The Security And Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) declaration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be truly realised only with an effective underwater domain awareness (UDA).
Pune: The Indo-Pacific strategic construct has become the most critical geopolitical and geostrategic paradigm in the recent past. Starting with the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announcing it in Indian Parliament in 2007, the Indo-Pacific has come a long way. Quoting the Mughal scholar-prince Dara Shikoh, Abe spoke of the “confluence of the two seas”—the Indian and Pacific Oceans—that were undergoing a “dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity.” India and Japan, said Abe, shared an interest in and responsibility for securing these seas “by joining forces with like-minded countries”. Ironically, both India and Japan find no place in the newly announced AUKUS, in spite of being an integral part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). AUKUS is a formulation for strategic dominance in the Indo-Pacific.
The Cold War era found substantial efforts to build Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) in the Greenland, Iceland and United Kingdom (GIUK) region. These were the initial days of sonar design and development and coupled with the Cold War realities, the field experimental R&D was given top priority. Starting with the setting up of the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS), in 1949 the journey has been long and with multiple twists and turns. It was an exclusive Naval Facility (NAVFAC) for deployment of passive sonars by the United States (US), to track the Soviet submarines, until it was declassified in 1991 at the end of the Cold War. The system was capable of long-range oceanic surveillance due to the deployment at the deep sound channel or the SOFAR channel. The linear arrays of hydrophones placed within the sound channel enabled beam forming processing, at the shore stations to form azimuthal beams. The SOSUS was the first of its kind field deployment of passive arrays that provided continuous acoustic data for massive UDA efforts. The arrays were deployed both in the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean and grew in numbers in the first three decades, before it started to get progressively deactivated in 1980. Post 1991, the data was also made available to non-military researchers for processing marine mammal sounds and others. One can observe the location of the SOSUS, in figure 1.
The Naval Facility Point Sur was another interesting component of the SOSUS project. The Naval Post Graduate School Monteiro, extensively used the Point Sur underwater facility to undertake field experimental validation of underwater sonar development during the Cold War period. The infrastructure was a state-of-the-art R&D facility, exclusively for the US Navy that was started in 1949 to serve the Cold War security requirements, however had to be shut down in 1984 due to budget constraints to fund exclusive naval facilities.
The end of the Cold War era saw a significant decline in the UDA focus and the American establishment was of the view that their unipolar status was unchallenged. However, towards the end of the 20th century, the strategists monitoring the Chinese capabilities realised that China has developed formidable submarine fleet to challenge the US hegemon. This was a significant shift in the Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) requirements. The necessity to deploy underwater assets in the tropical littoral waters of the South China Sea (SCS), to detect the Chinese submarine fleet was an entirely different UDA requirement. The US establishment initiated ASIAEX in the year 2000, for enhanced acoustic capacity and capability building in the SCS and the East China Sea (ECS).
The ASIAEX was a massive Shallow Water Acoustic Measurement (SWAM) exercise to generate local site specific field experimental data in the SCS and the ECS. The University of Washington started the first phase along with five other US universities to build a massive modelling and simulation framework for the two regions. The phase two was focused on field experimental validation and massive data collection was initiated in the two regions for over three years. The second phase included local academic institutes in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and more. Over 20 universities came together to participate in phase two. The entire ASIAEX was funded by the Office of Naval Research (ONR), US and operationally driven by the University of Washington. This is a unique model where strategic capacity and capability building was undertaken through an academia driven mega initiative. The US developed significant UDA capabilities and continued to augment the same through regular deployment of acoustic arrays and underwater drones post ASIAEX.
The takeaways for the US was very clear in terms of enhanced capabilities for littoral ASW in the tropical waters of the SCS, however the Chinese were also not far behind. They whole heartedly participated in the ASIAEX phase two, to learn how such a mega field experimental R&D is undertaken. The Chinese declared the Underwater Great Wall (UGW) project in the year 2015. This is a massive underwater field experimental facility built to generate substantial inputs on the tropical littoral UDA. The location of the UGW is indicated in figure 1. The establishment of the UGW is clearly an indication of sustained Chinese effort to generate UDA in the tropical littoral waters of the SCS and beyond. Such facility has to be an effort of at least two decades if not less, indicating that the ASIAEX was part of the larger Chinese strategy to build on their acoustic capacity and capability for enhanced UDA.
In December 2016, the Chinese navy captured an Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) deployed from the US oceanographic survey vessel USNS Bowditch in the South China Sea. The timing of the incident was more significant than the incident itself. The US Presidential elections had just concluded and President Trump was yet to take over his presidency. President designate Donald Trump, broke protocol to condemn the Chinese action. This was a very significant incident with massive strategic messaging from the Chinese. The continued data collection in the SCS by the US Navy post ASIAEX, to continuously consolidate the UDA effort was challenged by the Chinese formally. It was also timed well to declare to the world that the Chinese are no more a power that can be ignored in strategic matters. During the Trump presidency, the Chinese Navy continuously challenged the freedom of navigation asserted by the US Navy and disrupted the movement of the US fleet in the SCS.
The Indo-Pacific is seen by the Chinese, as a strategic formulation to counter their undeclared hegemon, by the West and their allies. Initially, the Europeans were reluctant to openly back the Indo-Pacific strategic construct, however, during the pandemic there has been a decisive and sharp alignment of the pro and anti-China entities. More and more nations have joined the Indo-Pacific initiative and deployed their strategic assets in the region. It is also important to note that more and more nations with limited know-how and resources are indulging in submarine proliferation in the Indo-Pacific region, raising safety concerns. Even nuclear submarines are also being seen and more worrying is that the origin of these submarines, is fast shifting from the traditional submarine manufacturers in the west to new entrants like China.
The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has somehow not seen enough efforts to build on the acoustic capacity and capability to build on the UDA framework. The geopolitical and geostrategic realities in the past somehow ensured a low priority for the IOR, however in the 21st century more and more nations and also the extra regional powers are maintaining their strategic presence in the IOR. The Indo part of the Indo-Pacific must be understood in the strategic context. The enhanced UDA in the IOR and the Indo-Pacific region is inescapable in the tropical littoral waters. SWAMs and the field experimental R&D with indigenous effort are critically required. India is well placed to take the lead and establish its claim as a responsible and capable player in the Indo-Pacific region. With Quad, the global community recognises the relevance of India in the strategic power play, however we must also make sure that India and the Indo part of the Indo-Pacific are inseparable. The Security And Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) declaration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be truly realised on the ground only with an effective UDA. The traditional Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), being security driven has to change and make it more inclusive by allowing other stakeholders to participate and pool in resources. Unlike the Cold War era, it is no more politically and economically viable to allocate massive budget for security purposes. Democracies have to balance socio-economic requirements with security and build more optimum models to meet strategic requirements with state-of-the-art high Science and Technology (S&T) tools. The UDA framework proposed by the Maritime Research Centre (MRC), Pune has the potential to overcome the political, economic and military challenges and opportunities of the Indo-Pacific strategic construct.
Dr (Cdr) Arnab Das is Founder & Director, Maritime Research Center (MRC), Pune.