Thursday, June 16, 2016



 While announced, this seabed mining and military project has no firm start date as yet.

NEEMO 12 crewmembers make their way to their undersea habitat during a training session for the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) project. Photo: NASA

 Pictured above are NASA divers entering a long operating U.S. owned "sealab" off of the Florida keys located below decompression dive depths but still well within the zone of light penetration. The Chinese proposal is far more challenging to construct and operate. At 10,000 feet (roughly 3,000 meters) it will be in cold dark water and subjected to pressures beyond what most conventional submarines are designed for. Recent news releases from China indicate that the Chinese are speeding up their efforts to design and build their proposed deepest ever "sea lab". The project was described in China's five year economic plan released in March of 2016. The technological hurdles to over come are immense but not impossible. Specially built manned submersibles have visited such depths for decades, the engineering challenge is basically one of scale. How do you enlarge the small diving bell type self contained habitats of the manned submersibles designed to visit such depths for a matter of a few hours to contain living quarters and sustainability for months at a time? How do you design a submersible suitable for transferring "aquanauts" and supplies? How do you test such equipment before deploying it? These are all issue of scale that probably can be overcome given enough time, effort and money. The real question is why go to the trouble to live at these depths? 

 The Chinese probably see several reasons for attempting this mission improbable. First they wish to explore the possibilities of deep sea bed mining. The deep sea beds are known to contain gold, manganese, and other vital minerals.  However, a 10,000 foot depth is not typical of outer continental shelf depths, the one place where nations have clear rights to exploit sea bottom resources. China is likely to locate this lab in disputed waters in the South or East China Seas. They may use the "sea lab" to press their claim to international or disputed waters not available to them under the current provisions of the United Nations Convention On The Law Of The Sea. What would be even more scary would be an attempt to twist the existing international law on territorial acquisition. 

 In the case of islands and similar features the most effective argument for soverignity recognized today is "effective settlement". This is why some Antarctic claimants go to elaborate and expensive efforts to have children born aboard their existing Antarctic stations and to periodically hold elaborate cultural events aboard their stations and to maintain them over winter. When the Antarctic treaty extension expires, they are positioning themselves to claim some of the last unclaimed above water real estate on earth. By existing international law some things such as the "high seas", the deep sea beds, outer space at orbital level, and the planets of our solar system are all in the "commons" and not suitable for national claims of ownership. The Dragon however has always operated as if whatever its claws could touch was property of the Dragon. So pushing highly dubious territorial claims and reshaping international law away from the Western concept of the "commons" may be a second purpose for such a "sea lab".   

 Finally such a lab could have a variety of naval/military purposes both for experimentation and area monitoring and denial, particularly anti submarine warfare. Whatever reason or combination of reasons for China's interest in such an expensive, elaborate, and not obviously immediately profitable project they do seem determined. In the current five year plan. The project ranked number 2 among the top 100 science and technology development projects ion the plan. While the Dragon has a seemingly insatiable hunger for natural resources, we note that the design is meant to be portable, making the lab relocatable for any variety of missions including military missions. The proposed "sea lab" may well be a key stone project within China's planned anti submarine access project that they sometimes term "The Under Water Great Wall Project".

 It seems to us that in war, nations do attempt to disrupt their enemies submarine cable communications and submarine oil and gas distributions systems; but a highly expensive virtual fixed fort doesn't seem to be a reasonable replacement for simple submarine patrol systems. We are not sure what the military utility of such a deep sea lab would be, and we bet the Chinese aren't quite sure themselves. This has the look and feel of a soverignity assertion, political impression, status symbol. The Dragon hasn't published any cost data for the project. We guess its nearly as expensive as our Apollo program was, but going in, its pretty well assured that such a thing can be built and deployed. It's basically an underwater habitat just set in unusually deep water. This is a manipulation of existing technologies, not the invention of never before tried technologies. As difficult and expensive as it is, going to the bottom of the sea is not nearly as "iffy" as going to the moon and back was. Rest assured that if the Dragon spends the time and money it will milk the publicity as if they had reached  another planet. We see no reason for the US to get involved with a "race to the bottom of the sea". 

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