48 Off the Beach: Un­der­wa­ter War­fare in the 21st Cen­tury

Global Asia - - CONTENTS - By Peter Hayes

an in­creas­ing num­ber of states in the re­gion are build­ing their own sub­ma­rine mil­i­tary pres­ence.

Be­low the sur­face of Asia’s vast wa­ters, new weapons of war and the meth­ods of thwart­ing them are pro­lif­er­at­ing. Ad­vances in sub­marines by the world’s great navies are be­ing joined by an in­creas­ing num­ber of states in the re­gion that are build­ing their own mil­i­tary pres­ence be­neath the waves. Peter Hayes takes a look at the grow­ing threat these de­vel­op­ments pose, and some ideas for mit­i­gat­ing them.

IN I959, STAN­LEY KRAMER pro­duced and di­rected the movie On The Beach, star­ring Gre­gory Peck,

Ava Gard­ner, Fred As­taire and An­thony Perkins.

Set in 1964, it was filmed in part in Frankston near Mel­bourne. The plot re­volves around the af­ter­math of a nu­clear holo­caust that finds the USS Saw­fish, an Amer­i­can nu­clear sub­ma­rine now com­manded by Aus­tralia, on a des­per­ate mis­sion. It sails first to San Fran­cisco and then San Diego, seek­ing but fail­ing to con­tact sur­vivors (there be­ing none). It then voy­ages to Mel­bourne where the crew and the locals have love af­fairs and ei­ther die of ra­di­a­tion as the fall­out spreads south or com­mit sui­cide first. Cut to cred­its.

In re­al­ity, nu­clear sub­marines and their neme­sis, anti-sub­ma­rine forces, were just putting to sea when Kramer rolled his cam­eras. The first US nu­clear sub launched in 1956, while the first Soviet one was sighted in 1958. By the mid-1960s, the United States and Rus­sia had tested sub­ma­rine-launched bal­lis­tic mis­siles (in the case of the US, a live-fire Po­laris mis­sile was launched from a sub­ma­rine and ex­ploded above Christ­mas Is­land in the mid-pa­cific). By the 1980s, just one strate­gic nu­clear sub­ma­rine car­ried enough mis­siles and war­heads to wipe out all of the en­emy’s ma­jor cities — and each of the su­per­pow­ers had scores of these plat­forms. Dur­ing the Cold War, the US put 170 and the former Soviet Union 231 nu­clear-pow­ered subs to sea.

At the same time, the US fes­tooned the coastal ar­eas and straits near Soviet sub­ma­rine ports and be­yond with un­der­wa­ter hy­drophone net­works called sound sur­veil­lance sys­tems (SOSUS). In the Pa­cific, these were laid around Ja­pan, Korea and Tai­wan, as well as Alaska and Hawaii to iden­tify and lo­cate Soviet and other ad­ver­saries’ sub­marines by their unique acous­tic sig­na­tures. The US navy con­ducted one test where it ex­ploded charges un­der wa­ter in the North Pa­cific and mea­sured the sound near New Zealand.

Amer­i­can nu­clear-pow­ered at­tack sub­marines tracked Soviet bal­lis­tic-mis­sile sub­marines as soon as they en­tered in­ter­na­tional wa­ters — and of­ten be­fore — and trailed them un­til they re­turned.

They were sup­ple­mented by hun­dreds of an­ti­sub­ma­rine sur­face war­ships, sono-buoy and depthcharge armed Orion P3 air­craft, and sig­nals and com­mu­ni­ca­tions in­tel­li­gence sys­tems that sought to pin­point Soviet subs when­ever they sur­faced in their bas­tions or un­der the North Pole so that in a nu­clear war, they could be de­stroyed be­fore they could strike first, let alone re­tal­i­ate.

The Sovi­ets tried to em­u­late the Amer­i­can and al­lied sub­ma­rine and anti-sub­ma­rine forces, but could only sub­sti­tute brute force in num­bers, size and fire­power against the Amer­i­can qual­i­ta­tive edge. The US al­ways raced ahead of the Sovi­ets in qual­i­ta­tive terms, lead­ing the Sovi­ets to de­ploy their sub­marines close to the US main­land coast so that they could hit Amer­i­can tar­gets in a few min­utes

in­stead of the half-hour that an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal mis­sile would take to get from the Siberian mis­sile fields to Wash­ing­ton, DC or Honolulu.

Against this des­per­ate tac­tic, even the US had no ef­fec­tive coun­ter­mea­sure. The prob­lem it pre­sented to strate­gic sta­bil­ity was that it brought Soviet sub­marines even closer to Amer­i­can anti-sub­ma­rine forces than when they hid mid-ocean or un­der the um­brella of their own anti-sub­ma­rine forces close to home, im­ply­ing that they had to fire first in a cri­sis to be sure of an­ni­hi­lat­ing the Amer­i­can lead­er­ship as a way to dis­able US nu­clear forces and thereby limit the dam­age to the USSR from a per­ceived, pend­ing Amer­i­can first strike. And for the US, it sug­gested that these sub­marines should be at­tacked early in a cri­sis, a step that could ac­cel­er­ate es­ca­la­tion even if Soviet in­ten­tions had ac­tu­ally been only to threaten nu­clear at­tack, not to ac­tu­ally use nu­clear weapons.

From be­ing the most se­cure, lost in the deep ocean and there­fore the ul­ti­mate and unas­sail­able sec­ond-strike force that could, and would, re­tal­i­ate no mat­ter what hap­pened to the home­land, sub­ma­rine nu­clear forces and their an­tithe­sis be­came the most provoca­tive weapons of all. These forces were no longer the ul­ti­mate guar­an­tor of “strate­gic sta­bil­ity” — bet­ter called the bal­ance of ter­ror — in­stead they were less con­trol­lable due to dis­tance and com­mu­ni­ca­tions dif­fi­cul­ties and more prone to pre-del­e­ga­tion of nu­clear-use author­ity in case the home na­tional com­mand dis­ap­peared off the periscope, pos­si­bly lit­er­ally. Their weapons were now the most rapidly de­liv­er­able even com­pared to mis­siles or for­ward-de­ployed fighter bombers in Alaska, Europe and East Asian bases in Ja­pan, Korea and Guam.

In­deed, it is now known that a Soviet sub­ma­rine nearly fired nu­clear weapons at US war­ships at the height of the 1962

Cuban mis­sile cri­sis; and as part of that con­fronta­tion, the Sovi­ets had dis­patched a nu­clear mis­sile-fir­ing sub­ma­rine to stand off Honolulu, ready to nuke it if the sit­u­a­tion had es­ca­lated. And, off the beaches and ports, su­per­power sub­mariners en­gaged in cat-and­mouse games, some­times even col­lid­ing with each other. Amer­i­can sub­marines also tapped into Soviet un­der­sea com­mu­ni­ca­tion ca­bles in the Sea of Okhotsk to se­cure fan­tas­tic quan­ti­ties of com­mu­ni­ca­tions data for the US, op­er­at­ing even in­side Soviet ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters. Enor­mous risks were taken, which only came to light in sub­se­quent decades as sub­mariners re­counted their ex­pe­ri­ences.

Post-cold War Sub­ma­rine Pro­lif­er­a­tion

When the Soviet Union col­lapsed, on the sur­face it looked like the su­per­power sub­ma­rine com­pe­ti­tion was over. The now-rus­sian sub­ma­rine fleet in the Pa­cific (and At­lantic) was moored in port. Some subs sank at the dock, re­ac­tors and all; oth­ers caught on fire. For a decade, no one paid much at­ten­tion to what was go­ing on un­der the wa­ter, off­shore in the Pa­cific.

In re­al­ity, the sub­ma­rine game never stopped. Com­pe­ti­tion re­sumed in the early 2000s be­tween the US and Rus­sian strate­gic nu­clear sub­marines and their re­spec­tive anti-sub­ma­rine forces. China, In­dia, and Pakistan have all put nu­clear-mis­sile sub­marines to sea or be­gun se­ri­ous test­ing. Even North Korea tested sub­ma­rine-launched mis­siles and de­clared its in­ten­tion to em­u­late the su­per­pow­ers.

To­day, the op­er­at­ing tempo of US nu­cle­ar­pow­ered at­tack sub­marines in the western Pa­cific and their port vis­its to South Korea and Ja­pan ex­ceeds the height of the Cold War.

This ac­tiv­ity is in­ex­pli­ca­ble in terms of the role these sub­marines play screen­ing US air­craft car­ri­ers sail­ing in the Pa­cific and In­dian Oceans. To­day, there are fewer car­rier bat­tle groups at sea than dur­ing the Cold War. Some­thing else is go­ing on un­der sea.

That some­thing is the emerg­ing recog­ni­tion that the fu­ture of hu­man­ity lies in the ocean, not on land. To­day, se­abed and ocean-sourced food, both an­i­mal and plant, are in­creas­ing rapidly in rel­a­tive im­por­tance as land-based min­er­als and oil re­serves dwin­dle, and as grow­ing pop­u­la­tions press harder and harder on de­grad­ing arable land with di­min­ish­ing mar­ginal re­turns. Not only the sur­face, but un­der­wa­ter oceanic space is be­com­ing crowded as states race to grab, oc­cupy, and ex­ploit these re­sources, and to as­sert their claims.

This im­per­a­tive is re­in­forced by the in­ex­orable press of the coastal and land-locked states to ex­ert con­trolled ac­cess to the high seas, and to ex­tend na­tional man­age­ment of the ocean be­yond ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters and Ex­clu­sive Eco­nomic Zones to (EEZS).

They are seek­ing in­creased con­trol of in­ter­na­tional straits and mul­ti­lat­eral man­age­ment of the oceanic com­mons against the mar­itime great pow­ers, es­pe­cially the US, ex­em­pli­fied by the US Sev­enth Fleet’s motto, “Ready Power for Peace” which in prac­tice means be ready to go any­where, any­time.

Se­abed and ocean-sourced food, both an­i­mal and plant, are in­creas­ing rapidly in rel­a­tive im­por­tance as land-based min­er­als and oil re­serves dwin­dle, and as grow­ing pop­u­la­tions press harder and harder on de­grad­ing arable land with di­min­ish­ing mar­ginal re­turns. Not only the sur­face, but un­der­wa­ter oceanic space is be­com­ing crowded as states race to grab, oc­cupy, and ex­ploit these re­sources, and to as­sert their claims.

‘On the Beach’ To­day

The oceans are no longer the sole do­main of mar­itime great pow­ers. More than 90 per­cent of in­ter­na­tional trade is via the oceans. Although sea lanes of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and choke­points are a much over­stated mar­itime se­cu­rity prob­lem (be­cause if they were ever blocked, ships can sail right around most of these at a small cost in terms of fuel, crew­ing and time), mis­sile-armed sub­marines can now op­er­ate ef­fec­tively from even rel­a­tively small and weak coastal states, many of which — such as Aus­tralia, In­done­sia, Viet­nam, Sin­ga­pore, South Korea, Ja­pan and even Tai­wan — are de­ploy­ing their own sub­marines. Added to this, there are now, for ex­am­ple, lit­er­ally dozens of trans- Pa­cific and coastal-hop­ping com­mu­ni­ca­tion ca­bles. Tens of thou­sands of kilo­me­ters of ca­ble must be laid, main­tained, re­placed and pro­tected, whether against earth­quakes or hos­tile sub­marines. In short, it’s get­ting crowded off the beach and un­der the wa­ter.

It is also be­com­ing harder to hide in the ocean. Dur­ing the Cold War, si­lence was golden at sea. A sub­ma­rine at rest, lo­cated care­fully in the ther­mal lay­ers and mind­ful of the se­abed to­pog­ra­phy, es­pe­cially if hid­den in an un­der­wa­ter canyon, could con­fi­dently be in­vis­i­ble — at least if it was Amer­i­can, and had not been tailed from the get-go.

To­day, im­prove­ments in un­der­wa­ter hy­drophone nets, in the al­go­rithms that sep­a­rate back­ground nat­u­ral and ar­ti­fi­cial noise from sub­marines, the abil­ity to track ther­mal wakes un­der­wa­ter from satel­lites, and the prom­ise of new sen­sor sys­tems such as blue laser and wide-area quan­tum-grav­ity sen­sors may ren­der large metal un­der­wa­ter ob­jects com­pletely trans­par­ent. The in­tro­duc­tion of anti-

sub­ma­rine drones to track and kill sub­marines at low risk to their own­ers, ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence soft­ware to guide them and en­able them to op­er­ate au­tonomously for days, weeks, and even months at a time, will make manned sub­ma­rine forces in­creas­ingly vul­ner­a­ble and less use­ful as threat de­vices or warfight­ing plat­forms.

To­day, China is build­ing an “un­der­wa­ter Great Wall” that reaches out to the first is­land chain that stretches from Ja­pan to Tai­wan to the Philip­pines to In­done­sia, com­posed of its own sound sur­veil­lance sys­tem nets and anti-sub­ma­rine war­fare (ASW) forces de­signed to deny the area above all to the US 7th Fleet. This in­cludes plac­ing acous­tic sen­sors in the deep ocean near US bases in the western Pa­cific. This abil­ity to deny un­in­hib­ited Amer­i­can ac­cess to sur­face and air­craft mil­i­tary forces in­side this is­land chain has shifted com­pe­ti­tion un­der­wa­ter, where the US re­mains dom­i­nant (see Fig­ure 2). The re­sult­ing force struc­ture that com­bines US and al­lied un­der­wa­ter, sur­face and aerial forces amounts to a gi­ant fish hook that is in­tended to bait and cap­ture Chi­nese forces — or at least make it im­pos­si­ble for Chi­nese forces to be sure of vic­tory in a war with the US.

Although small sub­ma­rine pow­ers may put to sea quickly, the US, China and Rus­sia are al­ready de­vel­op­ing new and po­tent ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Rus­sia has an­nounced that it is de­vel­op­ing a long-range, deep-div­ing, nu­clear-armed drone tor­pedo that threat­ens to be able to de­liver a 100-mega­ton cobalt H-bomb against Amer­i­can coastal cities — at least if one be­lieves Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin

(not ev­ery­one does).

For its part, the US is de­vel­op­ing of­fen­sive in­for­ma­tion-de­cep­tion sys­tems such as Sea Strike that aim to de­feat anti-sub­ma­rine forces by us­ing an un­der­wa­ter ve­hi­cle to project a sub­ma­rine-sized acous­tic sig­na­ture and di­vert them into harm­less at­tacks; an ar­mada of un­der­wa­ter war­ships and un­der­wa­ter aux­il­iaries such as mine-sweep­ing drones that are al­ready de­ployed in con­tested straits; au­tonomous tor­pe­does that can be tuned to at­tack par­tic­u­lar sub­marines (Cap­tor); and new sur­veil­lance sys­tems, etc. China is de­sign­ing a nu­clear sub­ma­rine aug­mented by ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence ca­pa­bil­i­ties and has al­ready tested a quan­tum-grav­ity sens­ing tech­nique from a satel­lite that could iden­tify stealthy masses such as bombers and sub­marines, ren­der­ing them buck naked.

Hav­ing no cap­tains or crew, un­der­wa­ter mil­i­ta­rized and weaponized sub­mersibles and au­tonomous ve­hi­cles are cur­rently not con­trolled by the United Na­tions Con­ven­tion on the Law of the Sea. These sys­tems, which are pro­lif­er­at­ing at astounding speed, are likely to be the game changer in how un­der­wa­ter mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions are reg­u­lated. Like anti-ship mis­siles, drones are rel­a­tively cheap and are al­ready be­ing de­ployed by small- and medium-sized coastal states, as well as by the mar­itime great pow­ers. Left un­reg­u­lated, they may ren­der the old rules of free­dom to op­er­ate un­der the sea any­where, any­time, un­re­li­able for the mar­itime great pow­ers and in­crease the in­cen­tive to use sub­ma­rine-based nu­clear weapons be­fore they are lost to of­fen­sive anti-sub­ma­rine drones. At the same time, the new un­der­wa­ter mil­i­tary ve­hi­cles will strengthen the hand of coastal states that have long re­jected in prac­tice un­tram­meled tran­sit rights for war­ships above and be­low the ocean sur­face.

Curb­ing Un­der­wa­ter Ar­ma­ment

The old arms con­trol idea of cre­at­ing oceanic no-go or Asw-free zones, leav­ing strate­gic bal­lis­tic-fir­ing sub­marines free to op­er­ate with­out the threat of in­stan­ta­neous de­struc­tion, is even less prac­ti­cal to­day than it was when it was first pro­posed. Not least is the prob­lem of ver­i­fi­ca­tion and en­force­ment of such zones. Although full-fledged zones to keep ASW forces from surg­ing into bal­lis­tic mis­sile-fir­ing sub­ma­rine bas­tions may not be in the cards, less de­mand­ing mea­sures to con­trol the threat to strate­gic sub­marines may be im­por­tant to re­duce first-strike propen­sity by their re­spec­tive own­ers.

The first ob­jec­tive may be to sim­ply re­duce the num­ber of such plat­forms car­ry­ing nu­clear mis­siles to no more than one or two sub­marines per nu­clear-weapons state, one in port, one at sea at any given time, on the ar­gu­ment that this suf­fices to “rip off an arm,” as the French put it in jus­ti­fy­ing their in­de­pen­dent nu­clear force un­der Pres­i­dent Charles de Gaulle. Do­ing so would en­able a nu­cle­ar­weapons state to de­ploy the force in a closely guarded for­ma­tion at sea; or to sim­ply keep both in port (as the Rus­sians and pos­si­bly the Chi­nese have done for many years) from where they can still fire their mis­siles.

Sim­i­larly, en­sur­ing that sub­ma­rine-launched mis­siles carry only one war­head in a ver­i­fi­able man­ner may in­crease con­fi­dence that the sub­marines will not be used for a first strike at the out­set of a cri­sis.

How­ever, such an arms-con­trol sys­tem, even if it were mul­ti­lat­eral and in­cluded China, In­dia, and Pakistan, will be in­creas­ingly un­able to pro­vide sta­bil­ity for the sim­ple rea­son that these states

have more than one po­ten­tial nu­clear ad­ver­sary. In a three-, let alone a four- or five-sided nu­clear threat sys­tem, it is not ob­vi­ous what “sta­bil­ity” even means.

Un­der­wa­ter Ves­sel Traf­fic Con­trol?

In ad­di­tion to con­trol­ling the mil­i­tary use of new un­der­wa­ter tech­nolo­gies with new norms and rules, another ap­proach seems promis­ing. This is to cre­ate ves­sel-traf­fic con­trol schemes for ap­proaches to the ocean from coastal states, and for the in­ter­na­tional straits where the un­der­wa­ter traf­fic is most at risk.

Sub­marines have tra­di­tion­ally been al­lowed to tran­sit in­ter­na­tional straits sub­merged, but not ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters. The first step would al­low this to con­tinue, but all un­der­wa­ter tran­sit­ing ves­sels, in­clud­ing drones, would no­tify the ves­sel-traf­fic con­trol cen­ter of their ap­proach be­fore tran­sit to the straits. If de­tected, non-de­clared pas­sage un­der­wa­ter would be pre­sumed po­ten­tially hos­tile by coastal states par­tic­i­pat­ing in traf­fic con­trol schemes. At min­i­mum, the traf­fic con­trollers could an­nounce the pres­ence and track it with drones to exit, re­duc­ing the mil­i­tary ad­van­tages of us­ing the straits in the first place. Sec­ond is to es­tab­lish data­fu­sion cen­ters sup­port­ing the ves­sel-traf­fic con­trol schemes. These cen­ters would com­pile streams of sen­sor data on un­der­wa­ter ac­tiv­i­ties, in­clud­ing ves­sels, pro­vided by navies, ship­ping com­pa­nies, min­ers, aqua­cul­ture and fish­eries op­er­a­tors. Prece­dent al­ready ex­ists for sur­face-ves­sel and piracy con­trol in many straits such as cur­rent shared radar mon­i­tor­ing in the Malacca Straits.

In the last cen­tury, the mar­itime great pow­ers as­sumed that they could con­tinue to op­er­ate their navies with­out re­gard to the peace and se­cu­rity of coastal states that have to deal with piracy, col­li­sions, pol­lu­tion, search and res­cue, and other is­sues on a day-to-day ba­sis. That is no longer the case. Nu­cle­ar­armed and nu­clear-pow­ered sub­marines are a uniquely threat­en­ing mil­i­tary force that also present a unique risk from ac­ci­dent and col­li­sion, es­pe­cially in the con­gested and shal­low sea lanes of­ten found in in­ter­na­tional straits or the ap­proaches to ma­jor port cities. This con­cern was epit­o­mized by the Rus­sian nu­clear sub­ma­rine that was dis­abled af­ter a fire in its re­ac­tor room in 1980. It tran­sited be­tween the Ok­i­nawa Is­lands with mil­i­tary es­cort ves­sels, even though Ja­pan had re­fused its re­quest for per­mis­sion to tran­sit due to the risk of ra­di­a­tion.

In another case, in 2004, a Chi­nese nu­clear sub­ma­rine that en­tered Ja­panese ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters lost its bear­ings and was chased out by the Self De­fense Force (China’s for­eign min­istry ex­pressed “re­gret” af­ter­wards). Such in­ci­dents are cer­tain to re­cur, and with higher fre­quency than in the past; and un­der­wa­ter in­ci­dents are also likely to oc­cur in­volv­ing sub­merged war­ships. In some cases, it may be dif­fi­cult for states to fig­ure out whose sub­marines are in­volved, es­pe­cially in high-risk ar­eas such as the seas east and west of North Korea, or in the straits be­tween Korea and Ja­pan.

Ad­mit­tedly, the level of col­lab­o­ra­tion needed to im­ple­ment such ves­sel-traf­fic con­trol schemes is hard to en­vi­sion to­day. Some states in the South China Sea, prin­ci­pally but not only China, have used their mar­itime forces to con­struct and arm ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands in old-style ter­ri­to­rial ex­pan­sion. Other mar­itime great pow­ers, led by the US, are push­ing back with op­er­a­tions to as­sert what they hold to be cus­tom­ary free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion in such ar­eas.

Iron­i­cally, in a few decades, sea-level rise com­bined with the in­creased in­ten­sity and fre­quency of trop­i­cal storms may wash away such con­tested sites.

By then, sub­marines may be sail­ing to Aus­tralia to es­cape cli­mate change and other threats aris­ing from global change. By then, some young direc­tor may be ready for a re­make of On the Beach, this time with­out ra­di­a­tion — if the beach hasn’t washed away.

Peter Hayes is Direc­tor of the Nau­tilus In­sti­tute and a mem­ber of the Ed­i­to­rial Board of Global Asia.

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