In recent years, there has been a surge in interest in activities aimed at exploiting the economic resources of the seabed, as well as the vulnerabilities resulting from states’ increasing reliance on seabed infrastructure, most notably undersea cables, which are estimated to carry 95 percent of all international digital data. At the landing points along the shore, cables originating from various regions of the globe link to India. India has a total of five landing sites at present. One may find these in Mumbai, Cochin, Trivandrum, Tuticorin, and Chennai. These landing stations also provide connection to landing stations inside the country and landing stations in neighbouring nations.
The significance of the underwater cable network for civilian and military communications cannot be overstated, yet this network is still susceptible. During peacetime, undersea cables are guarded by several international agreements. In times of armed conflict, however, combatants can weaken, damage, or cut underwater cables and exploit them to conduct cyber attacks. However, network sabotage may have third-order repercussions that extend beyond belligerents and influence neutral states.
Seabed operations and deep-diving underwater capabilities which the US, the UK, France, China and Russia have been building can potentially stabilize or endanger such infrastructure for the world. The Nord Stream pipeline sabotage is a perfect example of the potential. The US, Russia and the European nations are equal suspects in the attack.
Indian Navy lacks seabed and underwater capabilities
In response to China’s escalating incursions into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), the Indian Navy announced in 2021 its intent to purchase many unmanned aerial and undersea systems to considerably increase its observation capacity. The procurement will be made as part of a roadmap plan for unmanned platforms, which was finalized at a recent senior navy commanders meet where the necessity to acquire new-age platforms was topping the agenda. The Navy had also stated that it would prioritize domestic procurement of unmanned systems. However, the Navy doesn’t seem to have many projects for unmanned underwater platforms.
Although some have been used to identify practice torpedoes and monitor missiles without warheads, this would be the Navy’s first time using underwater sensors. Oil corporations such as ONGC and Reliance use AUVs to monitor and repair underwater pipelines.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) initiated a preliminary procedure to acquire autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) or underwater drones with dual observation and strike capabilities in June 2022. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is also attempting to “improve submarine situational awareness” and real-time imagery.
According to sources the Indian Navy is open to both indigenous and foreign AUVs, but top officials are aware that it would take “a long time” for indigenous underwater drones to be ready for military use. The Indian UAV sector, which is still in its infancy, has already taken the first steps toward achieving the Navy’s goals.
China’s deep seabed survey activities aim to extract natural resources and gather oceanographic data in support of the Chinese Communist Party’s strategic objective of extending the geographical extent and lethality of the PLA Navy’s blue-water submarine fleet.
Deep bed surveys supply the PLA Navy with oceanographic data on the bottom contours, water temperature, salinity, and other parameters of what the Chinese refer to as the “ocean battlespace environment.”
China has several UUVs which have mapped the deep waters worldwide. UUVs are also used in subsea warfare. For instance, the HSU001 vehicle is designed for seabed warfare capabilities, allowing it to remain undetected on the ocean below for lengthy periods. The US and China have the highest budget for deep sea activities.
Lack of indigenous underwater drones
Under the DRDO’s Technology Development Fund programme, Larsen & Toubro (L&T) has inked a MoU with Bengaluru-based New Space Research & Technologies to design and manufacture “underwater launched UAVs.” The L&T-New Space Research & Technologies underwater drone, whose construction would take at least “a couple of years,” will initially be used “exclusively for surveillance reasons,” according to reports in the public domain. The UUV is named Amogh.
The Mazgaon Dock Limited (MDL) has launched a program to develop an eXtra Large Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (XLUUV). XLUUV is meant to perform tasks such as periodic communication, payload deployment, pre-programmed mission execution, and return to base. The internal and exterior cargo capacities are meant to be reconfigurable depending on mission-specific requirements.
The Indian Navy has certain assets that can be used for underwater activities like the INS Nireekshak for diving support. In addition, it has Deep Sea Submergence Vehicles (DSSVs) for submarine rescue (deep-submergence rescue vehicle (DSRV)), which may also be utilized for specific purposes other than submarine rescue.
Then there is the Hydrographic Survey ship INS Sarvekshak meant for the undersea survey.
INS Sagardhwani has a DRDO developed system for launching AUVs, but there are no details on the AUVs it will launch. DRDO did make an AUV prototype in 2015, which has remained a research project.
For the underwater offensive capabilities, the Indian Navy has submarines, but the arm is the weakest link, as it has just 3-4 modern submarines other than submarines from the 1980s vintage.
India’s maritime security and economic prosperity need a strong UUV capacity in the evolving regional marine security landscape. Therefore, the Naval Unmanned Roadmap will give a roadmap for the future and function as a spur for all stakeholders to coordinate their efforts in establishing the ecosystem for constructing and operating these platforms. Until indigenous capabilities are established, foreign-made underwater drones will likely be deployed.