Geopolitics and IR Maritime Security

Underwater Domain Awareness – A New Perspective in the Indo Pacific


Underwater Domain Awareness - A New Perspective in the Indo Pacific​


The 21 st century India is emerging as a maritime nation with significant strategic push for maritime capability and capacity building. The apex level shift from a continental outlook to a maritime power, ready to assert itself in regional and global geo-strategic and geo-political formulations is a welcome change. The growing recognition of the Indo-Pacific as a single strategic space and a construct to counter growing Chinese dominance in the region, also recognizes India’s centrality to the global influences and increasing role of India in America’s strategic calculations. The domain awareness is always the first step towards any effective capability and capacity building initiative. Thus, effective Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) would be the pre-requisite for any such initiative. The Americans who originated this term, have used MDA as an enabler for the Maritime Operational Threat Response Plan. The National Plan to achieve MDA, declared in Oct 2005 by the US, was part of the National Strategy for Maritime Security. The underwater component of the MDA that may be referred as Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA), has somehow not been given enough attention that it deserves particularly in the IOR, given the security threats that exists, perpetuated by the non-state actors. The first reference of the term Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) is seen in a paper by Lt Cdr David Finch, titled “Comprehensive Underwater Domain Awareness: A Concept Model” in fall 2011, published in Canadian Naval Review. Now here, he makes no reference of MDA while discussing UDA. When we look at India in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), there are multiple unique challenges to achieve effective UDA, both socio-economic and science & technology driven, that are rooted in its geo-strategic origin. Thus, efforts to import technology and strategy from the west have offered limited outcomes. The present understanding in many strategic discourse is that UDA is an extension of MDA, more focussed on security requirements given the volatile regional dynamics. However, the sub-optimal performance of the sonar systems that may be deployed for any situational awareness efforts, in the tropical littoral waters of the IOR will present significant challenges. Thus massive acoustic capability and capacity building would be the core requirement for any UDA framework. The fragmented approach by the stakeholders namely the national security apparatus, the blue economic entities, the environment & the disaster management authorities and the science & technology providers has always limited the resource availability for any indigenous efforts to overcome local challenges. The UDA framework proposed in this work goes beyond being a mere underwater extension of the MDA formulation as understood so far, and attempts to bring a more comprehensive formulation that facilitates pooling of resources and synergising of efforts across stakeholders both at the national as well as regional level to be able to truly participate in the Indo-Pacific strategic space. The proposed UDA framework ensures Safe, Secure, Sustainable Growth model for all in the region to complement the Security And Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) vision announced in Mar 2015.

“Many experts regret that the IWT generally disregards issues relating to water quality, pollution, environmental flows, and ecological protections.”


The MDA in its present form needs to be understood before we attempt to connect UDA to it or define UDA from a new perspective. The MDA framework as declared in the Oct 2005 document “National Plan to Achieve Maritime Domain Awareness for the National Strategy for Maritime Security” has no mention of the underwater threat or its mitigation strategy [1]. The Americans did not consider the underwater threat to be substantial while formulating the MDA framework in early 21 st century. Though post 9/11 the US administration did recognize the possibility of other avenues the terrorists may use to harm American interests, however the underwater threat did not explicitly figure in their strategic formulations [2]. The author Cdr Steven C Boraz, brings out the myths and realities of the era and recognizes the limitations of a Navy driven MDA [2]. As late as Feb 2015, the academic literature recognizes the limitations of the US MDA capabilities in terms of dealing with underwater threats [3]. The US Coast Guard that is the primary agency responsible for MDA through the Ports, Waterways, and Coastal Security (PWCS) mission has made significant investments for surface and air assets along with increased command and control capabilities, however little has been done to expand the PWCS mission to the underwater domain. The underwater threat from nation states, terrorist groups and criminal organizations is on the rise and multiple outfits are acquiring capabilities far outwitting the risk mitigation strategies by the security establishments. Nation states like US, Japan, Germany, North Korea and Iran have credible submersible capabilities that can be deployed to carry out large scale damage to maritime assets. These states have also been seen to assist non-state actors against targeted adversaries or generic terrorist activities. Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been documented for their submersible capabilities and its deployment against their stated adversaries [4]. The Underwater Wireless Sensor Networks (UWSNs) that may be deployed for multiple underwater surveillance applications have their unique challenges in terms of harsh underwater channel behaviour with low bandwidth, high propagation delays and higher bit error rates. In addition, the variable speed of sound, and the non-negligible node mobility due to water currents pose a unique set of challenges for localization in UWSNs [5]. These underwater channel distortions and unique site specific challenges require focussed mitigation strategy that limit their deployment for broader MDA applications. The underwater technology development and more specifically acoustic technology development matured during the cold war period when the super powers i.e., the US and the Russians invested heavily in the deep waters and achieved significant success in stabilizing sonar performance. Massive experiments were undertaken at sea to validate the algorithms and minimize the medium uncertainties [6]. Post the cold war the naval theatre shifted to the littoral waters and the principles that stabilized sonar performance in the deep waters did not apply, resulting in sub-optimal performance. Shallow water acoustics have their own challenges and the site specific underwater behaviour demanded for more field experimental work far beyond the means of the developing countries making it an exclusive club [7].The Cold War period saw unquestioned military investments and the technology development for national security received high priority from the political leadership. However, post the Cold War, the national security apparatus did not receive the same level of support, resulting in multiple projects getting stalled. The Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) was a mega underwater sensor network project driven by the US Navy as a top secret project from 1949 to monitor Russian vessels in the GIUK Gap. However, towards the later part of the cold war, the facility had to be opened for academic research to support its operational and maintenance cost. The project no doubt gave significant boost to the underwater acoustic field research that stabilized sonar performance in the deep waters for multiple non-military applications as well. The Point Sur Naval Experimental facility started in 1958 and had to be shut down in 1984 for want of funds for operations and maintenance. The Ship Shock test facility and the SURTASS-LFA project had to be shifted and scaled down, due to opposition from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) on environmental grounds. NRDC compelled the Navy to file Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the first time in the early 90s. In 1996, 13 Cavier’s beaked Whales (a deep diving breed that rarely strand) were found stranded alive, off the coast of Kyparissiakos Gulf of Greece. Dr. Alexandros Frantzis a biologist at the University of Athens linked the stranding to the use of sonar in the immediate area, in a correspondence to the journal Nature. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), was involved in a joint international experiment using a high powered low frequency sonar at the time of the stranding. The event became a massive rallying point for the environmental activist and they demanded complete ban on such trials. The US navy was forced to agree to fund research on impact marine animas due to such trials. These incidents and more reflected a major shift in geo-political realities where socio-economic issues had to be balanced with national security demands [8]. Given these dilemmas of increasing underwater threats both from nation states and non-state actors, and the underwater risk mitigation strategy becoming an exclusive club of select few who could afford such high tech capabilities and also to add to that was the post-Cold War reality for military funding pattern for technology acquisition and R&D infrastructure. This meant that UDA should be given far different structure rather than being treated as mere extension of the MDA and an exclusive security construct

Indo-Pacific Strategic Space

The Indo-Pacific gained new meaning, when the US raised it to a top level regional priority by its placement in the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS). It was certainly a strategic construct to counter China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific. The NSS 2017, revives the role of Quad (India, Japan, Australia and the US) in regional activities and elevates India’s status as a leading global power expected to play an active role in the region. As indicated by a commentator, the NSS declaration draws India into the regional activities in the east and probably ignores India’s interest in its own backyard in the IOR. The Indo-Pacific as defined by the Trump administration has more of Pacific than Indo in its formulation [9]. The competitive diplomacy on display between India and China in the IOR is a measure of strategic power play on the Indo-Pacific space. Aptly brought by a commentator “In the western Indian Ocean, a battle for the soul of the Indo- Pacific is set to play out between China and the liberal order hitherto led by theUS, and increasingly represented by India ” and “Yet with limited means and an economy less than a fifth the size of China’s, Delhi is displaying the gumption to fight back”. Beijing has displayed significant grit and determination to overcome the geographical constraints to build influence and infrastructure among smaller nations in the IOR littorals that could provide political, ethical and ideological control over these nations. Countries like Maldives, Sri Lanka, Seychelles, Madagascar and many more are demonstrating a see-saw in their foreign policy with respect to these two powers [10]. The reference to Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) as a strategic concept, integral to the Indo-Pacific in Nov 2017 by President Trump at Vietnam during his first tour to Asia has significance for India in the IOR [11]. The Indo-Pacific almost translating to an India-China rivalry in the IOR needs to be understood in the capacity and capability gap between the two. Let us understand the UDA threats and challenges. “China’s maritime strategy relies heavily on submarines to patrol the littorals, blockade the Taiwan Strait, and stalk aircraft carriers. The U.S. Navy should not underestimate China’s ability to build a capable submarine force to challenge a superior maritime foe” [12]. The Chinese have systematically build their Submarine capabilities to not only meet there own requirements but also to export to other regional allies. The Chinese provide a cheaper option for the developing nations as against the traditional European military suppliers like Germany, France and others. It not only supplies these to such countries but in return also controls their military actions in multiple ways. With support bases in the IOR, even conventional diesel submarines more suited to the littorals in large numbers from China can pose a formidable threat for India, if not detected on time [13, 14]. Not just military hardware in terms of platforms to lead campaigns both in South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, the Chinese have systematically worked on their soft acoustic capability building as well in a big way. “The ‘Undersea Great Wall (UGW)’ project is an ambitious program announced by the China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) in Dec 2015. It is part of the focused underwater capacity building initiative by the Chinese government since 1980 that has been openly announced only recently. The CSSC announced that it would construct an underwater observation system in the disputed South China Sea region. The UGW is part of the major project to set up an offshore observation network by 2020, released by the State Oceanic Administration. The stated larger vision of the Chinese government is to be seen as a global maritime power with a network covering coastal waters, the high seas, and polar waters” [15]. The Chinese have realized and accepted their limitations in the acoustic capabilities and worked systematically and with strategic vision and nuanced approach. The UDA capacity and capability building has been undertaken in a holistic and long term planned manner. They have taken help from even their adversaries to build their UDA capabilities. The geo-politics in the IOR is fragmented and the extra-regional powers have made it a fertile ground to cause mischief. Most of the nation’s here are pre-modern states with meagre resources for socio-economic development, but they seem to spend maximum on military hardware due to the bogey of instability and volatility being propagated by the extra-regional powers. Even within the nations, their multiple arms are fragmented to even pool in resources and synergize efforts to achieve superiority in terms of science and technology to optimize resource deployment for effective UDA. India in the IOR has an opportunity to play a leadership role with UDA framework.


The work attempts to identify the origin of the MDA and UDA on a global level and then attempts to establish its relevance and urgency in the IOR. The evolution of the underwater component of MDA has not matured to the extent of being able to comprehensively address the changing world order even to meet military requirements for which it originally took shape. The US driven MDA post the 9/11 remained fixated for a security construct and failed to generate significant resources for taking forward the underwater part in the Post-Cold War era. In the IOR, specific to the Indo-Pacific strategic construct, the UDA does have a major role to play. Indo in the Indo-Pacific will translate to India-China direct confrontation in the maritime space with larger part of that being addressed through the underwater dominance. The indulgence of non-state actors further complicates the matters with asymmetric advantage always with the subversive elements. The site specific physical challenges demands special efforts to overcome them and acoustic capability and capacity building deserves immediate and massive initiatives. The socio-economic and socio-political status in the region does not allow massive military investments for the political leadership trying to balance competing socio-economic demands. Thus pooling of resources and synergizing of efforts across stakeholders is the only way forward. Developing nations have their own challenges of resource limitations, leadership crisis, technology challenges, governance issues of coordination among stakeholders and more. A systematic and comprehensive strategic way forward will go a long way. The UDA framework as proposed by MRC is not a mere underwater extension of the MDA concept, but comprehensively addresses the Safe, Secure, Sustainable Growth model critically required for the IOR to overcome the economic, political and physical challenges of the region. It is a very broad framework that will require, far more detailing to address the finer points in a holistic manner.


Dr. (Cdr.) Arnab Das​

About Author

Director, Maritime Research Center, Pune

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