A new perspective on Indo-Pacific security: Need for QUAD to develop Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) framework
India will do well to initiate the SWAMs and build a nuanced acoustic capacity and capability-building initiative nationally and at the regional level. The Security And Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) vision of India will be better served with an effective implementation of the UDA framework on the ground.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) is a four-nation strategic security initiative to manage the entire Indo-Pacific strategic space. The four nations include India, Australia, Japan and the United States. The formulation has been largely seen as a counter to the growing Chinese belligerence in the global strategic competition. The conventional Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) has remained security-driven and largely on the surface. It may be important to appreciate that the maritime domain has the majority of its resources and threats below the surface and the underwater domain requires specialized acoustic capacity and capability to ensure reasonable domain awareness. The nature of security-driven formulations has ensured limited participation by the other stakeholders, namely the blue economy, environment and disaster management and science & technology.
The Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) received substantial attention during the Cold War period. The focus was on the temperate/polar region of the Greenland, Iceland United Kingdom (GIUK) gap. Legendary systems like the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS), Point Sur Naval Facility, Integrated Undersea Surveillance System (IUSS) and others were established. These systems, gave the underwater research community, a significant appreciation of the acoustic propagation in those conditions. The sonar performance stabilized to a great extent thus, mass production was feasible. However, the end of the Cold War brought about two major shifts. The military had to compete with the other stakeholders for budget and also, they stopped enjoying the exclusive priority in terms of environmental clearances and other approvals.
Need for UDA framework
The Indo-Pacific region, by definition, is the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. The tropical waters present significant degradation (of the order of 60 per cent) in the sonar performance, compared to the temperate/polar region. The recent USS Connecticut (SSN 22), accident in the South China Sea, is a great example to remind ourselves of the challenges of UDA in the tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific strategic space. The site-specific tropical waters require massive Shallow Water Acoustic Measurement (SWAM) exercises to customize the sonars to give reasonable performance. The SWAMs are extremely resource intensive and require Modelling and Simulation (M&S), followed by field experimental validation to estimate the underwater channel behavior. The precise estimate of the underwater medium can substantially enhance the sonar performance. South China Sea and East China Sea saw ASIAEX in the year 2000, as a major SWAM exercise, for over four years. However, the IOR has yet to see such a massive SWAM initiative.
In the last QUAD Summit in Tokyo, in March 2022, the four heads of state recognized that the need to deliver greater “public good” to find better acceptability among the nations in the Indo-Pacific region. They declared that the QUAD will make data available to all the nations in the Indo-Pacific region. The Indo-Pacific Economic Forum (IPEF) was also formally announced. The greater public good and data sharing need to be dissected a little more to appreciate the mechanism of delivery. The data centers (eight in number), under the control of the QUAD nations and their allies, include the MDA centers controlled by the security establishment. These centers, including the one in India (Gurugram), have no appreciation of the community requirement to serve any public good.
The QUAD has a great opportunity to drive a comprehensive and inclusive UDA framework to make sure a safe, secure, sustainable growth model is established on the ground for the entire Indo-Pacific strategic space. The UDA framework has to address the safety concerns, given the growing concerns of extreme weather events originating from the Oceans and the other water bodies. The security issue is real with the political volatility in the region. The nations in the region are spending far more in buying military hardware from the West, compared to their other socioeconomic priorities. These hardware in the absence of customization to the local conditions have limited utility in the real scenario. The sustainability and climate change risks are real and the global community needs to bring a nuanced way forward. The Digital Transformation manifested as the Marine Spatial Planning (MSP), will allow effective governance mechanisms.
Need to initiate SWAMs
The UDA framework addresses the requirements of policy and technology intervention along with the acoustic capacity and capability building to meet the challenges and opportunities of tropical waters. The four sides of the cube, represent the four stakeholders, however, the core will always remain the acoustic capacity & capability building, as shown in figure-1. The horizontal construct translates to the specific requirements of each stakeholder, however, the pooling of resources and synergizing of effort can be prioritized. Infrastructure, knowhow, field deployments, human resources, and more can be optimized at a national, regional and global level. The vertical construct presents the three stages of UDA. The bottom-up approach is critical to ensure success. The site-specific field experimental R&D to manage the tropical challenges and opportunities will require a three-step approach, namely To See, To Understand and To Share. To see includes the sensors and the platform that will carry the sensor to the location for data collection. The platforms may include surface and sub-surface platforms like Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) and others. Understanding will translate to pre-processing to make the data error-free including the local ambient noise, tropical underwater channel and also the measurement-related errors. The application-specific processing and post-processing will also be important. To share is the real-time sharing of the actionable inputs with the user. Each will have its own specific demands of formats and information types, so customized solutions will be required. The combination of large displays, and hand-held devices with applications will be the key.
The other QUAD countries can offer their legacy hardware available with them with upgradation to the modern times. These can serve as the first step of seeing and deploying their hardware post customization. However, the to understand and to share, can be completely taken over by India. The ASIAEX-type SWAMs in the IOR are the critical requirement to ensure a formidable demonstration of the greater public good by the QUAD in the Indo-Pacific strategic space. India will do well to initiate the SWAMs and build a nuanced acoustic capacity and capability-building initiative nationally and at the regional level. The Security And Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) vision of India will be better served with an effective implementation of the UDA framework on the ground.
(The author is Founder-Director of the Pune-based Maritime Research Center. Views are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)