Strengthening Pakistan's Sea-based Capabilities through Unmanned Underwater Vehicles

Ever-enhancing and ambitious naval power projection in the 21st century has brought the undersea realm to preeminence, making underwater warfare a palpable phenomenon. The development of Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) seems to be the harbinger of the “Transparent Oceans” debate expatiated in the 1970s and 1980s in Western arms-control and deterrence literature that whether oceans might be attributed as transparent due to technological breakthroughs in underwater detection. UUVs used interchangeably for Autonomous Undersea Vehicles and, more extensively, underwater drones are a category of Unmanned Maritime Vehicles possessing an enormous potential to metamorphose anti-submarine warfare (ASW) by virtue of their new sensing capabilities in the sea domain.

Built to operate beneath the surface of the water in littoral areas as well as the open sea, UUVs are devoid of any human occupant, with the capability of performing multifaceted missions by employing an amalgamation of sensor-responsive directives, reconfigurable pre-programmed commands, and GPS navigation in case of proximity to the surface. These cutting-edge technologies harness active sonar to identify, distinguish, and chase enemy submarines through autonomous undersea mobile platforms. The system in UUVs provides a strenuous medium for surveillance and detection by allowing ingress to previously inaccessible waters. After carrying out the assigned mission, these unmanned submersibles go back to prearranged coordinates without human agency.

The replication of air drones at sea by the states such as the UK, the US, Russia, and China to secure subaqueous strategic advantage signifies the “dronification” of future warfare in the maritime domain. The Royal Navy’s Project CETUS entails the pursuit of 12 metres and 27 tonnes UUV demonstrator that will be an addendum to the Astute-class submarines. The UK also plans to deploy the manta underwater drone, which is considered to be an autonomous version of current S201 manned underwater vehicles. US Navy is also undertaking various projects to build the UUVs. For instance, in 2019, it awarded mega contracts valued at $274.4M for the production of an Extra-Large Unmanned Water Vehicle named Orca. Besides, Lionfish, synonymous with the US Navy Small UUV project, includes small drones such as Remus 300 to further Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO). In the case of China, it revealed a massive UUV program by displaying the large UUV HSU001 at its 70th anniversary that was purportedly tested off the Taiwan Strait. Moreover, China reportedly launched 12 Haiyi or sea wing gliders in the Indian Ocean for collecting oceanographic data to brace submarine operations. Similarly, Russia is making tremendous strides in underwater drone technology manifested from the development and testing approval for Klavesin-2, a multirole UUV that can monitor seabed, gather seabed relief data for robotic complexes and warships, and collect different objects. Furthermore, Poseidon nuclear UUV is another landmark achievement of Russia in undersea robotics. In contrast to the expensive-cum-large long-range UUVs like Orca and HSU001, states are also working on “swarming drones” that are cheap, small, lightweight, plentiful, and networked together for rummaging vast areas without human intervention, rendering them well suited to hunt submarines.

Maritime swarming technology is another attractive option for Pakistan due to its varied applications like large or medium UUVs and relatively low production cost to avoid burden on the already strangled economy.

Building UUVs is a plausible option for Pakistan to enhance its maritime capabilities, which has become imperative given the volatile geopolitical milieu in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The maritime security concerns of Pakistan are primarily India-centric which are incessantly burgeoning due to the accelerating naval capabilities of India, particularly nuclear. On November 23, 2021, India launched the S4 or third SSBN, a submersible ballistic nuclear submarine, while the S2, the first SSBN also titled INS Arihant, was launched and commissioned in 2009 and 2016, respectively. The second SSBN, known as INS Arighat or S3, will soon experience commissioning as it is currently under the sea trial phase. India endeavours to build a potent nuclear submarine force, comprising five SSBNs coupled with six nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) fitted with 3500km range submarine-launched ballistic missile (K4) as per the Indian Navy 2015 maritime doctrine. This doctrine explicitly regards SSBN as indispensable for survivable, credible, and effective deterrence due to its long-term deployment capability and stealth characteristics, commensurate with India’s No First Use (NFU) nuclear doctrine. The naval component of India’s nuclear triad is vital due to its utility with respect to nuclear second strike, thus begetting strategic disadvantage for Pakistan vis-à-vis India. The proclivity of India to introduce the nuclear component at the initial stages of the escalation ladder and its decisiveness to employ second-strike options rather than first-strike ones are apparent from India’s deployment of a nuclear submarine after the Pulwama attack. Nuclear submarines provide colossal technological advantages to India. They tender multiple choices regarding offensive nuclear operations, entailing a concoction of counterforce and countervalue missions due to decreased warning time given their possible positioning.

The evolving roles of the UUV technologies from defensive to offensive have made them more pertinent in augmenting ASW capabilities, which has become a dire need for Pakistan due to its military asymmetry with arch-rival India. UUV drones’ ability to execute anti-submarine operations by expeditiously finding and trailing adversary submarines without periling one’s submarines and manned surface vessels would prove to be a force multiplier for Pakistan Navy. More essentially,nuclear-armed-UUVs can circumvent the missile defences of the enemy by traversing undersea, eluding either into or near the key coastal cities, naval bases and ports for assault purposes. UUVs can place and observe sensors on the ocean floor to hunt submarines; moreover, they can perform coordinated attacks with friendly surface vessels and submarines. Their military advantage in ASW is enshrined in the report published by the British American Security Information Council, which states that exponential technological change would enable underwater drones girded with advanced sensors and capable of functioning in swarms to inflict massive damage to naval operations in coming years, irrespective of parallel advancements in stealth technologies of the submarines. Maritime swarming technology is another attractive option for Pakistan due to its varied applications like large or medium UUVs and relatively low production cost to avoid burden on the already strangled economy. Development of networked UUVs will be a good investment as they are regarded as cardinal future tools for data gathering, surveillance, decoying, safeguarding ports and high-value units, destroying and neutralising enemy assets, minesweeping, detecting enemy submarines, and capping capital ship vulnerability.

Maritime defence cooperation between Pakistan and China can be extended to the “Pakistan-China UUV Partnership” as China is a leading actor in UUV technology and can substantially help Pakistan to develop UUVs. These autonomous maritime assets are essential for boosting naval prowess, curbing threats in the wake of the nuclearisation of the IOR, and capacity-building in the combat potential of the Pakistan Navy.

Safia Mansoor

Safia Mansoor is currently pursuing her M.Phil. in International Relations from the Kinnaird College for Women, Lahore.

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