The seabed constitutes a new field of conflict in the same way as exo-atmospheric space, cyberspace and the information sphere:
“The second exclusive economic zone in the world, France wants to be able to guarantee the freedom of action of its forces and to protect its sovereignty, its resources and its infrastructure even in the depths of the ocean”
French Ministery of Armed Forces
Maritime areas are governed by a corpus of international standards, foremost of which is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This text stipulates that the rights of States diminish as one moves away from the coast. In recent years, however, some States have developed extensive interpretations of the convention, for the purpose of appropriating resources (mining, biological or fossil) or maritime areas with regard to the geopolitical situation of the area.
Faced with these assertions of power, the resurgence of hybrid actions in the seabed and the emergence of the concept of “seabed warfare” (mastery of the seabed), the protection of France’s strategic interests in this space is a decisive issue for :
- Guarantee the freedom of action of the French Armed Forces in the face of submarine surveillance and interdiction strategies potentially deployed from the seabed
- Protect France’s underwater infrastructures such as communication and energy transport cables (electricity, gas, oil);
- Protect France’s resources. The immense French maritime territory is home to biodiversity and resources that should be known but above all protected
- Be ready to act and pose a credible threat in the face of diverse, evolving and hybrid modes of action.
Seabed Control Operations aim to integrate these new challenges into the French defense strategy. This doctrine will be articulated around three functions “know”, “monitor” and “act”.
The French Navy already has mine warfare and hydro-oceanography capabilities contributing to the control of the seabed. For expanding its investigation and action capacities down to 6,000 meters deep, France is going to equip itself with deep-sea exploratory military capacities, made up of underwater drones (AUV – Autonomous underwater vehicle) and robots ( ROV – Remotely operated vehicle).
The ambition to control the seabed to protect France’s strategic interests:
- Support innovation in the development of sensors on board deep-sea AUV and ROV
- Accelerate studies on physical variables for the detection of submarine installations.
- Study the particular modes of ultra-low frequency acoustic propagation.
- Increase our undersea search, surveillance and intervention capabilities to meet the needs inherent in maintaining freedom of action for French forces in areas with depths down to 6,000 metres.
- Continue to analyse ways of deploying underwater surveillance vehicles in order to broaden the range of military options: air-portability, combat ships, submarines, etc.
- Make CEPHISMER a centre of expertise capable of implementing a military capability complementary to SLAMF for depths greater than 300 metres.
- Complete the project to revise national regulations on the laying of submarine cables (system of authorisation in the territorial sea and of notice in the EEZ)
- Integrate the supervision of “autonomous vessel/maritime drone” activities into the regulations for State representatives at sea.
- In an order issued by the French Prime Minister, define the areas within the protection of national defence interests for the purpose of marine scientific research.
- Support DTIB development in command of sensitive capabilities, by taking advantage of solutions developed for civil needs and in line with the France 2030 plan.
“We are obviously not the only ones interested in the seabed. There are many powers that display their ambitions more or less clearly, even if it is under the seal of secrecy for the majority of them. China is known to have an advanced project for a great underwater wall, or more openly, the British have expressed their ambition for the seabed in the Integrated Review of 2021.”
The strategy of the Ministry of the Armed Forces will support the development of innovation with the private sector and the emergence of a national sector responding to its needs in the great ocean depths.
French defense companies likely to be involved in the new strategy include Alseamar, ECA Group, Elwave, Forssea Robotics, iXblue, Naval Group, RTSys, Thales…
For example, ECA Group designed and produced the new generation deepwater AUV for IFREMER, (French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea), an oceanographic institution. Ulyx will be deployed from French and international oceanographic research vessels for deep water exploration and research. A military variant of such an AUV could be designed for the French armed forces in the future.
The Chief of Staff of the French Navy, Admiral Vandier, shared on Twitter pictures showing a French Navy officer during a demonstration aboard IFREMER’s Nautile deep-submergence vehicle (DSV):
“2152 meters under the sea. Lieutenant Arnaud is the 1st French navy active officer to reach this depth with the Eledone demonstration on board the IFREMER’s Nautile, to inspect a submarine cable. A success which is part of the French strategy to control the seabed.”