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Blue Economy: Challenges & Opportunities                           

Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA): A ROAD LESS TRAVELLED AND FATHOMED

By: Commodore (IN) N Anil Jose Joseph VSM I.N Retd

  • Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) is an aspect of Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) that is focused on the underwater sector and actually includes a wide range of interests and not just the Military.
  • Monitoring the earth’s undersea geo-physical activities provide vital clues and helps minimise the impact of natural disasters and as a result the wellbeing of mankind.
  • The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is today strategically important and the vast dynamics in play in this area makes it a worthwhile study.
  • The physical aspect of the littoral waters of the IOR is highlighted by the fact that sonar performance is sub optimal and as a result complicates effective UDA.
  • Undersea areas in the IOR offer vast reserves of minerals and food in multiple forms and therefore have seen an increasing number of stakeholders emerging.
  • Political instability, technological challenges and economic limitations are the major impediment for progress in the IOR.

It is said ‘the eye does not see what the mind does not know’ and DH Lawrence famously said, ‘‘What the eye does not see and the mind does not know, does not exist. The field of Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) comes largely in that category but for a few dedicated who aim to bring forth this awareness. And these dedicated UDA experts are bringing forth the wide prospects in the Underwater World, driven by the fact that ‘The heart feels what the eyes cannot see and knows what the mind cannot understand.’ This field is yet not only a road less travelled but also fathomed or understood.

To answer what is UDA, simply put Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) is an aspect of Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) that is focused on the underwater sector and actually includes a wide range of interests and not just the Military. In more specific terms UDA is the desire to know what is happening in the undersea parts of maritime areas.

For those in the security fields, it includes protecting the sea lanes of communication (SLOC), the numerous and varied assets in the maritime areas, coastal waters and essentially anything that limits the freedom of the seas. But the Military field is not the only area that humankind should be interested in, there is a lot of relevance for the general wellbeing of humankind and in fact the earth itself. Monitoring the earth’s undersea geo-physical activities provide vital clues and helps minimise the impact of natural disasters and as a result the wellbeing of mankind. The undersea resources as a huge commercial activity are just beginning to unravel and needs precise inputs to focus the exploitation of the resource; as also for regulatory bodies to manage a sustainable plan.

And when there is so much activity; both Commercial and Military there is bound to be an impact on the environment. And its conservation implies a precise estimate of degradation of habitats and vulnerability of species.

“And for this precise estimation, the scientific and research community needs to be actively involved and continuously update knowledge of the varied aspects of the undersea world. The underlying requirement therefore is that all stakeholders know the developments in the undersea, understand these and respond effectively and efficiently proactively i.e., before it takes unknown turns.”

To achieve this all aspects of the UDA needs to be understood i.e.; firstly, the available resources in terms of infrastructure, technology and the capability and capacity of every stakeholder. And when it concerns the sea, everyone is a stakeholder. The core capability and capacity pertain to acoustics in UDA. The other aspect would be the hierarchy – at the ground level would be knowing what is present in the undersea domain – the resources, activities, and threats. At the next level would be understanding them by way of conservation plans, resources utilisation plans and security strategies and then would the monitory framework and regulations at every level – local to global. Towards this end, the partnership of users, the academia and the industry need to develop and if given the right impetus can address multiple challenges being faced by developing nations.


A short analysis of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) will highlight the challenges. The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is today strategically important and the vast dynamics in play in this area makes it a worthwhile study. The challenges and opportunities in the IOR are unique and needs study under different categories.


The IOR has over thirty littoral countries / island states, as also other extra regional powers that play a significant role in the geo- politics of the region.

“The countries in the region not only vary in the degree of political stability but also in their economic development, demography, ethnic and sectarian issues, relations with neighbouring countries and many more. All these play a critical role in determining the political stability in the region. The vast asymmetry in the political and economic powers is a challenge compounded further by the actions of the extra regional powers. “

The power struggles in the region, the immense economic potential and presence of economic giants along with lack of regulations in the region throws more challenges including application of non-state actors to resolve disputes as also piracy and maritime terrorism. For synergising efforts to attain a regional governance model and to pool resources it is important to come out of the fragmented regional geopolitics.

The physical aspect of the littoral waters of the IOR is highlighted by the fact that sonar performance is sub optimal and as a result complicates effective UDA. The understanding of deep waters and shallow waters would vary for those unaware of the underwater domain and the maritime world. Simply put the edge of the continental shelf that marks the EEZ that is 200 NM out and an approximate depth of 200 m is shallow. Multi path propagations are governed by the depth of the sound axis and these vary from about 50 m at the poles to as deep as 2000 m near the equator and so in IOR there is very little acoustically deep water resulting in poor sonar behaviour (a fact understood by very few). And these are compounded further in the tropical region by surface fluctuations, variations in the bottom, rich bio diversity and so on.

“As per reports, the order of performance deterioration is 70% in the IOR when compared to the Greenland Iceland United Kingdom gap. Technology too has not yielded results in the absence of local efforts and can only be overcome by long term sustained initiatives that include pooling of resources, their deployment and efficient use of the knowledge.”

The economic aspects are clear from the increased amount of traffic engaged in commerce and energy that crosses the IOR. The energy flow from the Persian Gulf to India, China and Japan is 40% of the global energy flow. Movement of raw material from the African continent to largely China, Japan and Korea and the finished goods in ships to the Middle East and Europe is significant. Reportedly the volume of trade has trebled over the last decade. Undersea areas in the IOR offer vast reserves of minerals and food in multiple forms and therefore have seen an increasing number of stakeholders emerging. Fishing in the IOR has different patterns, areas that have been overexploited in the absence of monitory and regulatory systems to areas not utilised. This is largely a result of a mix of political and security concerns creating imbalances in fish stock and altering the coastal marine landscape.

“Fishing and fishermen are often a political issue in the region often needing diplomatic intervention. The IOR is considered the next richest after the Pacific in deep sea minerals that include oil and gas, polymetallic sulphides, cobalt, and other materials that have high potential for accelerated economic growth. And in the absence of well-defined norms and regulations, the ever-increasing demand for resources could lead to conflict among IOR nations with active backing from extra regional powers with nefarious interests.”

As highlighted the key capacity and capability is that of acoustic capacity and capability. Of late there has been a significant attempt to overcome the littoral challenges in the tropical region in this field, covering the major components of sensors to collect the raw data, its analysis and interpretation and the network to transfer the actionable information in real time.

Acoustic sensors have been the preserve of a few nations and because of the strategic interests those who make them control their availability. Whilst self-reliance is desirable countries could still manage with imported sensors unless political situations make it difficult. Though analysis of the data would require customised efforts, networking technologies have made significant progress.

All this starts with collation of data and signal processing efforts to model them. And for this there is a need to have platforms that can access various parts of the undersea domain. As also effective signal processing abilities that will derive meaningful inputs. There is a shift from the resource intensive ships to Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs). Although slow, underwater gilders are today most suited being relatively cheap and less noisy and with their long endurance can be deployed in large numbers to cover huge areas. These and the acoustic analysis capabilities have remained the preserve of a few countries. Some of these countries have now invested in tropical littoral ASW. Not withstanding the strategic intent of ASIAEX, the collation of data is the first step. The search for the Malaysian Airlines flight 370 and its subsequent search was also another geo political exercise and had its own acoustic capability and capacity development in the region.

On the strategic front, the 2017 National Security Strategy revived the role of QUAD (Australia, India Japan and the US). Nevertheless, this has elevated India as a leading global power expected to play an active role in the region. Competitive diplomacy in the IOR between India and China is also a measure of Strategic power play.

“Further, the Chinese provide a cheaper option for developing countries in their capability building compared to other military suppliers and is also suspected to control their military / political actions in multiple ways. And with support bases in the IOR it also adds to the volatile environment of the IOR with other extra regional powers and the diverse littoral nations of the IOR. “

China has made the development of acoustic capability a priority and China’s stated larger vision is to be seen as a global maritime power with a network covering coastal waters, the high seas and polar waters. With the other extra regional powers other than the US on the wane in presence though still ahead in technology in the underwater domain, the strategic space offers many challenges. And India as the lead player in the IOR has more at stake.

Political instability, technological challenges and economic limitations are the major impediment for progress in the IOR. Acoustic capacity and capability development in the tropical littoral can only happen with cooperation and massive experimental initiatives. These are extremely resource intensive and need to be funded at a different scale and supported with cutting-edge technology support both for hardware and software. The pooling of resources and synergizing of effort is inescapable both at the national and regional level. And India must take a lead role in educating the uninitiated, developing acoustic capabilities and capacity building, putting together partnerships and frameworks to attain it.

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About The Author

Commodore (IN) N Anil Jose Joseph VSM I.N Retd

Commodore (IN) Neriamparampil Anil Jose Joseph (Retd) is an alumnus of RIMC and NDA. An ASW specialist, he is a graduate of the prestigious DSSC, Wellington, AWC, Mhow and NDC, Delhi. In his 35 plus years of service, he has held various Staff, Instructional, Operational and Command appointments. Ashore appointments include Div O at NDA, Instructor in ASW School, DD in DSR, NA to CINCAN & CINC East, duties at HQENC for the conduct of the first ever PFR at Vizag, first ever CSO to COMINKAR, as also Dir WSOI in HQ IDS. The officer has commanded IN Ships Vibhuti, Shardul (commissioning) and Ranjit. An all-rounder and known as a valuable mentor he has also been K22 / CO Agnibahu, FOO Eastern Fleet, Cmde Work Up / CSO to FOST, Director MWC Kochi and Commanding Officer Venduruthy; superannuating on 31 oct 2021. The officer is MSC Def studies, a double MPhil, a Qualified Interviewing Officer, and MA Psychology. The officer was awarded VSM in Jan 2014. He is an avid reader and a good sportsman. He can be contacted at najjoseph@yahoo.com