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Deepwater Horizon, The Cheonan And The Need For Better Underwater Defenses

05/31/2010

Two horrible yet distinct events, half a world apart, share the cry for new oceanic technological and engineering solutions.

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As Washington studies what works and what fails in capping the incessant Gulf oil spill, it is clear that the Energy and Interior Departments need to have a rapid naval deployment force of  engineers, underwater robots and the technology to control future drilling disasters. The Deepwater Horizon explosion and its resulting hazards will most certainly not be the last of it’s kind, and it is clear America will not soon stop drilling for oil in very deep waters to help quench our thirst for more and more petroleum products. The longer we drill, the greater the chance that Deepwater II will appear.

Obviously, we have an deep sea challenge of immense proportions. We are not experienced enough with an environment where water pressure is as crushing as one mile below the surface. Our early 21st Century technology is frustratingly impotent in rapidly fixing explosive drilling failures. New challenges posed by the Gulf disaster require innovative engineering and government preparedness solutions.

Proposal: A “deep sea response unit” should be funded by the oil companies who drill off our coasts. A surtax should be levied on oil producers, by Congress, to pay for creation and maintenance of such a force, and an “Apollo” type project should be set in motion with the goal of creating and fusing technology with extreme undersea engineering techniques to allow the government to respond quickly and effectively to blow outs on the sea floor in coming years. Not one penny of the required budget to create such a unit should be paid by the U.S. taxpayer.

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The Deepwater Horizon episode is already teaching engineering and ocean experts new lessons about how to attack such problems. Despite the absence of any clear solution to the horrific flow of hydrocarbons second after second, now for over 40 days, drilling and energy experts now know a lot more than they did before the explosion of the rig. Each day they learn new tactics and develop new plans on how to stop the flow. Bitter tragedy is turning into a teacher. We dare not ignore the developing lessons of rapid response, effective capping techniques, and the role of government to step in to protect the nation’s waters when corporate assets and business decisions are not effective.

Meanwhile, over 7,200 miles away, the need for another form of underwater defense is equally compelling in light of the March 26 sinking of a South Korean war ship.  An international forensic investigation (conducted by South Korea, the United States, Australia, Britain, Sweden and Canada) has concluded a North Korean mini-submarine torpedoed the South’s military vessel, the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. In the frenetic and sketchy relationship between the Pyongyang and Seoul, this development has the potential, but hopefully not the probability, of resulting in a new and bloody military conflict on a nervous peninsula where an official state of war still exists…since 1950.

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The New York Times reported on May 30 that the Pentagon and South Korean military planners are working to avert attacks in the shallow waters off South Korea by very small yet lethal torpedo-armed submarines controled by North Korea. The Cheonan incident evidences a lack of readiness. (See article here). According to the Times, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is concerned about exploring and deploying methods to find, follow and oppose miniature submarines, which he characterized as “a very difficult technical, tactical problem.”

Just like the Deepwater incident, the Cheonan sinking presents a nascent but distinct undersea challenge of great technical complexity. We should have been ready for both incidents all along.

With decades of military planning by the U.S. and South Korea to counter the North’s threats, the midget submarine attack was a shock to military observers, just as the Deepwater Horizon explosion and its exponential consequences has stunned America. The oil rig explosion and it’s consequences should not be a surprise, as deep-sea drilling, with all its risks, has occurred for decades as well.

Nevertheless, as time goes on, new underwater threats are discerned, and we must be challenge ourselves with new forms of readiness.

Both incidents are “teaching moments” brought forth by catastrophes. They serve as warning “shots across the bow” and call for greater undersea engineering and military defenses, to secure our environmental and national security interests. Let’s get started.

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