Tac Talks: Old ideas in a future war: countering the strategic narrative of a Major Fleet Unit sinking

Tac Talks No. 17
Tac Talks No. 17

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LCDR Simon O’Hehir



In Tac Talks (July 2017), there were a number of discussions on the role of the rat-catchers” and the organisational need to counter the long lee. The long lee refers to a prolonged period of peacetime operations provided by a milestone maritime victory. In the simplest terms, a rat-catcher is an out of the box thinker who is required in wartime to seize the initiative and put their opposite number on the back foot.

Are we growing the requisite number of free thinkers in our training pipeline? Are we even preparing for the full range and scope that a kinetic conflict may bring? Do we ask ourselves enough of the tough questions regarding our vulnerabilities? Are the Australian people and our political masters equipped for what wartime may look like for our future Defence Force?

I would argue that the answer to all of these questions at present is no.

How do we tackle the number of questions the paradigm-shift from peacetime to wartime operations presents? We as professional war-fighters can start by focussing on one part of the puzzle at a time; working the problems; determining worst case scenarios and possible counters to them.

A tough question: Mine Warfare for Area Denial

HMAS Sydney fires an Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile for the first time during Combat System Sea Qualification Trials in the Southern Californian Exercise Area off the coast of the United States. Photographer: Matt Skirde.
HMAS Sydney fires an Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile for the first time during Combat System Sea Qualification Trials in the Southern Californian Exercise Area off the coast of the United States. Photographer: Matt Skirde.

If you can keep an enemy at range, the targeting issues and accuracy errors are magnified. If I have a potentially hostile unit carrying a missile with an effective range of 1000nm, am I able to keep him outside of that range? How difficult is it for him to effectively target me at 700nm or 400nm? The further I can keep the missile shooter from me the better.

This is a mind-set that has been a cornerstone of Soviet thinking during the Cold War. It is not by chance that today, the Russian Federation Navy carries a rather large stock-pile of mines. The harsh lessons learnt at the hands of the Kriegsmarine during World War Two are etched into the psyche of Russian strategists.

The Baltic Fleet were effectively bottled up by an aggressive mining campaign. The observed effectiveness of offensive mining has led to a reported stockpile of circa 250,000 mines and a large proportion of the mine-hunting fleet being retained (and more importantly maintained) by the Russian Federation. The key reason for the mine stockpile is to keep potential enemies away from the border and outside of the effective range of their missiles. The mine clearance fleet is ever ready to clear a path for the heavy hitters of the Russian fleets and ensure the fight can be taken to the enemy. Mines are cheap and easy to deploy and provide a simple, if not elegant, counter to the modern-day long range missile.

Another major mine stockpile is held by China. The PLA(N) conducted some very public mine-laying exercises in the mid-2000s utilising civilian fishing fleets. To this day it provides a vexing question to the watching world. China has displayed how it could potentially conduct rapid deployment of some of its 80-100,000 mines (along with air launch and submarine launch capability).

Iraq used similar tactics prior to both Gulf Wars as did the Iranians in the Tanker Wars of the late eighties. It is probably within reach of any nation with access to civilian fishing fleets to employ this type of covert mine lay should they choose to. If we had an Opposing Force with a similar idea, could we stop them?


How do you design Rules of Engagement (ROE) to counter such a threat? Is the carriage of mines enough to declare hostile intent? Is an aircraft/fishing boat still a threat after it has dropped its payload? ROE needs to be unambiguous, clear and concise. Individual units need to ensure them table-top scenarios to ensure they know where the left and right of arc are; when they can engage and when they need to hold. The sheer number of available mine-layers and innocent fishers to disguise them makes this tactic a headache for those trying to counter it.


The use of offensive mining is the elephant in the room for most military planners. It can hamper the smooth transition of ground forces from the sea to the shore. It can be used to bottle-up a fleet in port. It is costly and time-consuming to conduct mine clearance and it robs forces presented with a viable mine threat of freedom of manoeuvre / effective sea-control.

Even the threat of mines or the declaration of mining an area can assist in seizing the initiative. If I declare a minefield, it is up to you to prove that it is safe/safe enough to transit. Granted, it is a large logistical effort to take mines from storage, arm and load them on the delivery platforms. As an offensive mine-layer, I can however start this supply chain long before any declaration of war.

Distributed Lethality

If I can distribute my mines to a number of platforms throughout my ports, is this not the definition of distributed lethality? Once my supply chain is moving, any nation looking to conduct military operations against me has an inordinate number of targets to monitor, track and ultimately have to engage. Every vessel leaving port, small or large, becomes a potential threat needing monitoring because it will not be obvious whether or not it carries mines.

Arguably, the best way to defeat a mine is to destroy it before it can be laid- but realistically, the chances of the opportunity presenting itself, our military having the right assets in area and the authorisation to destroy the mine threat whilst it is ashore in a sovereign state is unlikely prior to the outbreak of conflict.

For a relatively small outlay, as a mine-laying nation, if I can score a hit on an opposing warship with a crew of 150 plus; the benefit to my strategic narrative is enormous. The loss of life at sea will dominate the other nation’s media and as a result put pressure on the political with a trickle-down to the military.

If we are unable to stop the mine threat at its source, how can we as a professional military seize the strategic and political narrative; or at least minimise the propaganda-gain to those that will do us harm.

An old trick?


The use of civilian fishing fleets in wartime has been a long-term tactic for since the birth of maritime warfare. During World War One and Two, trawlers either purpose-built or converted for war were invaluable for mine-sweeping, mine-laying, anti-submarine warfare, Special Forces insertion and providing shore support in the littoral. The local knowledge and specialist knowledge of the crews provided a distinct advantage and provided invaluable support to the entire war effort.

The RAN has a large portion of the globe to cover and likely not enough ships, submarines and personnel to provide sufficient defence-in-depth in a protracted kinetic conflict. The use of armed trawlers to support our permanent naval forces may well be a tactic to be dusted off at relatively short notice.

The advantage of a smaller combatant is that we can afford to put units in harm’s way with a reduced cost in life and material. The individual risk to life is far greater on a less capable smaller combatant; however the total cost for platform damage or destruction is less against the entire war effort. This allows more aggressive operations to seize the initiative for a lower risk to the overall strength of the ADF.

HMAS Diamantina rafts up to Japanese Ship Uraga.
HMAS Diamantina rafts up to Japanese Ship Uraga.

Converted trawlers could be utilised for mine-clearance operations, defence of infrastructure, deterrence/prosecution of submarines, deployment of drones, electronic warfare, defensive mine-laying, logistical support and a range of high-risk operations. Even a converted trawler with simply a radar, communications ability and a rack of depth charges will still give a submarine pause for thought. Working in concert with multi-statics, dippers or Low-Frequency Active Sonar (LFAS) capable ships a low-tech prosecution unit may assist in keeping a submarine pinned down and outside of engagement range.

Could an armed trawler provide force protection at some of my key ports and free up valuable assets for offensive operations. If a fishing vessel dropped charges in a declared minefield - will that disrupt the electronic components of a modern mine enough to render it useless? Could this be a quick-fire tactic to reduce the risk to follow-on vessels if a full mine-clearance operation is not feasible?

Could a trawler with a modest surface-to-air capability add to the force protection of an amphibious landing? Could such a capability make an aircraft think twice before flying low over a fishing fleet?

A Tough Choice

A fishing trawler cuts it fine when they decided to sail through the middle of warships KD Kasturi, left, and KD Jebat, right, in formation during Exercise BERSAMA SHIELD 2014. Photographer: LSIS Dove Smithett
A fishing trawler cuts it fine when they decided to sail through the middle of warships KD Kasturi, left, and KD Jebat, right, in formation during Exercise BERSAMA SHIELD 2014. Photographer: LSIS Dove Smithett

The loss of life in wartime is always tragic, however if we can put a smaller crew in a smaller platform at risk for essential tasking - is this a better option. Certainly a frigate or destroyer has numerous self-defence options, but in a wartime situation, and particularly if we were short of operational platforms; we as a Defence Force may be forced to wear a higher degree of risk.

The ADF may indeed be facing a problem of numerical inferiority in the next major war. Although we often envisage the next major global conflict will be a quick, all-out war with a clear winner and loser; but what if the next major engagement is a subtler, prolonged war of attrition.

We have a smaller economy than many of our neighbours and although offensive mining and disruption to the valuable supply of oil and goods on the sea will hurt all regional economies, is there a nation with a bigger economy out there prepared to ride out the storm? If we are to face a war of attrition, how many platforms can we lose and still be a viable force? With the down-sizing of a number of our allies’ fleet, how long will we need to last if facing an enemy capable of true distributed lethality?

Other Nations


Interestingly, Bangladesh is looking at smaller, faster craft with depth charge capability as part of its current procurement program. These platforms in combination with ASW barriers (nets) provide a low-tech anti-submarine screen within the Bay of Bengal. With a Defence budget being stretched to the limit by the on-going modernisation program, coupled with a unique operating environment, Bangladesh is looking for low-tech solutions to modern-problems.

Final thoughts


We may never need or get the opportunity to employ an armed trawler tactics of the past World Wars. However if we need to look at smaller combatants for tomorrow’s war; the planning needs to start today.

This very idea of employing civilian fishing vessels in a wartime scenario raises a number of fundamental questions. How would the secondment of existing trawlers happen? How many would we need to maintain our fishery operations? What size crew and type of crew would we need? What weapons and systems should we / could we fit? What are the costs in time and money for wartime conversion? What type and length of training would new crews require to be combat-ready? If we purpose-build smaller assault craft what capabilities are we looking for and at what cost? These are just a sample of some of the broad-brush issues before we even get down to the weeds.

There are some tough questions we need to ask as professional war-fighters. As a defence organisation we need to shape our future force to fight the worst-case scenario not the conflict we would like to face. We need to constantly review our capabilities, tactics and platforms for weaknesses because the enemies of tomorrow will certainly be looking for chinks in our armour.

We may face a mine threat, a superior opponent and have to operate far from our logistical hubs to counter the threat from long-range weapons. Is the standing up of an armed trawler fleet the panacea or even a viable answer to some of these problems? It offers up many curve balls (legal, political and military) as well as some fundamental planning issues - but, arguably, it is worth thinking about.

If we don’t start revisiting old ideas, or thinking up new ones, the chances of being caught on the back foot increase exponentially. We need to focus our efforts, wherever possible, to exercise in true multi-threat scenarios. We often exercise key components of modern warfare - mine, anti-air, ASW, ASuW and Amphibious in isolation. This is often to perfect the individual component but should we be planning exercises to help deal with the compromises and near-enough solutions that a true multi-threat, distributed lethality environment may require.

Strive to be a rat-catcher. Cast a critical eye over everything you do and look for exploitable weaknesses.

About the author


LCDR Simon O’Hehir joined the RAN in 2004 as a Warfare Officer. After a brief stint in the amphibious world, he transferred to submarines in 2007. LCDR O’Hehir has served as a submarine navigator, watch leader, warfare instructor, Fleet trainer and exercise battle staff. He is currently on exchange with the UK Maritime Warfare Centre.