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China’s ‘Undersea Great Wall’ Project: Implications Dissecting the Threat and the Possibilities

Dr (Cdr) Arnab Das

Background

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.

The aim is to build a network of surface and sub-surface sensors for real-time monitoring of maritime targets. The proposed project comprises of multiple underwater sensors mounted on surface ships, sonar systems, underwater security equipment, marine oil and gas exploration equipment, unmanned underwater vehicles and marine electronic equipment. The UGW is expected to present a comprehensive Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) for surveillance, environment monitoring, disaster management and undersea exploration/exploitation.

Stated Claim

The stated claim is that the UGW project is considered as an advanced form of the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) which was used by the US during the Cold War period to detect Soviet Union submarines. The lack of advanced maritime surveillance system is considered a serious challenge in securing its growing maritime interest. Chinese experts believe that “China’s current maritime security is complex, where most of Beijing’s undersea domain doors have been left open.”

The project is seen as a Chinese response to the growing tension in the South China Sea with the United States and its neighbors. The Japan’s activation of the coastal surveillance unit on Yonagunt Island is also considered to be a trigger. This a reflection of increasing assertion by China in the South China Sea and around.

“The technology gaps between China and other developed global maritime powers like the US, Japan, Canada and Europe is considered to be enormous and projects like these are likely to bridge these gaps.”

The Chinese have attempted underwater networks in the past with an underwater optical detection network in 2010 near China’s North Sea Fleet, headquartered in Qingdao. The second system was installed near Hainan Island in 2011, and part of the system was tested in 2013 near Sanya nuclear submarine base. In 2012, the State Council announced the construction of the seabed observation system in Lingshui, Hainan. These projects remained ambitious in their design, however, failed to deliver the desired results once implemented. The technology gaps between China and other developed global maritime powers like the US, Japan, Canada and Europe is considered to be enormous and projects like these are likely to bridge these gaps.

Figure-1 Figure: SOSUS and UGW

Challenges

The underwater sensor networks primarily need the acoustic capability to sense the undersea events or developments. There are three distinct layers of this acoustic capability – the acoustic sensor, the analysis algorithms and the information sharing mechanism. We also call it to see, to understand and to share. The sensor hardware is highly specialized and globally only could be sourced from few entities in the US and Europe. In the post-Cold War period, it is available though at a significant cost. The share category has also matured regarding its technology and management available from other above water networks. It is only the analysis that requires significant indigenous effort and import is not possible. This includes data pre-processing to improve the data quality and then application specific information extraction.

“The ongoing strategy to replicate the Cold War development of underwater technology in the tropical littoral settings is a far cry.”

The pre-processing to improve data quality requires significant understanding of the underwater channel behavior and mitigation. The South China Sea, like the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), being in the tropical littoral region requires special efforts and cannot be compared to the SOSUS system deployed in the temperate or near polar seas. Sonar suffers near five times degradation in range when deployed in the tropical waters compared to the SOSUS location. The underwater medium acoustically behaves like shallow waters in the tropical region, up to 2000 m depth based on the sound axis location. The ongoing strategy to replicate the Cold War development of underwater technology in the tropical littoral settings is a far cry. They have repeatedly failed in the absence of massive infrastructure investment to understand the medium characteristics. Such investments are possible only with pooling of resources across maritime stakeholders. The Cold War trend of massive military investments gave rise to significant technology developments, however even in the US today, massive military funding is no more politically and economically viable. The massive military infrastructure, particularly in the underwater domain, was opened up for the so-called civilian research to support the sustainability of the projects post the Cold War. The SOSUS was also opened up for marine mammal and acoustic research post the Cold War period.

Conclusions

The UGW project is a significant initiative to build underwater capability for any maritime power that aspires to compete with the global powers. Even if it does not achieve the stated objectives, it is still worthwhile to invest and develop the capability. A comprehensive UDA concept in the tropical littoral waters is a first of its kind effort and may have only deterrence value for its adversaries rather than any credible response to the growing tension in the South China Sea. Optimum sonar performance will continue to remain a challenge in the tropical littoral waters. The initiative in its construct does reflect the participation of all the four stakeholders of UDA namely, the national security, marine environment and disaster management, Blue economy and the underwater technology development. The earlier efforts by only the military have failed as the resource requirement for any underwater network initiative in the tropical littoral waters is huge, and no single stakeholder can build the infrastructure on their own.

“A comprehensive UDA concept in the tropical littoral waters is a first of its kind effort and may have only deterrence value for its adversaries rather than any credible response to the growing tension in the South China Sea.”

India in the IOR faces similar challenges, and effective UDA will be the backbone of maritime growth that is sustainable, safe and secure. The UGW project represents an initiative that has emerged from a well conceived maritime strategy. The project will significantly enhance their underwater capabilities for both military and non-military applications. The IOR and the South China Sea have evolved as the strategic hotspots in the 21st century. The political instability and economic opportunities in an unregulated maritime space make them extremely vulnerable and contested maritime zones. Similar UGW project in the IOR for India does have significant merit.

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About The Author

Dr. (Cdr.) Arnab Das

Director, Maritime Research Center, Pune