Submarines: The War Against Training

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July 27, 2007: The American National Resources Defense Council has declared war on the U.S. Navy's request for a new permit that will give it five more years to test the SURTASS-LFA sonar system. This lawfare has been going on for over five years, since the NRDC got a court order forcing the Navy to accept restrictions on the use of the system. While the lawfare and public-relations effort on behalf of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay generates the bulk of the headlines and even episodes of TV shows, this sonar related lawfare has gone on longer and without the fancy press coverage. At risk is the ability of the United States to survive in war time, and could render the U.S. Navy more vulnerable to enemy submarines.

The NRDC has also been waging a public-relations war as well, including a five-minute web video narrated by Pierce Brosnan (most famous for playing Remington Steele and James Bond). It has also expanded its lawfare offensive to include attacks on medium-frequency active sonar like the SQS-53 used on cruisers and destroyers and the SQS-56 used on frigates. The Navy, in the five years of tests, has done research on the effects of SURTASS LFA.

Locating hostile submarines sooner is more important now because of how deadly modern torpedoes have become. These torpedoes (like the Mk 48 ADCAP) use magnetic fuses, which are designed to have the torpedo detonate underneath the ship, causing the ship to break in half, and sink. Older torpedoes, used in World War I and World War II, often used impact fuses since the magnetic fuses were unreliable. The impact detonations were much more survivable since they only punched holes into the side of a ship. 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) could also be launched before they are detected. Those missiles could ruin any surface ship's day.

Thus, the stakes are high for sailors and marines on U.S. naval vessels. New non-nuclear submarines like the Amur from Russia, the French Scorpene, and the German Type 212 are entering service. Unlike past non-nuclear submarines, which used diesel-electric plants, these submarines also come in variants that use fuel cells or other forms of air-independent propulsion. While diesel engines can be loud enough to permit passive sonar to detect them soon enough to deal with a hostile submarine before it can fire its torpedoes, fuel cells are much quieter, and that makes active sonar a necessity. The quieter a submarine is, the closer it can get to a ship using passive sonar. An active system negates this by bouncing sound waves off of the hull of a submarine. How quiet a submarine is does not matter when an active sonar has located it.

But the capabilities do not matter if the training is not there. Just having the tools in time of war is not enough. Sailors need to train with these tools. American training tends to be very extensive and intense. Often it is intended to be tougher than the actual combat. While the Navy makes every effort to keep whales and other marine mammals from being caught up in the exercises, it is impossible to avoid that sometimes. A lack of sufficient training can be deadly. In essence, the NRDC is playing Russian roulette with the lives of sailors and Marines - in the name of saving the whales. - Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)

 


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