U.S. anti-submarine capability is eroding, and it may be too late to turn it around

By John Keller
Posted by John Keller

Here's a not-so-comforting thought. The U.S. Navy's anti-submarine warfare (ASW) skills are getting rusty during the same period that quiet submarine technology in China and Iran is improving at a noticeable rate.

I wish that were the only bad news on the submarine warfare front, but it isn't. We have U.S. ASW capability going backward, submarine capability of U.S. strategic adversaries going forward, and U.S. Navy capability as a whole in decline, according to a top Navy official.

"We're long past the point of doing more with less," says Under Secretary of the Navy, Robert Work. "We are going to be doing less with less in the future."

Work was quoted in an AOL blog by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. headlined U.S. Military Will Have To Do 'Less With Less': Hill Must Vote On Money .

Freedberg wasn't finished there, however. "The capacity of the US and allied navies to hunt enemy submarines has suffered even as potential adversaries like China and Iran have built up their sub fleets," he blogged in a piece headlined Navy's Sub-Hunting Skills Declined While China, Iran Built More Submarines .

The subtle message here is that vital U.S. Navy ASW capability is eroding due to a longtime emphasis on counter insurgency, and with strong prospects for a dwindling future Navy budget, it might already be too late to turn around the ASW decline.

Yikes.

You can talk about stealth aircraft technology all you want, but there's really only one kind of military stealth vehicle on the planet, and that's the submarine.

Stealth aircraft might have low radar cross sections, but they still can be seen with the naked eye, and heard from long distances. Aircraft, no matter what their futuristic shapes, have a difficult time hiding from ever-more-sophisticated electro-optical sensors.

Land vehicles? They still have substantial infrared signatures, and they can be seen and heard just like aircraft. Surface ships? Please. Big metal objects against a cool, flat surface. Not much ability to hide there.

But submarines, they're a different story. It's true that ASW technology is advancing throughout the world, and today's advanced diesel-electric submarines are as close to silent as you can get.

The ocean, however, is a difficult and unpredictable environment in which to hunt submerged vessels. Water columns at different depths, water densities, and salinity levels often can be a difficult, if not impossible, barrier to even the most sophisticated sonar sensors.

Sophisticated U.S. submarines for decades have enjoyed the ability to hide from almost everyone. Today, however, it's getting tougher to do as adversaries make up technological ground quickly.

It wouldn't seem to be the most advantageous time to see U.S. ASW capability slipping, but there it is. Something else to think about as we careen ever-closer to that fiscal cliff.

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The Mil & Aero Bloggers

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

Ernesto Burden is the publisher of PennWell’s Aerospace & Defense Media Group, including Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence and Avionics Europe.  He’s a father of four, a runner, and an avid digital media enthusiast with a deep background in the intersection of media publishing, digital technology, and social media. He can be reached at ernestob@pennwell.com and on Twitter @aero_ernesto.

Courtney E. Howard, as executive editor, enjoys writing about all things electronics and avionics in PennWell’s burgeoning Aerospace and Defense Group, which encompasses Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence, the Avionics Europe conference, and much more. She’s also a self-proclaimed social-media maven, mil-aero nerd, and avid avionics geek. Connect with Courtney at Courtney@Pennwell.com, @coho on Twitter, and on LinkedIn.

Mil & Aero Magazine

December 2013
Volume 24, Issue 12
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