Tensions in the western Pacific have been simmering for the past many months. The western world led by the United States has begun to transfer more assets into the Indo-Pacific, in a bid to contain, if not restrict, the rampant rise of Chinese power in the volatile region.
The Americans have continued to expand their naval presence in the Western Pacific and the China seas. In October 2021, two carrier strike groups of the Nimitz-class supercarriers were deployed around the first island chain, led by the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) and the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76). The British, in an attempt to regain lost momentum in the Indo-Pacific, deployed the HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08), which sailed through the South China Sea earlier last month. The aforementioned vessels also sailed through the Philippine Sea alongside the Japanese MSDF Hyuga-class helicopter-carrier JS Ise (DDH-182), as part of multilateral naval exercises.
These actions, however, cannot be viewed as an unprecedented act of offence against the People’s Republic of China. The mainland Chinese have since late September been upping the ante in its long-lasting dispute with Taiwan. The Taiwanese Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) has been consistently violated by aircraft of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. On 4 October 2021 for instance, 52 aircraft of the PLAAF were identified in the southwestern sector of the Taiwan ADIZ. This included 34 Shenyang J-16 multirole fighters, 12 Xian H-6 nuclear-capable bombers, 2 Sukhoi Su-30 MKK multirole fighters, 2 Shaanxi Y-8 ASW aircraft and 2 Shaanxi KJ-500 AEW&C aircraft.
Figure 2: Illustration of PLAAF incursions into Taiwanese airspace on 4 Oct 2021 (Source: Ministry of National Defense, ROC)
Actions on such a massive scale are becoming increasingly frequent and are posing a serious threat to Taiwanese sovereignty and independence. The dynamics in the region are quickly evolving into a scenario similar to that of the cold war, with the formation of two distinct blocs of power. The United States and its allies – especially Japan – are keeping their eyes peeled on the developments taking place over the airspace of Taiwan, with the Chinese completely bailing out on promises of pursuing unification through peaceful means.
This aggression emerging from the communist regime in Beijing must be met with in order to contain their expansionist objectives. In pursuit of containing Chinese aggression and expansionism, the US Navy deployed the USS Connecticut (SSN-22) – a Seawolf-class nuclear attack submarine – on patrol in East and Southeast Asia. It made stops for supplies at Fleet Activities Yokosuka in Japan, and US Naval base Guam, before departing for the South China Sea. While the public announcement was made on 7 October 2021, the USS Connecticut was struck by an unknown underwater object, while submerged in the disputed region, on 2 October 2021. The incident did not affect the nuclear plant of the attack submarine, nor were there any serious injuries reported.
While the US Navy has not yet disclosed locations of where the submarine incident took place, Chinese think tank South China Sea Probing Initiative made use of satellite imagery to spot what they suspect as being the Seawolf-class submarine sailing 42.8 nm southeast off the disputed Paracel island group.
Figure 3: (Left) Map released by SCSPI marking claimed location of USS Connecticut on 3 October 2021 (R) Satellite imagery of suspected Seawolf-class submarine (Source: SCS Probing Initiative)
If this information is accurate, one cannot rule out the chance of this incident being in fact offensive action taken up by the Chinese against an American nuclear submarine sailing so close to a disputed group of shoals and isles over which Beijing adamantly claims sovereignty. But then again, the South China Sea is well known as being a tricky landscape for submarines to sail through submerged, with sharp ridges and a seabed scattered with shoals. Hydrographic and bathymetric failures have taken place in the past, resulting in devastating consequences. For instance, the USS San Francisco (SSN 711) collided with a seamount southeast of Guam in 2005. If one is to compare and contrast the claimed location of the USS Connecticut in Figure 3, with the bathymetric map of the South China Sea in Figure 4, it can be seen that the claimed sighting area is home to tricky geography, with steep ridges connecting waters as shallow as 1300 m to as deep as 3500 m.
Figure 4: Bathymetric of the South China Sea (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
However, given the vast improvement in the gathering of bathymetric and hydrographic data by US Navy Hydrography vessels, it can be possible to rule out the scenario of the USS Connecticut colliding with submarine features. One must then look into other possibilities and scenarios that incurred heavy damage onboard the USS Connecticut, which resulted in injuries to 11 of its sailors.
The possibility of this incident being the result of a nefarious Chinese attack on an American nuclear submarine sailing near territories claimed and occupied by Beijing must not be ruled out. The Chinese have exponentially increased their military aggression and activity over the past months and years, as can be viewed on the Indo-Sino border in the Himalayas and the cross-strait aggression in Taiwan. In the South China Sea, uninhabitable shoals have been converted into military bases supporting aerial capabilities as well as housing advanced radar systems and barracks. A submarine, warship, or any other vessel for that fact, can be considered to be ‘sailing behind enemy lines’.
Among several possibilities, one can be that the Chinese made use of unmanned underwater vehicles to counter the American submarine. In 2019, the PLA Navy put on exhibition its first autonomous underwater vehicle named HSU-001 (Figure 5). Submarine authority H I Sutton’s analysis of the paraded AUV described it as being worthy of long-range operations, with side-scanning sonar arrays and a magnetic anomaly detector to detect underwater targets. Such a vessel can be used for a vast variety of operations including marine surveying and reconnaissance, mine warfare and countermeasures, undersea cable inspection, and anti-submarine warfare.
Figure 5: Two of the HSU-001 AUVs on display in Beijing, 2019 (Source: Forbes).
The Chinese have also developed smaller underwater glider drones. In late December 2020, Indonesian fishermen fished out the ‘Sea Wing’ (Figure 6), which is an entirely different type of drone with no powerhouse to propel its movement. The Sea Wing family of underwater gliders depend upon variable-buoyancy propulsion that makes use of an inflating and deflating balloon-like device filled with pressurised oil, causing them to sink before rising to the surface again, moving along, aided by wings. Unlike the HSU-001, the Sea Wing is much smaller in size and does not support any fittings for combat missions.
Figure 6: Indonesian Fishermen caught a Chinese underwater glider drone in December 2020 (Source: The War Zone)
In July 2021, the communist regime in China in an unprecedented move declassified detailed results of an experimental project that has apparently spanned through decades. The results showcased the field test of an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), seemingly in the Taiwan Strait in the year 2010. Reports stated that the UUV currently operates individually, but with future upgrades could be capable of operating in packs. The document stated that the UUV pointed its sonar arrays to various sources of sound, while artificial intelligence tried to filter out ambient noise and determine the nature of the target, firing a torpedo upon verification. The ability to fire, assumably a standard-sized torpedo, would suggest that the UUV in question would be of a larger size than the Sea Wing glider. It could, perhaps, be even larger than the HSU-001, given the physical largeness of earlier technologies. Sophisticated technologies of today, however, are also being diverted to reduce the size of torpedoes without impacting their effectiveness.
UUVs are undoubtedly going to change the path of modern warfare, being used for both detecting targets and, in the future, also eliminating them. Military designers and researchers are paying an increasing amount of attention and resources into the development of advanced platforms and assets, keeping in mind the concepts of high precision, small loss and big technology. These assets will prove to be invaluable in shallow seas, and indeed the South China Sea, with all of its treacherous hydrographic features, and being easily modifiable for mission requirements.
One remote understanding of the incident that took place in the South China Sea involving the USS Connecticut can be that the Chinese made use of a UUV to attack the American SSN. Several analysts and submarine experts in the field including former American submariner Aaron Amick suggest that the bow dome of the Seawolf-class nuclear attack submarine was severely damaged. Since no explosions were reported, we can rule out the possibility of the use of torpedoes to attack the American vessel. It could also not have been a ‘dud’ torpedo fired at the American submarine since such a non-lethal thin-metal structure could barely have a major impact on the two-inches thick HY-100 steel alloy that comprises the hull of the Seawolf. This leaves us with the scenario of a drone being used to physically ram the hull of the submarine. It is unlikely that the Chinese made use of a Sea Wing glider given its small size and nature of operations. It would be more probable that if such a scenario did take place, it involved the PLAN making use of a UUV as large as the HSU-001, if not larger.
This would raise the question of what went wrong with the equipment aboard the Connecticut? How is it that the advanced sensors and sonar array could not pick up on an incoming object? Or in the case of a collision with geographical features, what went wrong with the hydrographic and bathymetric systems onboard one of the most advanced nuclear attack submarines in the world?
Submarine navigation is a highly sensitive field of expertise requiring extremely thorough and comprehensive data of the areas in the vessel’s immediate surroundings. Navies across the world maintain classified databases storing detailed hydrographic and bathymetric data that are invaluable for submarine operations. However, submariners also make use of high-frequency sonars that calculate water depths and surrounding features to verify chart data. Active sonar pulses are used to reveal nearby underwater objects including submerged objects such as mines, wrecks, other vessels, as well as geographical features.
The USS Connecticut, alongside other vessels of the Seawolf-class SSNs, began its life with the BQQ 5D sonar system. The Seawolf was refitted with AN/BQQ-10(V4) systems which is an open architecture system that includes biennial software upgrades (APBs) and quadrennial hardware upgrades. The new system, however, continues to make use of the 24 feet wide bow-mounted spherical active and passive array and wide-aperture passive flank arrays installed on the submarine. The class of vessels was also to be retrofitted with TB-29A thin-line towed array sonar systems, developed by Lockheed Martin. The successor of the Seawolf-class – the Virginia-class – has also been fitted with the AN/BQQ-10(V4) sonar processing system, making use of a bow-mounted active and passive array, wide aperture passive array on the flank, high-frequency active arrays on keel and fin, TB 16 towed array and TB-29A thin line towed array. The Seawolf and the Virginia are both fitted with the AN/BQQ-10(V4) system and the TB-29A towed array sonar system which could become worrisome for future operations since this is a relatively newer system.
Operators of the system must look into strengthening any blind spots that the system may possess. There may also be the minute chance that the Chinese have identified such a blind spot and have attempted to exploit it. These systems have been developed by Lockheed Martin in Virginia, USA – also the developer of the F-35 Lightning II JSF. Further alleviating suspicions is the fact that the Chinese have in recent months boasted claims of having developed radar systems that are capable of detecting the most advanced and stealthy of American combat jets, including both the F-35 as well as the F-22 Raptor. This, as per the Chinese, is now possible through the use of their latest radar system – the YLC-8E – which was developed by the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC). The research team at Tsinghua University said that the platform generated an electromagnetic storm which would serve to acquire the location of incoming stealth aircraft. To engage in the highest degree of speculation, could China have managed to acquire sensitive data from one of the largest US defence contractors, enabling it to detect and even malign some of the finest American technological suites onboard various platforms?
 SCS Probing Initiative [@SCS_PI]. (2021, October 8). Is this USS Connecticut? Which is reported to suffer an underwater collision in the #SouthChinaSea Oct 2. Satellite image from @planet spotted a suspected Wolf-class submarine, sailing 42.8NM southeast off the Paracel Islands, Oct 3. Retrieved from Twitter.