Coming Submarine Wars: Implications for Sri Lanka

30 July 2018 12:00 am - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}



ialogues, conferences, conventions around broader themes of maritime security is shaping Sri Lanka security discourse in a grand way. Geographic location and its strategic connotation coming to an intense geo political competition has elevated Sri Lanka’s own engagement to respond and comprehend the securitization of the Indo-Pacific ocean systems.   

This article will focus on the spectrum of submarine warfare and related security discussion that needs detailed attention by the administration and the security establishment. It needs further research by both academic and think tank communities in Sri Lanka. As submarine platforms are hailed as decisive in the emerging strategic competition in the Indian Ocean.  


Indian Ocean and Sri Lankan Strategy  

Sri Lanka as a hub in the Indian Ocean has been the mantra of the previous administration and the current administration has supercharged this position. Prime Minister Wickramasinghe is heading a serious effort for Sri Lanka to be a pivot state in creating a code of conduct in the Indian Ocean. One major challenge for this initiative will be handling the ever increasing militarization of the Indian Ocean and especially what happens not on the surface but beneath.  



"PM Wickramasinghe is heading a serious effort for Sri Lanka to be a pivot state in creating a code of conduct in the Indian Ocean. One major challenge for this initiative will be handling the ever increasing militarization of the Indian Ocean"



The ministry of foreign affairs recently set up a division on Ocean Affairs, Strategic Security, Climate Change and Policy Planning, which is commendable. While such moves are imperative for Sri Lanka’s strategic posture and security readiness our focus has largely been on narratives of Indian Ocean security that is linked with development of trade, safe guarding ocean resources and confronting maritime crime.  

From surface to underwater militarization  

Submarines have been part of the conversation about the emerging maritime competition among rising Asian powers and the important role of submarines and anti-submarine warfare has become security priorities in many Asian nations. This article attempts to create a preliminary interest to push our policy makers, analysts, security establishment, and media to understand the rapid transformation of the undersea militarization and technological advancement and their strategic implications on a country that is totally reliant on the ocean eco system for its very existence.  

Amidst escalating geo political tensions in the Indo-Pacific region, it is vital to understand the role of the submarines or undersea battle theatre. The Strategic advantage of transiting undetected and carrying significant weapons payloads that can both strike sea surface targets and land targets adds significant strategic value to these naval platforms . Apart from strike capabilities undersea vessels are used for surveillance, mapping of the sea bed thus increasing power projection capabilities of navies that possess them.   


Asia’s submarine competition  

Asia Pacific is littered with literals, choke points, island chains, islets, thus 21st century security challenges of the Indian ocean demands that navies deploy vessels that could navigate, fight and win in such spaces, thus submarines of various dimensions, and various configurations have become the most preferred asset to be used in such conditions by the United States and many other Asian nations.

Asia Pacific has become not just the zone of intense naval build ups it is also the zone where massive investments are made by large to small powers in submarine fleets and acquiring anti-submarine capabilities. The largest spenders are India, China, Australia, Singapore, Japan and Vietnam. Even countries such as Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia are having ambitious plans to develop under sea capabilities. Indonesia and South Korea are two mid-level powers in the region that intensified their bi lateral ocean defence partnerships and are actively engaged in expanding submarine capabilities.  
There are two ancillary strategic developments apart from submarines in the region, the first is the development and research of Unmanned Undersea Vessels (UUVs), while the world attention was very much taken by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) such as the predators and reapers the CIA operated in its targeted killing of terror suspects. Thus development and investment into Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) have accelerated not just in the United States. China has initiated a massive investment into such platforms.  

The second is the increasing competition to create deep sea detection systems as a way of sea denial, China has invested millions of dollars to create an integrated undersea warning system that could detect enemy submarine or surface vessel movement. Western military analysts call this the Underwater Great Wall that is lined with networked seabed sensors, that functions as an integrated undersea monitoring system. China intends to integrate the warning system with unmanned underwater vehicles as a vanguard defence to counter 
enemy movements.  

When the Dutch born inventor William Bourne designed the underwater rowing boat in the late 16th century he would not have imagined how his designs and concepts have become paramount in a new era of sea warfare. While China is expected to reach 70 plus mostly new submarines which are diesel powered attack craft, they also are expanding on their nuclear attack submarine capabilities.   
India and Australia have accelerated their own submarine development programs. India is expanding its submarine presence between both its coasts, Vishakapatnam was the only submarine base till recently and India has set up the new Varsha naval base for submarines in Rambilli , Andhra Pradesh.

India has an ambition to reach 25 submarines within the next five years, it commissioned Frenchbuilder ‘Naval Group’, formerly known as DCNS, to build six scorpene class diesel powered, attack submarines, two are already completed. The same company won a deal worth Australian $50 million to build half a dozen attack submarines for Australia.   

With countries like Pakistan increasing its interests on submarine technologies and Iran developing it’s on indigenous submarine platforms that will have major bearing on the strategic calculus of the Asia Pacific. Currently it is estimated nearly dozen countries operate over 200 submarines in the region and they are estimated to double over the next decade. Whether Sri Lanka is ready for such a surge needs to be addressed.  


The next stage of Submarine Warfare  

United States the primary developer of autonomous weapons systems is showing clear signs of deviating from their primary interests of UAVs and land Robotic systems to concentrate more on under water and surface robotic systems. It parallels American strategic realignment of interests from Middle East to greater oceanic spaces of Asia. It is estimated that 60% of AmericanSubmarine strength is now diverted to the Indo-Pacific region.   

Large defence contractors and American special innovation agency for the defence department are working together in advancing robotic submarine technologies. They are primarily looking at incorporating longer range, increasing payload capabilities of these machine systems. They are developing both undersea and surface platforms.   

Another significant development is the introduction of XLUUV class of UUV technology. The XL stands for extra-large robotic under sea vessels. Already American defence manufacturer is working on the Boeing Echo Voyager an advanced XLUUV which is nearing full operation, and China is responding in kind.  

China has established a vast research and development facility purely for UUVs in Zhuhai, Guangdong province. They are already experimenting on XLUUV such as D3000 an unmanned oceanic combat vessel with a large range and a three month operational capability without need to refuel or reach land.  


Implications for Sri Lanka  

While robotic submarines and surface vessels and their application for actual operations may take more time, the rapid speed in which artificial intelligence (AI) is incorporated into weapons technologies are changing the global security landscape. AI is a driving force behind UUVs and weapons such as smart Torpedoes and missiles when it comes to the Indian Ocean.   
Sri Lanka may not be able to acquire the costly technology but to be ready and at least have a strategy that entails collaboration to create under sea detection and monitoring technologies may help us face the challenges emanating from submarine and undersea vessels in the future. If we remain unprepared and disinterested our very location advantage will be taken over by foreign navies and our seas will be infested with foreign vessels with great risk to our national security.  
The writer is the Director, Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS)

  Comments - 1

  • Sumanadasa Monday, 30 July 2018 08:57 AM

    All internal complict are fulled by foreign influences.Submarines chapter would be the latest.

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