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Underwater Warfare
China’s “Underwater Great Wall”

Beijing is raising the pressure on the United States’ increasingly-tenuous dominance of Asia’s waterways with plans to construct an “Underwater Great Wall”. IHS reports:

The China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) has proposed the construction of a network of ship and subsurface sensors that could significantly erode the undersea warfare advantage held by US and Russian submarines and contribute greatly to future Chinese ability to control the South China Sea (SCS). […]

While some elements of this network have been known for some time, CSSC is now in effect proposing an improved Chinese version of the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) that for a time gave the US a significant advantage in countering Soviet submarines during the Cold War. The system proposed by CSSC is likely being obtained by China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) but may also be offered for export.

This isn’t the first we’ve heard of China’s efforts to improve subsurface capabilities. But the proposed network of sensors is a bigger deal than anything previously discussed, and it would help Beijing fulfill its recent promise to cordon off claims in the South China Sea regardless of what the international court in the Hague rules later this month.

Submarines have become increasingly important in recent years. Last fall, the U.S. Navy rang alarm bells about the vulnerability of critical Western underwater cables to Russian submarines looking to tap or cut them. However, Washington’s response to warnings about underwater threats has been disappointing. Amidst growing doubts about whether the United States can and will defend freedom of the seas in Asia, many regional powers have been investing heavily in advanced systems of their own, making for a crowded and more volatile environment in the world’s most commercially-important waters. While close calls in the air and confrontations on the surface have grabbed headlines, the competition underwater has been gradually building momentum. This new “Underwater Great Wall” is set to add more fuel to the fire.

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  • f1b0nacc1

    Underwater sensor systems are extraordinarily vulnerable to interruption, spoofing, and outright destruction. Certainly they complicate the problem of undersea operations, but that is about all that they do, and at a very high price. SOSUS (and CEASAR) was a tremendous advantage at the time, but times have changed and the need for (or value of) fixed installations has declined precipitously.

    • Frank Natoli

      And they are passive, can only hear the noise that other subs create, and the degree to which our attack boats are silent and invulnerable to the ChiCom sound devices and processing algorithms is unknown [to the general public].

      • f1b0nacc1

        I cannot share your optimism there. Yes, the subs are very quiet, but there is a limit to how quiet you can make anything, and we are rapidly approaching it, albeit asymptotically. More to the point, however, detection and signal differentiation is something we can get much, much better at, and are doing so far faster than we are at the quieting of subs.

        Also, why do you believe that stationary arrays must be passive? Granted SOSUS and CEASAR were, but there is nothing to ensure that they would have to be in the future.

        We can kill/spoof sensors, but simply evading them will not last as a viable strategy for very long.

        • m a

          Just because the sensor array is passive doesn’t mean it can’t be combined with a cooperative active source.

          • f1b0nacc1

            You are entirely correct, but the active source by its very nature gives itself away and thus has other vulnerabilities, particularly when they are used in (or in conjunction with) a static/semi-static array.

    • m a

      The value of a fixed system is it is a far lower cost than any other method of persistent underwater surveillance. So, the value of a fixed system to the Chinese will be based on, do they have specific geographical locations they want to continuously monitor?
      The trend in quieting of submarines can be countered by increasing the density of acoustic sensors exploiting direct path contact vice deep sound channel similar to the Fixed Distributed System (FDS).
      The cables are vulnerable, but far less vulnerable if the bottom conditions are amenable to burying along the lines of commercial industry practices. China will have to make similar provisions for a repair capability. Commercial companies combine resources to have one cable repair ship on standby for repairs at all times in each major region.

      • f1b0nacc1

        In large measure, we agree. Quieting subs is useful, but stealth of any sort is an inherently limited practice…the quieter you get, the more expensive and difficult it becomes to get to the next level of quietness. Meanwhile, massively proliferated cheap sensors, combined with advanced processing and data mining techniques are likely to be able to ferret out most very quiet subs. This is precisely my point about evading sensors being an unlikely prospect.
        With that said, however, sensor arrays (particularly fixed ones) are vulnerable to physical destruction or direct interference (note: the Soviets had planned precisely this tactic for use against SOSUS and CEASAR in the event the Cold War turned hot), and while you can proliferate sensors quite easily, the communications links and processing nodes are more vulnerable. Finally, use of UUVs as decoys (or for more ‘direct’ means) can be employed as well.
        This is beginning to look more and more like what the USAF had planned to deal with Soviet air defenses during the cold war….Wild Weasels, anyone?

  • Nevis07

    I’m wondering how submarine drone fit into this picture. Increasingly, I’d expect to see entire packs of them trolling the seas. From setting up false targets to sit and wait operations, they could really change the dynamic of undersea warfare. Navy’s already experimenting with that new surface drone destroyer, I’d be highly surprised if submarine drones are similarly being tested and deployed.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Actually UUVs are already being deployed, and our friends at the five-sided puzzle palace are now working on long-term drones for surveillance, etc. So your intuition is quite good here.

      • Nevis07

        Robotics sure makes for an interesting equalizer. It leads to technological parity as well as making quantity dominance a more difficult thing to achieve as both countries irrespective of their economic strength can relatively cheaply deploy more and more drones (in a way, it could ultimately minimize procurement boondoggles such as the F-35). On the economic side, robotics reshores manufacturing to host markets because of parity of manufacturing/transport costs.

        In a way, robotics reminds me of Thomas Friedman’s “The World Is Flat” – which he posited (back when globalization was all the rage among theorists) that globalization and technology would even out the playing field among nations and classes of people – and in many ways it has begun to – but with robotics it also in a way evens out the upstarts like China. They might be able to catch up, but it also means they may never be able to pull ahead either…

        • f1b0nacc1

          I couldn’t agree with you more. Let me suggest however, that robotics may in fact exacerbate technological inequality, as sophisticated systems can massively overcome less sophisticated ones.

          As for robotics spoiling Friedman’s dreams, I think of that as an extra bonus. Over time, it will be cheaper to bring the production capacity closer to the consumers, and robotics will make that possible. This is, to some extent, where 3D printing is taking us….

          • Nevis07

            Insightful observation as usual Fib. I agree that robotics probably will stress tech innovation gap between nations. I remember reading (as an Econ major) a theory that suggested it actually may be impossible for less developed nations to ever eventually catch up to more developed ones – at least within the current global trade-nation framework. If true, it makes for a far more unstable future and makes me think the migrant crisis in Europe is potentially only the beginning.

            On Friedman, I agree again. I like the idea, naturally, of reshoring manufacturing in whatever form it takes. Though it will not be as we or our parents have known it to be, especially regarding 3D printing as you note. Being the sci-fi geek, as well as being a econ major, I can’t help but think the world’s future looks more like Star Wars than it does Star Trek – not to dumb things down too much (actually, this comparison has been made on many occasions by many professional economists – not sure what that says about professional economists??).

            Nonetheless, robotics and human nature tend to tell me, in the long run at least, 1) China may catch up, 2) most other countries won’t 3) China has a serious problem if they cannot transition their economy fast enough – perhaps just several years 4) if most of the rest of the world doesn’t catch up the geostrategic and geopolitical implications are an unknown element for decades or centuries to come 5) given the above, we are damned lucky to live in the US at this very moment in human history, despite every other potential place to be.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Thank you for the kind comment.
            I wonder if the rise of ‘desktop manufacturing’ (pervasive networks + 3D printing + robotics) isn’t going to change the nature of the environment we find ourselves in far more than is immediately obvious. I suspect that (in the long-term) the biggest change might be the end of the giant nation-state, as both productivity and firepower become more generally dispersed among the population. For the developed world, this will lead to a very bright future, but for the undeveloped world…not so much, at least in the short term, before the technologies ‘migrate’ to them.
            I always find the Star Wars/Star Trek comparisons fun (I am a huge sci-fi geek…grin), but I wonder if the future might not resemble Firefly a bit more?…
            As for your last paragraph, I am not as sure as you are that China (or India) will catch up (I think it unlikely, but perhaps I am too pessimistic) but the rest I think you have summed it up perfectly…. The old order is sinking, how fortunate we are to be in one of the lifeboats.

    • ubik

      And China isn’t doing the same? Drone sensors arrayed over a large area?

  • ubik

    Does anyone really think Obama demands the best for American defense capabilities?
    We are threatened but don’t respond. The next president will be challenged. Hope she isn’t compromised by emails with embarrassing… whoops, yeah, done already.

    Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, prepare to defend yourselves.

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