Unique tropical conditions ensure significant (of the order of 60%) degradation of sonar performance, compared to the temperate/polar waters. Thus, the present trend of importing sonar technology from the West is extremely problematic.
The United States National Security Strategy 2022 was unveiled on 12 October. The document has significant ramifications for the international geopolitical and geostrategic framework, given the transition that the global order is witnessing across the board. The post pandemic economic downturn, the energy crisis because of the Russia-Ukraine war, massive inflation due to supply chain disruptions, significant dilution of the values of globalization due to the extreme polarization of the multipolar world order, depleting US hegemony and many more are some of the key realities that the new world order has to deal with. Thus, the new national security strategy has to manage tremendous challenges and unprecedented opportunities. How they shape the new global order will determine the impact on the security and prosperity of the entire global community as a whole. In his own words, the President of the United States (POTUS), has stated that “the world is at an inflection point and the national security strategy has to, outmaneuver their geopolitical competitors, tackle shared challenges and take the world firmly on a path towards a brighter and more hopeful tomorrow”.
The new documents have a few major highlights that justify the inflection point assessment:
(a) Rising Chinese dominance and belligerence in pursuing their strategic objectives are making the American establishment uncomfortable. Even military interventions are being considered as options, in addition to aggressive economic and political measures.
(b) The assertiveness of the Russian establishment is making the West led by the Americans look weak. US hegemony is under question and thus, they need to show to the world that they matter. The energy crisis and the failure of sanctions on Russia are challenging the petro-dollar economy.
(c) The climate crisis is now being seen as the greatest shared challenge of the century to ensure food and energy security. The global partnership is being built to consolidate their outreach across the world. Providing Science & Technology (S&T) support to fight climate change is seen as a major tool for outreach.
(d) The free, open, prosperous and secure international order is being pushed as the key requirement to protect the globalized world order. The Indo-Pacific region has been recognized as the strategic theatre and the entire global power play is being played out with all the majors, maintaining their strategic assets.
(e) The partnerships with nations and the overall capacity and capability building across the board has been identified as the core focus area. India has been declared as the main partner along with Japan, Australia and Britain. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and the AUKUS will be top priority alliances to drive the US security strategy.
The climate change crisis being a recognized shared challenge, is also an important means to consolidate the global community to come together and commit action. The climate crisis has direct dependence on the water bodies, both in the marine as well as the freshwater systems. The prediction to formulate strategies and affirmative action for mitigation will require Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) at an unprecedented scale. Considering the universe being covered by water across over 70% area, only reemphasizes this dependence on UDA. The scale of climate change studies has to be very large, spatio-temporally. The spatial scale has to be the entire globe and also beyond the atmosphere. The temporal scale has to be at least a century. Modelling & Simulation (M&S) is the only tool for such studies, at a scale that is meaningful. Digital Transition is inescapable, if we really want to undertake M&S of reasonable standard to get outputs that are realistic and actionable.
The Indo-Pacific strategic space is a maritime construct and requires Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) of an unimaginable proportion. The conventional MDA has remained event driven post 9/11 and 26/11. The security establishment has taken a hard hold of the entire MDA formulation, with least participation by the other three stakeholders, namely blue economy, environment & disaster management and science & technology. In democracies, the security budget cannot support the capacity and capability building of the proportion required to manage the entire Indo-Pacific region and the socio-political, socio-economic and socio-cultural characteristics of the region. The diversity in the region is immense and thus political consolidation is extremely difficult. The fragmentation of the geopolitical scenario in the entire Indo-Pacific is a major cause of concern and allows the extra-regional powers to interfere in domestic politics. The regional governance mechanism is thus a non-starter.
The Indo-Pacific region, by definition, is the tropical waters of the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. The tropical waters bring unique characteristics in terms of the rich bio-diversity and also massive amount of undersea resources. The tropical waters also ensure sub-optimal performance of sonars, deployed for survey of the underwater domain for any surveillance or monitoring activities. The recent accident of the USS Connecticut in the South China Sea, was embarrassing for the mighty US Navy. The SSN Class submarine with its state-of-the-art technology for underwater surveillance and navigation, got grounded in a seamount in the tropical waters. A major failure of the entire UDA mechanism only amplifies the challenges of UDA in the tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific region. The acoustic survey, being the only means for UDA, makes it critical to take forward any strategic security or sustainable blue economy initiative in the tropical waters. The sonar design and development got a significant boost during the Cold War. However, that effort by the West was only to counter the Russian aggression in the temperate and polar regions. The unique tropical conditions ensure significant (of the order of 60%) degradation of the sonar performance, compared to the temperate/polar waters. Thus, the present trend of importing sonar technology from the West is extremely problematic. The indigenous efforts to customize the sonars in the tropical waters have been a non-starter for multiple reasons. The local site specific, field experimental R&D is highly resource consuming and the fragmented approach across the stakeholders within the nations and also among nations across the region is a major cause of concern.
The Quad, comprising the US, Japan, Australia and India, is a semi-security formulation to counter the rise of China in the Indo-Pacific region. In their summit in Tokyo, the Quad leaders made two major announcements. The first is the data sharing across the Indo-Pacific for greater public good and the second is the Indo-Pacific Economic Forum (IPEF). But the smaller nations in the region have lost faith in these big announcements. The US based HawkEye-360 is going to supply satellite based data across the Indo-Pacific, however the challenge is of data analytics. The present infrastructure of eight data analysis centers spread across the globe are security driven establishments, with least understanding of the public good requirements. The security establishments have always been closed to data sharing and preferred isolation, at the cost of dealing with outdated technology and knowhow. The IPEF will remain a pipe dream and smaller nations will continue to suspect the market capture and dumping. The loop of data analytics and economic prosperity for the smaller nations to utilize their tropical underwater resources, does not seem to be closed to convince these players.
The AUKUS is the recent announcement to share critical nuclear submarine and underwater technology with their partners, to retain dominance in the Indo-Pacific region. The deployment of such high value assets in the tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific will require UDA of a scale the US establishment has never seen before. A paradigm shift from the Cold War era, given the completely different political and economic realities. The Cold War period saw unquestioned political priority for the security establishment. Right from allocation of funds, to environmental clearances and the domestic narrative, the security projects did not face any headwinds. However, now the democratic mechanism is active and every decision is questioned. The Cold War efforts were limited to the temperate and polar waters of the Greenland Iceland United Kingdom (GIUK) gap, and thus those technologies and knowhow do not apply to the tropical littoral waters of the Indo-Pacific region. The US did take up the ASIAEX in 2000 for over four years. ASIAEX, was a massive Shallow Water Acoustic Measurement (SWAM) effort in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. The China of 2000 was different from the China of 2022.
The US strategic security document has identified capacity & capability building as the high priority requirement in the Indo-Pacific region. However, the acoustic capacity & capability building in the tropical waters is a new ball game with its unique challenges and opportunities. The traditional MDA has failed miserably, particularly in addressing the unique requirements of the UDA in the Indo-Pacific strategic space. The excessive security focus of the traditional MDA, has become the main limitation and the way forward has to be far more inclusive. The UDA particularly has to ensure pooling of resources and synergizing of efforts, across the stakeholders and policymakers. The US will require all-weather partners for this long-term effort in the Indo-Pacific to ensure site specific field experimental R&D. The M&S of the tropical waters with field experimental validation is the only way forward. India can play a big role and be the all-weather partner that the US needs. India has already made significant strategic announcements like the Security And Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) vision in 2015, however the acoustic capacity and capability building is a work in progress.
Dr (Cdr) Arnab Das is Founder & Director, Maritime Research Center (MRC), Pune.