How the UK could become a global leader in the subsea domain

As it searches for an appropriate global role after Brexit, the UK has the potential to become the centre of gravity for subsea technology.

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A new arena of geopolitical competition is developing beneath the ocean surface, as the subsea domain plays a greater role than ever before in the health of the global economy and climate. The UK is strategically well placed to have influence in this area and should take steps now to become a technological and strategic leader in understanding and defending this challenging domain.

Beneath the ocean surface, the stakes are getting higher across the domains of climate, economy and geopolitics. The ocean environment plays a critical role in managing climate change. The UN notes that the ocean generates 50 per cent of the oxygen we need, absorbs 25 per cent of all carbon dioxide emissions and captures 90 per cent of the excess heat generated by these emissions. This means there is a growing imperative to understand ocean health.  

The subsea domain’s economic importance has also grown. Submarine cables are the arteries of large swathes of international economic activity. 97 per cent of global communications are transported via fibre optic submarine cables. Cables on the seabed also transmit power to oil rigs, from offshore wind farms to power stations as well as interconnecting countries’ power grids. The safe functioning of these cables is core to the resilience of the internet and wider global economy; and enables renewable offshore wind or tidal power. Economic activity in this domain also includes fisheries, marine pharmacology – and the contested area of seabed mining.

With increased economic importance comes increased geopolitical significance. These millions of miles of cables were largely the product of the era of globalization, and their active protection was not a requirement. Now, strategic competition with Russia and China means a massive new area of potential attack surface. The US government has already refused permission for new subsea cables owned by Amazon, Meta and Google intended to connect the US to Hong Kong, requiring termination points be moved to Taiwan and the Philippines.

Strategic competition with Russia and China means a massive new area of potential attack surface.

Closer to the UK, melting ice has enabled freer movement and increasing adversary activity in the High North. The Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap, a strategic chokepoint, has become still more significant. Loss of phone, mobile and broadband connectivity to the Shetland Islands in 2022 after a cable cut (unexplained but likely a fishing accident) has shown the damage a more deliberate attack might cause. We can no longer afford to scratch the surface of the subsurface.

Technological advances are enabling new means to collect and analyse valuable subsurface data and leading to a better understanding of the extreme environment of the water column and seabed for scientists, energy/telecoms companies and government. And it is getting easier and cheaper to go where it has been prohibitively difficult before. Novel but cheap maritime technology (albeit on the surface) was also key to Ukraine’s success in pushing the Russian Black Sea fleet out of Sevastopol, highlighting how technology can change the dynamic in maritime warfare – and global superpowers are taking note.

But investment in maritime applications still lags other domains. According to the US government’s national security technology investment arm, IQT, the maritime domain (including shipping, marine logistics and subsurface) has seen an average of $1.5bn of venture investment per year in the last decade. Stack this against the $7bn invested in UAVs (drones) in 2021 alone. Who and what can speed up progress?

The UK can lead here on behalf of its allies. An island nation in a strategic geographical position for the High North, the UK also serves as a submarine cable hub. Its maritime heritage and nuclear deterrent means a strong industrial skills base, and the AUKUS Pillar 2 provides a framework for greater civilian technological collaboration beyond the military deal itself.

As the UK searches for an appropriate global role after Brexit, technological superiority in the maritime and subsurface domain is an area where its ambition can be matched with its expertise and resources.

Various recent UK government strategies have had aspirations for leadership across fields as diverse as biotechnology, quantum, AI, cyber security and telecoms. While the UK is good in many of these areas, it is not outstanding in all – nor can it be. Similarly, the current UK government has argued for the UK’s continued engagement in multiple global theatres, including a tilt to the Indo-Pacific. It is hard to see how this generalized ambition marries up to UK resources. Efforts must be prioritized and focused.

As the UK searches for an appropriate global role after Brexit, technological superiority in the maritime and subsurface domain is an area where its ambition can be matched with its expertise and resources. It would contribute to national security and energy security, in UK waters and in the High North. It would also enable high value contributions to global work on climate change, to energy and communications resilience, and to allied defence both within and beyond AUKUS. Provision of this kind of expertise would also make real a contribution in the Indo-Pacific, with less reliance on large-scale, capital-intensive and relatively inflexible military platforms.

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In the AI space, the success of the UK’s DeepMind has acted as a magnet for talent, and its alumni have contributed to new generations of innovative companies in the UK and beyond. It is a big reason why the UK has a voice in the global conversation on the future of AI. The UK could achieve something similar and punch above its weight if effort was focused on further stimulating academic and commercial excellence in maritime technology.

With enabling regulation for maritime autonomy, the UK can become the centre of gravity for subsea technology, perhaps generating a DeepMind for the deep sea.

The private sector – including venture capital – must step up with greater investment. While hardware and sensors may be less popular areas for most venture investors, new business models can and will be developed from the data streams that better subsea sensors and autonomy can unlock. And government has a unique role to play in enabling the right skills and incentives, as well as a tester and early customer of new technologies. With enabling regulation for maritime autonomy, the UK can become the centre of gravity for subsea technology, perhaps generating a DeepMind for the deep sea.

The stakes are high. Democratic nations need a forerunner to emerge in the technologies that can enable science, resilience and security in the subsea domain. The UK is in the right place at the right time to take on that role.