Naval Oceanography: Countering future Wars and Disaster in Africa

The wreck of the MV Wakashio off the coast of Mauritius after going aground on 25 July 2020 as a result of various avoidable navigation errors.

The term ‘Water Wars’ refers to an expanding global phenomenon of conflicts fought between either state and/or non-state actors directly, or via a complex network of proxies, over rights of economic exploitation of water and associated territories for the purposes of:

  • Supporting IUU fishing operations (Example: Foreign distant water fishing fleets. Read Maritime Protection Strategy: Mobilising the Private Sector).

  • Uncontrolled exploitation of undersea resources to the disadvantage of a legally entitled beneficiary.

  • Interference, interception, and manipulation of strategic national assets (such as intercontinental communications infrastructure and energy exploration, extraction, and transportation systems).

  • Access to freshwater for drinking, industrial use, and agriculture purposes (such as the current Egyptian campaign opposing the Ethiopian GERD project. Also read The Great Power Competition: How does it affect Africa?).

  • Intelligence Gathering.

Considering naval strategy evolution during recent history, the ‘Water Wars’ idea is still much ignored because traditional naval thinking considers water (referring to water territory), as a means of transit, which then evolved to include the concepts of exploiting control over water territories through the expansion of trade, destruction of rival trade, and rapid manoeuvring of land deployment forces. An example of recent evolution of naval strategy with the purpose of exploiting control over water territories, is the large militia trained distant water fishing fleets of the PRC which is manned by ex-PLAN crews for the purpose of expanding economic gains through IUU fishing activities in mainly disputed- and foreign uncontrolled sovereign territories during peace time, and in times of war (envisioned but not yet tested), act as a skirmishing maritime militia with the purpose of covert intelligence gathering, sabotage, and minor disruptive operations (in other words, engaging in irregular warfare doctrine). In a more aggressive posture, current PRC distant water fishing vessels can be equipped with advanced modular weapons systems capable of destroying blue-water naval assets, especially considering that some of these fleets are already equipped with advanced military surveillance equipment disguised by commercial registered vessels sailing under various foreign flags of convenience. This, however, has allowed progressive thinking aggressor nations to expand its respective naval strategies beyond the traditional military scope into the more complex legal domain (in some forms considered outdated), through the exploitation of protective measures allowed under international maritime laws, whereas fishing enables the simplest means of legally protected freedom of the seas. Furthermore, exploitation of seabed resources is also protected under a vast body of laws which has not yet been tested in a modern warfare environment. The bottom line, however, is that naval strategists should withdraw from the idea that the maritime domain is only a space through which maritime assets transit, but instead consider it as a space that must be affirmatively defended because it contains critical economic assets. Looking from this perspective, we then observe how vulnerable the current African maritime domain is, especially taking into consideration that ‘you only control what you can protect’, subject to the availability of resources. This is even more concerning looking at the number of foreign naval assets deployed within African maritime territories under the semblance of ‘anti-piracy’ and ‘counter illegal fishing’, which confirms the fact that the African maritime domain is under constant foreign control, many of these resources being engaged within a silent competitive capacity.

The relevance of Naval Hydrographic capabilities in Africa:

Design illustration of the new South African Navy hydrographic survey vessel currently under construction at the Sandock Austral Shipyards in Durban, South Africa. The South African Navy is currently the best equipped in terms of oceanographic capability in Africa, especially with the anticipated delivery of this new system to replace the current ageing SAS Protea hydrographic survey ship in service with the SAN.

The continent of Africa has a total coastline distance of 30,500 km (18,950 miles), comprising 38 independent maritime nations being coastal- or island states. The effect this has on these nations (contrary to inland landlocked states), is that maritime nations’ security and prosperity inherently depends on its maritime territories. To safeguard ocean territories against foreign exploitation, maritime nations traditionally require naval services with forward deployment capabilities as follows:

  • Brown-water: Also known as Riverine naval operations, refer to all naval forces capable of military operations within littoral zone waters, to include area domination along inlets, rivers, estuaries, etc. The Infantry components of these types of forces are usually referred to as ‘Riverines’ (derived from the term River Marines), with a restricted capability to engage in small scale land operations.

  • Green-water: The larger military naval capability that bridges Brown-water naval capability with Blue-water open ocean capable naval forces. Green-water naval forces primarily operate within littoral waters with the primary task of patrolling coastal waters (Inshore Patrol) within the EEZ, and usually comprises patrol boats not considered suitable for offshore (open-ocean) operations from a seaworthiness perspective.

  • Blue-water: Maritime forces capable of operating at a global scale, essentially across the deep waters of open oceans with the means of exercising sea control over extended range within international waters. Capital assets are usually larger than 120 meters in length for improved seaworthiness, mostly equipped with some form of naval air capability.

One of the major requirements for enhancing naval capabilities within these zones is Naval Hydrography which involves the science of measuring and illustrating navigability of ocean territories and waterways to update nautical charts and develop hydrographic models. From a naval services perspective, hydrography enables navigational safety of submarine and surface operations, and provides updated data required for mine warfare and mine-countermeasures (MCM). To improve the basic understanding of this critical naval capability, especially in Africa where these capabilities are in short supply, this discussion will briefly illustrate the major requirements and importance of maintaining modern naval hydrographic capabilities.

Why are Naval Hydrographic services such an important asset for enhancing naval capabilities?

Naval Hydrography is a highly specialised capability that can be considered a strategic asset in terms of dominating ocean territory independent from foreign assistance. The following points briefly highlight the main advantages of maintaining an effective naval hydrographic service and strategy:

1. It allows naval forces and supporting government agencies to effectively exploit the water space from both a military and economic capacity.

2. Enhance sovereign independence by not relying on foreign ‘allies’ (taking into consideration that the idea of ‘allied nations’ are becoming more temporary in nature as global politics evolve).

3. Enable and extend both current- and future operations.

4. Identify Ocean terrain opportunities and limitations.

5. Assert sovereignty by projecting state control over entitled sea territories.

6. Support operations to assess suitable landings for own forces, and to plan defensive measures against possible enemy landings.

7. Maintain a constantly updated data base to effectively plan all-domain maritime defence strategies.

8. Extend safe submarine operations beyond own territory, to include accurate military specific information about:

  • Detailed wrecks data

  • Deep water shoals

  • Dense bathymetry contours

9. Prevent ship groundings and costly environmental disasters, pollution control, and long-term rehabilitation of endangered natural resources

(Note: This is a common overlooked advantage, especially in Africa. The cost of establishing and maintaining an advanced Naval Hydrographic capability over a period of 30 years is but only a fraction of the cost in resulting damages and losses in natural living resources that can be caused by a single ship disaster).

An example of a recent major ship disaster in Africa is the MV Wakashio oil spill which occurred along the coast of Mauritius on 25 July 2020. During the investigation it was found that the ship intentionally veered off course from a safe 20 nm to around 2 nm from the coastline for the purpose of receiving mobile phone reception. The ship’s crew had exceeded their contract periods because of strict COVID-19 restrictions in effect at the time, with limited means of communicating with their families back home. The Mauritius Coast Guard procedures also failed because of human performance failure due to the coastal navigation radar only being monitored once every 2 hours at the time of the incident. The result of this incident was a loss of 1,000 tonnes of fuel oil into a sensitive environment which Mauritius is extremely dependent on as a tourism driven economy. This event is considered Mauritius’ worst ecological disaster. There is also sufficient reason to believe that the ship crew did not have access to updated navigation charts detailing underwater terrain restrictions. The environmental damages caused by the oil spill alone (excluding salvage costs), is estimated at over US$ 10 Billion.

10. Aid and improve Search and Rescue (SAR) capabilities within ocean areas of responsibility as required by international treaties.

11. Regional disaster support (such as in the event of hurricanes/cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, etc), by facilitating the opening of ports and coastal approaches for ships delivering humanitarian aid. Current scientific research indicates a likely increase in natural disasters within the next decade with Africa being considered extremely vulnerable to losses and growing insecurity due to poor preparedness in terms of contingency planning, along with deficient disaster response infrastructure and resources.

12. Monitor integrity of undersea communications links and other strategic undersea infrastructure. This is becoming a major concerning factor, especially due to increased activities by aggressor nations engaged in undersea communications interception, as well as increased damages caused by commercial maritime activities (such as ship anchors cutting undersea cables).

13. Monitoring the effects of natural disasters and its effects on coastal states, especially approaching an era of uncertain climate change effects.

14. Maintain information superiority by enabling operations that aggressors cannot effectively respond to.

15. Obtain shoal and slope data of beaches and landing sites to prevent own amphibious forces from grounding away from objective beaches.

16. Refine submarine operations in littoral waters with submarine charts to limit expanding positional errors without surfacing using hyper accurate bottom contour charts indicating total depth of water column and depth contours of at least 2 meters. Products specific to maintaining submarine operations are however highly classified data and it must be protected as such to avoid being used by aggressors operating submarines within unauthorised territory.

17. Provide updated survey data to government stakeholders responsible for exploring and expanding the ocean economy.

18. Accurate depiction of ocean floor to discover sea- and ground (ocean floor) mines through the application of side scan sonars during periods of conflict.

Relevance to Future Evolution of Naval Warfare:

Naval Warfare is a constantly changing science, and due to the vast complexities of oceanography and the effects of meteorology and other environmental factors, there are still many aspects about the science that requires improved understanding (based on lessons learnt from the MH370 disaster and consequent debris search operation). Through various studies of open-source information, various military research programs were identified globally disguised as academic oceanographic studies involving the science of calculating and predicting ocean current movements using COTS position identifying sensors, the main justification for these studies accounted to the “improvement of SAR prediction models”. Although these justifications hold partial truth, the major concerns about these programs are the military connected sources of funding being questioned based on past reputation and future motivation. Current results require much improvement in terms of accuracy of predictions with improved factoring in of external weather factors, but computer prediction models are becoming more refined, and soon with the aid of AI, these models will be perfected to the point where such data could be militarised for the purpose of remote micro sensors and low-signature long-range ordnance deployment utilising ocean currents as a means of stealth deployment to enable plausible deniability during intentional acts of hostility.

A modern hydrographic survey capability greatly enhances the oceanographic knowledge base within a naval organisation, enabling greater in-service understanding of how the ocean works from an environmental perspective, and how to effectively counter present- and emerging threats targeting a coastal state during future conflict(s) using these characteristics to their benefit.

Oceanography and Mine Warfare:

Mines are the greatest threat to navies world-wide, which has remained unchanged since the end of World War II. To date, sea mines are the cause for the most ship casualties compared to any other systems (post-WWII), and it is still considered a highly effective means for defending maritime territories, especially in developing nations with limited naval assets and budgets. In the 21st Century, sea mines still form the bulk of the majority countries’ naval defences due to its relatively simple deployment methods and low cost of manufacturing, especially since the end of the Cold War when the focus of naval operations rapidly shifted from open ocean to near shore environments. Even though it is regarded as a relatively low-tech weapon system, mines can be deployed in both the offensive and defensive role which necessitates the requirement for a coastal state to have access to suitable skills and resources to effectively counter enemy mining activities. One of the major assets for developing a capable and effective counter-mine warfare strategy is through the presence of a modern Naval Hydrographic capability which serves as the leading asset(s) in the detection and clearance of mined water territories (referring to both oceanic and inland water bodies) during times of conflict. Mine technology has also evolved beyond the controls of the military domain, with various global networks of non-state actors operating as terrorist groups having mastered the improvisation of munitions manufacturing and delivery comparable to modern military specifications, using only modified commercial components.

Naval Oceanographic Capability:

Illustration of the most relevant sensor requirements for a modern oceanographic survey vessel

To understand how the science of oceanography fits into a modern navy as a core competency, we need to understand the relation between oceanography and hydrography:

Oceanography: The study of the physical, chemical and biological features of the ocean, including historical factors, current conditions, and future anticipated changes. As a military competency, naval oceanographers provide data to safely guide ships, aircraft, and troops with recommendations based on weather forecasts and ocean conditions derived from all facets of oceanography, hydrography, meteorology, precise time, and astronomy.

Hydrography: The science that measures and describes the physical features of bodies of water, to include bottom measurements, with particular emphasis on marine geographical features that pose a hazard to navigation such as rock formations, shoals, reefs, wrecks, and any other features that may obstruct safe ship passage. Basically, hydrographic data is primarily driven towards marine navigation and safety of that navigation, but unlike oceanography, hydrography will include shore features (natural and man-made), that aid in navigation (to include physical shore-based features, as well as physical aspects of the seabed). As a military competency, Naval Hydrography includes additional responsibilities for enabling safe submarine operations, as well as guiding a coastal counter-mine strategy. In general, hydrography is considered a component of the oceanographic capability.

Military Significance of Mine Warfare from a Hydrographic Perspective:

To understand how Naval Hydrographic services fit into mine warfare, we first need to understand the basic characteristics relating to the deployment of sea mines, namely:

Also, we need to factor in the significance of the littoral environment, namely:

  • 95% of the world’s population lives within 1,000 kilometres from the ocean.

  • 80% of all countries border the coast.

  • 80% of the world’s capital cities are found within 500 kilometres of a shoreline.

  • Most political sensitive countries have ocean borders.

  • Many crucial shipping lanes are narrow and vulnerable to aggressor mining.

  • Majority of heavy supplies in support of land operations are shipped via littoral waters.

Requirements for establishing a high state of readiness in terms of Mine Warfare Capabilities (including the means of countering adversary mines):

HMAS Leeuwin is the lead vessel of the Leeuwin-Class of hydrographic survey vessels operated by the Royal Australian Navy.

Mine Warfare, just as any other specialised warfare capability, requires constant development and improvement, which includes regular rehearsal of new procedures. The following list highlights the major requirements for maintaining a high state of readiness (during peace time as a means of deterrence for possible adversary actions):

  • Clandestine mine detection, reconnaissance, and surveillance capabilities.

  • Terrain suitable mines, doctrine, and tactics for both offensive and defensive operations.

  • Regular mine- and amphibious warfare training and simulation by responsible military forces.

  • Maintain modern mine-countermeasure (MCM) resources.

  • Develop confidence in mine detection and neutralisation in EOD units.

  • Maintain an all-source intelligence database about current research and developments in mine warfare capabilities globally.

  • Integrate regular forces, reserve forces, civil defence, and supporting law enforcement agencies in mine countermeasure (MCM) strategies and training.

  • Identify terrain weaknesses, such as natural chokepoints, which could be used against own forces by opposing forces, and develop the means of denying the use of such features to the benefit of the aggressor.

  • Develop affordable C4I (Command & Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence) infrastructure to enable effective response coordination between units during MCM operations.

  • Develop an organic MCM capability able to operate independent from main force operations.

Naval mines provide a great advantage to its users by enabling them to control nearshore operational areas through the channelling, blocking, deflecting, disrupting, or delaying of aggressor forces and preventing them from achieving their objectives. Mines can also jeopardise the steady flow of seaborne materials, equipment, and fuels required to sustain operations by land-based air and ground forces. As most materials sent to support military operations arrive by sea, the ability to close vital waterways provides a significant strategic threat to land-based operations within coastal territories. The key to an effective mine warfare strategy is to benefit from its use and not to become a victim of an adversary’s actions. Knowledge of terrain is the deciding factor in determining how a defending coastal state will be affected by the deployment of mines within its own water territories, and to know terrain requires measurement.

Oceanography of the Near-Shore Environment:

Within the near-shore environment, the shortened spatial and temporal scales of oceanic and atmospheric variability is considered the greatest challenge to mine warfare operations (offensive and defensive), the following environmental characteristics deemed the relevant to mine warfare operations:

Meteorology: Wind

Air Temperature


Cloud Cover


Oceanography: Bathymetry

Water Temperature

Salinity Profile


Water Clarity



Acoustic Background

Sea State



Bottom Type

Based on these environmental variables, Naval oceanographic services require the following environmental data to mitigate these challenges by means of its hydrographic capabilities:

  • Acoustic Imagery.

  • Soundings and Gridded Bathymetry (single-beam and multi-beam).

  • Cluster Density.

  • Currents and Provinced Currents.

  • Biologics (referring to the presence of dangerous marine animals).

  • Optics.

Of all these environmental variables, knowledge of the seafloor bottom type is considered vitally important for mine warfare/mine-countermeasure operations because the seafloor and its physical, chemical, and magnetic properties can be important in all aspects of the mine warfare problem, for example:

  • Mine burial probability, a function of sediment properties, drives tactical decision-making during sweeps or hunts.

  • Seafloor conductivity and water depth are key factors for determining magnetic sweep path.

  • Bottom sediment characteristics are a key factor in sediment transport which directly affects water clarity and mine burial.

  • Sediment properties determine shock wave propagation, a method for mine neutralisation in the surf zone.

  • Bottom reflectivity affects airborne LIDAR performance.

  • Mine hunting sonar performance is normally bottom reverberation limited.

Based on this brief overview describing the relationship between naval hydrography and its importance in modern naval warfare, especially mine warfare, various navies are researching the development of ‘virtual oceanography’ toolkits to enable mine warfare planners to visualise and manipulate environmental data in a more intuitive manner than is currently possible without having direct access to the relevant terrain. This ability will aid planners to predict seafloor characteristics and bathymetry based on stored information about regional geology in the Surf Zone and Very Shallow Water environments for use when required in future conflicts. This development alone supports concerns about the high occurrence of foreign naval vessels in African waters (including paramilitary vessels operating under the banner of commercial fishing), and why it is important for African coastal states to start taking responsibility over the integrity of their own territories.

Summary of hydrographic survey capability requirements:

Naval Hydrography is a highly specialised science, and it takes time to develop such capabilities to the benefit of its beneficiaries. This article only provides a basic description of its importance and benefits, but with the correct guidance, these capabilities are not impossible to achieve within a reduced timeframe. In essence, the development of an effective and modern naval hydrography capability comes down to three major requirements, namely:

Equipment: To obtain data up to a depth of 7,000 meters;

Expertise: To verify data; and

Portrayal: The means of effectively utilising the data obtained.

Finally, a great justification for the military importance of hydrographic survey of ocean terrain can be found in the commentary to the chapter involving ’Terrain’ in The Art of War by Sun Tzu:

“The form of the land is the basis on which the military is aided and victory is established, so it must be measured”.

Mei Yaochen (1002 - 1060 AD)


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