(Featured) The Indo-Pacific Strategic Space and the Global Order:A New Perspective on Underwater Domain Awareness

The center of global power has shifted toward the Indian and Pacific oceans. The Indo-Pacific strategic space is recognized as the main theater of geopolitical and geostrategic interactions in the 21st century. More nations globally are deploying assets in the region to ensure their strategic presence and interests. India, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia are emerging as major forces in the region alongside the United States. We must recognize the importance of the maritime domain in the multipolar global order in the making.

Increasing threats beneath the waves are a prominent aspect of this evolving strategic space as more countries acquire modern submarines. Security partners in the Indo-Pacific need to understand why underwater domain awareness (UDA) is critical and how to improve it to meet defense needs.

For example, sonar technology developed during the Cold War for underwater surveillance does not work in tropical littoral waters such as those of the Indian and Pacific oceans. In the absence of customized acoustic signal processing algorithms, using hardware to map the site-specific characteristics of tropical waters is futile. In Indo-Pacific waters, sonar performance is degraded by around 60%, which presents a serious limitation that much be addressed.

The Indian Navy submarine INS Vagir is commissioned in Mumbai in January 2023. Indo-Pacific militaries are boosting submarine capabilities. REUTERS

domain awareness

Such waters present multiple opportunities and challenges. They hold great wealth in terms of biodiversity and natural resources. The developing economies of the region are typically unable to prioritize science and technology (S&T) and site-specific research and development (R&D) for long-term acoustic capacity- and capability-building. In addition, many emerging countries lack the capabilities to explore and derive economic value from their waters. The combination keeps them dependent on outside powers for strategic security and economic well-being and leaves them open to exploitation.

Regional volatility could contribute to powerful nations from outside the region manipulating these countries for their vested interests. Nonstate actors are operating in the region, often with state backing. The disruptive and asymmetric edge that these nonstate actors hold is a major concern for security forces to counter, especially with conventional means, and such advantages only enhance the importance of UDA.

Developing UDA in tropical littoral waters is complicated, as shallow water acoustic measurement (SWAM) efforts reveal. SWAM is the proven way to build acoustic capacity and capability in those waters. The first step is modeling and simulation to develop an understanding of the underwater ambient noise and the channel behavior.

The U.S. has led the way for decades in submarine, SWAM and UDA research. On August 3, 1958, the USS Nautilus, the world’s first operational nuclear-powered submarine, became the first vessel to complete a submerged transit of the North Pole.

Prior to that, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography conducted a pioneering UDA effort, launched in 1946 and authorized by the U.S. Navy, to map snapping shrimp. The creature’s sounds have been measured at 200 decibels, louder than those of Earth’s largest mammal the blue whale under similar conditions. Large clusters of snapping shrimp in certain parts of the seabed can interfere with underwater communications and research. The Scripps study revealed the snapping shrimp exist predominantly in tropical littoral waters and have a unique vocalization pattern that can acoustically swamp a nuclear submarine by overlapping frequencies used for sonar navigation and surveillance.

In 1988, there was evidence of such an incident during a nuclear-powered submarine’s maiden exercise off Visakhapatnam, India. When the submarine sat down, the entire sonar screen blanked out, although the crew made a blast transmission to resolve the situation. There are sufficient reasons to attribute the problem to snapping shrimp. The proliferation of submarines in the Indo-Pacific calls for serious consideration of this aspect of UDA.

A Way  Forward

More research is needed to plan submarine deployments appropriately. Habitat mapping, followed by soundscape mapping, is the way forward. There are 14 subspecies of snapping shrimp in waters surrounding the Indian subcontinent alone, each with unique vocalizations and variations in their ecosystem and life cycle. This will require significant site-specific R&D with conclusions repeatedly field-tested.

In 2000, a three-year SWAM exercise known as the Asian Seas International Acoustics Experiment (ASIAEX) launched in the South China and East China seas. The maritime strategic community realized the PRC had developed significant maritime capabilities and that UDA was critical to prepare forces for a potential deployment. The U.S. Office of Naval Research funded ASIAEX, with six U.S. universities, led by the University of Washington, developing models and identifying experiment validation sites during the first phase. In the second phase, nearly 20 institutions from the PRC, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, the U.S. and elsewhere collected field data. The PRC was aware of U.S. concerns but participated to further its own UDA initiative.

A Ukrainian worker uses an underwater drone to search for unexploded ordnance in a lake near Kyiv. REUTERS

Building a UDA Framework

The contemporary global order needs to be contextualized based on recent incidents before allies and parties can fully understand the relevance of the UDA framework and attempt to move ahead.

The Quad Summit in Tokyo on May 24, 2022, brought leaders of Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. together as the international community was experiencing massive churn on multiple fronts. The cascading impact of the pandemic, followed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, contributed to unprecedented crises for global economic engines. The Quad Summit overlapped with the World Economic Forum meeting in Switzerland, where another set of global leaders met to discuss the theme “History at a Turning Point: Government Policies and Business Strategies.”

The Quad Summit produced two major announcements in support of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. First, the maritime domain awareness (MDA) partnership would provide a new stream of data from commercial satellites to countries across the region. Second, the Quad introduced the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) for prosperity, a U.S.-led economic group of 12 countries. These countries account for 40% of the global gross domestic production. The economic framework broadly rests on four pillars: trade, supply chain resilience, clean energy and decarbonization, in addition to taxes and anti-corruption measures. The joint statement said that the framework aims to “advance resilience, sustainability, inclusiveness, economic growth, fairness and competitiveness” in these economies.

Many considered this MDA announcement a substantial addition to the Quad agenda and the most promising initiative to date. In particular, it satisfied the desire of most regional partners for the Quad to provide public goods and address the needs of smaller states in the Indo-Pacific strategic space. If the Quad can implement the MDA partnership properly, it will be a game changer for the entire region and demonstrate real value for all nations.

Tracking Improvements

The legacy systems for monitoring maritime activities include coastal radars and aerial and surface patrols. The recent advent of the automatic identification system (AIS) to monitor larger shipping traffic in international waters and the mandated use of a vessel monitoring system (VMS) by licensed fishing boats in some states allow for tracking, with identifying data, position, course and speed relayed to nearby vessels and receiving stations, both onshore and in space.

AIS and VMS coverage are patchy, however, as the legal framework across multiple ocean areas has yet to mandate installation of such systems. Moreover, there are serious attempts to undermine their implementation by actors engaged in illegal fishing operations and other illicit activities. Thus, maritime law enforcement agencies rely on coastal radars and aerial and surface patrols, which have limited range. Traditional terrestrial AIS and VMS transponders share that limitation. Coastal radars and terrestrial AIS/VMS are too overworked and outnumbered to counter the scale of illicit activities in the Indo-Pacific.

Satellite-based AIS/VMS is a good alternative to cover large ocean areas but isn’t widely available. The satellite systems feature electrooptical and synthetic aperture radar sensors for imaging Earth’s surface. The shift from large satellites in geosynchronous orbit to constellations of small satellites in low Earth orbit has cut the cost of satellite data. However, the scale of space-based, remote sensing data required to consistently monitor an exclusive economic zone is still prohibitive for developing nations in the Indo-Pacific.

Imaging satellites require a trade-off between resolution and aperture: Lower frequency gives better range but poorer resolution and vice versa. A hybrid system is thus required to ensure larger areas are covered by low-resolution, electrooptical sensors or radars, while smaller areas are mapped using high-resolution imaging cameras.

In terms of analysis, automation and machine learning are critical for real-time identification of suspicious behavior from diverse data sources. The challenges range from uneven regulatory frameworks across nations, capacity and capability limitations, data privacy concerns, lack of seamless cooperation across regions, and lack of site-specific R&D.

The U.S.-based HawkEye360 is the leading commercial operator, and Quad members plan to purchase and share its data with partners across the Indo-Pacific. The Quad will also facilitate data processing and real-time sharing through existing channels.

The data analytics facilities currently in operation in the Indo-Pacific include:

  • The U.S. Navy’s SeaVision platform
  • India’s Indian Ocean Information Fusion Centre
  • The Singapore-based Information Fusion Centre
  • The Australia-sponsored Pacific Fusion Center in Vanuatu

The Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency’s Fisheries Surveillance Centre in the Solomon Islands.

The availability of high-quality data for these centers will significantly enhance the region’s MDA initiative.

The security pact signed by Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. in September 2021 will support Canberra’s acquisition of conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines, as well as promote collaboration on advanced technologies, including undersea capabilities. A nuclear-powered submarine fleet requires UDA at a tremendous scale, making a major SWAM exercise a necessity for Australia, the U.K. and the U.S.

The PRC has conducted a significant number of research trips in the Indian Ocean region in recent years to enhance UDA, more than France, India and the U.S. combined. Since 2019, Chinese vessels have conducted dozens of missions to survey the deep waters of the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea and the waters west of Indonesia, considered important submarine operation areas for Australia and India.

The Maritime Research Center in Pune, India, in partnership with Nir Dhwani Technology Pvt. Ltd. has proposed a UDA framework that encourages pooling resources and synergizing efforts from stakeholders in maritime security, blue economy, environment and disaster management, and science and technology communities. Even nations with diverse geopolitical leanings can collaborate on environmental and disaster management issues, which will encourage higher deployment of S&T across applications. (See figure above.)

However, in the tropical littoral waters of the Indo-Pacific, the core requirement will remain acoustic capacity- and capability-building. In the absence of effective sonar, there is no viable solution. Given the appropriate impetus, the envisioned UDA framework can address multiple global challenges.

Global order demands that security and growth be navigated seamlessly. The challenges and opportunities presented by the Indo-Pacific’s tropical littoral waters can be comprehensively addressed with implementation of the UDA framework. Partnership forums such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association and the Quad, among others, must prioritize and institutionalize the framework in their agendas.


Dr (Cdr) Arnab Das is Founder & Director, Maritime Research Center (MRC), Pune.

1920 1080 Maritime Research Center

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    The conventional approach of each of the stakeholders pursuing their own UDA* efforts has serious limitations given the highly resource intensive field experimental research initiative required for a long period. Click here for more