The French Army Minister recently announced a « ministerial strategy for the control of the seabed ». It evoked the development of submarines drones, also called Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV). By 2025, they should be able to reach 6,000 meter of depth, a military and technological innovation that seeks to secure the undersea space and especially undersea infrastructures. Undersea cables are especially vulnerable to meteorological disaster as well as to human wrongful actions, like spying and sabotage. Yet, they represent 99% of the transoceanic data traffic and so constitute a major issue at stake for countries, especially in the perspective of new high-tech conflict. This French strategy is part of a greater state competition between the most powerful countries of the planet to secure their communication network.
A need for improvement in monitoring the undersea space
The main objective is to be able to monitor the undersea telecommunication cables that are threatened by both natural-caused disaster (e.g. Taïwan in 2006, Federal State of Micronesia in 2022) and human political decisions. Thus, at least three factors have to be considered to prevent the destruction of undersea infrastructures.
The first one is the depth at which the telecommunication infrastructures are located. The French strategy aims directly to bypass that obstacle, as well as the three military powers did before it. AUVs are able to “measure, probe, detect, film and photograph in a very precise manner, thanks to on-board sensors that can withstand the temperature and pressure conditions encountered on the sea bed”. In other words, they would be able to capture every threat underwater and to prevent it – whether it concerns undersea cables or other forms of undersea vulnerabilities.
According to Le Monde, China, Russia, and the United-States are in possession of – or close to obtain – the technical capacity to monitor the seabed at such a depth. The second hurdle is the scale of the infrastructure. Nowadays, 450 undersea telecommunication cables recover the earth, crisscrossing the oceans throughout the globe. Basically, it means that if the governments want to secure the entire network of cables they have to extend their surveillance to the entire planet, sending drones in every ocean. That is an exploit that cannot be reached yet. As a consequence, this obstacle implies the necessity of multilateral action and cooperation. Nevertheless, cooperation is made impossible in some situations because of political, geopolitical or commercial divergences and conflicts.
In the development of a monitoring plan through the “dronisation” of the sea, the third factor to take into account is the economical capacity. As any other military innovation and operational systems, the use of drones requires expensive investments. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the United States has the first military budget that constituted 39% of the total military budget in the world in 2020. China is close behind with 13%, followed by India and Russia that respectively constitute 3.7% and 3.1% of the global defence spending.
These resources allow the concerned states to boost their innovation process as well as the production of more effective UAVs by industrial giants, as Rubin Central Design Bureau for Marine Engineering in Russia or ECA Robotics. The prices of drones vary a lot, depending of their endurance, their technological level and their capacity to go deep. In France, the budget allocated to what is now called “seabed warfare” is supposed to reached 2,9 billion euros, according to the Law of Military Programmation (Loi de Programmation Militaire – LMP, 2019-2022).
The development of UAVs is becoming a priority for governments to ensure the integrity of their underwater communication systems. Therefore, it is clear that this process is part of the logic of great power conflicts as evidenced by the suspicions about Russian actions.
The spectrum of a submarine Russian attack
In 2017, the Royal Navy (UK) was considering the envoy of drones to monitor the movements of Russian ships, especially around the undersea cables. The British drone named “Outrider” was presented for the occasion, as reported at the time by the Daily Mail. Four years after, the Russian submarine technologies were still to be feared – as they are today. In march 2021, the British Defence Secretary stated: “Our adversaries look to our critical national infrastructure as a key vulnerability and have developed capabilities that put these under threat”.
According to Data Center Dynamics, the Russian Yantar, which is a military ship specialized in intelligence, is thought to have the technical capacities to cut undersea cables. So is the AS-12 Losharik nuclear submarine. This one is part of nuclear-powered mini-submarines (called AGS) that can reach undersea cables at a high depth. Thus, the development of autonomous vigilante systems as UAVs are more-than-ever needed to prevent any form of sabotage. With the current evolution of the geopolitical context between Russia and Ukraine, the possibility of a clash over telecommunication cables is still possible. In his analysis on the Atlantic Council’s blog, Justin Sherman, researcher at the Tech, Law, & Security Program (American University Washington College of Law), decrypt the still existing vulnerabilities of undersea cables in the face of Russian technology.
An upcoming submarine drones war ?
Giving the rise of technological power of the major military powers, the dawn of an underwater drone war does not seem to be so far away. If underwater drones are today essential for the efficient surveillance of underwater cables, what will happen when the equipment is sufficiently sophisticated to be able to sabotage or even used to attack? This is a development that the world’s great powers will have to follow closely.
ECA was recently known for the negociation of a contract with the Marine for future mine countermeasures system (système de lutte anti-mines marines futur – SLAMF)