An appeal for new ­emphasis on ­antisubmarine warfare

Editor's note: This story appeared originally in the November 2004 print edition of Military & Aerospace Electronics.

The global war on terrorism is ­focusing technological efforts on a wide variety of sensors, information processing, and data ­mining to deter and respond to ­terrorist attacks here and abroad.

Yet, in this environment, the U.S. and its allies need to maintain their focus on what was a central component of Cold War strategy - anti-submarine warfare, otherwise known as ASW.

I know what you’re thinking: what’s antisubmarine warfare got to do with war on terror?

The answer may be not much today, but that certainly could change in the near future. Changing national threats, asymmetric warfare, and the proliferation of submarines worldwide make antisubmarine warfare and its sophisticated electronic and optoelectronic technologies as important today as they have ever been.

Last summer the U.S. intelligence community received one of the nation’s loudest wakeup calls in a long time where undersea warfare is concerned. China has produced a new type of attack submarine, which U.S. intelligence did not even know was under construction, according to a report in The Washington Times.

The new submarine that surprised U.S. military leaders was first seen and photographed in late June or July in the water at China’s Wuhan shipyard, 420 miles west of Shanghai, The Times reported. Pentagon leaders are calling the new Chinese vessel the Yuan-class of submarine.

Intelligence experts say they believe the Yuan-class submarines are diesel powered, and are a combination of Chinese-­developed hardware and Russian weapons. Modern diesel submarines are extremely quiet and difficult to detect, even with the most sophisticated U.S.-developed sonar systems.

The Yuan class joins China’s deployed force of 57 submarines, and two nuclear-powered submarine classes in development - the Type 093, which intelligence analysts believe is based on the Russian Victor III ballistic missile submarine, and the Type 094 ­attack submarine.

These developments are conclusive evidence that China is ­serious about maintaining a formidable offensive naval capability in the Western Pacific, not only to project its regional influence, but also to counter U.S. force projection from nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in the strait that separates Taiwan from China.

The U.S. considers Taiwan to be a pseudo-independent country, and has pledged to protect Taiwan from military threats. China, however, considers Taiwan to be a rogue province, and has pledged to bring the island back under Beijing’s control. This geopolitical hotspot underscores the need for ASW technology.

U.S. antisubmarine warfare programs are in a state of flux after a decades-long focus on open-ocean military confrontation with an industrialized opponent such as the Soviet Union. Today’s U.S. naval focus is making the transition to relatively shallow coastal waters - the so-called “littoral” environment.

Although littoral naval warfare involves a great deal of ship-to-shore communications networking, mine detection, and sea-to-shore missiles and gunfire, the coastal shallows represent some of the toughest challenges for ASW operations.

Whereas the open oceans often present a deep, vast area where picking out submarines from a comparitively quiet background is relatively straightforward, the littoral areas represent a whole different ball game.

The shallows represent a sonically diverse environment; these areas team with sea life, many commercial and military vessels operate there, sound waves bounce erratically off the bottom, and shipwrecks or rock formations can be easily mistaken for hostile submarines.

Add the tremendously quiet modern diesel-electric submarine to this mix, and antisubmarine warfare throughout the world becomes much more difficult than it has ever been before.

Despite this challenge, U.S. ASW ­capabilities are “at a historic low” because of cutbacks in specialized ships and aircraft, The Times quotes Richard D. Fisher Jr., a specialist on the Chinese military at the James Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.

The worldwide submarine threat does not come only from China. The breakup of the Soviet Union helped create a surplus of submarines that became available for sale. Today Iran, North Korea, Libya, Egypt, Pakistan, India, and Turkey are only a few of the nations that operate submarines.

Arms exporters in Europe and elsewhere also are eager to offer submarines on the world arms market as a major source of income. Put simply, submarines are becoming easier to obtain all the time, not only by developing countries, but by terrorist organizations as well.

The “asymmetric” nature of modern warfare makes the submarine threat even more urgent. Terrorist networks with ready access to cash are increasingly likely operators of submarines, with which they could wreak havoc on oil-tanker traffic in the Persian Gulf, or perhaps even destroy or disable an unsuspecting U.S. capital ship such as an aircraft carrier.

The current U.S. military emphasis on force transformation and network-centric warfare has broad potential to help improve antisubmarine warfare capabilities. The application of networking technologies could make information on enemy submarine positions available instantly not only to military forces, but also to homeland-security forces such as the Coast Guard, and to commercial shipping companies.

Optoelectronic technologies such as fiber-optic sonar and laser radar have the potential not only to help cut through the sonic murk of coastal waters, but also to network sonar detectors in real time to yield quick information on enemy submarine speed, depth, and direction of travel.

Yet none of this will happen without a serious commitment of technological expertise, research, and money to the problem of antisubmarine warfare.

There are indications that the nation’s ASW community is waking up to the new ASW challenge. The Government Electronics and Information Association (GEIA) Ten-Year Forecast in October highlighted undersea sensors as one crucial need of the U.S. Navy.

“The Navy lacks undersea sensors, and seeks better sensor technology,” said Gerry Robbins of Northrop Grumman Corp. in his information-technology presentation at the GEIA forecast in Vienna, Va.

Another indication: Navy leaders in September asked permission from the Swedish government to borrow a ­Gotland-class conventionally powered Swedish submarine and its crew for ASW training. If the plan is approved, the Swedish submarine would be based at the Navy Fleet Anti-Submarine Warfare Command in San Diego.

With the growing submarine threat from often-undetermined adversaries, let’s hope this renewed emphasis on ASW technology isn’t too little, too late.


Editor's note: This story appeared originally in the November 2004 print edition of Military & Aerospace Electronics.

The global war on terrorism is ­focusing technological efforts on a wide variety of sensors, information processing, and data ­mining to deter and respond to ­terrorist attacks here and abroad.

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