Belmont Club

Undersea Kingdoms

This presentation by Bryan Clark of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments provides a stimulating look into the past and future of undersea warfare.  The thrust of the argument is that naval warfare has become a battle for infrastructure — for the “network” if you will — in a fundamental way.

You can think of the surface of the sea as dividing the horizon into high and low bandwidth regions. The undersea is a low bandwidth environment, a fact which gives the submarine stealth, but also makes it blind.  On the surface you can see and be seen. New developments now make it possible to selectively combine aspects of both; and free one’s forces from bandwidth constraints such that underwater assets can become both sighted and visible, the trick being to ensure you remain the former without being the latter.

But neither comes from some magic hull mounted device.  Rather information dominance comes from an infrastructure that navies can construct.

Modern technology can overcome the latencies of the undersea world by using a combination of robotics and both mobile and fixed arrays of sensors, weapons and logistical and communications points. This infrastructure can either be tethered to the bottom or be conceived as moving underwater cloud of devices that can drift into a country’s near seas.  Who dominates the infrastructure, wins.

The dual nature of these developments impel both China and the US to master the Asian waters for completely different purposes.  Currently Chinese anti-access capabilities are limited to surface and air targets.  From the point of view of Beijing, they must to wire up their coastal seas if they are to have any hope of closing off the subsurface to the USN.  From the point of view of Washington, continued access to the Chinese coast requires the development of a combat infrastructure to neutralize one that Beijing will almost certainly build.  At least this is what Clark appears to argue.

Do watch Bryan Clark’s presentation. It’s an education.   It also explains the stakes for which China, Japan, the US and to a much lesser extent Australia are playing.  China is probably not only enlarging its territorial claims in the South China Sea.  It is also laying the groundwork for establishing its subsurface infrastructure.  Since neither the US nor Japan can tolerate a Chinese domination of those waters, they will compete.

We are probably witnessing the first post-Cold War naval competition in those waters for interests which are really far greater than conventional diplomacy would suppose.  Most analysts regard the naval competition off the Asia coast as an expression of belligerent nationalism.  It all seems rather silly from that point of view. But clearly what is at issue is far more serious.

For Japan it is protection of the sea lanes upon which its survival depends.  For China it is the ability to control its nearby waters.  For America it is its future as a maritime power, upon which is special world status depends. Each in its own way is seeking to preserve what it values most.  This makes the competition far more dangerous than it would at first seem.

Competitor parity is in many areas is guaranteed by the fact that many key developments in undersea surveying, detection, mobility and communications are coming straight from the civilian commercial sector.  The leading edge in oceanographic models, computing equipment, high density power sources, etc will more likely than not originate in the civilian world. Paul Allen found the battleship Musashi using his personally owned assets in a demonstration of just how far you can get with stuff you can buy from a store.  One of the devices he used was a commercially available UUV called the Bluefin 12D, which looks suspiciously like it can swim out of a torpedo tube.

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Imagine the USN deploying hundreds of such devices looking for Chinese submarines and “phoning in” from connections deployed on the sea floor.  It would be a Chinese nightmare.  One question Clark does not address is whether such a competition is necessarily zero-sum. During the Cold War both the US and the USSR competed without vying for infrastructure dominance.  It is unclear that the Chinese near seas are big enough for everyone’s interests.

Open thread.

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