The Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) framework is a unique perspective in the New World Order.
The meeting of Australia, UK and US under UKUS has been one of the key declarations of 2021, which will have significant geopolitical ramifications going forward. This declaration will ensure massive geostrategic realignments with far-reaching political, economic and military implications. It also reaffirms the emerging Indo-Pacific strategic space as the center of gravity of the global power play. Australia moving to a nuclear submarine program, although it does not yet have a civilian nuclear program, is geopolitically and geostrategically interesting. Australia has the third largest uranium deposit in the world, with 33% of deposits, after Kazakhstan and Canada.
In response, UKUS was touted as Australia having access to sensitive US technology to acquire nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarines as well as cooperation in other strategic areas, including technologies under -marines. Upon further analysis, Britain is seen as the biggest beneficiary of the entire military-industrial complex that will be put in place to ensure the design and development of these high-tech submarines. After Brexit, the entire European Union strategy for the Indo-Pacific was turned upside down with this single announcement from AUKUS. This happened on September 15, 2021, just a day before the presentation by the President of the European Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen, to the European Parliament of a major Franco-German-inspired policy document on the strategy of the EU for the Indo-Pacific. Even other strategic alliances like Quad and the Five Eyes have been turned upside down. France is probably the biggest loser, and they have made their dissatisfaction known diplomatically, to both Australia and the United States. However, Franco-British relations appear to be going as usual, although it has been a big gain for the UK at the expense of France.
The AUKUS will further accelerate the proliferation of submarines underway in the Indo-Pacific, with the nuclear submarine thrown in in a big way. Small navies like Bangladesh, Myanmar and many others that are traditionally underfunded have started to acquire such complex machinery. The other major change is that these navies are even acquiring second-hand submarines and from newer players like China, far from well-established European manufacturers. The entire Indo-Pacific region is expected to have nearly 250 to 300 submarines lurking in the waters by 2030.
At the Second Submarine Operational Security Conference (SMOSC) held in South Korea in June 2016, Rear Admiral Timothy Lo, Chief of Naval Operations of the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN ), said: “Over the past 10 years or so, we have seen a proliferation of submarines and navies operating submarines. When the underwater environment becomes more congested, the risk of accidental collision is higher. “
The Indo-Pacific strategic space is defined as the tropical water of the Indian and Pacific oceans. Tropical water, acoustically, is known to be shallow due to the thermocline, resulting in excessive interaction of the acoustic signal with the surface and bottom boundaries. Multipath propagation in tropical coastal waters results in suboptimal performance of any sonar deployed for underwater domain awareness (UDA). The performance degradation is of the order of 60%, compared to the polar region where these technologies evolved during the Cold War era. The depth of the sound axis (line joining the minimum speed of sound) in the polar region is of the order of 100 m, while at the equator it is 1,800 m. The depth of the sound axis determines the acoustic propagation characteristics of the underwater signal. The Cold War era saw significant investments by the superpowers in experimental field work in the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) divide, to generate the UDA. Sonar performance has stabilized in these waters thanks to such efforts, but tropical coastal waters present unique challenges that require site-specific R&D to understand local conditions. However, such site-specific experimental field R&D is extremely resource intensive.
On October 2, 2021, the USS Connecticut, a US nuclear submarine, reportedly struck an unexplored seamount in the South China Sea, causing significant damage to its hull and a few injuries to the crew. Eleven sailors were injured in the crash, which damaged Connecticut’s forward ballast tanks and forced the crew to take a week-long surface trip to return to port. The Connecticut is one of three Seawolf-class submarines, which the US Navy describes as “exceptionally quiet, fast, well-armed, and equipped with advanced sensors.” Ships have eight torpedo tubes and can hold up to 50 weapons in their torpedo room. The accident was a major strategic inconvenience for the US Navy and only amplifies the challenges of the UDA in tropical coastal waters. Figure 1 shows the USS Connecticut (SSN-22) departing from Puget Sound in 2016.
The increased proliferation of submarines in the Indo-Pacific and the challenges of the tropical coastline as discussed above make just two critical points for the future of our strategic deliberations. Effective UDA is the most important requirement in the Indo-Pacific, and the challenges of the tropical coastline cannot be mitigated by the conventional approach of importing military materiel from the West. The indigenous effort adapted to the specific requirements of the local site is inevitable. The vast blue economic potential also attracts extra-regional powers to maintain their strategic presence in the region and often encourages them to meddle in regional politics to ensure poor maritime governance.
Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) has become a key strategic terminology globally following the incident of September 11. Massive mobilization has occurred largely with the support of the American establishment to generate an enhanced MDA. The 11/26 incident became a similar trigger in the Indian Ocean region (IOR), and the entire Indian establishment began to mobilize resources to generate MDA. However, the conventional MDA has remained a safety oriented formulation with minimal involvement of other stakeholders. As a result, it was limited to the surface with little water penetration, given the complex challenges of ensuring effective UDA. The resource-intensive field experimental R&D required for improved UDA in tropical coastal waters is not politically viable for developing countries in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Maritime Research Center (MRC), Pune, in partnership with M / S NirDhwani Technology Pvt Ltd (NDT), has proposed a unique UDA framework that encourages pooling of resources and synergy of efforts among stakeholders, namely maritime security, blue economy, environment and disaster management and science and technology. Even nations in the region with diverse geopolitical leanings can come together to collaborate on environmental and disaster management issues. This will encourage increased deployment of science and technology (S&T) in all applications for various stakeholders. Figure 2 shows the UDA framework.
The four sides of the cube represent stakeholders with specific needs, however in the tropical coastal waters of the Indo-Pacific, the main requirement will remain acoustic capacity and capacity building. Unless the sonar works, there won’t be a viable solution. The horizontal construct thus represents the availability of resources in terms of technology, infrastructure, capacity and capacity, specific to the stakeholders or not. Vertical construction is the hierarchy of establishing a full ADU. The first level or ground level would be the detection of the underwater domain for threats, resources and activities. The second level would be to make sense of the data generated to plan security strategies, conservation plans and resource use plans. Artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics as well as signal processing will be the core technologies. The next level would be to formulate and monitor the regulatory framework at local, national and global levels.
Figure 2 provides a comprehensive process for stakeholders to engage and interact. The individual cubes represent specific aspects that must be addressed. User-university-industry partnership can be seamlessly formulated based on user needs, academic contributions, and the industrial interface represented by the specific cube. This will allow for a more focused approach and a well-defined interactive framework. With the right impetus, the UDA framework can address the multiple challenges facing the world today. Young India’s meaningful commitment to nation building is possibly the most critical aspect that deserves attention. Multidisciplinary and multifunctional entities can interact and help synergize their efforts in a transparent manner towards a larger goal. The UDA framework as a whole provides policy and technological interventions as well as acoustic capacity and capacity building.
India is well positioned to play a leadership role in the IOR, advancing the UDA framework in the IOR and beyond. The Honorable Prime Minister’s vision of security and growth for all in the region (SAGAR) is best served by the effective implementation of the UDA framework as proposed by the MRC and the END. 2022 should see a major change in our maritime thrust by placing more emphasis on maritime governance and the reinforcement of acoustic capacities and capacities induced by the UDA framework.
Dr (Cdr) Arnab Das is Founder and Director, Maritime Research Center (MRC), Pune.