"Israel can be a Technological Leader in the Underwater Medium"

The former Chief of Naval Operations, US Navy in an exclusive interview to Israel Defense – about the future of the maritime theater in the Middle East and what, in his opinion, is Israel's advantage over the rest of the world

(Photo: IDF)

"In the last few years, the USA focused primarily on land warfare owing to the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and most recently in Syria. In the future, however, the maritime theater will become more significant with regard to strategic thinking," says Admiral (ret.) Gary Roughead, formerly the 29th Chief of Naval Operations, US Navy in an exclusive interview to Israel Defense. Roughead visited Israel to attend the events held by the executive board of the Haifa Research Center for Maritime Policy and Strategy at the University of Haifa.

"Hezbollah and Hamas are expanding their arsenals so that they may enable them to threaten Israel's maritime infrastructure. Israel's small size and population density offer her enemies the option of using their rocket and missile arsenals and, in extreme cases – their weapons of mass destruction, expecting those weapons to have a strategic effect. The absence of an Israeli naval strategy that would provide a solution to these threats could place Israel at risk.

"One of the primary regions where the maritime theater is expected to become a primary theater is the Middle East, mainly because of the energy resources the region contains. The North Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. The Persian Gulf is very important for Asia, as that is where they receive most of their energy from. For Israel, the discovery of energy resources in her exclusive economic zone was a seminal event. Israel can use these resources in order to strengthen her relations in the Middle East as well as with other countries, including (countries in) Europe and Russia."

A Technological Leader

Roughead noted the development of the region's navies as an important element. "Iran is developing her navy. They have money now. Tehran will want to establish a presence in the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea and even the Mediterranean Sea, in the context of her relations with Syria. Add the tier of the Sunni-Shi'ite conflict and you will end up with a highly dynamic theater," explains Roughead.

"Many countries in the Middle East acquire submarines. But there is a difference between acquiring a submarine and the ability to operate it professionally, as Israel does. Submarine maintenance is by no means a simple undertaking. Other countries purchase submarines, but the question is how they operate those submarines. One of the questions that arise in this context is how to prevent confrontations and clashes between submarines of different navies in the Middle East. There are policies and rules on how to do it, but the actual management of the underwater medium in the Middle East is by no means a simple undertaking.

"To add to this complexity, you must take into account the fact that navies employ Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs). Some of these vehicles will be swimmers while others will serve as sensors and operate on the seabed. They will operate in swarms. They will also have recharging stations as today, the most significant challenge in this field is supplying energy to the UUVs. You can also use them as sleeper cells: plant some UUVs in areas of interest, have them 'go to sleep' and 'wake them up' only when you need them, by a remote command or in response to the emergence of a certain set of circumstances.

"UUVs are less costly than submarines. Consequently, you must take into account the fact that they may be acquired by terrorist organizations in the Middle East. The underwater medium is gaining importance, so we must invest in countermeasures. Yesterday, I may have passed a spot and the seabed was clear, but when I pass there today, there might be something new there. The UUV provides you with the ability to do it.

"There are also new technologies for identifying UUVs. One should bear in mind the fact that the underwater environment is very different from the surface environment. The way you conduct yourself in this environment is different, the physics are different and the visibility is different. This environment changes dramatically between day and night. It is a challenge for the world's defense community.

"Regarding the aspect of coordinating and managing the activity in the underwater medium, handling UUVs appears to be a little less complicated than handling UAVs. If a UAV collides with a passenger aircraft, the outcome will be catastrophic. If a UUV collides with another UUV the results will not be so severe. If a UUV collides with a merchant ship, it is safe to assume that nothing will happen to the merchant ship. Naturally, there are offensive profiles where such a collision can lead to different results, but in theory, the underwater medium is less sensitive than the aerial medium. Israel can be a leader in technological development for the underwater medium.

"The evolution of the UUV field notwithstanding, I still think that missile frigates and warships will remain in the area, at least within the foreseeable future. Sending a UUV to an enemy coast is a totally different scenario than sending Sa'ar-5 missile frigates."

Missile Defense, Lasers & Situational Awareness

Other primary activities Roughead referred to in the maritime context along with the UUVs were laser technology, missile defense and situational awareness. "These activities will change the maritime theater," says Roughead. "Instead of a kinetic system attempting to hit a projectile with a projectile, we will have a system with an almost unlimited firing capabilities. With laser technology, you eliminate many of the mechanical limitations. You have a weapon that is effective against small boats, aircraft and missiles.

"The evolution of shore-based anti-ship weapons will lead naval vessels to operate from a standoff distance. In this respect, the rail gun is also expected to change the theater. You can fire a small, low-cost, high-precision projectile with a very high velocity at ground targets. This weapon will offer a substantial added value while remaining less costly than missiles.

"UAVs will also become a primary weapon system in the maritime theater. In naval warfare, the question is how fast you can identify an area of interest and reach it. We normally keep an aircraft carrier in operation for fifty years. Aircraft carriers always carry state-of-the-art aircraft that push the old ones out. I have seen quite a few cycles of this type during my career. Now we have the F-35 fighter that pushes the old aircraft out. I believe that it will be pushed out by unmanned platforms.

"Situational awareness for the maritime theater will be enhanced by unmanned platforms. You can deploy two such platforms at a high level over the Israeli shore, and they will be able to see almost the entire eastern Mediterranean. The sensors will be more sophisticated. On the surface we already have good capabilities, with the focus on information continuity. Under the surface we are facing a technological challenge along with the size of the platforms and the noise they generate. For the defense industries, this is a fairly complex challenge.

"The next stage is to link all of the data-producing elements through a single, secure and reliable network. After the information has become available, we will have to know how to produce knowledge from it. The security and reliability of the network will determine the extent to which you would be able to rely on your situational awareness systems in the maritime theater. The most important thing is for you to be able to rely on the information you receive through this technology."

The Target: Shipping Routes

For Israel, naval strategy does not end in the Middle East. The Israeli interests are interwoven with the evolution of major forces. "China, for her part, establishes her shipping routes in the context of the 'One Belt, One Road' initiative and some of these routes pass through the maritime theater," explains Roughead. "Consequently, we can expect to see Chinese Navy presence in the Middle East and Africa. They already have a base in Djibouti. Russia, too, wants a presence in the Mediterranean.

"There is a tendency to take maritime trade routes for granted. Israel is at a point where it can decide how to profit from her exclusive economic zone and from the maritime theater generally. Israel's maritime characteristics do not end within her exclusive economic zone, but extend far beyond that. The question is how you conceive your responsibility for the maritime theater that enables you to maintain a normal life, how you attempt to get the public involved in this discourse.

"If you look at the region around the South China Sea, then South Korea or Japan are concerned about the delivery of energy to them. A discourse regarding the freedom of navigation is under way around the South China Sea. The trade routes belong to everyone. Someone should keep them that way while others may attempt to disrupt them. How do you keep them open for everyone? That is the key topic under discussion. It is the responsibility of the users of these trade routes to see to it that no one interrupts them.

"There are some countries, mainly in Asia, that think that interrupting the trade routes in the South China Sea is an option. Admittedly, these countries have not attempted to block these routes, but the probability of a disruption or interruption has increased, and some people are concerned about that. The activity of the Chinese Navy in the Indian Ocean is a cause for concern for India. I do not claim that China has interrupted these routes or planned to do so, but her activities led people to start thinking about this possibility.

"There has also been some talking about the arctic route as an alternative to existing maritime trade routes. I think it is still too early to determine whether maritime trading will be diverted to the arctic route, although that option sounds attractive. If you do the math, it takes a ship one week less to cover the same distance and that translates to a lot of money. But when you look at container shipping, the arctic route is not necessarily your best choice.

"These changes have encouraged a discourse as to the responsibility of the USA in this context. This discourse is under way in the Navy and the Army, but, as far as I am concerned – not in public. It is a discussion that should be conducted. The Arctic, Asia, the Indian Ocean, the Middle East – all of these are places which contain massive resources and maritime routes. The question is how to engage in a dialog in Israel, in the USA and around the world, between countries, with regard to the interests and demands in those places."

Deterrence around Offshore Energy Assets

One of the questions that arise in the context of the abundance of energy assets in the Mediterranean Sea and in the Persian Gulf is whether a balance of terror may exist between the countries that possess such offshore assets. Namely – a situation where every country, whatever its military capabilities, should avoid attacking the offshore assets of other countries for fear that her own assets might be damaged by reprisals. In other words, will mutual deterrence be possible with regard to offshore energy assets?

"I think we can get there," says Admiral Roughead. "The question is how you should organize and invest in defensive and offensive operations around energy assets. It is a part of the discourse that should be conducted inside Israel as well as with other countries. It is a part of the regional policy that should be consolidated between the Mediterranean countries. Such a policy may be consolidated as part of a more comprehensive political process or as an ndependent dialog between different countries. Sometimes, economic interests help solve broader political differences."


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