Like the British Royal Navy more than a century before it, the U.S. Navy has a command of the sea that affords the United States unrivaled international influence. By its use of the sea, which covers nearly three-quarters of the earth, a navy can do things that land-based forces cannot. It can provide extraordinary access to points of interest around the globe, patrolling vital waterways and maneuvering to distant shores and population centers. The United States is a maritime superpower because its heavily armed warships can travel thousands of miles in a matter of days and linger around points of interest without imposing on another country’s sovereignty and, if desired, without provoking much attention. This makes the navy an incredibly powerful tool, especially for responding to international crises.
At the same time, the navy’s superior lift capability allows for the transport of firepower, fuel, food, and other cargo needed to sustain distant combat operations. “The crucial enabler for America’s ability to project its military power for the past six decades has been its almost complete control over the global commons,” wrote U.S. Joint Forces Command in a 2010 strategy document. For decades, its size and sophistication have enabled leaders in Washington to project American power over much of the earth, during times of both war and peace.
Now the US dominance is challenged by China especially in East and South China Seas by gaining control of many of the small islands, militarizing them, claiming controversial maritime rights and zones , and through ongoing modernization its navy, building new aircraft carriers, submarines, and frigates. Beijing has made public its ambitions to create a world-class navy with strong operational capabilities on, above, and below the ocean’s surface. It is investing its energies in establishing elements of dual-purpose communications, reconnaissance, exploration, and manned infrastructure on the ocean floor.
The international depth division of the ocean in Chinese classification is: 3500 meters to 6500 meters for the deep sea, 6500 meters to 11,000 meters for the abyss. The oceanic abyss, one of the largest environments on the planet, is characterized by absence of solar light, high pressures and remoteness from surface food supply. More than 70% of the earth’s surface is covered by seawater, and the underwater world is rich and vast, waiting for humans to explore. At present, there are only five countries with operational manned submersibles that can reach more than 6,000 meters in depth: China, the United States, Japan, France and Russia.
As the modernization of the Chinese navy accelerated, the warship trajectory extended from the offshore to the deep blue, China has made several breakthroughs in submersibles one after another, with the submersible Jiaolong descending to a depth of 7,062 meters, the unmanned submersible Haidou reaching 10,888 meters, and the deep-sea underwater glider Haiyi diving to 6,329 meters. China is planning to make a manned submersible that is able to reach a depth of over 10,000 meters by 2020. The continuous upgrading of China’s deep-sea equipment will help drive the country’s deep-sea exploration and research, and contribute more to the mankind’s exploration, development and protection of the blue space with rich resources.
Deep sea reach is also important to Navies which can collect the information about enemy submarines as well as carry out their own operations undetected. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been steadily building its underwater infrastructure since the 1980s to undertake energy-efficient, long-range and dual-purpose reconnaissance and exploration missions.
Monitoring of the oceans and seas for purposes of scientific research, national defense, or commercial development is becoming increasingly automated to reduce costs. For example, unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) have emerged as key tools in the offshore engineering industry. With the increasing requirement for persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations in areas where access is denied or where ISR is otherwise desirably clandestine, UUVs will be increasingly put to use. Use of UUVs to service devices historically tended by submarines, deep submersible vehicles and divers will substantially reduce cost and risk to the operators. So, it can be seen, persistent ISR and other activities in problematic areas drive the need for means of sensing and communicating that do not require human intervention or costly engineering systems.
Beijing has since invested substantially in the R&D of several classes of cylindrical unmanned midget submarines and gliders, technically known as the Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), such as the Explorer, Intelligent Water, and Petrel, to undertake energy-efficient, long-range and dual-purpose reconnaissance and exploration missions at depths of up to 5000 m. In 2016, China’s AUV Qianlong-2 mapped the ocean floor in the southwest Indian Ocean and went in exploration of polymetallic nodules, sulfides, and basalt, which contain several metals in significant quantities.
Therefore Beijing is militarzing the deep ocean as another domain of warfare by building platforms for reconnaissance of adverasry submarines and ships and can become launchpads for UUVs and underwater weapons.
China’s deep sea thrust for deep sea mining and military purposes
The mineral scarcity and rising prices of gold, copper and rare earth minerals is creating great interest among many nations for deep ocean mineral mining. The oceans, which covers seventy percent of our earth’s surface are believed to be able to satisfy our need of minerals like gold, copper, silver, zinc, cobalt and manganese for the next hundred years. There is enough gold on the seafloor to give every person alive nine pounds, scientists estimate. That would be worth about $150 trillion, or $21,000 a person. International Seabed authority (ISA), formed under the UN convention of the law of the sea has granted 26 licenses since 2001 including China, Russia, India, Japan and South Korea. South Korea has launched operations in sea areas off the island of Tonga.
In order to sustain its high rate of economic growth and an increasingly affluent and expanding middle class, China needs huge amounts of minerals. This has led to China has been securing access to minerals all around the globe from Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia to central Asia. China is investing heavily in submersibles, manned and robotic, that are able to at least provide superficial documentation of what is in the deep ocean.
Now china has adopted strategy for mineral mining from Moon, ocean floor, Arctic and Antartica. China wants to arrange a joint Arctic expedition with Russia, while deep-sea mining and a deep-sea station in Antarctica are also on the Beijing agenda, according to the Chinese State Oceanic Administration. “[The] administration will advance innovative development patterns for the ocean economy involving internet and big data, and a number of state oceanic laboratories will be built,” said Zhang Zhanhai, the SOA’s head of strategic planning.
China’s first deep-sea research institute has opened in Sanya, South China’s Hainan Province, which experts said will be meaningful for resource exploitation and improvements to naval technology. The Institute of Deep-Sea Science and Engineering (IDSSE) at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) passed an acceptance inspection and began official operations on 12 May 2012. The IDSSE is the first scientific research base for study of the deep seas and is also China’s first public platform for deep-sea research and technological experiments.
China has now announced plans to build a deep sea base for unmanned submarine science and defence operations in the South China Sea in Nov 2018, a centre that might become the first artificial intelligence colony on Earth, officials and scientists involved in the plan said. The project – named in part after Hades, the underworld of Greek mythology – was launched at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing this month after a visit to a deep sea research institute at Sanya, Hainan province, by Chinese President Xi Jinping in April 2018. The South China Sea is probably the most disputed waterway on the planet, with seven territories making conflicting claims over it. However, Beijing might share data and technology with neighbours to win their support, supporters said.
China continues to make progress in deep sea exploration following the three-month mission of a new underwater glider in the South China Sea, which experts said will also help in maritime warfare. China’s manned submersible Jiaolong finished a dive in “Challenger Deep” in the Mariana Trench, the world’s deepest known trench, in May 2017.The latest dive was the first of 10 dives planned for the third stage of China’s 38th oceanic expedition.The dive began at 7:09 a.m. local time. Nearly three hours later, the submersible reached the planned depth of 4,811 meters, where scientists worked for more than three hours. They conducted observation, sampling and surveying, and collected seawater, rocks and samples of marine life, including a sea cucumber, a sponge and two starfish. China plans to develop two deepsea manned submersibles able to reach a depth of 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) by around 2020. The remotely-controlled vehicles would be able to reach the bottom of Challenger Deep, the deepest known location in the world’s oceans.
Deep-sea research will also have military uses, as studies on complex marine environments can help improve naval technology, which is usually the most advanced military technology in a country.
China is planning to build a deep-sea “space station” capable of accommodating dozens of people and able to reach depths of 1000 meters, according to Yan Kai, director of the State Key Laboratory for Manned Deep-sea Equipment, reported by Science and Technology Daily. This kind of long-term inhabited underwater station would be packed with a variety of equipment, such as small manned submersibles to facilitate deep sea research work. The station could accommodate scientists to cultivate deep sea creatures, discover oil and gas resources, as well as analyze the genes of organisms for potential medical use.
This deep sea station like a space station, the deep-sea station would have multiple ports to support the docking of smaller manned or unmanned vessels. These manned and unmanned vessels could become Chinese navy’s force multiplier by carrying out variety of missions like submarine detection, anti submarine warfare and mine warfare.
The Mobile deep-sea station equipped with a nuclear reactor shall be able to support 33 crewmen for up to two months at a time. The designs show the station resembling a nuclear submarine, with two propeller fans at the tail. It would measure 60.2 metres long, 15.8 metres wide and 9.7 metres tall, weighing about 2,600 tonnes.
But an oceanic manned station poses many mobility and technical challenges, says Yan Kai. Considering the length of time it would stay submerged he suggests it would need to use fuel cells, nuclear power or even a yet-to-be-discovered new undersea energy. In addition, there would need to be breakthroughs in deep-sea communication and navigation, accuracy and precision controls, and special lightweight materials designed to take account of it large scale, and the intense pressure at a depth of 1000 meters. Taking up that theme, Du said: “The project will make China stronger, more advanced. It will boost the material sciences, stimulate innovation and make Chinese manufacturing more competitive. “It will make China a world leader in some critical areas.”
Although Beijing frequently says its deep-sea programme is for civilian purposes, however since 2002, the deep-sea project has been financed by the 863 Programme, a government effort that is widely known to focus on military needs. “If a submersible were a plane, this station would be an aircraft carrier,” Ma Xiangneng , a researcher with the project, told China National Radio. “The station will be an underwater palace, with showers, a living room and laboratories.” Like a space station, the deep-sea station would have multiple ports to support the docking of smaller manned or unmanned vessels.
Researchers such as Ma have said the station’s main purpose would be deep-sea mining. With an underwater “mother ship” hovering above the station, located just below the surface and undisturbed by weather conditions, mining facilities could be built much more quickly and cheaply than if surface ships were used. Professor Cui Weicheng first deputy chief designer of the Jiaolong, the China’s record-breaking manned deep-sea submersible that created a record by descending almost 7km into the Pacific Ocean in 2012. Cui has now joined a little-known startup registered in Hong Kong with an ambitious goal – to build the world’s first commercial deep-sea submersible fleet, the Rainbow Fish.
“Cui envisages that the vessel will eventually be part of a fleet containing a large mother-ship fitted with several ultra-deep landers (unmanned devices a little like underwater elevators that are tethered to the ship) as well as manned and unmanned submersibles. “The landers will be used to study fixed spots while the submersibles will move about freely and be fitted with high definition cameras and robotic arms. All will be capable of reaching depths of 11km – equivalent to the deepest part of the oceans, the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench,” writes Stephen Chen.
Beijing plans an AI Atlantis for the South China Sea
Xi urged the scientists and engineers to dare to do something that has never been done before. “There is no road in the deep sea, we do not need to chase [after other countries], we are the road,” he said. The Hadal zone that would be home to the base is the deepest part of an ocean – typically a V-shape abyss – at a depth of 6,000 to 11,000 metres (19,685 to 36,100 feet).
The project will cost Chinese taxpayers 1.1 billion yuan (US$160 million), the scientists said. That is half as much again as the cost of the FAST radio telescope – the world’s largest – in Guizhou province, southwest China. Like a space station, the undersea complex will have docking platforms. Project engineers will need to develop materials to withstand the water pressure at such great depths. “It is as challenging as building a colony on another planet for robotic residents with artificial intelligence,” said a scientist who has taken part in the project. “The technology can change the world.”
Robot submarines will be sent to survey seabeds, record life forms for cataloguing and collect mineral samples. As a self-contained laboratory, the station will analyse those samples and send reports to the surface. While the base will depend on cables connected to a ship or platform for power and communication, its powerful “brain” and sensors will allow it to carry out autonomous missions. Other scientists are sceptical about the project and think politics and technology will present big challenges.
The deep sea floor is an extreme environment, where high pressure, erosion, volatile geology and quakes could threaten any structure on the seabed. That means the cost of such an ambitious programme could far exceed any estimates. Facing enormous water pressure, the station will need to be significantly stronger and more compact than an equally costly land facility. “It can be more difficult than building a space station. No other country has done this before,” said Du, is was not involved in the project. Much of the budget would be used to develop technology and materials, he said. For instance, sealing materials for the docking platforms must be extremely strong yet flexible.
Professor Yan Pin, researcher at the Key Laboratory of Ocean and Marginal Sea Geology, Chinese Academy of Sciences in Guangzhou, said the site of any subsea base needed to meet several requirements. It must be sufficiently deep, with abundant geological activities for scientific studies but not too active or the base could be destroyed by a volcano eruption and landslide.
One candidate location is the Manila Trench, according to Yan, who has spent decades studying the South China Sea’s floors. “It is the only place in the South China Sea with a depth exceeding 5,000 metres,” he told the South China Morning Post. The Manila Trench is where the southeastern part of Eurasian plate meets the Pacific plate. Its deepest sea floor goes down 5,400 metres. This presents problems – there was a lot of volcanic activity within the trench, Yan said. However, chemicals from as deep down as the Earth’s mantle are carried up by thermal vents and they could contain geological information.
Although politically sensitive, it was not impossible that the unmanned subsea base would be built near the shoal, Yan said. “China and the Philippines should sit down and discuss it. A tsunami [warning] is a big selling point. Data collected by the station would benefit all countries in the region. It could save many lives,” he said. China is proposing several marine facilities, including the world’s first manned deep sea station, a habitat capable of housing dozens of people for up to a month at a time at 3km (1.9 miles) beneath the sea.
China advancing Deep Sea Exploration technologies
China’s deepsea manned submersible Jiaolong, which set a record by diving to a depth of 7,062 meters during tests in the Mariana Trench in June 2012, will officially begin operation this year. China also plans to develop other high-tech devices for deep-sea exploration and mining. China has expanded its international seabed mining area to 86,000 square kilometers (33,000 square miles) over the last five years, the Ministry of Land and Resources said this week, as a result of deep-sea exploration equipment such as the manned deep-sea submersible, Jiaolong, and a well-established scientific expedition system, the ministry said.
Last year, Chinese scientists broke two world records at the Mariana Trench. The trench is about 2,550 kilometers (1,580 miles) long and around 69 kilometers (43 miles) wide. It reaches a maximum-known depth of 10,994 meters (36,070 feet) – which is more than Mount Everest at 8,850 meters.
China became the first country to collect the artificial seismic stratigraphy of the Challenger Deep, the deepest section of the trench.
Underwater Glider Haiyi 1000 Completes Mission
China also set a new world diving record for underwater gliders at 6,329 meters (20,764 feet) with Hai Yi, a glider designed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The previous recorder holder was a U.S. glider at 6,000 meters. The scientists also sampled snailfish in the Yap Trench at a depth of 7,884 meters (25,866 feet), a record depth for China for sampling fish.
China continues to make progress in deep sea exploration following the three-month mission of a new underwater glider in the South China Sea, which experts said will also help in maritime warfare. Codenamed Haiyi 1000, which means “sea wings” in Chinese, the underwater glider reached a record distance of over 1,880 kilometers during its mission, collecting data for scientific research, as reported by China Central Television (CCTV) in oct 2017.
Developed by the Shenyang Institute of Automation under Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Haiyi had successfully endured turbulent sea conditions caused by typhoons, which proves its reliability and stability, the report said. Advanced underwater gliders will not only assist China’s deep sea scientific research but also serve military purposes, Xu Guangyu, a senior adviser of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, told the Global Times.
“As an unmanned deep-sea machine, underwater gliders can acquire deep-sea data through multiple sensors, and will help submarines better complete their military missions as well as detect foreign submarines in China’s waters,” Xu explained. The Haiyi 1000 began its mission on July 14 in the northeastern part of the South China Sea together with 11 other underwater vehicles, the CCTV said. The Haiyi 1000 doubled China’s underwater gliders’ endurance, the CCTV report said.
“Unlike an underwater robot, the underwater glider has no propellers. But it can adjust its buoyancy by changing the size of its oil pool. The underwater glider moves like a wave, like a dolphin,” Yu Jiancheng, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Shenyang Institute of Automation, told CCTV. The underwater glider is efficient and high on endurance, Yu said, adding that while the machine is slow, it could be recycled and is cheap to make and maintain.
In terms of ocean exploration, the glider can detect ocean currents, mineral resources and oceanic geology, Lin Hongmin, an adviser at the Hainan Provincial Maritime Environment Protection Association, told the Global Times. “More importantly, it helps research into ocean pollution by obtaining samples from different depths,” Lin said, adding that scientists have found large amounts of plastic waste particles in oceans. China made its first underwater glider in 2005, which passed tests in 2009. Over the years, the Shenyang Institute has developed more than 20 such vehicles at depths of 300, 1,000 and 7,000 meters, the CCTV said. (Global Times)
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