Specialist Vessels gather Urgency among Navies

Sub Title :

Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 3 Jul – Aug 2023

Author : Dr Vijay Sakhuja, Former Director, National Maritime Foundation

Page No. : 51

Category : Military Technology

: August 2, 2023

The security of offshore infrastructure, including offshore wind farms, hydrogen production platforms, desalination plants, and various cables, falls under the responsibility of agencies like the Indian Navy or Coast Guard. However, the current force structure of these agencies is inadequate to ensure the safety and security of upcoming offshore installations. Considering global trends, it is crucial for the Indian Navy or Coast Guard, especially the latter, to advocate for the inclusion of Specialist Vessels in their inventory.

The Indian Navy has an ambitious warship acquisition plan. It intends to have 170-175 ships in its inventory by 2035 and emerge as a powerful force to reckon with. Currently 43 ships are under construction in Indian shipyards which is in line with ‘Aatmarnirbhar Bharat’ or the ‘Make in India’ initiatives of the government. It is not surprising then that ceremonies related to keel laying, launching and commission of ships appear in the media on regular basis. All these are not necessarily warships, several of them are support vessels, but are part of the naval inventory.

In March 2023, keel laying ceremony for two Multi-Purpose Vessels (MPV) was held at L&T Shipyard at Kattupalli in Tamil Nadu. According to the press release, Samarthak (Yard 18001) and Utkarsh

(Yard 18002) are designed, as the classification of the vessel (MPV) suggests, to perform multi-role support functions such as “maritime surveillance, patrolling, disaster relief and launching expendable targets for exercises”. These mission roles are quite natural for any warship of the Indian Navy; perhaps what merits attention is that the MPVs will also be deployed to support “autonomously/remotely operated / unmanned vessels” suggesting that it will also serve as mothership for unmanned warfare on air, surface, subsurface platforms.

Global Trends in Specialist Vessels

Drone motherships and Specialist Vessels other than for logistic support (ships taken up from trade during war) are finding favour among navies. These are either being acquired (outright second-hand purchase) from other marine stakeholders or contracted to support naval operations. This strategy has its advantages as well as disadvantages, but the focus of the article is to highlight trends in specialist support vessels.

Multi-Role Oceanographic Survey (MROS) vessel

The British Ministry of Defence (MoD) would soon induct two Multi-Role Oceanographic Survey (MROS) vessels and these will be part of the Royal Navy’s auxiliary fleet. The first Multi-Role Oceanographic Survey (MROS) i.e. 6000 tons ‘Topaz Tangaroa’ was built in 2019 in Norway and owned by Topaz Marine, a subsidiary of P&O Maritime. It was purchased by the British MoD for £70 Million in January 2023.

The vessel is designed for commercial underwater operations to support “oil/gas rigs, construction, maintenance and inspection work, as well as survey and remotely-operated vehicle/autonomous submarine operations, making her ideal for underwater surveillance and seabed warfare.”

It is the Royal Navy’s understanding that these ships are meant to “bolstering capabilities and security against threats posed now and into the future” thereby enhancing national security of the United Kingdom. In particular, the ships will serve as a ‘mothership’ by “operating remote and autonomous off board systems for underwater surveillance and seabed warfare, which are crucial to national security”.

In November 2022, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace had pushed for accelerated acquisition of the MROS vessel in the light of “Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, that we [UK] prioritise capabilities that will protect our critical national infrastructure.”

The British urgency to acquire Specialist Vessel is also triggered by the 26 September 2022 deep sea attack on the Nord Stream and Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipelines running on the bottom of the Baltic Sea near the Danish island of Bornholm. The pipelines connect Russia to Germany’s northeastern coastline via the Baltic Sea, linking the two countries’ economies and supplying Europe with natural gas. The incident happened over ten months ago, and remains a mystery notwithstanding multiple agencies who continue to conduct their own investigations into the sabotage. It may be mentioned that the cost of building the pipeline is estimated to be US$ 12 billion which has forced states to invest in protection of underwater infrastructure such as energy pipelines, fiber optic and electricity cables.

Undersea Fiber Optic Cable Support Vessel

Undersea fiber optic cables have emerged as critical infrastructure necessitating safety and security. According to TeleGeography, a US based telecommunications research firm, over 400 cables that criss cross the floor of the sea, carry over 95 percent of global internet traffic. These cables are prone to a number of safety issues in terms of damage to the cables due to manmade or nature induced undersea activity, however the security of the cables is now being given high priority.

In fact these data carriers attract geopolitical and geostrategic contestation and are part of the “growing proxy war between the United States and China over technologies that could determine who achieves economic and military dominance for decades to come”. For instance, South East Asia–Middle East–Western Europe 6 (SeaMeWe-6) which runs through four seas ie. Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea, Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, and connects a dozen countries as it snakes its way from Singapore to France has attracted suspicion that the Chinese company which is a partner in the cable laying project could “spy on these sensitive communications cables”.

These fears came to light after two communications cables were cut that connected Taiwan with its Matsu islands, leaving nearly 14,000 residents disconnected from the internet.  Taiwanese authorities suspect that a Chinese fishing vessel and a Chinese freighter “caused the disruption” but “stopped short of calling it a deliberate act and said there was no direct evidence showing the Chinese ships were to blame”. It is well known that undersea cables carry highly sensitive data and according to an expert, “When we talk about US-China tech competition, when we talk about espionage and the capture of data, submarine cables are involved in every aspect of those rising geopolitical tensions,”

In the above context, the spokesperson of the US Pacific Fleet has noted that the “resiliency, redundancy, and security of our communication infrastructure represents a top priority”. These comments were made with regard to operation code-named “Big Wave” involving  laying of an underwater fiber-optic cable to the US military base at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. The cable ship CS Dependable, which laid the cable is owned by a small US company is the exclusive undersea cable contractor to the US military. The US government chose SubCom given its history of operations since the Cold War when it supported a project to spy on Soviet submarines. The US government now wants SubCom to “expand the Navy’s undersea cable network so that it can better coordinate military operations and enhance surveillance on China’s expanding fleet of submarines and warships”. Also, the Biden administration wants SubCom to build more “commercial subsea internet cables controlled by US companies, a strategy aimed at ensuring that America remains the primary custodian of the internet”.

Similarly, the Chinese views on security of undersea infrastructure merits mention. It is seen as part of the “broader strategic competition for data” wherein all “although undersea cable laying is a business, it is also a battlefield where information can be obtained.” An official of the Chinese Communist Party outlet explained that “although undersea cable laying is a business, it is also a battlefield where information can be obtained.”

The Chinese company Huawei, which has strong links to the Chinese government and the military, has “built or repaired almost 25% of the world’s submarine cables” and therefore is seen a company that supports Chinese espionage or intelligence operations. The company is on the US government’s Entity List which bars national companies to trade with Huawei without prior approval. The US Administration has been continuously increasing the List and other countries such as Australia, Japan, India, and Canada have debarred Huawei, ZTE and Hytera to participate in their 5G technology infrastructure.

In fact the US has not shied from penalising national tech giant Seagate which was subjected to a US$ 300 million penalty for allegedly violating export controls of hard disk drives to Huawei. US authorities have said such equipment may be used by China’s military.

Choices for India

India’s offshore infrastructure projects are moving at a rapid pace to support its Blue Economy ambitions. The Ministry of Ports, Shipping, and Waterways has expanded the list of Specialist Vessels to include Wind Turbine Installation vessels, Self-Propelled Semi-submersible Heavy Lift & Heavy Transport vessels, Wind farm Service & Maintenance vessels, and Cable Laying vessels.  The Cochin Shipyard, India’s top shipbuilder, is exploring opportunities in the Indian markets to supply highly specialised niche vessel segment which assist erecting offshore wind farms for sustainable and green offshore energy solutions.

The Indian Register of Shipping (IRClass), an international ship classification society, is mandated to conduct “quality inspections and certifications” so that the offshore infrastructure is operationally and environmentally safe at all times. It claims a proven track record of certification of more than 20 platforms, 1000km of subsea pipelines and classification of close to 200 offshore vessels.

However, the security of offshore infrastructure is the mandate and responsibility of agencies such as the Indian Navy or Coast Guard. The current force structure of both the agencies is not sufficient to undertake safety and security of the upcoming offshore infrastructure such as offshore wind farms, offshore hydrogen production platforms, desalination plans, fiber optic cables, electricity cables, etc. If the global trends, as discussed above, are an indicator it is important that Indian Navy or Coast Guard, particularly the latter, should consider making a case for Specialist Vessels to be part of its vessel inventory and acquire a commercial vessel for conversion to offshore infrastructure surveillance ship.