China Is Winning the Race to the Deep Ocean

While the United States rests on her 60-year-old laurels, China has mounted an aggressive and long-term assault on the deep ocean, or the region known as the Hadal Zone (areas deeper than 6,000 meters[19,685 ft]).

Our country’s efforts to explore these depths effectively ended in 1960 at the conclusion of Project Nekton. That was when the U.S. Navy’s Trieste I Bathyscaphe reached the deepest known part of the ocean, the Challenger Deep, with Lt. Don Walsh and Swiss explorer Jacques Piccard inside a tiny steel sphere.

China’s current efforts are being led by Professor Cui Weicheng of Shanghai Ocean University and more recently, the Rainbow Fish Ocean Technology Company. Their current plan is to deploy 11 km (6.8 mi)-capable submersibles in 2020 to explore the deepest sections of the Marianas Trench. According to the South China Morning Post, “Beijing has listed deep-sea scientific exploration as one of the key projects in their five-year plan to 2020.

These programs involve the development of unmanned vehicles, benthic landers, gliders, and manned submersibles, as well as the infrastructure needed to maintain this technology. In addition, several research vessels have been constructed to support field operations, most of them purpose-built for specific systems.

How have the Chinese created such capabilities? Their projects were initially made possible by purchasing non-ITAR controlled underwater sonars and vehicles from British, Norwegian, and Canadian companies. As has been the case before, Chinese engineers used this technology as an educational tool, so that they could copy and improve on existing designs.

The next phase was the outright purchase of large engineering firms developing COTS (Commercial Off the Shelf) Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs). To this end, Chinese companies have acquired UK-based Soil Machine Dynamics (SMD) Ltd. and the Deep Flight Submarine Company. The acquisition of SMD by China’s Zhuzhou CSR Times Electric Co. is especially troubling, as SMD was a major supplier of underwater technology to academic, commercial, and potentially military operators in the United States.

In the last few years, the Chinese have concentrated on developing their own underwater technology through government-funded research and development and what information they can glean from numerous technology conferences focused on the sub-sea market. Their capabilities have developed slowly by designing and building increasingly more complex and depth-capable systems, such as the Seapole class of bathyscaphes, the Haidou I unmanned vehicle (which reached 10,767 meters – 35,324 ft. -- in 2016), and the DSV Jiaolong, which is capable of carrying occupants to depths as great as 7 km (4.3 mi) underwater. The stainless-steel personnel sphere for the Rainbow Fish vehicle has already been forged in Finland at Tevo Lokomo and is large enough to carry three persons. They plan to begin testing this vehicle in 2020 from their 4800-ton research ship Zhang Jian.

Surprisingly, the People’s Republic of China has also enlisted the technical assistance of several American and European experts in underwater technology to further their program, such as Dr. Don Walsh (ex-Trieste bathyscaphe pilot); Dr. Sylvia Earle (Ocean Everest Program); James Cameron (developer of the DSV Deepsea Challenger); the Deep Submergence Laboratory at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; Dr. Anatoly Sagalevich (director of Russia’s MIR program); and Dr. Alan Jamieson (Professor at Newcastle University and Chief Scientist of the Five Deeps Project).

A critical question is whether the Chinese will continue buying their deep ocean capabilities.  If they were to acquire one specific Norwegian company, they would seriously hinder the ability of our country to work in the deep ocean. That company is Kongsberg Maritime (KM), based in Horton, Norway. They manufacture a large fleet of Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) that are used by several European Navies, as well as our own U.S. Navy. More importantly, KM also owns Hydroid, Inc., a U.S. company based in Pocasset, MA. Their Remus class of AUVs form the backbone of our deepwater search capabilities. Chinese acquisition of either firm would be a death sentence for our search capabilities.

At this time, the United States’ unmanned submersible capabilities are limited to 6,000 (19,685 ft.) meters (CURV 21 and Deep Discoverer ROVs) while the manned DSV Alvin can reach 4,500 meters (14,763 ft); Woods Hole’s Nereus hybrid vehicle was lost in 2014 when it imploded at a depth of 9,900 meters (32,480 ft) in the Kermadec Trench.

There has been more exploration of the Hadal Zone by private American citizens since Project Nekton ended. Director James Cameron used his Deepsea Challenger manned submersible to dive to almost 11,000 meters (36,089 ft) in 2012. Unfortunately, his vehicle only made one trip and has since been donated to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI); it is no longer operational. Wall Street trader Victor Vescovo amassed an impressive record of multiple dives to over 10,000 meters (32,800 ft) with his DSV Limiting Factor; he went to the bottom of the Marianas Trench an unprecedented five times. Since then, he has explored all the Earth’s deep trenches using his support ship the DSSV Pressure Drop. However, his Five Deeps program is nearing completion and he plans to sell both the submersible and research ship to recoup his investment.

There are several possibilities for why China is embarking on such a costly undertaking:

Scientific: To study samples of Hadal Zone sea-life (primarily micro-organisms) in support of their pharmaceutical industry.

Commercial:  To sustain China’s claim in the CCZ or Clarion Clipperton Zone for the mining of Polymetallic Nodules (manganese); The International Seabed Authority estimates that the total amount of nodules in this area exceeds 21 billion tons (Bt), consisting of 5.6 Bt of manganese, 0.27 Bt of nickel, 0.23 Bt of copper, and 0.05 Bt of cobalt.

Strategic: To further develop technology that can weaponize the deep ocean on both tactical and strategic levels; e.g., potentially systems like DARPA’s proposed Upward Falling Payloads. These payloads consist of defensive and/or offensive weapons as well as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for interdiction and surveillance. UFP systems deployed beyond 6 km (3.7 mi) will be out of our reach.

It is not that the United States doesn’t have a deep-water presence -- we do. But our ability to function in the deep ocean stops at 6,000 meters (19,685 ft), while China is making a major effort to break through this barrier into the Hadal Zone. Is it expensive?  Yes. The question is whether we can afford to not go there, because whoever controls the deep ocean, also controls the waters above.

Curt Newport is a 40-year veteran of underwater operations and works for a US Navy contractor. He is the author of Lost Spacecraft – The Search for Liberty Bell 7 by Apogee Books.

While the United States rests on her 60-year-old laurels, China has mounted an aggressive and long-term assault on the deep ocean, or the region known as the Hadal Zone (areas deeper than 6,000 meters[19,685 ft]).

Our country’s efforts to explore these depths effectively ended in 1960 at the conclusion of Project Nekton. That was when the U.S. Navy’s Trieste I Bathyscaphe reached the deepest known part of the ocean, the Challenger Deep, with Lt. Don Walsh and Swiss explorer Jacques Piccard inside a tiny steel sphere.

China’s current efforts are being led by Professor Cui Weicheng of Shanghai Ocean University and more recently, the Rainbow Fish Ocean Technology Company. Their current plan is to deploy 11 km (6.8 mi)-capable submersibles in 2020 to explore the deepest sections of the Marianas Trench. According to the South China Morning Post, “Beijing has listed deep-sea scientific exploration as one of the key projects in their five-year plan to 2020.

These programs involve the development of unmanned vehicles, benthic landers, gliders, and manned submersibles, as well as the infrastructure needed to maintain this technology. In addition, several research vessels have been constructed to support field operations, most of them purpose-built for specific systems.

How have the Chinese created such capabilities? Their projects were initially made possible by purchasing non-ITAR controlled underwater sonars and vehicles from British, Norwegian, and Canadian companies. As has been the case before, Chinese engineers used this technology as an educational tool, so that they could copy and improve on existing designs.

The next phase was the outright purchase of large engineering firms developing COTS (Commercial Off the Shelf) Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs). To this end, Chinese companies have acquired UK-based Soil Machine Dynamics (SMD) Ltd. and the Deep Flight Submarine Company. The acquisition of SMD by China’s Zhuzhou CSR Times Electric Co. is especially troubling, as SMD was a major supplier of underwater technology to academic, commercial, and potentially military operators in the United States.

In the last few years, the Chinese have concentrated on developing their own underwater technology through government-funded research and development and what information they can glean from numerous technology conferences focused on the sub-sea market. Their capabilities have developed slowly by designing and building increasingly more complex and depth-capable systems, such as the Seapole class of bathyscaphes, the Haidou I unmanned vehicle (which reached 10,767 meters – 35,324 ft. -- in 2016), and the DSV Jiaolong, which is capable of carrying occupants to depths as great as 7 km (4.3 mi) underwater. The stainless-steel personnel sphere for the Rainbow Fish vehicle has already been forged in Finland at Tevo Lokomo and is large enough to carry three persons. They plan to begin testing this vehicle in 2020 from their 4800-ton research ship Zhang Jian.

Surprisingly, the People’s Republic of China has also enlisted the technical assistance of several American and European experts in underwater technology to further their program, such as Dr. Don Walsh (ex-Trieste bathyscaphe pilot); Dr. Sylvia Earle (Ocean Everest Program); James Cameron (developer of the DSV Deepsea Challenger); the Deep Submergence Laboratory at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; Dr. Anatoly Sagalevich (director of Russia’s MIR program); and Dr. Alan Jamieson (Professor at Newcastle University and Chief Scientist of the Five Deeps Project).

A critical question is whether the Chinese will continue buying their deep ocean capabilities.  If they were to acquire one specific Norwegian company, they would seriously hinder the ability of our country to work in the deep ocean. That company is Kongsberg Maritime (KM), based in Horton, Norway. They manufacture a large fleet of Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) that are used by several European Navies, as well as our own U.S. Navy. More importantly, KM also owns Hydroid, Inc., a U.S. company based in Pocasset, MA. Their Remus class of AUVs form the backbone of our deepwater search capabilities. Chinese acquisition of either firm would be a death sentence for our search capabilities.

At this time, the United States’ unmanned submersible capabilities are limited to 6,000 (19,685 ft.) meters (CURV 21 and Deep Discoverer ROVs) while the manned DSV Alvin can reach 4,500 meters (14,763 ft); Woods Hole’s Nereus hybrid vehicle was lost in 2014 when it imploded at a depth of 9,900 meters (32,480 ft) in the Kermadec Trench.

There has been more exploration of the Hadal Zone by private American citizens since Project Nekton ended. Director James Cameron used his Deepsea Challenger manned submersible to dive to almost 11,000 meters (36,089 ft) in 2012. Unfortunately, his vehicle only made one trip and has since been donated to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI); it is no longer operational. Wall Street trader Victor Vescovo amassed an impressive record of multiple dives to over 10,000 meters (32,800 ft) with his DSV Limiting Factor; he went to the bottom of the Marianas Trench an unprecedented five times. Since then, he has explored all the Earth’s deep trenches using his support ship the DSSV Pressure Drop. However, his Five Deeps program is nearing completion and he plans to sell both the submersible and research ship to recoup his investment.

There are several possibilities for why China is embarking on such a costly undertaking:

Scientific: To study samples of Hadal Zone sea-life (primarily micro-organisms) in support of their pharmaceutical industry.

Commercial:  To sustain China’s claim in the CCZ or Clarion Clipperton Zone for the mining of Polymetallic Nodules (manganese); The International Seabed Authority estimates that the total amount of nodules in this area exceeds 21 billion tons (Bt), consisting of 5.6 Bt of manganese, 0.27 Bt of nickel, 0.23 Bt of copper, and 0.05 Bt of cobalt.

Strategic: To further develop technology that can weaponize the deep ocean on both tactical and strategic levels; e.g., potentially systems like DARPA’s proposed Upward Falling Payloads. These payloads consist of defensive and/or offensive weapons as well as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for interdiction and surveillance. UFP systems deployed beyond 6 km (3.7 mi) will be out of our reach.

It is not that the United States doesn’t have a deep-water presence -- we do. But our ability to function in the deep ocean stops at 6,000 meters (19,685 ft), while China is making a major effort to break through this barrier into the Hadal Zone. Is it expensive?  Yes. The question is whether we can afford to not go there, because whoever controls the deep ocean, also controls the waters above.

Curt Newport is a 40-year veteran of underwater operations and works for a US Navy contractor. He is the author of Lost Spacecraft – The Search for Liberty Bell 7 by Apogee Books.