Last week CIMSEC published a series of articles focusing on the seabed as an emerging domain of maritime conflict and competition. This topic week was launched in partnership with the U.S. Naval War College’s Institute for Future Warfare Studies who drafted the Call for Articles. Authors assessed the legal frameworks related to seabed operations, the operational flexibility that can be exercised through this domain, the challenges of protecting critical seabed infrastructure, and more. Below is a list of articles that featured during the topic week and we thank the authors for their excellent contributions.
“…the United States will have to determine how it will shape its own law-based national security strategy considering America’s failure to ratify UNCLOS. At the operational level, seabed UUVs will likely lead to an arms race given all of the discrete tactical opportunities they offer. In an inversion of land warfare, control of the low ground will grant victory on the high seas.”
“One such operation experiencing a kind of renaissance is mine warfare which, when combined with unmanned technologies and key infrastructure based on the ocean floor, transforms into the more potent strategic tool of seabed warfare. But even the concept of seabed warfare is itself in transition, and is on track to be fully subsumed by the broader paradigm of autonomous undersea warfare.”
“A Seabed Command would focus entirely on seabed warfare. It could unite many of the currently disparate functions found within the surface, EOD, aviation, and oceanographic communities. Its purview would include underwater surveying and bathymetric mapping, search and recovery, placing and finding mines, testing and operating unmanned submersibles, and developing future technologies that will place the U.S. on the forefront of future seabed battlegrounds.”
“Deep below the waters, travelling at millions of miles per hour, flickers of light relay incredible quantities of information across the world, powering the exchange of data that forms the internet. From urgent stock market transactions to endless videos of cats, undersea cables support many aspects of twenty first century life that we take for granted. A moment’s thought is sufficient to appreciate the strategic importance of this fact. As a result, any discussion of future seabed warfare would be incomplete without a consideration of the challenges presented by ensuring the security of this vital infrastructure.”
Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org.
Featured Image: Project Baseline’s Nemo submersible shines its lights on U-boat U-576, sunk on July 15, 1942, lying on its starboard side and showing the submarine’s conning tower and the deck gun in the foreground. (Image courtesy of John McCord, UNC Coastal Studies Institute – Battle of the Atlantic expedition.)
For centuries, the sea has enabled trade between nations. Shipping continues to underpin international commerce today. But there is another unseen contribution that the oceans make to the current global order. Deep below the waters, travelling at millions of miles per hour, flickers of light relay incredible quantities of information across the world, powering the exchange of data that forms the internet. From urgent stock market transactions to endless videos of cats, undersea cables support many aspects of twenty first century life that we take for granted. A moment’s thought is sufficient to appreciate the strategic importance of this fact. As a result, any discussion of future seabed warfare would be incomplete without a consideration of the challenges presented by ensuring the security of this vital infrastructure.
Strategists have neglected submarine cables. Whilst topics such as piracy and cyber attacks on ports frequently arise in discussions on maritime threats, cables have not always been as prominent. Some authors have identified the potential risks (such as this 2009 report for the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre), but these works have not always received the attention they deserve.
There are signs that this is changing. A recent report for the Policy Exchange by Rishi Sunak, a member of the UK Parliament, gained significant media coverage. It was not ignored by senior military figures. A few weeks later, the United Kingdom Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshall Sir Stuart Peach, gave a speech to RUSI, where he said “there is a new risk to our way of life that is the vulnerability of the cables that crisscross the seabed.” The same month, Mark Sedwill, the UK National Security Advisor, gave evidence that “you can achieve the same effect as used to be achieved in, say, World War Two by bombing the London docks or taking out a power station by going after the physical infrastructure of cyberspace in the form of internet undersea cables.”
This is a present threat, not just a hypothetical one. In late 2017, the NATO Submarine Commander Rear Admiral Lennon of the United States Navy revealed “We are now seeing Russian underwater activity in the vicinity of undersea cables that I don’t believe we have ever seen. Russia is clearly taking an interest in NATO and NATO nations’ undersea infrastructure.” The challenge is to maintain this focus and turn a passing spotlight into seriously considered policy.
Understanding Submarine Cables
Vast technical expertise is not necessary to understand why submarine cables are so important. A basic awareness of their construction and use is sufficient. The internet is, at its most basic level, a transfer of information. With the advent of cloud computing, the simple act of storing a file means that data travels from a user on one continent to a server halfway around the world. Although popular imagination sees this happening by satellite relay, in over ninety five percent of cases the physical means for moving this information is a series of light pulses, travelling along a fiber optic cable laid over land and under the sea. These cables are thin silica tubes embedded in a protective cladding, approximately the size of a garden hosepipe. The capacity of these cables to transmit data is ever-increasing. Recent experimental cables have been reported as being capable of transmitting up to one petabyte of data per second. To add some perspective, a petabyte of storage would allow you to store enough music that you could play it continuously for two thousand years.
Submarine cables are mainly private assets. Although expensive (an intercontinental cable is cited as costing between $100 million to $500 million), they are significantly cheaper than the satellite alternatives. In addition to the ownership by telecommunications companies, internet companies, including Facebook and Google, now heavily invest in submarine cables. These cables are laid by specialized ships, capable of carrying up to 2000km of cable, which can be laid at a rate of up to 200km per day. In offshore areas, the cable is laid directly onto the seabed. On the continental shelf, a plough is used to bury the cables and provide some protection from accidental damage, usually caused by anchors.
Attacks on Submarine Cables
These cables are vulnerable to deliberate attack in many ways. The most basic method of attack is simply to break the cable. Their construction means that this task presents little difficulty either mechanically or through the use of small explosive charges. Finding these cables is equally simple. The location of the cables is widely promulgated in order to prevent accidental damage but there is little to stop adversaries from exploiting this information for nefarious ends. Whilst there are a network of repair ships around the world, it is obvious that any service denial cannot be instantly fixed. Multiple attacks, particularly on alternative cable routes, would quickly exacerbate problems and could be organized relatively easily. As the Policy Exchange report highlighted, there is no need to actually proceed to sea to attack the cable network. The landing stations, locations where the submarine cables come ashore, are both well-known and lightly protected. This is a potent combination, particularly when cables are located in fragile states and presents additional challenges when assessing the security of the network.
Cables can also be attacked in non-physical ways. Although shrouded in classification, intelligence analysts have openly stated in national newspapers that the U.S. submarine, USS Jimmy Carter, may have the capability to “tap” undersea cables and obtain the data being transferred without breaching the cable. There are concerns that the Russian Yantar vessels share similar capabilities and these are explored in depth in a recent post by Garrett Hinck. Military planners must understand that defending the submarine cable network might not mean simply preventing physical attack but also ensuring the integrity of the data being transmitted.
Legally, the status of undersea cables have little protection, particularly when they are outside the jurisdiction of any state and lie on the seabed of the high seas. This is certainly the conclusion of the two major legal studies that have addressed the problem. Professor Heintschel von Heinegg considered submarine cyber infrastructure in a chapter of a NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence publication in 2013 and concluded that “the current legal regime has gaps and loopholes and that it no longer adequately protects submarine cables.” Similarly in 2015, Tara Davenport of Yale Law School examined the same topic and stated “the present legal regime is deficient in ensuring the security of cables.” The peacetime protection of submarine cables is a grey area in the law and this provides an additional challenge when assessing how cables should be protected.
The legal status of submarine cables in times of war is equally unclear as observed recently in a post for the Cambridge International Law Journal and another post on Lawfare. There is no authoritative work examining the status of submarine cables in armed conflicts, but even a brief overview is sufficient to highlight the problem. The first question is whether an attack on a submarine cable (outside of a state’s jurisdiction) qualifies as an “armed attack” for the purposes of article 51 of the UN Charter, permitting the use of force by a state in self-defense. The Tallinn Manual on the Law Applicable to Cyber Operations takes the position that the effects of a cyber operation must be analogous to those resulting from a “standard” kinetic armed attack. Simultaneously, it acknowledges that the law is unclear as to when a cyber operation qualifies as an armed attack. Would the consequences of a submarine cable breach be sufficiently serious to raise it to the level of an armed attack? It is difficult to provide a definitive answer but if the answer is ‘no’, then states would not be entitled to use military force to defend submarine cables in the absence of an existing armed conflict. With regard to illicit surveillance of cables, the Tallinn Manual clearly concludes that intelligence gathering from submarine cables would not amount to an armed attack.
The ability of States to target submarine cables during times of war is also open to discussion. Objects may be targeted under international humanitarian lawif they make an effective contribution to military action due to their nature, location, purpose, or use and if their total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization offers a definite military advantage. The best example of the extent of military reliance on civilian owned and operated undersea cables is contained in a 2010 Belfer Center paper. This records that three of the largest cables between Italy and Egypt were severed in late 2008. As a result, U.S. UAV operations in Iraq were significantly reduced. Submarine cables simultaneously transmit critical military and civilian data. Whilst the presence of the former means that they may be targeted, this is always subject to the principles of proportionality and precautions in attack, designed to minimize the harm to the civilian population. Due to the range of data carried by cables and the number of services that are likely to be affected, these assessments may be very difficult to carry out. An understanding of when cables can be targeted is likely to be highly fact sensitive and it is entirely possible that states will take different views on when this is permissible.
Strategies for the Undersea Cable Problem
Clearly, a protection strategy for undersea cables cannot depend solely on military action. It is impossible to protect the entire cable network given its global expanse. The geographic area requiring protection is simply too large, even for the most powerful of navies. The natural consequence of this conclusion is to focus on identifying and intercepting ships and submarines capable of interfering with the cable network. However, the practicalities of this option are not promising. The technology required to tamper with cables is not overly sophisticated. It can be hosted in a wide range of vessels and easily transferred between them. Submarines present additional challenges in monitoring, tracking and interception, requiring the use of satellites, intelligence, and underwater sensors. For a military commander, the task of protecting seabed submarine cables from attack can seem almost impossible.
Given this conclusion, national strategies may need to focus on alternative methods of safeguarding the exchange of information. One method would be to increase the level of redundancy within the system by laying additional cables. As cables are expensive and most cables are privately owned, additional routes have to be assured of sufficient funding to make them viable. Somewhat ominously, the International Cable Protection Committee (which represents cable owners) states that “most cable owners feel that there is enough diversity in the international submarine cable network.” This might be true if the only threat is from accidental damage. However, this analysis might change with the realistic prospect of deliberate targeting.
The ideal solution would be the existence of a globally accepted international treaty giving protection to submarine cables by prohibiting interference and clarifying the status and protections of cables. It is a solution advocated by a number of the sources previously cited. Given the shared interests of many, if not all states, in securing the submarine cable network, this may not be unattainable. Regulation of these cables outside the territories of states would not involve any restriction on national territorial sovereignty, increasing the chance of multilateral agreement. Unfortunately this opportunity has not been seized by a distracted international community.
Arguably the most important strategic asset on the seabed is the submarine cable network. They present a unique vulnerability that is challenging to protect and subject to an uncertain legal regime. Any analysis of seabed warfare must concern itself with cable protection. The best way to achieve this is the adoption and acceptance of a treaty regime that acknowledges their importance to the modern world. Until this is achieved, military commanders must factor the exceptional challenges of defending these cables into their plans for seabed warfare.
Lieutenant Commander Peter Barker is a serving Royal Navy officer and barrister. He is currently the Associate Director for the Law of Coalition Warfare at the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law (@StocktonCenter), part of the U.S. Naval War College. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This post is written in a personal capacity and the views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the UK Ministry of Defence or the UK government.
Featured Image: The submersible Alvin investigates the Cayman Trough, a transform boundary on the floor of the western Caribbean Sea. (Emory Kristof, National Geographic)
The U.S. Navy got a lot of press in 2017, and a lot of it was negative. In the Pacific, there were two incidents where U.S. Navy ships collided with civilian vessels, and as a result 17 American Sailors lost their lives. In the wake of these incidents, report after report has come out detailing how the U.S. Navy’s surface fleet is overworked and overwhelmed.
After the collisions, several U.S. Navy commanders lost their jobs, and charges were filed against five Navy officers for offenses ranging up to negligent homicide. This is an almost unprecedented move, and the Navy is attempting to both satisfy the public outcry and remedy the training and readiness shortfalls that have plagued the surface warfare community for some time.
The point isn’t to shame Navy leadership, but rather to point out that the Navy’s surface fleet is terribly overworked. As a nation we are asking them to do too much. Reports show that while underway, Sailors typically work 18-hour days, and fatigue has been cited as a major factor in the collisions. While there may be a desire to generate more overall mine warfare capacity, it is unrealistic to expect the rest of the surface fleet to assume any additional burden for this mission area.
The surface fleet needs to refocus its training and resources on warfighting and lethality. Of all of its currently assigned missions, mine warfare in particular could be transferred to a seabed-specific command.
A Seabed Command would focus entirely on seabed warfare. It could unite many of the currently disparate functions found within the surface, EOD, aviation, and oceanographic communities. Its purview would include underwater surveying and bathymetric mapping, search and recovery, placing and finding mines, testing and operating unmanned submersibles, and developing future technologies that will place the U.S. on the forefront of future seabed battlegrounds.
Why It Is Important
The seabed is the final frontier of the battlespace. Even low earth and geosynchronous orbits have plenty of military satellites, whether they are for communication or surveillance, but the seabed, except for mines and a few small expeditionary vessels, remains largely unexplored.
There are several reasons for this. For one, it’s hard to access. While the U.S. Navy has a few vehicles and systems that allow for deployment to deep depths, the majority of the seabed remains inaccessible, at least not quickly. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this hasn’t been a huge problem. Except for in rare cases of submarine rescue, there has been little need for the Navy to deploy forces to extreme depths.
That is changing. Secretary of Defense Mattis has made it clear that in the coming years, threats from nations such as Russia and China will make conventional forces more relevant than they have been in the past 20 years. It is imperative that the U.S. Navy has a solution to rapidly deploy both offensive and defensive forces to the seabed, because right now it can’t.
While mine-hunting robots have been deployed to Arleigh Burke destroyers, it seems unlikely that in a full-scale war the Navy will be able to direct these assets to work full-time at seabed warfare. After all, they’re too valuable. The Arleigh Burke destroyer proved its mettle in Iraq; being able to place cruise missiles through the window of a building certainly has a deterrent effect. But this also means that any attempts to add mine warfare to the destroyers’ responsibilities will be put on the back burner, and that will allow enemies to gain an advantage on the U.S. Navy.
There is simply a finite amount of time, and the Sailors underway cannot possibly add yet more tasks to their already overflowing plate. It would take a great deal of time for Sailors onboard the destroyers to train and drill on seabed warfare, and that’s time they just don’t have. No matter how many ways you look at it, the surface fleet is already working at capacity.
What is needed is a new naval command, equipped with its own fleet of both littoral and deep-water ships and submarines, which focuses entirely on seabed warfare.
In this new command, littoral ships, like the new Freedom Class LCS, will be responsible for near shore seabed activities. This includes clearing friendly harbors of mines, placing mines in enemy harbors, searching for enemy submarines near the coast, and denying the enemy the ability to reach friendly seabeds.
The deep-water component will be equipped with powerful new technology that can seek out, map, and cut or otherwise exploit the enemy’s undersea communications cables on the ocean floor, while at the same time monitor, defend, maintain, and repair our own. It will also deploy stand-off style torpedo pods near enemy shipping lanes; they will be tasked with dominating the seabeds past the 12 nautical mile limit.
We have to be prepared to think of the next war between the U.S. and its enemies as total war. Supplies and the transfer of supplies between enemy countries will be a prime target for the U.S. Navy. We have to assume that in a full nation vs. nation engagement, the submarines, surface ships, aircraft carriers, and land-based aircraft will be needed elsewhere. Even if they are assigned to engage enemy shipping, there are just not enough platforms to hold every area at risk and still service the required targets.
For example, the U.S. will need the fast attacks to insert Special Forces troops, especially since the appetite to employ the Special Forces community has grown in the last 20 years. They will also be needed to do reconnaissance and surveillance. Likewise, the aircraft carriers will have their hands full executing strike missions, providing close air support to ground troops, working to achieve air superiority, and supporting Special Forces missions. Just like the surface fleet is today, the submarine fleet and the aircraft carriers will be taxed to their limit during an all-out war.
That’s why a seabed-specific command is needed to make the most of the opportunities in this domain while being ready to confront an adversary ready to exploit the seabed. Suppose that during a total war, the Seabed Command could place underwater torpedo turrets on the seabed floor, and control them remotely. A dedicated command could place, operate, and service these new weapons, freeing up both the surface and the submarine fleets to pursue other operations. Under control of Seabed Command, these cheap, unmanned torpedo launchers could wait at the bottom until an enemy sonar contact was identified and then engage. Just like pilots flying the MQ-9 Reaper control the aircraft from thousands of miles away, Sailors based in CONUS could operate these turrets remotely. Even the threat of these underwater torpedo pods would be enough to at least change the way an adversary ships crucial supplies across the ocean. If the pods were deployed in remote areas, it would force the enemy to attempt to shift shipping closer to the coast, where U.S. airpower could swiftly interdict.
The final component of Seabed Command would be a small fleet of submarines, equipped for missions like undersea rescue, repair, and reconnaissance. The submarines would also host saturation diving capabilities, enabling the delivery of personnel and equipment to the seafloor. Because these assets are only tasked with seabed operations, the Sailors would receive unique training that would make them specialists in operating in this unforgiving environment.
A brand new Seabed Command and fleet is order. It will be made up of both littoral and deep water surface ships, unmanned torpedo turrets that can be deployed to the ocean floor and operated from a remote base, and a small fleet of submarines specially equipped for seabed operations.
The U.S. Navy cannot rely on the surface warfare community to complete this mission; they are simply too busy as it is. While the submarine force might also seem like a logical choice, in a full-on nation vs. nation war, their top priorities will not be seabed operations. Only a standalone command and fleet will ensure America’s dominance at crush depth.
Joseph LaFave is a journalist covering the defense contracting industry, defense trends, and the Global War on Terror. He is a graduate of Florida State University and was an engineer at Lockheed Martin.
Featured Image: ROV Deep Discoverer investigates the geomorphology of Block Canyon (NOAA)
Events of the past decade have forced the United States Navy to re-imagine undersea warfare in light of two emerging and interrelated trends: the rise of sophisticated unmanned undersea systems, and a dramatic increase in geopolitical tensions suggesting the return to an era of near-peer competition and great power conflict. Russian activities in the Crimea, Middle East, and the Arctic, as well as China’s growing regional influence in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean are prompting the Navy to shift its priorities from confronting lesser threats such as rogue states and nonstate actors, and being a “global force for good,” to planning and preparing for the possibility of large-scale warfare against a well-equipped, modern navy. As such, warfighting concepts and operations mothballed after the Cold War are now in need of urgent re-tooling for the current era.1
One such operation experiencing a kind of renaissance is mine warfare which, when combined with unmanned technologies and key infrastructure based on the ocean floor, transforms into the more potent strategic tool of seabed warfare. But even the concept of seabed warfare is itself in transition, and is on track to be fully subsumed by the broader paradigm of autonomous undersea warfare. Mines and associated sensors, as currently employed, will be a thing of the past as their functionality is absorbed by fleets of smart, mobile, autonomous vehicles. More profound still will be the range of new threats unleashed by autonomous undersea warfare. The U.S. Navy must anticipate these threats and recognize that its continued dominance of the undersea domain will rest on its ability to prepare for the kind of combat the coming era of unmanned undersea conflict will entail.
Not Your Father’s Seabed
Warfare conducted on and from the ocean floor is nothing new. For the better part of a century, ships, aircraft, and submarines laid mines and encapsulated torpedos fitted with an array of magnetic, acoustic, and pressure sensors. SOSUS provided valuable intelligence on Soviet naval activities, and during the 1970s, U.S. spy submarines successfully tapped Soviet undersea cables, resulting in what is arguably one of the greatest intelligence coups of the Cold War. But while conceptually seabed warfare may not be new, it is evolving, and is poised to be more fully developed and integrated into the wider grid of unmanned maritime operations.
The U.S. Navy and DARPA have anticipated this evolution, and have proposed a variety of operating concepts to prepare for it, namely:
Advanced Undersea Warfare System (AUWS) – A distributed network of remotely controlled unmanned systems that can be rapidly deployed and custom configured for battlespace shaping and A2/AD. 2
Forward Deployed Energy and Communications Outpost (FDECO) – An array of fixed undersea docking stations providing recharging, communications, and data transfer to extend UUV reach and endurance.
Modular Undersea Effectors System (MUSE) – A system of fixed, encapsulated payloads capable of deploying weapons, decoys, communications nodes, and other such “effectors.”3
Hydra – A DARPA-led initiative that calls for a distributed undersea network of unmanned payloads and platforms “trucked in” and deployed from large UUVs.
Upward Falling Payloads (UFP) – Similar to MUSE, this DARPA initiative proposes fixed, self-contained payloads on the seabed for remote activation and deployment.
The future state of seabed warfare lies somewhere in the integration of these five operational concepts. Appropriately, each one showcases the dominant role of unmanned, autonomous or semi-autonomous systems that are tightly networked to both manned and unmanned assets operating above, on, and below the sea. But they also rely heavily on the deployment of fixed seabed infrastructure, specialized hardware that may be required in the near-term, but will present logistical challenges and also leave critical systems vulnerable to attack. We should expect that in the opening days, if not hours, of a war with Russia or China, seabed systems will be at the top of the target list. Therefore, while this configuration may work for coastal defense of the United States and our allies, its cumbersome and resource intensive nature will only add a layer of operational complexity that could compromise readiness in a forward deployed environment.
Nipping at Our Heels
Our adversaries are not standing still, and are inching ever closer to technological parity with the United States in both unmanned undersea systems and seabed warfare. Both Russia and China maintain robust search and development programs that have resulted in impressive gains over the past few years alone.
Since 2007, Russia has made great strides in undersea warfare, deploying several new classes of submarines, and conducting deep sea operations on the floor of the Arctic Ocean, and has made no secret of its intention to build a robust undersea capability to offset the asymmetric advantage of the United States. Among some of Russia’s more impressive initiatives include:
Project 09852 Belgorod – At 600 feet, this modified Oscar II-class is the largest nuclear submarine ever built. It is designed to operate on or near the Arctic seabed, and deploy an array of unmanned vehicles, manned submersibles, and other systems, “including ones that do not yet exist.”4
Oceanic Multipurpose System Status-6 – An intercontinental nuclear powered autonomous torpedo, purportedly capable of speeds of up to 100 knots and a running depth of 1000 meters, this doomsday weapon is armed with a 100 megaton “salted cobalt” warhead capable of destroying ports and naval installations and rendering the area uninhabitable for decades.
Harmony – A SOSUS-style network of bottom sensors placed on the floor Arctic Ocean and powered by small nuclear reactors.5
Project 09851 Khabarovsk – A submarine designed ostensibly as a deployment platform for Status-6.6
Russian submarines have also been observed near undersea cables in the North Atlantic, prompting speculation that Moscow is either exploiting or interfering with global information flows, or preparing for the possibility of severing critical information infrastructure in the event of war.
China, on the other hand, seems content, at least publicly, to assume a more defensive posture and focus on establishing a wide network of fixed and mobile sensors in the South China Sea. Chinese vessels have been aggressively mapping the seabed and gathering oceanographic data for scientific and military applications. Last summer, a dozen Haiyi undersea gliders were released into the South China Sea, reaching record depths while transmitting data in real-time to land-based laboratories, suggesting a breakthrough in undersea communications.7 And China State Shipbuilding Corporation has put forth a concept it calls the “Great Undersea Wall,” a distributed network of air, surface, and subsurface sensors to identify and track submarines in the South China Sea.8 A three dimensional model of the project featured an array of sensors, UUV docking stations, and undersea cables, very similar to FDECO.9 While publicly China’s seabed warfare efforts appear to be mirroring those of the United States, given the breathtaking extent of China’s activities in the Spratly Islands, we can only speculate as to what may be occurring on the ocean floor, and whether it moves beyond benign surveillance to something more lethal.
What do these developments by our potential adversaries mean for the United States Navy? Clearly both Russia and China are achieving significant technological milestones that should concern if not alarm Navy leaders. As such, we are reaching a point where it may not be enough to deploy passive, defensive systems that do little more than blunt offensive capabilities. The Navy is, at the end of the day, a fighting force, and it should be prepared to fight, and the fight may be soon happening on or near the seabed.
Preparing for a New Kind Of Conflict
Numerous seabed and UUV programs are currently under development or deployed to the Fleet. Given that we are still very much in the infancy of unmanned undersea warfare, this should be expected and encouraged. The Navy should indeed cast a wide net in an effort to understand the potential and the limits of unmanned systems. However, while “letting all the flowers grow” has its merits, the time for greater clarity in roles and expectations for these systems is here, particularly as advancements in adversary programs continue unabated.10
While any AUV program should integrate a full spectrum of effectors, it is critical that it also be capable of intercepting enemy unmanned vehicles and striking enemy seabed infrastructure. To date, however, the development of unmanned undersea craft has been driven by non-combat requirements – oceanographic research, intelligence gathering, mine countermeasures and other roles deemed too dangerous or tedious for human involvement. Other than passing references to anti-UUV operations, little has been written regarding the potential for equipping unmanned undersea vehicles for combat or strike operations. This may be due to the infancy of the technology, or ethical considerations surrounding autonomy, or that it smacks too much of science fiction, but it may also be due to the fact that actual undersea combat (i.e. submersible vs. submersible, submersible vs. seabed target) has been largely nonexistent, and in fact has only resulted in one kill in the history of submarine warfare.11 Since World War II, undersea warfare has been more a high-stakes game of cat and mouse, to deliver cruise missile attacks, gather intelligence, and maintain a viable nuclear deterrent.
But whereas in peacetime there is every reason to avoid confrontations between manned platforms, such reasoning may not necessarily hold in the case of unmanned systems. Unencumbered by this imperative, and with the cover of the opaque undersea environment, as well as plausible deniability to cloak them, fleets of unmanned vehicles will be free to disrupt, degrade, and destroy seabed infrastructure – and one another – at will.
As such, the Navy should move to develop a single, highly modular class of autonomous undersea vehicle that operates in “Strikepods,” adaptive, autonomous undersea strike groups comprised of any number of vehicles, and designed to execute missions of varying scale and complexity, such as ASW, ISR, MCM, and EMW, but also, importantly, counter-AUV and time-critical strike. Deployed from shore, surface ships, aerial assets, or submarines, and operating either within the water column or on the seabed, they would effectively eliminate the need for cumbersome, costly, and vulnerable fixed infrastructure on the sea floor.
Given its highly modular design, each vehicle would be capable of performing the role of any effector, from sensor to communications node to weapon, whether mobile, hovering, or fixed on the seabed, and ideally would be capable of dynamically reconfiguring at a moment’s notice to compensate for losses or malfunctions and ensure mission success. Strikepods could clandestinely penetrate the A2/AD defenses of an adversary and then deploy to the seabed as fixed bottom sensors, or EMW nodes, or could await further orders and dynamically activate as a bottom mines, or CAPTOR-style mines to attack enemy submarines or surface ships. In a combat role, Strikepods could be programmed to swarm and attack enemy submarines or surface ships, seek and destroy enemy unmanned vehicles, or attack enemy seabed infrastructure.
Autonomous undersea combat vehicles represent a logical progression in the emerging era of undersea warfare, a fact that will not be lost on our adversaries. They too will one day be capable of deploying AUVs in a covert, standoff manner, and operating within our territorial waters and inland waterways with impunity. Moreover, their low cost and eventual proliferation could enable rogue states and nonstate actors to acquire their own “poor man’s navy” and threaten U.S. forces at home or abroad. Thus, the need for a coastal undersea defense network will be vital to counter this threat. For example, an “Atlantic Undersea Defense Network” (AUDEN) would be a regional tactical grid comprised of numerous Strikepods deployed along the coast near ports, chokepoints, naval installations, and critical infrastructure. AUDEN Strikepods would operate both within the water column and on the seabed to deter incursions of adversary AUVs, and, if necessary, detect and engage them.
As the world undergoes a shift toward near-peer competition, the U.S. Navy must reexamine its role as a fighting force in light of unmanned undersea systems, and the aspirations of ever more technologically sophisticated adversaries. Seabed warfare in particular, understood as a combination of “old school” mine warfare with advanced technologies, is evolving rapidly, and is poised to be more fully developed and integrated into the new paradigm of autonomous undersea warfare. The Navy’s continued undersea dominance will rest on its ability to master seabed warfare, and to anticipate and prepare for the kind of challenges, threats, and opportunities autonomous undersea conflict will present. It will no longer be enough for the Navy to simply out-fight its adversaries. In the era of autonomous conflict, it will have to out-innovate them.
David R. Strachan is a naval analyst and writer living in Silver Spring, MD. His website, Strikepod Systems (strikepod.com), explores the emergence of unmanned undersea warfare via real-time speculative fiction. He can be reached at email@example.com.