Geopolitics and information advantage

Information and technology

Dr Chris Parry considers the need for maritime information advantage in an era of geostrategic competition

It is commonly supposed that more is known by the public about the planets in our solar system than about the oceans and the topography of the seabed. For most of modern history, interest in its features has mostly been geared towards ensuring safe navigation, warfare, fishing, laying underwater cables and, latterly, the exploitation of resources, notably oil, gas and minerals. More recently, technology has stimulated an acceleration and intensification of major initiatives to map the seabed and water column, led by states, environmental groups, academic institutions and extractive industries.

Collaboration – more or less

A Seabed Warfare Workshop held in May 2017 at the US Naval War College with the aim of developing doctrine and concepts that support Undersea Domain-Centric Warfare. Photo: SN/PD

The emergence of digitised sensor technologies and computer and AI-enabled scanning, interpretation and representational techniques has led to the likelihood of a flood of information about the ‘watery world wide web’ that is the sea. This is made possible by the fact that, outside territorial waters, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) allows, in principle, surveying and mapping to take place beyond the control of coastal states. As a result, it is hoped to provide 3D mapping and visualisations of almost the entire world’s undersea terrain and associated water conditions by 2030.

One of the leading contributors to this collaborative project is Seabed 2030, which plans to map up to 140 million square miles of the seabed by 2030, with the non-profit group General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO) coordinating surveys of the world’s marine topography by about a hundred crowd-sourced ships with multibeam bathymetry systems. Among many other international governmental, academic and non-governmental organisations, UK companies and universities continue to be in the forefront of mapping the seabed and developing detailed geophysical representations of its changing topographies. MAREMAP is a collaborative programme led by the British Geological Survey (BGS), the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) and the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), in partnership with the University of Southampton, the Channel Coastal Observatory, the University of Plymouth, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), the Centre for Environment, Fisheries & Aquaculture Science (CEFAS) and Marine Scotland. Meanwhile, the UK’s Hydrographic Office is a world leader in the quality and range of its navigational, surveying and marine topography products, as well as its extensive databases.

Russia and China also devote extensive resources to these activities, as does the United States, primarily through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The overall pattern has been one of imperfect but recognisable collaboration.

Information superiority

However, there are indications that the era of collaboration and transparency is about to end. China and Russia and other authoritarian regimes are becoming progressively restrictive about sharing and releasing information that relates to their territorial seas, exclusive economic zones and other claims. At a time of returning geostrategic rivalry, it has been recognised that information superiority about the maritime domain has become a vital component of not only commercial, but also strategic competition, notably in two critical areas.

Firstly, maritime information superiority will provide the ammunition for states conducting ‘lawfare’ – the use of legal means to delegitimise and discredit strategic, regional and local opponents and competitors. The availability of reliable, or at least plausible, information lies at the heart of current disputes, such as in the Arctic and the East and South China Seas, as well as in a wide range of other contentious cases. In addition, claims to EEZs beyond 200 nautical miles rely on the submission of detailed ‘evidencebased’ justifications and the delegitimisation of counter-claims. Conversely, in a post-truth and fake-news world, access to comprehensive, verifiable data is also crucial to combating the false claims of countries that seek to extend their jurisdictions into other states’ economic zones and territorial waters, and into international sea-space.

The other key area is that of warfare. The successful exploitation of superior information about the sea and the seabed has long proved a decisive advantage in war, not least in submarine, anti-submarine and amphibious and sea-mining operations. High-quality information and processing will be essential in mapping and negotiating increasingly complex marine environments. Here, the increased use of the seabed for civilian applications, such as transoceanic cables, oil and gas platforms and distribution systems and offshore grids, is likely to be matched by a wide range of military applications – which look likely to include ‘bottom arrays’ (acoustic devices to detect submarines and ships), weapons installed on and in the seabed and hubs for unmanned vehicles.

Exploiting ambiguity

One focus of rivalry is the Arctic. Above, warships of the Russian Northern fleet in the Barents Sea. Photo: Russian Ministry of Defence

This increasingly competitive and potentially confrontational situation has been stoked, in part, by UNCLOS. As indicated, UNCLOS legally enabled the surveying and mapping of sea areas outside territorial seas by any state or company, but, in the interests of achieving consensus, never satisfactorily resolved what constituted ‘marine scientific research’, ‘survey activities’, ‘hydrographic survey’ and ‘military survey’ in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of various countries.

This ambiguity now causes contention and allows some states to attempt to impose restrictions on information gathering within their EEZs. The United States, the United Kingdom and other maritime powers associate these activities, especially military surveying in EEZs, with freedoms of navigation and overflight and do not recognise the jurisdiction of the coastal state. China and Russia, as well as others, oppose this view and legislate to control all research activities within their EEZs.

In addition, China seeks to extend prohibitions into sea areas where it claims sovereignty and jurisdiction, notably in the South and East China Seas. Its approach has been borne out by a succession of recent incidents, with aggressive policing of its artificial structures in the South China Sea, its harassment of the surveying vessels and aircraft of foreign countries and its seizure of a USNS underwater drone in December 2016.

Meanwhile, Russia, which holds vast amounts of hydrographic and seabed mapping information about the Arctic derived from its research activities during the Cold War, is highly resistant to the operations of other countries’ information-gathering platforms in the region. As a result, although most surveying and mapping will continue to be provided by aircraft, ships and satellites, this work will increasingly be undertaken by both autonomous and semi-autonomous underwater unmanned technologies. Acting both anonymously and as state-sponsored assets, they will include gliders, capable of spending months on task, as well as preprogrammed and responsive unmanned vehicles deployed from aircraft, ships and submarines, allowing wide area coverage and the penetration of disputed and aggressively defended areas. They will necessarily be linked to wide-area and space-based communications and data links, in order to facilitate command functions and data transfer.

Open and closed regimes

In future, the maritime world is likely to be characterised by ‘open’ and ‘closed’ information regimes at sea, practised by those states, respectively, that support a cooperative rules-based system and those which seek to control information about their territorial seas, economic zones and sea areas of strategic interest. These closed regimes will be reinforced by coercive measures and a proliferation of traffic schemes, exclusion zones and prohibited zones, to conceal and protect sensitive areas and routes (especially those used by submarines), on the pretext of security, environmental protection or sovereign jurisdiction.

When coupled to advanced algorithmic and AI-enhanced data analysis and decision support, this situation will lead to an asymmetric information disadvantage for those countries subscribing to an open system, and to corresponding advantages for those that are simultaneously able to access open sources and exclude others from their own closed information base.

A strategic challenge

These trends and factors represent a significant strategic challenge to the maritime states represented by the United States, the United Kingdom and their allies in sustaining the established rules-based system at sea. In parallel with maintaining the physical integrity of the watery worldwide web, it is evident that they will also have to sustain decisive information superiority, both for commercial and for strategic reasons, collaborating where they can and competing where they must.

Rear Admiral Dr Chris Parry CBE PhD served 36 years in the Royal Navy and was subsequently the founding chairman of the Marine Management Organisation. Today he has his own strategic forecasting consultancy and is a regular broadcaster and commentator in the media. He is the author of Super Highway: Seapower in the 21st Century (Elliot & Thompson, 2014). In 2015 he was the winner of the Desmond Wettern Media Award.