Underwater domain awareness (UDA) is of growing interest to Australia and India, prompted by the increasing number of underwater assets deployed by China’s People’s Liberation Army. Canberra and New Delhi have highlighted UDA in joint defense exercises and bilateral talks, with more comprehensive collaboration planned, officials and analysts say.

“The escalating presence of Chinese submarines and unmanned underwater vehicles poses a significant strategic threat to the freedom and openness of the Indo-Pacific, impacting not just regional security but also directly affecting India and Australia,” Prakash Panneerselvam, an assistant professor at India’s National Institute of Advanced Studies, told FORUM.

Comprehensive UDA regionwide requires a coordinated system of satellites, seabed sensors, maritime patrol aircraft, anti-submarine warfare helicopters, unmanned systems and submarines, complemented by information sharing among Allies and Partners, Panneerselvam said. The partnership between Australia and India — members of the Quad partnership, along with Japan and the United States — is vital to broader UDA implementation, he noted.

Increased discussion of bilateral cooperation in UDA and regional maritime security was part of the joint statement issued after the second India-Australia 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue in New Delhi in November 2023. The inaugural joint research project in underwater technologies was progressing, the nations’ defense and foreign ministers stated.

Such efforts could lead to creation of a comprehensive sensor and surveillance network across strategic maritime locations, improving the nations’ capacity to identify and monitor submarine activities and other undersea threats, Panneerselvam said.

“This initiative mirrors the ambition of the U.S. Sound Surveillance System [SOSUS] by aiming to establish a similar sensor network to oversee critical maritime passages,” he said.

The U.S. Navy developed SOSUS in the 1950s to track Soviet submarines via passive sonar.

Existing defence agreements between Australia and India could support enhanced UDA collaboration, including: the 2020 Mutual Logistics Support Agreement, which facilitates military engagements; the Defence Science and Technology Implementing Arrangement, which ​​enhances interaction between the nations’ defence research organizations; and the 2020 Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, which broadened the scope of the defence and security relationship.

Shared platforms such as the C-17 and C-130 transport aircraft, and the P-8 maritime reconnaissance aircraft could contribute to joint UDA efforts, Panneerselvam said. Information sharing could be enabled by the Information Fusion Centre – Indian Ocean Region, an India-led initiative to enhance maritime security through the exchange of maritime and shipping information. Australia has posted a liaison officer to the centre since 2021.​​

The nations’ armed forces collaborate in UDA and anti-submarine warfare during training engagements such as the bilateral AUSINDEX maritime exercise, held biennially since 2015, and the multilateral Malabar exercise. The 2023 edition of Malabar held off the coast of Sydney, Australia, showcased collaboration and interoperability among Quad nations, including surface, subsurface and air operations involving live-fire drills, and anti-surface, anti-air and anti-submarine warfare drills​​.

Another area of potential bilateral cooperation is the advancement of UDA technology, according to Panneerselvam.

“The Indian Navy has detailed its strategy for enhancing unmanned system capabilities, identifying essential technologies for development, and has extended an invitation to both local and international entities to contribute to this initiative,” he said.

“With ongoing projects to develop autonomous underwater vehicles, Australia is poised to collaborate with Indian companies to produce vehicles that align with naval requirements, suggesting the potential for forming a collaborative industrial consortium.”

(With Agency Inputs)