The United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) will celebrate in 2022 its forty’s anniversary. Qualified as “package deal”, it is the most “comprehensive document ever adopted by the international community”. The convention strengthened the purpose of customary international laws by codifying its provisions and by creating new ones.
Sometimes feared, often fantasised, always hostile, the abyss is the last environment that humans have not conquered yet. But the time has come. For if they have resolved to leave Atlantis and other fantastic animals to the imagination of Jules Verne, more prosaic motivations justify the mobilisation of significant means of exploration and exploitation of a world that is by 80% unknown: nuclear deterrence, extraction of energy or mineral resources, installation of sensitive infrastructures such as submarine cables1 and soon tourism. The tremendous technological progress is sounding the death knell for the confidentiality of the abyss. Just as the atmospheric exospace is currently in turmoil, although the seabed is difficult to access and requires considerable technological resources, it represents a scientific, economic and military boon for more than two-thirds of our planet.
However, one major difference remains: the opacity of the oceans lends itself much better than space to the expression of the new facets of war. It favours the politics of the fait accompli and a strong hybridity, i.e. an interweaving of scientific, economic and military actions, declared or not. In the absence of competing observers, the impunity of those who invest in the seabed is almost total. As the Chief of Staff of the French Armed Forces declared in October 20212, the peace-crisis-war pattern has disappeared to make way for the even more turbulent confrontation-contestation-confrontation pattern: the seabed is the dream playground for uninhibited confrontation. Here we can recall the disaster scenario of “Le Chant du Loup”3, where the misidentification of the adversary caused the misunderstanding and brought us to the threshold of a nuclear war. The tearing-off of 4.3 km of a Norwegian cable (partly operated by its defence research institute) in April 20214, apparently accidentally caused by a Russian trawler, is in this sense not insignificant. While the event was isolated and small in scale, it prompts one to imagine what would be triggered by the coordinated degradation of numerous cables by pre-positioned anonymous weapons, after one or more nations had suffered considerable economic losses.
The United States and the USSR had already clashed in the deep sea during the Cold War. The SOSUS5 system tracked Soviet submarines while the Americans carried out the first submarine cable spying mission. In 1974, the U.S. deployed considerable financial and technical resources in an attempt to recover the Soviet submarine K-129 and its three nuclear warheads, stranded in the Pacific at a depth of 5,000 metres. While this period saw only two pioneers compete, technological advances, driven by the need to locate new energy resources6, are now providing more competitors with the means to take part in the game. Turkey is claiming an extension of its EEZ under the controversial Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and has signed an agreement with Libya7 in 2019 to exploit the gas fields there. China has undertaken the construction of a “Great Underwater Acoustic Wall”8 in the South China Sea and its HADES9 abyssal station project would allow the deployment of submarine vectors with closely intertwined scientific and military missions in total autonomy and discretion. Finally, Russia is developing the nuclear-powered Poseidon torpedo fitted with a nuclear warhead10, which could patrol autonomously and discreetly for months. A modern, dehumanised & low-cost deterrence.
It is no coincidence that the permanent nuclear deterrence of the great powers has taken up residence in the oceans. The invulnerability of a submarine is the guarantee of its ability to strike second, i.e. to respond to any external aggression. Challenging this invulnerability through the proliferation of autonomous means of detection and aggression (inexpensive, numerous, AI-driven) is not only making the game more difficult, it is also taking the risk of causing a strategic rupture in a world that had managed, year in and year out, to find a balance by putting the major competitors on an equal footing. What will their reactions be when they are forced to declare their concept of deterrence obsolete? Will it be the perfect opportunity to end the era of nuclear weapons, or will it be the opportunity to invest in a space-based deterrence? The crises our world is going through may well bring us the answer.