The Fourth Industrial Revolution and Underwater Warfare

Issues Details: 
Vol 12 Issue 1, Mar - Apr 2018
Page No.: 
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Disruptive technologies being ushered in by the Fourth Industrial Revolution can potentially transform the nature and conduct of naval warfare
Vijay Sakhuja
Thursday, April 5, 2018

The nature of warfare is under transformation led by advances in disruptive technologies. The trends indicate that in the future navies will harness the potential of Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality / Virtual Reality, Deep Machine Learning, Big Data, Blockchain technology, Internet of Things, Robots, Drones and 3D printing to build and operate naval platforms to overwhelm the adversary. These technologies are the frontrunners of a new revolution labeled as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) which is currently underway.

Interestingly, 4IR emerges amid a hotly debated subject of ‘Singularity’ wherein it is believed that ‘uncontrolled rise of artificial intelligence’ has the potential of bringing benefits as also harm to the humankind in the form of social disruption, loss of jobs, and machines becoming more intelligent than humans through self-learning and transforming. There are also fears that these technologies will have profound impact on the way war is waged and would require international regulatory mechanisms.    

What is 4IR?

The First Industrial Revolution was centered on water and steam power to industrialize fabrication processes and manufacture; the Second Revolution harnessed electric power to enable mass production; and the Third Revolution or the digital revolution is more recent and focuses on electronics, and information and communication technology to augment production through computerized processes. We are now witnessing the Fourth Revolution which is tethered to the Third; it is essentially a fusion of technologies that permeate the ‘physical, digital, and biological’ domains. Perhaps what is more significant is the exponential nature of the Fourth Revolution which is marked by ‘velocity of change, scope, and systems-wide impact with massive disruptions’. 

In the naval domain, the First Revolution was marked by changes in propulsion from wind/sail power to move ships to coal fired steam engines. The Second Revolution witnessed cannons carried onboard ships albeit with limitations of weight, challenges of gun-recoil and difficulties to safe-store gun powder. Later, ships were clad with iron and soon mild steel was used for building the entire ship that could now be used to ram the enemy vessels. There were simultaneous developments in the form of internal combustion engine and the use of radio for communication. The Third Revolution witnessed rapid rise in information and communication technologies to enable war fighting at sea featuring transition from platform centric to network centric warfare. The Fourth Revolution is led by disruptive technologies mentioned earlier that can potentially transform the nature and conduct of naval warfare.

4IR and Underwater Warfare

4IR applications have the potential to support a number of underwater operations. These can be categorized into three different categories:

• Combat operations such as anti-submarine warfare (ASW), mine countermeasures (MCM), underwater domain awareness (UDA);

• Delivery of public goods in the form of search and rescue (SAR); and

•  Scientific endeavors such as ocean development, marine environment protection and ecology restoration.

 In the first category, submarines, mini submarines, tethered-drones and Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) are platforms of choice for the navies. These support counter submarine operations, underwater Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR) functions, target identification, designation and battle damage assessment. The latter two categories help reduce human exposure during mine hunting, disposal of underwater munitions, explosives and other types of ordnance, support search, location and recovery of objects, and underwater communications.

Another significant feature of the underwater naval operations is the strategic and tactical use of the seabed. Nearly 50 percent of the oceans are deeper than four kilometers which is a favourable geographical and topographical condition for deployment and concealment of underwater platforms and sensors. These can be with wheels and hidden in the sea trenches, mounds and rocks on the ocean floor. They can be tethered as Blimps and the drones can remain submerged for long duration thus making them most suitable for tracking diesel-electric subs particularly those fitted with Air-independent propulsion (AIP) technology. The navies can be expected to use drones in swarms and underwater Blimps, and sensors could be deployed floating or moored to the seabed over long durations. These can be positioned at vantage points underwater and can lay in wait until the prey comes to them.

Future Underwater Platform Trends

Early this year, it was reported that the Russian nuclear delivery vehicle inventory included an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) designated as Ocean Multipurpose System Status-6. The AUV, nicknamed ‘Kanyon’ by the Pentagon, was built by the submarine manufacturers Rubin Design Bureau. It resembles a huge torpedo and has a ‘range of 6,200 miles, a top speed in excess of 56 knots and can descend to depths of 3,280 feet below sea level’. Status-6 made its first public appearance in 2015 and the trials of the platform were carried out in 2016. It ‘can be deployed from two types of cruise missile submarine, one being the Oscar-class’ According to US officials, Status-6 is “essentially a drone-type device fired underwater that can potentially travel thousands of miles and strike US coastal targets such as military bases or cities.” The platform can carry “cruise missiles and launch them after hiding for months beneath the water.”

In the United States, the DARPA has a programme called Upward Falling Payload (UFP) and the concept is built around “developing deployable, unmanned, nonlethal distributed systems that lie on the deep-ocean floor in special containers for years at a time. These deep-sea nodes could be remotely activated when needed and recalled to the surface.”  The US Navy also has an underwater drone fleet comprising of smaller platform which look like torpedoes with fins. The UUVs can be launched from a torpedo tube “to create the same kind of picture of the undersea space that satellites, radars and UAVs can create of airspace.” The Navy is also working with companies such as Bluefin Robotics and Hydroid to develop underwater drones to detect explosive sea mines, a task previously done by sea animals such as dolphins and sea lions.

Recently, China deployed a dozen undersea gliders named Haiyi or ‘Sea Wing’ designed to send collected data instantly. According to the project chief scientist these “autonomous underwater vehicles would roam for one month and collect detailed information in the ocean on a host of topics including temperature, salinity, the cleanness of water, oxygen level and the speed and direction of sea currents.” At another level, in the western Pacific Ocean, China has set up a deep-sea communications network comprising of sensors deployed at depths of over 400 meters which can ‘continuously transmit data to satellites through a grid of solar-powered buoys.’ Likewise, the Chinese Institute of Acoustics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences has “developed a long distance communication system for the Jiaolong, China’s most powerful operating submersible that can take three people down to a depth of 7,000 meters”.

In the United Kingdom, the Royal Navy tasked the UK Naval Engineering Science and Technology Forums (UKNEST) to conceptualize a design for a future submarine designated as the Nautilus 100 mothership. The platform design is similar to the shape of a ‘manta ray with a whale shark-styled mouth’ and would have the twin features of ‘speed and stealth’ unmatched by any technology hitherto. The material of the Nautilus 100 would be of super-strong alloys and strong acrylic materials which would be 3D-printed and the ‘mothership’ would be able to operate at depths of over 1,000 meters. The vessel will have ‘anechoic coatings’ giving it a scale-like skin. Another significant feature of the Nautilus 100 mothership is that it would be controlled and operated by using cognitive technology and its 20-member crew ‘would use a neuro interface to communicate with multiple systems in the ship’s command at once.’

Another technology development in the UK features the ejectable ‘autonomous sensor pods which can dissolve on demand when their mission is complete’. Based on the eel concept, these are ‘soluble micro-drones’ and ‘could provide a swarm of sensors or drones using 3-D printing. This ability would help them to shield vessels from view while being virtually undetectable themselves.’

Design Creativity

One of the key features of the above developments is the ability of naval research laboratories to creatively conceptualize platforms that feature disruptive technologies. According to the Royal Navy’s head of Innovation “The Royal Navy’s future success rests on developing the skills and expertise that will keep us one step ahead of the competition... That’s why the Royal Navy has joined with our partners to unveil Nautilus 100. These concepts demonstrate that the UK has the creative foresight to consider the future underwater world, what it might look like, and what role the Royal Navy might play.”

Concluding Thoughts

Disruption would be the key feature of future submarines and its operating environment. Navies will seek innovative technologies and develop creative tactics to counter the existing submarine forces.

Navies will have to develop new concept of operations as emergent ASW and counter-ASW technologies evolve around disruptive systems and processes. Navies may even consider non-kinetic payloads and autonomous systems in their strategy.


Military Technology