Initiated in the 1960s, underwater warfare, as exemplified by the US Navy’s Operation Ivy Bells, has undergone a profound evolution. The ocean floor, now adorned with pipelines and power cables crucial to global society, traces its roots back to a transformative journey. Recent events, such as the sabotage of Nord Stream pipelines and the loss of a vital Norwegian sensor system, underscore the tangible security threats lurking beneath the waves. Navantia has handed over the initial S-80A Plus submarine of a four-submarine series to bolster the Spanish Navy’s contemporary diesel-electric attack submarine capabilities. These advanced SSKs excel in anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, alongside intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance tasks. There’s future potential for a land-attack capability through the acquisition of Tomahawk cruise missiles.
Warnings from the Abyss: Perils of Seabed Warfare
Chris Lade, Saab sales manager and former UK Royal Navy diver, accentuates the real and present danger of seabed warfare, shedding light on the ill-preparedness of nations to counter such threats. Hybrid warfare dimensions, often unattributable, gain prominence through offensive operations, as noted by H.I. Sutton, an independent naval researcher.
Navigating the Abyss: Naval Strategies in Response
Naval forces globally are adapting to the challenges posed by seabed warfare. In a ground-breaking move, the French Navy introduced a seabed warfare doctrine, while the UK Royal Navy enlisted private operators to assess vulnerabilities. The commercial sector, seasoned in offshore operations, is considered more equipped but less prepared for covert actions compared to navies.
Guardians of the Depths: Naval Initiatives for Safeguarding
In response to the Nord Stream incident, the UK Ministry of Defence accelerated the procurement of Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance (MROS) ships, set to deploy in January 2023. Armed with Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), these vessels aim to protect seabed communications cables and energy pipelines. The Royal Navy strengthened its commitment with the acquisition of its first uncrewed submarine, Cetus, designed for covert ocean monitoring.
Russia’s Undersea Dominance: GUGI Directorate and Technological Advancements
Russia emerges as a formidable player in seabed operations, leveraging the GUGI directorate and deploying special forces alongside innovative technology.
Defensive Tactics: Saab’s Proposal for Mine Warfare
On the defensive front, Saab advocates for mine warfare strategies, including periodic seabed surveys and sensor deployment along infrastructure to detect covert actions. The ability to monitor cables becomes crucial, enabling patrols directly from seabed bases.
Overcoming Challenges: Hurdles in Seabed Operations
Seabed operations encounter unique challenges, with depths reaching 6000m (about 3.73mi). Existing commercial systems, primarily functioning up to 3000m (about 1.86 mi), grapple with meeting these demands. Environmental factors, including diminished visibility, acoustics, and salinity, impact operations. Power transmission at greater depths necessitates innovative solutions, considering the limitations of tethered systems affected by cable length and surface weather conditions.
NATO’s Vigilance: The Critical Undersea Infrastructure Coordination Cell
Recognizing the escalating importance of seabed warfare, NATO established a Critical Undersea Infrastructure Coordination Cell in February 2023, signaling the operational focus for many navies.
Global Commitments: France, NATO, and European Endeavors
In 2022, France and, in 2023, NATO unveiled seabed warfare strategies. The European Parliament scrutinized undersea vulnerabilities, and the European Commission pledged to enhance maritime security by developing capabilities for critical seabed infrastructure protection by 2024.
Strategic Moves by the UK: Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance Capability
In 2022, the UK Ministry of Defence revealed plans for a Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance capability to safeguard national infrastructure. The invasion of Ukraine in 2022 expedited the UK’s procurement of the first ship, RFA Proteus, set to enter service in summer 2023. Plans for a second ship are in the conceptual phase.
International Cooperation: AUKUS Agreement and UK-Norway Collaboration
The Royal Navy initiated its first crewless submarine order in December 2022, collaborating with France, Australia, and the United States under the AUKUS agreement. A strategic partnership between the UK and Norway, formed in May 2023, aims to counter shared threats in the undersea domain, with Norway enhancing surveillance in the North Sea in response to undersea threats.
As nations grapple with the evolving landscape of seabed warfare, strategic initiatives, technological advancements, and international collaborations become paramount. The abyss below holds both challenges and opportunities, demanding a vigilant and coordinated global effort to secure the critical undersea infrastructure that underpins our interconnected world.
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