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Sea Drones: Implications Of The Great Underwater Wall Of China – Analysis

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Several emerging trends like increasing congestion of global commons, especially in the maritime domain and the rapid development of disruptive technologies highlight over next decades, countries are likely to reconfigure their military forces to fight protracted conflicts at distant places.

By Sylvia Mishra

On 15 December 2016, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) seized a United States Navy Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) in international waters, 50-100 nautical miles off the Philippines’ Subic Bay port, turning the international code of conduct between navies at sea on its head. Although, the Chinese Navy returned the US UUV, which it had unlawfully captured, the incident displayed yet another example of China’s attempt to reassert its power and willingness to intercept naval assets and challenge US maritime operations. More importantly, the incident underscored the growing strategic and tactical significance of UUVs, the use of such vehicles in contested waters and a lack of globally accepted code of conduct to govern the use of underwater drones. This article argues that Indian security planners must pay attention to China’s efforts at ramping up disruptive technologies like UUVs, which has both civilian and military applications. As Beijing moves towards active deployment of underwater drones for forward operations, there will be implications for regional stability in the Indo-Pacific. India along with its strategic partners — the United States, Japan, Australia and Vietnam should strengthen maritime security, focus on anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and urgently work towards developing a global code of conduct for using underwater drones.

China’s drones and UUVs ecosystem

In the last two decades, rapid advancements in drone technologies especially the development of swarming platforms, where large number of drones coordinate together in formation has been considered transformative to the future of warfare. More substantive technological advancements have taken place in unmanned aerial drone (UAVs) technologies and China has emerged as a key military drone exporter, selling drones with capabilities of carrying bigger weapons payload as noted by a SIPRI report. On the other hand, underwater drones are also emerging as a key area of emphasis for China. Steady improvements in UUVs’ technologies and technological advancements in robotics technology, including communications and navigation have enhanced UUVs’ ability to guide themselves on their missions — at further distances and in harsher environments. Advances in UUVs present far reaching consequences affecting strategic stability through their capacity to detect and track submarines. This ability of UUVs to detect and hunt submarines thereby render oceans transparent potentially change the way of warfare. It is precisely why Beijing has been investing in a burgeoning underwater drones industry, which enjoys considerable national-level funding and support. A Rand Report of 2016 highlighted that Beijing is currently funding 15 different University research programs for UUV projects. At the Shenyang Institute of Automation in the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Liaoning province, Chinese researchers have developed an underwater glider — Sea Wing and have conducted several successful missions in the Western Pacific. After China developed the autonomous Haiyan/Petrel, the Chinese State media stated that while China is presently using UUVs for scientific research, these UUVs potentially would potentially undergo upgradation for underwater combat, patrol, minesweeping and submarine detection operations. These developments indicate that in the near future Beijing will continue to make advancements in UUVs technologies and it is likely that the PLAN will utilise UUVs for military purposes.

Implications for India and stability in the Indo-Pacific

The Indo-Pacific plays a significant role in geopolitics and tactical maneuvers and largely becoming a theatre of security competition. There are genuine concerns of increasing strategic arsenals in the Indo-Pacific and the addition of disruptive naval technology — UUVs will significantly contribute to the destabilisation of the maritime security environment and escalate nuclear tensions. China is increasingly following the lead of countries like the United State and Russia to develop and deploy UUVs to bolster its blue-water navy. The deployment of Chinese UUVs in the waters of the Indo-Pacific will have the potential to cause major disruptions to the status quo. China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean and assertiveness in maritime territorial disputes in the East and South China Sea has alarmed Indian security analysts and the international community. An ORF report authored by Abhijit Singh argued that China would develop and deploy underwater vehicles for forward operations. If China begins deploying UUVs in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) to detect Indian submarines, it would greatly accelerate instability in the region. Other analyses indicate that UUVs will improve Chinese long-distance targeting and bolster Beijing’s surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. Experts argue that China could utilise UUVs for ‘hold-at-risk’ missions, as UUVs could be effective in blockading chokepoints. These trends demonstrate that by heavily investing on emerging technologies, China is poised to alter the traditional way of war fighting. In such a scenario, India must seek to strengthen its maritime security ties with the United States, Japan and Australia. India’s defence planners also need to intensify the process of upgrading their own Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capabilities and indigenously designing and developing UUVs to meet India’s security needs for subsurface naval operations.

Disruptive technologies: Need for a global code of conduct and the way forward

Several emerging trends like increasing congestion of global commons especially in the maritime domain and the rapid development of disruptive technologies highlight over next decades, countries are likely to reconfigure their military forces to fight protracted conflicts at distant places. However, one of the more dangerous trends are that technology is advancing at a faster pace than the ability of the international arms control community to agree upon a globally accepted code of conduct to govern new technologies. The United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is exploring new ways where UUVs will use active sonar to detect and track enemy vessels and transmit their location back to the host submarine. If in the future, UUVs will be able to make oceans transparent and degrade the stealth factor of submarines, it would seriously damage strategic stability and the insurance of nuclear second-strike capabilities of countries. While there are several technological challenges that lie ahead for UUVs to effectively detect and hunt submarines, ignoring technological surprises and advancements would be folly. Therefore, the international arms control community needs to find ways to formulate and adhere to a global code of conduct to govern and use UUVs to preserve stability and prevent adventurism of any one particular state.


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Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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