Elizabeth White, a former official in the Department of Defence has raised, in an article for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the threat that sea mines pose to global trade in particular Australia’s oil supply.
White identifies that 90 per cent of the world's trade is delivered by sea and that a large amount of this trade flows through strategic choke points in areas of conflict or high tensions such as the Strait of Hormuz and Bab-el-Mandeb in the Middle East.
“Close one or two of those down for any length of time, and we’ve got a serious problem on our hands. This fact is not lost on most major players – hence the military patrols, diplomatic negotiations and international conventions in place to try to mitigate risks to these vulnerable spots,” White expands.
Australia has been a participant in both ongoing operations in the Strait of Hormuz as well as historical assistance with mine clearing operations in Kuwait after the first gulf war in 1991.
Cheap and effective disruption
White highlights the simple yet effective nature of sea mines in causing massive disruption.
“You’d think it would take something pretty expensive and sophisticated to circumvent these controls, but no. A sea mine is cheap, easy to use, and highly effective at blockading chokepoints. The simplest types of sea mines – variations on the classic spiky ball bobbing in the water – cost only a few thousand dollars but can stop shipping in its tracks,” she said.
White also recognises parallels with historical examples of extensive mine use in the aforementioned areas with today’s current climate. She points to extensive mining completed by Iran during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, which caused significant disruption to shipping, as well as both mine strikes and torpedo attacks on tankers traversing the Strait of Hormuz in the last year as tensions between the US and Iran heightened and the war in Yemen continued to see no end.
Currently, the Houthis are still using mines in the red sea to prevent or deter attacks from the Saudi-led coalition, with an Egyptian sailing boat reportedly striking a Houthi mine killing three, as well as reports of Houthi mines floating away from the areas they were laid.
HMAS Toowoomba in the Strait of Hormuz
While not actively engaged in mine clearance, the HMAS Toowoomba has recently completed its first patrol in the Middle East region as part of the six-month deployment in support of Operation Manitou.
Toowoomba was assigned to the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) in support of international efforts to maintain freedom of navigation, international law and the free flow of commerce in the Middle East region.
The Anzac Class frigate will support the IMSC in its mission to ensure freedom of navigation through the Strait of Hormuz and continue Australia’s longstanding effort with the Combined Maritime Forces.
Over a two-week period, Toowoomba provided overwatch for more than 35 IMSC supported vessels and flew more than 25 sorties with her embarked MH-60R maritime helicopter, providing surveillance and security for merchant shipping passing through the area.
Commanding Officer, Commander Mitchell Livingstone said that Toowoomba was the first Australian warship to join the IMSC.
"We were tasked to conduct Operation Sentinel duties that promoted the safe passage of commercial shipping through the Strait of Hormuz. The ship split the patrol between the Southern Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, and provided an overt presence and overwatch in the approaches to the Strait of Hormuz," CMDR Livingstone said.
The cost of clearance
White identifies a secondary consequence of mine laying aside from the danger to ocean vessels civilian and military alike, the cost of clearance. With operations often being extremely lengthy to ensure a thorough clearing is completed.
“Australian operations to support mine clearance in Kuwait after the first Gulf War in 1991, for example, stretched for almost five months, searched two square kilometres and dealt with 60 mines. For comparison, the Bab-el-Mandeb chokepoint is 29 kilometres across at its narrowest point and stretches down some 500 kilometres of Yemeni coastline. And the Houthis may have access to hundreds or even thousands of mines,” she said.
The Strait of Hormuz is wider again with more room for maritime traffic, but holds a much higher volume of oil and gas trade.
Global disruption and Australia left vulnerable
If these lines of trade were cut from the Middle East, the effects to the global supply chain could be massive.
“To put it in perspective, the Kuwaiti mine clearance operation of a couple of square kilometres took months; Australia’s current strategic oil reserves, which are heavily dependent on Middle Eastern supply via Singapore, would last around 28 days. Even if Australia reached internationally mandated minimum fuel reserves of 90 days, that’s still well short of the time the Kuwait operation took,” argued White.
Unlike land mines, sea mines are not thoroughly legislated in their use, with no treaties banning their implementation or clear definition of what constitutes a sea mine.
Unlikely but the threat remains
While White highlighted the possible use of such devices to cause mass disruption, she also identified that their use by state or non-state actors is highly unlikely due to likely effects to their own trade and economies.
“Moored or floating mines in the Strait of Hormuz would do as much (or more) damage to Iran’s economy and geopolitical standing as they would to anyone else’s, and Iran’s leadership is well aware of that. Most non-state actors that have access to such mines are hesitant to use them offensively for similar reasons,” said White.
She does, however, warn of the possibility of a rogue commander or more offensive use of the devices by a group such as the Houthis should they be backed into a corner or by a rash decision during heightened tensions in the region.