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The Nanxun Jiao Crisis and the Dawn of Autonomous Undersea Conflict

Fiction Topic Week

The following story is the next installment of a series on micronaval warfare. Read Part One of Admiral Lacy’s oral history on the emergence of micronaval warfare, “The Battle of Locust Point.”

By David R. Strachan


TOP SECRET/NOFORN

The following classified interview is being conducted per the joint NHHC/USNI Oral History Project on Autonomous Warfare.

Admiral Jeremy B. Lacy, USN (Ret.)

November 19, 2033

Annapolis, Maryland

Interviewer: Lt. Cmdr. Hailey J. Dowd, USN 


Good morning.

We are joined again today by Admiral Jeremy B. Lacy, widely considered the father of autonomous undersea conflict, or what has come to be known as micronaval warfare. Admiral Lacy spearheaded the Atom-class microsubmarine program, eventually going on to establish Strikepod Group 1 (COMPODGRU 1), and serving as Commander, Strikepod Forces, Atlantic (COMPODLANT). He is currently the Corbin A. McNeill Endowed Chair in Naval Engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy.

This is the second installment of a planned eight-part classified oral history focusing on Admiral Lacy’s distinguished naval career, and his profound impact on modern naval warfare. In Part I, we learned about the genesis of the Atom-class microsubmarine and its operational construct, the Strikepod, and the series of events leading up to the first combat engagement of the micronaval era, the Battle of Locust Point, where a Strikepod of prototype Atoms tracked and engaged several Russian Istina-class microsubmarines prowling the upper Chesapeake Bay during Baltimore Fleet Week, 2016. Today our discussion will focus on the aftermath of Locust Point, the continued development of the Atom-class microsubmarine, as well as the early days of autonomous undersea conflict, including the first major confrontation of the micronaval era, the Nanxun Jiao Crisis.

The period following Locust Point was a time of high tension and uncertainty. With the United States now facing an unprecedented undersea threat to both the homeland and forces abroad, the president, through a series of classified executive orders, mobilized a full range of U.S. defensive capabilities. This included authorizing a broad expansion of the Atom-class microsubmarine program via the Joint Undersea Initiatives Group (known colloquially as FathomWorks), a consortium of leading defense contractors and specialized units of the United States Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps charged with, among other things, developing a coastal undersea network to defend against foreign micronaval threats.

We joined Admiral Lacy again at his home in Annapolis, Maryland.

Let’s begin today with FathomWorks. Paint the picture, if you will, of those early weeks in the wake of Locust Point.

It was all about testing, evaluation, and improvement. The Atom had performed admirably, but for all intents and purposes, it was still a prototype, and there were serious gaps in coms and navigation that needed addressing, as well as kinks with Falken [the Atom’s artificial intelligence]. Our vision for the Atom-class was achievable, but in order to get there we had to enhance Falken dramatically. Strikepods would be operating – and fighting – in a complex, communication-denied environment for extended periods. This demanded a highly advanced form of artificial intelligence, as well as a more evolved approach to human-machine teaming.

We emerged from Locust Point feeling pretty validated, and confident that Strikepods could be more than just another club in the bag, that they promised much more than minehunting or intel gathering. We knew that this was a capable platform in and of itself that could be integrated into the fleet at the operational level.

But there was no time to dream and tinker. Our mandate was clear, and the sense of urgency was unmistakable. The Russians were on the move, and the threat they posed to our security was greater than at any time since the Cold War. Our analysts had taken one on the chin with Locust Point, but they’d been warning for months that Moscow was working on something highly advanced and very closely guarded, but there was no indication that anything was operational, much less poised to invade our inland waters. A lot of folks at the Pentagon laughed it off. But they weren’t laughing now, especially when we took a closer look at Poseidon.

So Locust Point influenced the Navy’s perception of the Poseidon program?

When we first heard of it, it seemed more implausible than Istina. That the Russians had the know-how or the resources to develop an autonomous microsubmarine was difficult enough to believe, but when we started receiving information on a nuclear-tipped autonomous torpedo, we were honestly beginning to wonder if we were the target of a wildly excessive disinformation campaign. Even when we received intelligence that it had been test fired from the Sarov, we just didn’t see it as a viable platform. But the Istina changed all that.

In what way? 

If the Russians were capable of the miniaturization and AI integration – and audacity – we’d experienced with the Istinas, then we had to assume that Poseidon would eventually threaten our shores as well. We needed a viable micronaval defense.

And so the Atlantic Undersea Network was born? 

Yes. The Atom was incredibly flexible by design, and could be configured to fulfill a multitude of roles. We’d been tossing around concepts for mine warfare, including a variant optimized for the seabed, something akin to a mobile, local area SOSUS, with the capability to detect and engage both surface and subsurface targets. The idea, conceptually, was to have Strikepods fanned out across the seabed near certain approaches to the eastern seaboard – Bangor, Boston, New York, the Chesapeake, Norfolk, Kings Bay. These would serve as the ears for either roving hunter-killer Strikepods, or Atoms housed in undersea microsubmarine batteries. In this way, AUDEN would essentially be an integrated minefield.

The signature feature of the seabed-optimized Atom was the Advanced Seabed Warfare module which, in addition to providing a suite of highly advanced communication and sensor technologies, also housed the SEASTAR [Seabed Static Array] – a passive microsonar array that would deploy from the module and extend about 150 feet upward into the water column. With their SEASTARs deployed, the networked seabed Atoms could act as a large array, identifying and classifying targets and passing that information along to the Strikepods – either roving, or turret-based.

AUDEN was clearly prompted by the immediacy of the Russian micronaval threat, but were you also troubled by other adversary programs, such as the Chinese Shāyú-class microsubmarine? 

We were keenly aware of adversary developments, particularly with the PLAN. The intelligence we’d been receiving on the Shāyú was spotty, but given China’s public successes with Haiyi gliders and deep diving vehicles like the Hailong III, as well as their commitment to an Undersea Great Wall, we were fairly confident that not only did the program exist, but that it was in all likelihood operational. And it wasn’t long before our suspicions proved correct.

In the South China Sea? 

About six months after Locust Point, late in the spring of 2017, I got a call from Seventh Fleet inquiring about our progress on the improved Atom, and whether we’d be up for an overseas deployment. At that point we’d pretty much improved the coms issues, and Falken’s training and testing was nearly complete. After checking with the engineers, we thought we were up for the challenge, and on April 1, 2017, half a dozen 5-ship Strikepods were deployed to the Spratlys in what was called Operation Eminent Shadow. Each pod’s initial configuration was one rogue, two remoras, and two relays, and their mission was to carry out general ISR and ASW operations, focusing primarily on the waters off of Subi, Mischief, and Fiery Cross, and to escort both surface ships and submarines performing FONOPS throughout the central Spratlys.

So there was harassment under the sea as well? 

Oh, absolutely. Of course, none of these encounters ever made headlines. It simply wasn’t in anyone’s interest to publicize them, and anyway there was more than enough high-profile harassment happening on the surface to keep the public and media buzzing.

The concerning thing was that Chinese subs were showing up unexpectedly, at times and places that suggested they knew where we were. Their Y-8s were dropping buoys practically right on top of our boats, and destroyers and frigates would show up suddenly to shoo us away. It was reminiscent of what we were experiencing with our boomers right before the Istinas showed up at our front door. Needless to say, COMPSUBPAC’s hackle was up. So the Strikepods were there to help figure out what the hell was going on.

Were they under the control of COMSUBPAC?

Actually, they were under the control of COMPODGRU 1, out of Norfolk, Virginia. There’d been a great deal of debate over this – whether Strikepods were a platform or payload, whether there should be a centralized Strikepod command versus a more decentralized payload approach. But we pointed at the Air Force piloting Reapers and Predators out of the southwest, and said look, there’s no reason why Strikepods can’t be run out of Norfolk, particularly when we’re talking about providing a persistent forward presence like any high-value asset.

So we’d airlift the Atoms to Guam, load them onto waiting Virginias, who’d then deploy them – from the torpedo tubes, initially, until we were able to fully integrate a launch and recovery system with the Virginia Payload Module.  And then we’d get to work, reporting contacts, keeping tabs on the PLAN. We were even able to test the Remora Module in a live environment, tracking a Yuan-class submarine for ten straight days all over the Central Spratlys. It was all going pretty smoothly, with high fives all around. But the Chinese were still showing up unannounced.

What was it like when you finally encountered the Shāyú? 

It was another day of Eminent Shadow, nothing particularly unusual. It’s Caitlyn’s thirteenth birthday, and I’ve got chaperone duty at 1400 for ice-skating and a fondue dinner, so I skip out early, but then at around 1545 I get an “urgent” from the watch: Something’s happened.

When I get back, the place is going bananas, and a watch officer briefs me. One of our Strikepods – Delta – on patrol off Subi had detected three small contacts closing at about fifteen knots. Initially they were classified as biologicals, given their signatures and behavior, and sensing a collision, the rogue ordered evasive action, accelerating and diving, while ordering a relay to break off and come shallow, probably to ensure communications. A second later, one of the contacts breaks formation and heads toward the relay.

So now Falken is faced with something it’s only experienced in the lab. We’d been developing some rudimentary combat tactics and introducing them into the training regimen, running scenarios where Falken would encounter something hostile. But in almost every case it chose to flee rather than fight. There were just too many variables, too much ambiguity for it to go lethal without a human on the loop giving the order.

The first contact reaches the relay and their signals promptly disappear. With the two remaining contacts closing on Delta, Falken orders Flee, and the Atoms scatter. The contacts split up and lock on to the two remoras, and thirty seconds later they also disappear. The rogue scans for additional threats, and finding none, orders relay-2 to head to the surface to phone it in.

Fortunately Falken had ordered all ships to fire their onboard imaging systems, so from the moment Delta went evasive there was running video. Of course 99 percent of it was just black water and bubbles, but there were five screen grabs that were very compelling.

You had a visual? 

It was another one of those moments – like Cape Charles when we first laid eyes on an Istina. I was honestly half expecting to see an eye, some flukes, or a long jaw and teeth. But there it was – a short hull, a propulsor. We knew it then – we’d just encountered the Shāyú-class microsubmarine.

Was there continued harassment by the Shāyús during Eminent Shadow? 

Almost daily, and as such there was a real sense of urgency at FathomWorks to get Falken in a place to adequately defend itself. We were losing Atoms at a rate of nearly five per week. They needed to fight back.

Were there no attempts at communication? No back channel diplomatic overtures by either side? 

It’s important to understand – this was the dawn of autonomous undersea conflict, a time when there were very few environments left for sovereign governments to carry out covert operations without risk of exposure. The Chinese tactics were risky, to be sure, but they believed – correctly – that we had a shared interest in keeping this sort of thing quiet. The undersea community, regardless of nationality, has always been characterized by a cult-like devotion to secrecy, and in the unmanned era, it would be no different. In fact, in some ways there would be an intensification of that silence, if you will, given the willingness to take greater risks with systems that were hidden from public scrutiny, and posed no risk to human life.

But the risk, of course, was that this new type of conflict could spill over into the manned, visible world and precipitate a more serious, potentially bloody crisis. I’m referring, of course, to the Decatur, and the Nanxun Jiao Crisis. 

Yes, of course. Just because the conflict is unseen and unmanned doesn’t insulate it from the overarching strategic reality. It’s woven into that reality, and its effects can indeed break the surface and escalate, as it did at Nanxun Jiao.

Can you tell us about the Decatur incident, and the events leading up to the strike on the Nanxun Jiao installation? 

So, after Subi we could confirm the Shāyú’s existence, and that the Chinese were serious about it as an ASW platform. It was an eye-opener for sure, but beyond that we knew very little – its capabilities, performance characteristics, or Chinese microsubmarine tactics, or doctrine. But then we had a HUMINT breakthrough.

CYAN? 

In early 2018, we get a call from the CIA station chief in Manila. Apparently the embassy received something in the mail that might be of great interest to us – a letter with a simple handwritten sketch of what looks like a missile turret, but on closer inspection the missiles are actually small submarines. Below that sketch are a series of random dots that are actually a fairly accurate representation of the Spratlys. One of the dots has a circle drawn around it – the northern reef of the Gaven Reefs, what the Chinese call Nanxun Jiao.

Needless to say, we were intrigued, but what was particularly intriguing was how the sketch bore a striking resemblance to our working concept for AUDEN.  So the CI folks immediately open a file, and we’re left pondering the possibility that the Chinese have deployed a battery of microsubmarines, and that it could be based on a design stolen from a highly classified U.S. Navy program.

What was the response? 

Well, we were alert to the possibility of disinformation, but to what end? To draw us in to Nanxun Jiao? A lesser-militarized island, one that appeared to be used primarily for logistics and resupply?

We weighed the options carefully, and ultimately decided we needed to take a look. Rather than divert resources from Eminent Shadow, we shipped a new 5-ship Strikepod via SH-60 to the nearest destroyer, USS Decatur, and about six hours after delivery, the FONOP is underway, with the Strikepod sweeping the reef. At first it’s pretty routine, nothing unusual, but then at the five minute mark, we get a flash: seabed contact. Falken positions the Strikepod for a closer look, and thirty seconds later, another flash. Shāyús in the water. Six of them. So we order an immediate withdrawal to Decatur, and the Shāyús give chase.

By now the PLAN destroyer Lanzhou has made her appearance, and has closed to around three miles. The Strikepod, with the Shāyús in pursuit, is at flank, but won’t reach Decatur before it can be safely recovered. So we have a decision to make. Since the encounter at Subi, the engineers at FathomWorks had been working nearly nonstop on combat scenarios, and even worked with DARPA to develop a special wargame for Falken to help it anticipate conflict and learn how to fight. But we were still uncomfortable with it making the call. So we dipped a SUMO [Shipboard Undersea Modem] and hoped it would get the message.

What followed was seven minutes of sheer chaos. The Strikepod goes hot, and now it’s a furball. All that training seems to have paid off, and we were looking at a much different outcome than Subi. But what we quickly realize is that the Strikepod isn’t the Shāyús’ objective. Three of them disengage and resume course toward Decatur, and by the time the captain orders the ATT [Anti-Torpedo Torpedo System] to engage, it’s too late, and they slam into Decatur’s hull just aft of the sonar dome. Meanwhile, the remaining Shāyús and the Strikepod fight it out until the end. About a minute later the Lanzhou makes its aggressive pass across Decatur’s bow.

Was there any damage to the Decatur? 

Nothing of any consequence. Some scratched paint. The Shāyús were inert. It was a warning, and a damn stern one at that.

What was the reaction in Norfolk? 

Shock, on a host of levels. We’d just experienced the most aggressive harassment yet. Chinese employment of microsubmarines was unsettling enough, but they were based on the seabed near disputed areas, and were tasked with threatening our manned warships and kinetically engaging our unmanned systems.

But more unsettling still was what the imagery revealed. As CYAN’s letter suggested, the Chinese system was nearly identical to AUDEN. The turret, the network of sensors on the seafloor, complete with SEASTAR-like tentacles.

They’d gotten there first?

AUDEN was still in testing, so it certainly appeared so. Maybe they’d already made a lot of headway, and the stolen design helped push them over the edge. We knew the Chinese were making huge strides in AI and seabed warfare, but this was too much too soon. The signs were clearly there. They’d either hacked us, or they’d had help.

We knew this was coming, though. We knew that microsubmarines were the future of offensive mining operations, and we were well on our way with Strikepods. But we weren’t expecting our adversaries to be quite so far along.

What was the reaction in Washington? 

We’d been patched into the Situation Room from the very beginning, so all the principals were well aware of what we’d found. Needless to say, they shared our concerns, but were also particularly concerned with the strategic implications – that China had moved beyond island building to leveraging the seabed for weapons emplacements. And of course, if it was happening at Nanxun Jiao, surely it was happening at Subi, Mischief, Fiery Cross, and others.

It was a complex situation to say the least, and there were some fairly heated discussions on how to proceed. Many believed we should strike immediately, to send a message that this type of illegal installation would not be tolerated, particularly as it has been used to destroy sovereign U.S. property and threaten a U.S. warship. Others called for expanding Eminent Shadow to include all of the waters off disputed outposts in order to build a diplomatic case and compel the Chinese to dismantle the sites.

And where did you fall on the matter? 

I felt the crisis called for a blended approach, that neither one alone would have done the trick. Even though a show of force risked emboldening the Chinese, we needed to send a strong signal. Diplomacy could come later, but behind closed doors. A Cuban Missile Crisis-style U.N. confrontation would have made for riveting diplomatic theater, but what if the Chinese didn’t blink? We were talking about what they believed was their territorial sea. So they don’t blink – they refuse to dismantle their microsubmarine batteries. What then? U.S. credibility would be on the line, and we would have no choice but to take action – what would be, at that point, very public action. And suddenly we’re at war in the South China Sea.

And ultimately your approach won the day? 

Yes, it did. The president ordered an immediate expansion of Eminent Shadow. We were deploying Atoms by the dozen to the South China Sea, and all told, spent about eight weeks gathering evidence. 

As you might imagine, we encountered quite a bit of resistance. The Chinese were onto us now, and were expecting us to go sniffing around. The PLAN was on high alert, stepping up air and surface activities, and Shāyús were everywhere.

The Atom’s LENR [Low Energy Nuclear Reactor] afforded excellent standoff capability, so we were able to launch all of the sorties from well offshore. The Strikepods would arrive on station, form up, and wait for the go order. They’d fight their way in, and, with any luck, a few Atoms would penetrate far enough to capture some imagery, beam it to the others, and then race to the surface to relay the data. The plan worked about 75 percent of the time, gathering more than enough evidence to satisfy the policymakers. We lost nearly 120 Atoms out of the 150 participating in the expanded Eminent Shadow. Expensive, yes, but they weren’t human casualties. This new form of conflict was evolving right before our eyes.

And what did you find? 

Ultimately we found operational systems off of Subi, Mischief, and Fiery Cross, with partial construction off Hughes, Johnson, and a few others.

So you have the evidence you need to make a compelling case. Now you move on Nanxun Jiao?

Yes, the planning for the Nanxun Jiao strike – or what was now being called Operation Roundhouse – was complete.

Tell us about Operation Roundhouse. 

During the expanded Eminent Shadow, we were also keeping a close eye on Gaven Reefs, with particular focus on any human comings and goings at the Nanxun Jiao undersea installation. The last thing we wanted was casualties, and from what we could tell, the schedule was routine. Every Wednesday at 10am local, a dive tender would head out over the spot and they’d deploy, and we’d listen as they performed routine maintenance, and after about two hours or so they’d surface and head in.

After several weeks of recon, the date was set – a Saturday at 0300 to avoid any possibility of human activity or unwanted attention from satellites or passing aircraft. (The turret was at a depth of fifty meters, so there would surely be a disturbance on the surface.)

The package was sixty Atoms strong, organized into three waves of Strikepods that would make a staggered approach. The Shāyús had a tendency to be all in at the first sign of trouble with almost no reserve, so we hoped the first wave would draw them out, exposing the turret’s flanks and allowing waves two and three to penetrate and carry out the mission.

The package launched at 0215 for the cruise to staging, approximately 10 miles west of Nanxun Jiao. The go order went out at 0245, and then we waited, watching a real-time feed via a surfaced relay trailing approximately 500 yards behind.

At three miles out we hear the Shāyús pinging away, and at two miles they engage the first wave. Resistance is light, which, in hindsight, should have been cause for concern. We only lose about fifteen Atoms during the first wave, and waves two and three meet with almost no resistance at all. Falken had been trained to race toward the target and detonate at the last possible moment, but with such little resistance we were able to perform a static demolition to ensure more thorough destruction.

So we pull back, and we’re watching the split screen with feeds from various perspectives, including the kill vehicles as they continue to close, and as the turret comes into view…

[Admiral Lacy pauses here.]

That’s when you saw them?

I called immediately for confirmation. The pilots switched frantically between feeds, and, yes – quite distinctly. Dive suits. Four of them.

The room erupted, and we immediately fired off a flash to abort. The relay confirmed, but it was already too late, and half a second later the screens went blank. BDA later confirmed that the mission was a success. The turret was completely destroyed, and many of the surrounding network sensors appeared badly damaged or disabled. We searched in vain for three hours, but there was no trace of any divers.

The next day we received the news.

From Chinese state television?

The lead story was an explosion at a CNOOC facility that claimed the lives of four offshore divers. Of course, it wasn’t uncommon for Beijing to cover up accidents of any kind, particularly when they were security related or politically sensitive. But then we received word from CIA, who’d been running CYAN from the beginning. They’d been trying to track him down, to recruit him for more, and in the course of their research they’d determined that the letter had likely come from a member of the Nanxun Jiao dive team, and that one of the four divers reportedly killed in the CNOOC accident – a Mr. Xin Li – was in fact CYAN.

The Chinese had been onto him?

 Perhaps CIA had been careless while poking around and attracted the attention of Chinese counterintelligence, or…

Or they’d been tipped?

 A very real possibility as well.

And they’d known you were coming?

The fact that Mr. Li had been exposed, and that this had likely led to his death – his execution – along with those of three others, was of course problematic enough. But the fact that there were divers down as Roundhouse was underway, and that one of those divers was most likely the individual who led us there in the first place – the implications were unimaginably grave.

Some questioned whether they’d been killed elsewhere, and were never down there at all. But I’m fairly certain they died there that night. The Chinese wanted to send a message to would-be traitors, and especially to us. It was textbook psychological warfare. They wanted us to know we’d pulled the trigger.

What I can tell you is that there were people in the room that day who were never the same again.

I know I wasn’t.

And the aftermath?

Nanxun Jiao was spun as a stalemate, but it was really a Chinese victory. Four casualties and the perils of autonomous undersea conflict were too much for the politicians to stomach, and so, much as Chinese island building had gone unchecked for years, so too would their undersea buildup continue. 

In just three years we were an order of magnitude beyond Locust Point, and the brave new world of autonomous undersea conflict was coming into focus. The underwater realm was more secretive, more complex, and more dangerous than ever before, but one thing in particular was becoming inescapably clear:

Nothing less than total undersea dominance was at stake.

[End Part II]

David R. Strachan is a naval analyst and writer living in Silver Spring, MD. His website, Strikepod Systems, explores the emergence of unmanned undersea warfare via real-time speculative fiction. Contact him at strikepod.systems@gmail.com.

Featured Image: Project 885 Yasen Class Submarine by Isra Tan.

Seabed Warfare Week Concludes on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

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.

Fighting for the Seafloor: From Lawfare to Warfare by LTJG Kyle Cregge

“…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.”

Forward…from the Seafloor? by David Strachan

“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.”

Establish a Seabed Command by Joseph LaFave

“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.”

Undersea Cables and the Challenges of Protecting Seabed Lines of Communication by Pete Barker

“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.)

Undersea Cables and the Challenges of Protecting Seabed Lines of Communication

Seabed Warfare Week

By Pete Barker

Introduction

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.

Legal Protections

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 law if 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.

Global map of submarine cables [click to expand] (Ben Pollock/Visual Capitalist)
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.

Conclusion

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 peter.barker.uk@usnwc.edu.
 

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)

Establish a Seabed Command

Seabed Warfare Week

By Joseph LaFave

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.

Conclusion

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)