As the world becomes increasingly interconnected and reliant on maritime trade, the security and protection of our oceans have taken on paramount importance. While surface naval warfare has traditionally been a significant focus, the rise of seabed warfare threats presents a new set of challenges that demand innovative strategies, platforms, and technologies. This article explores the emerging threats in seabed warfare and highlights the urgent need for a comprehensive response.
The Changing Landscape of Warfare
The ocean floor, once considered a relatively secure domain, is now a potential battleground. Technological advancements have enabled the development of advanced undersea systems capable of conducting covert operations, such as deploying unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) and laying mines. These developments have the potential to disrupt crucial undersea communication cables, sabotage offshore infrastructure, and compromise maritime trade routes.
In recent years, there has been a surge in interest in activities aimed at exploiting the economic resources of the seabed, as well as the vulnerabilities resulting from states’ increasing reliance on seabed infrastructure, most notably undersea cables, which are estimated to carry 95 percent of all international digital data.
Seabed warfare is defined as “operations to, from and across the ocean floor.” In general, the target of seabed warfare is infrastructure in place on the seabed such as power cables, telecom cables, or natural resource extraction systems.
Today, there are 785,000 miles (1.2 million kilometers) of transoceanic undersea cables crisscrossing the globe, transmitting 97% of global voice and data communications, the disruption of which could wreak havoc on everything from financial transactions to military operations. Navies are facing challenges to defend thousands of miles of pipelines and cables, as well as a multitude of oil, gas, mining, science, and military seabed outposts.
Seabed warfare has been around for over a century.
At the outset of World War I, Britain severed five German cables laid across the English Channel, a move that enabled the British to intercept the Zimmerman telegram. This pivotal intelligence success contributed to the United States entering the war. Similarly, during the height of the Cold War, the United States employed highly specialized manned submarines to tap Soviet undersea cables in the Barents Sea and Sea of Okhotsk, gathering critical intelligence.
However, in recent times, the world has witnessed a series of concerning incidents in seabed warfare. In September 2022, seismologists detected underwater explosions in the Baltic Sea, leading to extensive damage to the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 gas pipelines. While the perpetrator remains unidentified, suspicions point towards Russia amid escalating tensions with Europe over the conflict in Ukraine. Additionally, there have been unexplained cable breaks off the coasts of Norway and the United Kingdom, along with suspected Russian seabed espionage operations.
This type of warfare presents significant challenges in terms of defense, as H.I. Sutton, an independent naval researcher and author of ‘Covert Shores: The Story of Naval Special Forces Missions and Minisubs,’ explains. He emphasizes that no country is adequately equipped or prepared to defend against seabed warfare, especially considering its ability to be conducted in ways that are not easily attributable, adding a hybrid warfare dimension to the threat.
Seabed Warfare Threats
Seabed warfare threats can take both conventional and unconventional forms, with the latter encompassing non-kinetic approaches like lawfare.
- Submarine Activity: Submarines equipped with advanced sensors and weapons pose a significant threat. They can conduct stealthy reconnaissance missions, launch surprise attacks on surface vessels, and deploy underwater mines, all while remaining undetected for extended periods.
- Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs): UUVs are increasingly being used for intelligence gathering, mine warfare, and even the delivery of unconventional weapons. These autonomous or remotely operated vehicles can operate silently, cover large areas, and strike at critical naval assets.
- Undersea Infrastructure Sabotage: Critical undersea infrastructure, including communication cables and oil and gas pipelines, is vulnerable to sabotage. Targeting these key assets can disrupt global communications, cripple economies, and cause widespread chaos.
During peacetime, undersea cables are guarded by several international agreements. In times of armed conflict, however, combatants can weaken, damage, or cut underwater cables and exploit them to conduct cyber attacks. However, network sabotage may have third-order repercussions that extend beyond belligerents and influence neutral states.
To address these emerging challenges, it is crucial to develop new strategies, platforms, and technologies for seabed warfare defense.
Developing New Strategies
The security of critical energy, communication, and military seabed infrastructure is becoming increasingly important. The significance of the underwater cable network for civilian and military communications cannot be overstated, yet this network is still susceptible. To effectively counter seabed warfare threats, nations must adopt new strategies that combine advanced technologies with intelligence capabilities.
Here are a few key considerations:
- Enhanced Maritime Domain Awareness: Implementing robust surveillance systems, including advanced sensors, satellites, and underwater monitoring networks, will provide a comprehensive understanding of undersea activities. Real-time data sharing and collaboration between nations are essential to detect and deter potential threats.
- Active Defense Measures: Developing and deploying advanced underwater sensors, mine countermeasures, and rapid response capabilities will enable quick identification and neutralization of enemy submarines, UUVs, and mines. Investing in research and development to create cutting-edge anti-submarine warfare technologies is crucial.
- International Cooperation: Given the transnational nature of maritime threats, collaboration between nations is vital. Sharing information, intelligence, and expertise will enhance collective defense capabilities, bolster maritime security, and deter potential adversaries.
France Unveils New Seabed Warfare Strategy
France has integrated seabed warfare into their military strategy with the concept of Seabed Control Operations which involves expanding their existing mine warfare and hydro-oceanography capabilities to deal with a more comprehensive spectrum of threats.
Faced with these assertions of power, the resurgence of hybrid actions in the seabed and the emergence of the concept of “seabed warfare” (mastery of the seabed), the protection of France’s strategic interests in this space is a decisive issue for :
- Guarantee the freedom of action of the French Armed Forces in the face of submarine surveillance and interdiction strategies potentially deployed from the seabed
- Protect France’s underwater infrastructures such as communication and energy transport cables (electricity, gas, oil);
- Protect France’s resources. The immense French maritime territory is home to biodiversity and resources that should be known but above all protected
- Be ready to act and pose a credible threat in the face of diverse, evolving and hybrid modes of action.
Seabed Control Operations aim to integrate these new challenges into the French defense strategy. This doctrine will be articulated around three functions “know”, “monitor” and “act”.
Platforms and technologies
Seabed warfare capabilities are expensive and because of that significant capabilities are only possessed by major powers. Some of the platforms and technologies that are effective in seabed warfare are Submarines, hydrographic vessels carrying sonars, submarine rescue vessels, specialized rescue vessels and minehunters.
Defending critical seabed infrastructure requires regular deep-underwater surveys, employing sensors along the pipeline to trigger alarms. A variety of fixed and mobile uncrewed surface and underwater platforms and systems are also required.
- Unmanned Systems: The development and deployment of sophisticated UUVs for surveillance, reconnaissance, and mine countermeasures will allow for effective monitoring and response to undersea threats. These systems should be equipped with advanced sensors, artificial intelligence, and autonomous decision-making capabilities.
- Undersea Communication Protection: Innovations in securing undersea communication cables and infrastructure are essential. Technologies such as quantum encryption, distributed sensor networks, and rapid fault detection and repair systems can significantly enhance the security and resilience of vital communication links.
- Next-Generation Submarine Platforms: Investing in advanced submarine technologies that leverage stealth, improved propulsion, enhanced sensor suites, and long-range precision strike capabilities will provide a formidable deterrence against potential adversaries.
The deployment of submarines with seabed warfare capabilities in coordination with deep underwater AUVs or ROVs can carry out offensive and defensive missions. Further coordination requires deep-sea communication among submarines, AUVs, and ROVs. Secondly, a communications connection is necessary to download the data that the vessel has acquired.
For example, American Block VI Virginia-class submarines will include the organic ability to employ seabed warfare equipment.
The Russian submarine Losharik is thought to be capable of seabed warfare. “[Russia is] the most capable nation to conduct seabed operations today, said– Chris Lade, Saab.”He explained that Russia has a specific directorate for deep sea operations, known as GUGI, operating through the Russian Army and manned by Spetsnaz special forces.
The Russian fleet includes a variety of subsurface boats as well as highly capable oceanographic survey vessels. It has two mothership submarines, the largest based on an Oscar-class submarine, while the other is a derivative of earlier Delta-class submarines. These serve as the motherships for the Losharik minisub, Harpsichord AUV and Poseidon nuclear torpedo systems, providing a range of flexible applications and threats.
“They do seabed operations, and that’s a range of things. They can lay sensors, they can interdict other people’s infrastructure, they can survey, they can do the whole gambit of what you might want to do on the seabed. So, there is a real and present threat out there today,” said Lade.
In November 2022, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced that it was prioritising the procurement of two Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance (MROS) ships. “The suspected sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines in late September has brought these vulnerabilities in sharp focus,” said James Marques, associate aerospace, defence and security analyst at GlobalData, “prompting the MoD to speed up delivery of the MROS capability.”
The MROS ships will bring deep-diving operations back into the mission set of the Royal Navy’s Hydrographic squadron, building on the capabilities of its multiple surveillance ships. Its inclusion in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary is intended to advance British security by monitoring and protecting seabed communications cables and energy pipelines, and the ships are expected to carry Autonomous Underwater Vessels (AUV) for this purpose.
The Chinese HSU-001 is thought to be optimized for seabed warfare. The HSU-001 is a Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (LDUUV). The actual capabilities of HSU-001 are largely unknown. The HSU-001 has limited endurance and is expected to be complemented by longer-range UUVs in Chinese service
China’s deep seabed survey activities aim to extract natural resources and gather oceanographic data in support of the Chinese Communist Party’s strategic objective of extending the geographical extent and lethality of the PLA Navy’s blue-water submarine fleet.
The Mazgaon Dock Limited (MDL) has launched a program to develop an eXtra Large Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (XLUUV). XLUUV is meant to perform tasks such as periodic communication, payload deployment, pre-programmed mission execution, and return to base. The internal and exterior cargo capacities are meant to be reconfigurable depending on mission-specific requirements.
The Indian Navy has certain assets that can be used for underwater activities like the INS Nireekshak for diving support. In addition, it has Deep Sea Submergence Vehicles (DSSVs) for submarine rescue (deep-submergence rescue vehicle (DSRV)), which may also be utilized for specific purposes other than submarine rescue. Then there is the Hydrographic Survey ship INS Sarvekshak meant for the undersea survey.
Deep bed surveys supply the PLA Navy with oceanographic data on the bottom contours, water temperature, salinity, and other parameters of what the Chinese refer to as the “ocean battlespace environment.”
Seafloor warfare has many challenges. The current there is the worst in the world, and the sea floor there is less well-known than the surface of the Moon. Seafloor mapping is necessary because depth and seafloor terrain is largely unknown. Mapping can lead to the discovery of undersea features such as mountains, volcanoes, chasms, and a rough, uneven sea floor, challenges of the world’s oceans.
The robotic submarine Bluefin-21’s has side sonar to create high-resolution 3-D images of the seafloor. Ships have been surveying tens of thousands of square kilometers of the bottom of the southern Indian Ocean.
Technologies for Sea bed control to protect France’s strategic interests:
- Support innovation in the development of sensors on board deep-sea AUV and ROV
- Accelerate studies on physical variables for the detection of submarine installations.
- Study the particular modes of ultra-low frequency acoustic propagation.
- Increase our undersea search, surveillance and intervention capabilities to meet the needs inherent in maintaining freedom of action for French forces in areas with depths down to 6,000 metres.
- Continue to analyse ways of deploying underwater surveillance vehicles in order to broaden the range of military options: air-portability, combat ships, submarines, etc.
- Make CEPHISMER a centre of expertise capable of implementing a military capability complementary to SLAMF for depths greater than 300 metres.
- Complete the project to revise national regulations on the laying of submarine cables (system of authorisation in the territorial sea and of notice in the EEZ)
- Integrate the supervision of “autonomous vessel/maritime drone” activities into the regulations for State representatives at sea.
- In an order issued by the French Prime Minister, define the areas within the protection of national defence interests for the purpose of marine scientific research.
- Support DTIB development in command of sensitive capabilities, by taking advantage of solutions developed for civil needs and in line with the France 2030 plan.
For example, ECA Group designed and produced the new generation deepwater AUV for IFREMER, (French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea), an oceanographic institution. Ulyx will be deployed from French and international oceanographic research vessels for deep water exploration and research. A military variant of such an AUV could be designed for the French armed forces in the future.
French defense companies likely to be involved in the new strategy include Alseamar, ECA Group, Elwave, Forssea Robotics, iXblue, Naval Group, RTSys, Thales…
Seabed warfare threats present a new frontier in maritime security that requires urgent attention and action. As adversaries continue to exploit the vulnerabilities of undersea domains, nations must adapt their strategies, develop new platforms, and harness cutting-edge technologies to maintain control and protect global maritime interests. By prioritizing international cooperation and investing in research and development, we can mitigate the risks associated with seabed warfare and ensure a secure and stable maritime environment for years to come.