US national security strategy has ramifications for the Indo-Pacific undersea realm

Unique tropical conditions provide significant degradation (on the order of 60%) of sonar performance, compared to temperate/polar waters. Thus, the current trend of importing sonar technology from the West is extremely problematic.

The United States National Security Strategy for 2022 was unveiled on October 12. The document has important ramifications for the international geopolitical and geostrategic framework, given the transition that the world order is witnessing in all areas. The post-pandemic economic downturn, the energy crisis due to the Russian-Ukrainian war, massive inflation due to supply chain disruptions, the significant dilution of globalization values ​​due to the extreme polarization of the order multipolar world, the exhaustion of American hegemony and many others are some of the key realities that the new world order must face. Thus, the new national security strategy must manage enormous challenges and unprecedented opportunities. How they shape the new world order will determine the impact on the security and prosperity of the entire global community. In his own words, the President of the United States (POTUS) said that “the world is at an inflection point and national security strategy must, outmaneuver their geopolitical competitors, address common challenges, and bring the world firmly onto a path to a better and brighter future”.
The new documents present some major highlights that justify the assessment of the inflection point:
(a) China’s growing dominance and belligerence in pursuit of its strategic goals makes the American establishment uneasy. Even military interventions are seen as options, in addition to aggressive economic and political measures.
(b) The assertion of the Russian establishment gives the impression that the American-led West is weak. American hegemony is in question and therefore they must show the world that they matter. The energy crisis and the failure of the sanctions against Russia are calling into question the petrodollar economy.
c) The climate crisis is now seen as the greatest common challenge of the century to ensure food and energy security. The global partnership is under construction to consolidate their influence throughout the world. Providing scientific and technological (S&T) support to combat climate change is seen as a major advocacy tool.
d) The free, open, prosperous and secure international order is presented as the essential condition for protecting the globalized world order. The Indo-Pacific region has been recognized as the strategic theater and the whole global power game is played out with all the majors, retaining their strategic assets.
(e) Partnerships with nations and overall capacity and capacity building at all levels has been identified as the priority area. India has been declared a major partner along with Japan, Australia and Britain. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and AUKUS will be priority alliances to drive US security strategy.
The climate change crisis being a recognized shared challenge, is also an important way to strengthen the global community to come together and commit to action. The climate crisis is directly dependent on water masses, both in marine and freshwater systems. Prediction to formulate strategies and affirmative action for mitigation will require Undersea Realm Awareness (UDA) on an unprecedented scale. Considering that the universe is covered in water for more than 70% of the surface, this only emphasizes this reliance on the UDA again. The scale of studies on climate change must be very large, spatio-temporally. The spatial scale should be the entire globe and also beyond the atmosphere. The time scale should be at least a century. Modeling & Simulation (M&S) is the only tool for such studies, on a significant scale. The digital transition is unavoidable if we really want to undertake reasonable level M&S to obtain realistic and actionable results.
The Indo-Pacific strategic space is a maritime construct and requires maritime domain awareness (MDA) of unimaginable proportion. Conventional MDA remained event-driven after 9/11 and 11/26. The security establishment has taken over the entire formulation of the MDA, with less participation from the other three stakeholders, namely Blue Economy, Environment and Disaster Management and Science and technology. In democracies, the security budget cannot support capacity and capacity 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 political consolidation is therefore extremely difficult. The fragmentation of the geopolitical scenario throughout the Indo-Pacific is a major cause for concern and allows extra-regional powers to interfere in domestic politics. The regional governance mechanism is therefore a non-starter.
The Indo-Pacific region, by definition, corresponds to the tropical waters of the Indian and Pacific oceans. Tropical waters bring unique characteristics in terms of rich biodiversity and also massive amount of underwater resources. Tropical waters also ensure sub-optimal performance of sonars, deployed for the study of the underwater domain for any surveillance or control activity. The recent crash of the USS Connecticut in the South China Sea was embarrassing for the mighty US Navy. The SSN-class submarine, equipped with state-of-the-art technology for underwater surveillance and navigation, ran aground on a seamount in 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 the UDA, makes it essential to advance any strategic initiative for security or sustainable blue economy in tropical waters. Sonar design and development boomed during the Cold War. However, this Western effort was only aimed at countering Russian aggression in the temperate and polar regions. The unique tropical conditions provide a significant degradation (on the order of 60%) of sonar performance, compared to temperate/polar waters. Thus, the current trend of importing sonar technology from the West is extremely problematic. Indigenous efforts to customize sonar in tropical waters have failed for multiple reasons. Experimental R&D in the field, specific to the local site, consumes a lot of resources and the fragmented approach between the stakeholders within the nations and also between the nations of the region is a major cause for concern.
The Quad, comprising the United States, Japan, Australia and India, is a semi-safe formula to counter the rise of China in the Indo-Pacific region. At their summit in Tokyo, Quad leaders made two major announcements. The first is data sharing across the Indo-Pacific for greater public good and the second is the Indo-Pacific Economic Forum (IPEF). But the smaller countries in the region have lost faith in these big announcements. US-based HawkEye-360 will provide satellite data across the Indo-Pacific, but the challenge lies in analyzing the data. The current infrastructure of eight data analytics centers spread across the globe are security-focused establishments that least understand the demands of the public good. Security establishments have always been closed to data sharing and have preferred to isolate themselves, at the cost of obsolete technology and know-how. The IPEF will remain a pipe dream and smaller countries will continue to suspect market capture and dumping. The loop of data analysis and economic prosperity allowing smaller nations to use their tropical underwater resources does not seem to be closed to convince these actors.
The AUKUS is the recent announcement to share essential underwater and nuclear submarine technologies with their partners, in order to maintain their dominance in the Indo-Pacific region. Deploying such valuable assets in the tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific will require a UDA on a scale the US establishment has never seen before. A paradigm shift from the Cold War era, given completely different political and economic realities. The Cold War period saw an undisputed political priority for the security establishment. From the allocation of funds, environmental clearances and the national narrative, security projects have encountered no headwinds. However, now the democratic mechanism is active and every decision is questioned. Cold War efforts were limited to the temperate and polar waters of the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) Gap, and so these technologies and know-how do not apply to littoral tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific region. The United States took over ASIAEX in 2000 for over four years. ASIAEX, was a massive Shallow Water Acoustic Measurement (SWAM) effort in the South China Sea and East China Sea. The China of 2000 was different from the China of 2022.
The U.S. Strategic Security Document has identified capability and capability building as the highest priority requirement in the Indo-Pacific region. However, acoustic capacity and capacity building in tropical waters is a new ballgame with its unique challenges and opportunities. Traditional MDA has failed miserably, especially in meeting the unique demands of UDA in the Indo-Pacific strategic space. The overemphasis on security by traditional MDA has become the main limitation and the way forward needs to be much more inclusive. The UDA must in particular ensure the pooling of resources and the synergy of efforts between stakeholders and political decision-makers. The United States will need all-weather partners for this long-term effort in the Indo-Pacific to provide site-specific field experimental R&D. M&S of tropical waters with experimental validation in the field is the only way forward. India can play a big role and be the all-weather partner that the United States needs. India has already made important strategic announcements like the vision of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) in 2015, but acoustic capability and capacity building is a work in progress.
Dr (Cdr) Arnab Das is the founder and director of the Maritime Research Center (MRC), Pune.