Tag Archives: Undersea

Could Robot Submarines Replace Australia’s Ageing Collins Class Submarines?

This article originally featured on The Conversation. It can be read in its original form here.

By Sean Welsh

The decision to replace Australia’s submarines has been stalled for too long by politicians afraid of the bad media about “dud subs” the Collins class got last century.

Collins class subs deserved criticism in the 1990s. They did not meet Royal Australian Navy (RAN) specifications. But in this century, after much effort, they came good. Though they are expensive, Collins class boats have “sunk” US Navy attack submarines, destroyers and aircraft carriers in exercises.

Now that the Collins class is up for replacement, we have an opportunity to reevaluate our requirements and see what technology might meet them. And just as drones are replacing crewed aircraft in many roles, some military thinkers assume the future of naval war will be increasingly autonomous.

The advantages of autonomy in submarines are similar to those of autonomy in aircraft. Taking the pilot out of the plane means you don’t have to provide oxygen, worry about g-forces or provide bathrooms and meals for long trips.

Taking 40 sailors and 20 torpedoes out of a submarine will do wonders for its range and stealth. Autonomous submarines could be a far cheaper option to meet the RAN’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) requirements than crewed submarines.

Submarines do more than sink ships. Naval war is rare but ISR never stops. Before sinking the enemy you must find them and know what they look like. ISR was the original role of drones and remains their primary role today.

Last month, Boeing unveiled a prototype autonomous submarine with long range and high endurance. It has a modular design and could perhaps be adapted to meet RAN ISR requirements.

Boeing is developing a long range autonomous submarine that could have military applications.

Thus, rather than buy 12 crewed submarines to replace the Collins class, perhaps the project could be split into meeting the ISR requirement with autonomous submarines that can interoperate with a smaller number of crewed submarines that sink the enemy.

Future submarines might even be “carriers” for autonomous and semi-autonomous UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and UUVs (unmanned undersea vehicles).

Keeping People on Deck

However, while there may be a role for autonomous submarines in the future of naval warfare, there are some significant limitations to what they can achieve today and in the foreseeable future.

Most of today’s autonomous submarines have short ranges and are designed for very specific missions, such as mine sweeping. They are not designed to sail from Perth to Singapore or Hong Kong, sneak up on enemy ships and submarines, and sink them with torpedoes.

Also, while drone aircraft can be controlled from a remote location, telepiloting is not an option for a long range sub at depth.

The very low frequency radio transceivers in Western Australia used by the Pentagon to signal “boomers” (nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed submarines) in the Indian Ocean have very low transmission rates: only a few hundred bytes per second.

You cannot telepilot a submarine lying below a thermocline in Asian waters from Canberra like you can telepilot a drone flying in Afghanistan with high-bandwidth satellite links from Nevada.

Contemporary telepiloted semi-autonomous submarines are controlled by physical tethers, basically waterproof network cables, when they dive. This limits range to a few kilometers.

Who’s the Captain?

To consider autonomy in the role of sinking the enemy, the RAN would likely want an “ethical governor” to skipper the submarines. This involves a machine making life and death decisions: a “Terminator” as captain so to speak.

This would present a policy challenge for government and a trust issue for the RAN. It would certainly attract protest and raise accountability questions.

On the other hand, at periscope depth, you can telepilot a submarine. To help solve the chronic recruitment problems of the Collins class, the RAN connected them to the internet. If you have a satellite “dongle on the periscope” so the crew can email their loved ones, then theoretically you can telepilot the submarine as well.

That said, if you are sneaking up on an enemy sub and are deep below the waves, you can’t.

Even if you can telepilot, radio emissions directing the sub’s actions above the waves might give away its position to the enemy. Telepiloting is just not as stealthy as radio silence. And stealth is critical to a submarine in war.

Telepiloting also exposes the sub to the operational risks of cyberwarfare and jamming.

There is great technological and political risk in the Future Submarine Project. I don’t think robot submarines can replace crewed submarines but they can augment them and, for some missions, shift risk from vital human crews to more expendable machines.

Ordering nothing but crewed submarines in 2016 might be a bad naval investment.

Sean Welsh is a Doctoral Candidate in Robot Ethics at the University of Canterbury. The working title of his dissertation is Moral Code: Programming the Ethical Robot. He spent 17 years working in software engineering for organisations such as British Telecom, Telstra Australia, Fitch Ratings, James Cook University and Lumata. He has given several conference papers on programming ethics into robots, two of which are appearing in a forthcoming book, A World of Robots, to be published by Springer later in the year.

Sean Welsh does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

Featured Image: HMAS Rankin at periscope depth. United States Navy, Photographer’s Mate 1st Class David A. Levy

 

An Underwater Cloud

By Alix Willemez

What is the Cloud?

Do you know where your computer data is stored? Generally not. Previously, servers were located within companies. According to Didier Renard, director of Cloudwatt, a French company specialized in cloud computing founded in 2012 by Orange and Thales, said that “in the early 1990s, when computer engineers were making the network architecture diagrams where you had to place equipment such as servers, they drew a cloud whenever they rose out of corporate networks.”

What was then the exception has now become the rule. In most cases, IT infrastructures are outsourced. We save all our documents online on sites like Google, iCloud, Dropbox etc. For a few euros, you can buy storage megabytes. If this article was read by millions of readers, CIMSEC should subscribe to such services so that our website could meet the demand. The cloud is clearly essential to the functioning of the Internet.

Unfortunately, these outsourced data centers contain many servers that generate a lot of heat. If it is too high, servers fail to function properly. That is why they are usually located in very cold places like Alaska and Finland (Google) or Sweden (Facebook).

DataCenter_MG_6336
A data center. Source: ABB.

Facebook also created a data center in Clonee, Ireland, where there is significant wind energy resources and Google based its servers in Hamina, Finland, where the company uses sea water for cooling.The goal is always to reduce energy costs to cool the servers.

These data centers also consume a lot of electricity. Indeed, they facilitate strong economic growth, because they are also large consumers of electricity and oil for their operation and cooling. Those located in France account for 9% of the total electricity consumption. In the US, data centers owned by Google and Facebook consume as much power as a city of 250,000 inhabitants.

The Natick Project and the Leona Philpot Prototype

Eager to reduce energy consumption in its data centers, market leader Microsoft has been working for three years on a project called Microsoft Natick. This is to determine the technical feasibility of a new type of data center that could be submerged at the bottom of the ocean. A first prototype of 17 tons, the Leona Philpot (named after a character in the Xbox game Halo Nation -you must be geek to understand everything!), has been immersed in over thirty meters off California. The idea began in February 2013 Sean James, a Microsoft employee and a former submariner in the US Navy. This article then caught the eye of Norm Whitaker, another Microsoft executive who had served in DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). In 2014, Whitaker created a team within the NEXT unit of Microsoft (New Experiences and Technologies) to launch the project Natick. This represents a technological and energy challenge.

During deployment in 2015, the Leona Philpot prototype was powered by onshore electricity, but now the plan is for it to harness tidal energy and wave energy in order to supply electricity. In addition, at thirty meters deep, the cold surrounding seawater would lower its temperature and thus prevent overheating.

Finally, these data centers would be located near the coast, where most of the world population lives (50% of the US population lives within 200 kilometers of the sea), which would accelerate computer data transmission. This is why Leona Philpot was located 1 kilometer off the coast between August and November 2015.

Microsoft’s aim is therefore to diminish the distance and thus the latency-that is to say the time taken by certain data to get from the source to destination-between the place where the data is stored and final users.

Microsoft
Microsoft’s Project Natick. Source: Microsoft.

According to Whitaker, it would be possible to deploy a submarine data center within 90 days versus two years for a land-based data center. This could allow a rapid response to demand, particularly during natural disasters or when organizing a large event such as the World Cup.

After a deployment cycle of five years, which corresponds to the life of the computers it embarks, the Leona Philpot would be removed, the computers renewed and the prototype would be returned to water. The submarine data center could then run between ten and twenty years without the need for on-site personnel. It would then be recovered and recycled. But making data center fully resistant to the marine environment presents major technical difficulties.

What could Microsoft do in case of failure, breakdown or leak in the prototype? We must also take into account the usual parameters such as currents, corrosion, wildlife, marine traffic, pressure, humidity, etc. Leona Philpot is well equipped with a hundred sensors to track the daily state of the data center and computers in it, but the slightest incident could turn into a real rescue mission.

Testing of the prototype will be extended. This first conclusive test has allowed Microsoft to launch the construction of three similar prototypes. Microsoft plans further tests in 2016, particularly in Florida and the North Sea. The research group is designing a submarine system that will be three times larger and will be coupled to an alternative energy system that has not yet been chosen.

What Environmental Impact?

The Microsoft team says that marine life has quickly adapted to the presence of the prototype. But some are concerned about whether the presence of data centers in the ocean could warm it up. The Natick program could perhaps help Microsoft get back in the ranking by Greenpeace on the environmental impact of data centers. However, if data centers flourish under the sea, maritime traffic will have to adapt. The sea is clearly becoming a very busy economical place!

Alix previously served as a French Navy’s Deputy Bureau Chief for State Action at Sea, New Caledonia Maritime Zone and as a policy advisor to the New Zealand Consul General in New Caledonia. She now works in the marine renewable energy sector and is currently writing her PhD on the laws regarding the exploitation of marine energies and deep sea minerals (by the way, if you know anything about that, please contact her at newcaledonia@cimsec.org).

From Russia With Love…To Ceuta

This post originally appeared on Common Sense. You may read it in its original form here
By Fernando Betancor
Defense experts on both sides of the Atlantic have expressed concern about the increase in Russian submarine activity in the Atlantic Ocean[1]. Russian patrols have risen by 50% to what one unnamed European diplomat described as “Cold War levels”. Not only the frequency of excursions has increased: the submarines are approaching the United States and Europe in areas with undersea cable routes. The cables are used for communications and internet data transmission; along with the fleet of satellites in low earth orbit, they are the spine of our digital world. The United States and NATO allies still rely on these cables for vital military traffic.
So far, the Russians have not been observed doing anything to the cables. But because of their importance, the presence of the submarines is alarming. The Russian Navy could be identifying the best places to cut the cables in the event of hostilities with the West; it could also be making efforts to tap them as a source of intelligence. Or they may have a different, unguessed purpose that is unrelated to the communications cables. What is certain is that the Russians are not simply passing the time of day; the Russian Navy is executing a mission and that mission somehow involves NATO.
ceuta 1
ntelligence gathering and signals interception remains the most probable activity. It has a long and distinguished history in warfare; the capture of a lost set of Confederate orders allowed General McClellan to bring General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to battle in unfavorable circumstances in Sharpsburg, Maryland, leading to an important Union victory in the Civil War. It has become critically important since the widespread adoption of wireless and radio communications during the First and Second World War. Everyone knows that the British built the world’s first computer at Bletchley Park in order to crack the German ENIGMA codes, though the incredible Polish contributions to that effort remain overlooked. The United States had successfully broken Imperial Japanese diplomatic codes prior to Pearl Harbor, and were used to prepare the US Navy for the critical Battle of Midway. The US Navy also pioneered the use of submarines and deep-sea submersibles for intelligence gathering, tapping the unencrypted military communications between the mainland and facilities along the Kurile Islands. We continue to deploy these assets, such as the USS Impeccable.
Assisting the submarines is the Russian Navy’s Oceanographic Research VesselYantar[2]. The Yantar is newly commissioned, having come off the Kaliningrad slips early this year, and has nothing in common with Jacques Cousteau and the Calypso despite its scientific-sounding designation. It is an intelligence platform, operated by the Russian Navy for the Glavnoje Razvedyvatel’noje Upravlenije, or Main Intelligence Directorate. Although less infamous than its sister organization, the KGB (now FSB), the GRU is the larger of the two organizations with six times more foreign agents deployed that the Foreign Directorate of the FSB[3]. The Yantar was tracked by the Department of Defense as it approached and followed the North American coast from Canada down to the Caribbean. The Yantar carries deep-sea submersibles of the same kind the US Navy uses for a similar purpose: finding, tapping and potentially cutting undersea communications cables.
ceuta 2
After its leisurely voyage, including passing the US nuclear submarine base in Kings Bay, Georgia, the Yantar made its way across the Atlantic back towards Europe. On the 19th of October, the spy ship arrived at its destination: the Spanish port of Ceuta[4]. There it received a warm welcome, with a protected berth and round-the-clock security provided by the port authorities. It took on fuel and consumables while its sailors stuffed their gobs with paella and vino tinto while also engaging in the other profligate activities typical of sailors ashore. As comradely a reception as Ivan could have received in Kaliningrad.
But Ceuta is not Kaliningrad. It is a port belonging to a NATO ally. It is strategically located on the North African coast next to the Straits of Gibraltar, one of the busiest maritime transit points in the world. And it is an easy day’s steaming from RN Gibraltar, a port that Royal Navy vessels often visit, as well as the naval station of Rota, a base leased by the US Navy from Spain. That is where the US is basing four Aegis-equipped destroyers as part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach to ballistic missile defense. What in God’s name is a Russian intelligence vessel doing there?
The Yantar visit is not an isolated incident: this year alone there have been 14 port calls by Russian naval vessels to Ceuta and 58 in total since 2010. In August, the diesel attack submarine, RFS Novorossiysk passed three days in the Spanish colony, with Gibraltar well within range of its SS-N-27 “Sizzler” anti-ship missiles. In April, it was the Udaloy-class ASW destroyerSeveromorsk; and in February another ASW frigate, the Yaroslav Mudry. The city fathers are happy to have 2,000 lonely sailors spending their rubles on “shore leave” and local businesses benefit too. Nothing to comment on in normal times; except that we’re not living in normal times. Russian troops are still in Ukraine; NATO aircraft are intercepting Russian bombers over allied airspace; Turkey is reporting violations of its airspace by Russian drones and jets; and we are not sending troops and equipment to Eastern Europe because relations are warm and fuzzy.
ceuta 3
It is long past time the United States took a firmer line with Spain. Spain may be an important ally for us and NATO, with a strategic location and shared interest in the stability of North Africa and the Sahel. It is not a question of gratuitously humiliating or infuriating them. But the US must make it crystal clear to Spain that they must choose their side and stick with their friends. They cannot play both sides: they cannot take American dollars for the use of Rota and Russian rubles for the use of Ceuta. Our concern and extreme displeasure at having half the Russian fleet pass the time of day within a hundred miles of our ballistic missile defense assets must be communicated to the Spanish in no uncertain terms. And the consequences of this perfidious attitude should also be made known – discretely.
Intelligence sharing between the two nations might begin to suffer. The notable successes of Spanish police in intercepting and arresting ETA operatives and potential jihadists in recent years is not due entirely to the keen sense of the beat cops, but to good intelligence and timely cooperation between the Spanish, French and American agencies. If Spain still refuses, the US should consider a relocation of US assets to the Port of Lisbon (USN) and to Beja for the Marine Crisis Response Force – Africa. Both are almost as well situated as the current locations and the Portuguese are not hosting Russian warships.
Unless the US and NATO take firm measure, Spanish will remain indifferent and their “business-as-usual” attitude will continue. It is not only avaricious and in bad faith, it is dangerous to Spain’s own interests. They may come to find, like the Crimeans, Moldovans and others, that once Ivan gets comfortable, he is not an easy houseguest to get rid of. And neither Ceuta nor Melilla are covered by NATO’s Article 5 provision for mutual defense.
Sources and Notes
[1] David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt, “Russian Ships Near Data Cables Are Too Close for U.S. Comfort,” The New York Times, 25 October 2015
[3] The SVR, Sluzhba vneshney razvedki.