By Isabel Reynolds
(Bloomberg) — The global undersea environment is increasingly crowded with the submarine equivalents of everything from jumbo jets to light aircraft, heightening the need for a control system to avoid mishaps, according to a senior U.S. naval officer.
Rear Admiral William Merz, who heads U.S. submarine operations from the middle of the Pacific to the Suez Canal, was speaking after addressing Japan’s first defense trade show. Alongside submarines, unmanned marine vehicles are increasingly complicating the situation, he said.
“There are between 25-30 nations that have a submarine force, or at least a credible submarine capability,” Merz said in an interview Wednesday. “There’s a spectrum of proficiency,” he said. “It’s like operating 747s and Cessnas all in the same area.”
The Indo-Pacific region now boasts two-thirds of the world’s 300 submarines that are not part of the U.S. fleet and the number is set to rise further in the world’s most militarized region. Southeast Asian nations such as Vietnam and Indonesia are deploying them, partly as a marker of national prestige, as well as countries including Japan, South Korea, India and China.
The result of the build-up is like “air traffic control without any control,” Merz said in his presentation at the MAST Asia conference in Yokohama. He called for a technological solution, while warning any global management system could defeat the purpose of operating submarines with stealth capacity.
“This is very rich ground for some technology help — detecting them, finding them or just managing them,” he said.
U.S. allies in the Pacific frequently consult Merz on whether submarines, which cost from about $500 million to $2 billion, are an efficient use of their defense budgets, he said. Governments should make sure that equipment is in line with their defense strategy, he said. An increasing number are turning to unmanned vehicles.
“More and more nations are starting to realize it’s a much more affordable option than buying and manning and training manned submarines,” he said. While current models are far smaller than traditional submarines, technological advances will mean they further complicate the environment in future, Merz said.
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