Sea, it can be strongly inferred that sea mines are playing a major part in defending Ukraine’s coastline.

“What we know is that older contact mines and some floating mines have been seen, but also both Ukraine and Russia have mined the coastal shorelines to protect them. Ukraine minefields outside Odessa, for example, make a Russian landing impossible,” says Takanen. “Together with missiles, sea mines are protecting the whole seafront, which is why it is not the primary front line.”

“Russia’s activities are killing civilians and targeting infrastructure, and although we can’t really make any big assumptions, we still see that mines are being used in the Black Sea as a weapon of choice to protect borders and shorelines. There may also have been some offensive minelaying,” Takanen explains.

The sea mine systems deployed in the area may be old – probably dating from the 1940s to, at the latest, the 1980s – and do not represent the cutting-edge in modern sea mine technology. Nevertheless, they seem to be effective, as Russia is unable to use landing ships and infantry in that region, despite having maritime superiority in the Black Sea, because mines are limiting their effectiveness.

However, the technology has been in constant development in Finland, where the navy has continued to rely on sea mines as its main weapons system. “Finland is constantly developing that capability and much of that development has been done by DA-Group,” says Tornivaara. “We are constantly developing, testing and putting into operative use new technologies, though they are hardly seen in any other country. We are protecting our own coastline and sea lanes with sea mines and surface missiles. The deterrent factor is really high. Mine fear is a real thing. Mines are one of the most effective area denial systems in existence.”

Tactical advantage and safety

The modern influence sea mines that DA-Group has developed are extremely safe for handling and storage, and offer a relatively affordable anti-access and area denial armament in the maritime domain. They are highly effective for safeguarding the sea lines of communication against both submarines and surface targets, as they can target enemy vessels using IFF functionality to recognise friendly vessels and commercial shipping.

“They are smart weapons that can select targets, both surface vessels and submarines, which are now a bigger threat as they become more versatile,” says Takanen. “Today’s modern influence mines work well also against submarines.”

“There is no risk of mass detonation as we use insensitive materials, so it is very hard to accidentally detonate a mine,” Tornivaara explains. “They have target detection, safety and arming systems, with many independent mechanical and electronic safety features to reduce collateral damage. And a modern sea mine can identify and classify the target very precisely, while being devastatingly effective.”

DA-Group currently delivers its sea mines technology and its modular, automated minelaying system to five countries across three continents, and it expects more demand in the near future. “The sea mine is back, and the Finnish navy can help,” says Takanen. “We know how to build and deploy mines, the seeker heads are becoming smarter, safety is improving, and new features are making them more attractive.”

“Now, you can direct the underwater blast so that the shock energy goes in a specific direction, and as mines are becoming more directed and more intelligent they become even more effective as a weapons system,” notes Tornivaara. “In fact, they are better than missiles or torpedoes because you can lay mines early on in a conflict and it is not considered an act of war, while firing a missile is.”

Sea mines are no longer the dumb, random floating bombs they once were. They are instead smart, tactical and strategic armaments that are once again proving their worth in the theatre of war. For Finland, they have always been a first-choice defensive weapon, so the country’s leading developers, notably DA-Group, are truly at the cutting-edge of the technology. 

Modular minelaying concept SUMICO provides plug-in minelaying capability to any ship capable of mission module handling.

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