Submarines: The Whales Strike Back


December 2, 2007: The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered a lower court to re-write the restrictions it has placed on the Navy's use on active sonar in training missions. This means that the Navy is going to have some more leeway – albeit how much leeway there will be is open to question – in terms of training sailors with their sonar gear.

The use of active sonar during these exercises is necessary, not only to train American sonar operators, but also to train American submariners to deal with countries that use active sonar (and which don't have to deal with environmental groups suing the government to ban the use of active sonar). The military lives by the axiom, "you fight like you train." Realistic training gives the United States military its biggest advantage over opponents, much as was the case for the Roman army in ages past (the saying went, "Their drills are bloodless battles, their battles are bloody drills.") and for the U.S. military, too (Comments about Desert Storm often compared the experience to the Air Force's Red Flag exercises or the Army's National Training Center – with the caveat that the Iraqi forces weren't as tough).

Recent lawfare against the Navy over this issue started with the experimental SURTASS LFA system. This system was designed to detect submarines further out than conventional sonar systems, not a small consideration when one considers the proliferation of anti-ship missiles like the C-802 (with a range of 120 kilometers), Harpoon (140 kilometers), Yakhont (120 kilometers), or Exocet (the missile made famous in the Falklands, with a range of 65 kilometers). It later expanded to include medium-frequency active sonars like the SQS-53 used on Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and the SQS-56 used on the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates.

Even multi-national exercises were not safe – the 2006 RIMPAC exercise dealt with interference due to an injunction that later resulted in a settlement. Those exercises are one of the rare opportunities the Navy has to practice against some of the latest diesel-electric submarines with good crews (Australia, South Korea, and Japan sent such submarines to the latest RIMPAC).

Environmental groups, like the Natural Resources Defense Council, have filed multiple suits, and have won injunctions, limiting the use of active sonar in training exercises. The injunctions often granted exemptions for war, but the problem was that war is the wrong time to start learning how to use active sonar.

This would be the equivalent of asking Pierce Brosnan (who has narrated a web video for the NRDC on sonar) to make a movie without being able to rehearse the lines or stunts. Brosnan at least gets re-takes if he were to mess up, and the worst he could expect would be a leaked blooper video on YouTube. The appeals court, though, recognized that the U.S. Navy would not get any re-takes in war, nor could it re-float a sunken ship or to bring back dead sailors and Marines. Future attacks on sonar training will not go as well, thanks to the precedent established in the higher court. – Harold C. Hutchison (


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