Issue Date: September 27, 2004
Threats emerge from below
Thought to be a thing of the past, enemy submarines could be an obstacle to U.S. military might
By David Wood
Times staff writer
The Navy is the uncontested king of the high seas, but a new and ominous threat is growing in the world’s critical coastal waters and maritime choke points: quiet, long-endurance submarines, some armed with lethal torpedoes and sea-skimming cruise missiles.
The expanding numbers and increasing sophistication of submarines offer foes a deadly weapon with which to neutralize the United States’ overwhelming combat power and deny its access to critical shipping lanes and seaports.
Such a submarine in the wrong hands could wait undetected for a target — an American aircraft carrier, an amphibious ship packed with Marines — even a cruise ship jammed with vacationers. Result: images of the deadly torpedo wake, a flaming ship upended in the night and the loss of thousands of lives.
Our enemies “don’t need to buy a ballistic missile or a huge army,” Capt. David Yoshihara, who heads a new Anti-Submarine Warfare task force at the Pentagon, said in an interview.
U.S. nuclear attack submarines routinely travel with amphibious ships as scouts and guards. But as the foreign submarine threat grows, it could have more significant strategic impact, vastly complicating the fast and secure movement of warships and logistics support ships on which American military power increasingly depends.
Just as in World War II, indications of a lurking enemy sub would force a naval task force or freighter convoy to take evasive action on a more indirect route or to slow down while U.S. submarines and surface ships swept the seas ahead.
“The uncontested undersea superiority experienced during recent conflicts is not likely to be repeated against determined and capable adversaries,” retired Vice Adm. Albert Konetzni Jr. of the Navy’s Fleet Forces Command wrote in a recent essay in Proceedings, the journal of the private U.S. Naval Institute.
More than 300 foreign subs already are in operation, according to estimates by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Some Pentagon officials claim there are more than 400, fielded by 42 nations as diverse as Italy, Singapore, Indonesia, Algeria, Colombia, Croatia and Vietnam.
Attack submarines fielded by Pakistan, Egypt, Turkey and Chile, among other nations, carry sea-skimming anti-ship cruise missiles as well as torpedoes.
The submarines themselves run the gamut from rust-bucket to gleaming. The newest use a revolutionary technology enabling them to stay submerged and hidden for weeks.
These boats “are very similar to U.S. Navy state-of-the-art capability,” Rear Adm. Mark Kenny, the Navy’s deputy director for submarine warfare, said in an interview.
Finding them, he added, could be “a crap shoot.”
The problem has set off alarms within the Navy, which is scrambling to revive sub-hunting skills and technology left dormant since Soviet submarines disappeared as a threat more than a decade ago.
Among the new technologies the Navy hopes will help: unmanned, or “drone,” underwater spy vehicles; continuous active sonar, which sends out a streaming “ping” that bounces back to a sensor; air-dropped acoustic sensors that can be “seeded” over a wide area to pick up sound signals; and low-frequency active sonar that seeks out submarines thousands of miles away and bounces the signal to a nearby killer sub or destroyer.
All this, however, has embroiled the Navy in an ongoing fight with environmentalists who have evidence the sonar harms whales and other marine mammals.
While the Navy runs only nuclear-powered submarines, with engines that do not require fresh air, most other subs are powered by diesel engines that need air for combustion.
Modern diesel submarines use their engines for fast movement and to charge batteries, but can run silently and slowly on battery power for a few days before having to rise into shallow water to “snorkle” in fresh air.
Submarines are at their most vulnerable near the surface, where they generate splash and churn that can be picked up by acoustic sensors and sometimes even a wake that can be tracked by optical scanners on satellites.
But the newest submarines use “air-independent propulsion” technology — neither nuclear nor diesel — with engines that require no fresh air at all. One new German type uses a fuel cell to produce electricity from oxygen and hydrogen, which can propel the submarine for weeks of stealthy patrolling.
Such a vessel could lurk in shallow water, hidden by its silence and the normal clutter of coastal fishing boats and maritime traffic.
“Shallow water, you get a lot of noise reverberation and additional traffic — and you’re fighting in somebody else’s back yard which they know pretty well,” said Capt. Tom Abernethy, who commands the sub-hunting Destroyer Squadron 22 based in Norfolk, Va.
In that environment, a diesel sub “is absolutely a real threat, a formidable threat,” Abernethy said in a phone interview early this month, shortly after finishing a sub-hunting exercise off the Atlantic coast.
The military strategy evolving under the Bush administration makes the problem more acute. Based on the Iraq war model, the Pentagon now envisions a hard strike, immediately followed by waves of reinforcements and logistics support ships carrying fuel, ammunition, armored vehicles and troops. This “just-in-time” support requires fast and dependable schedules with little margin for delay.
This means the aircraft, destroyers and submarines that hunt enemy subs must be able to scan broad areas of water, quickly detect anything lurking, and shoot to kill the very first time.
“We can’t afford to play chess” with enemy submarines, Kenny said. “With the time lines we’re talking about, we have to go right to checkmate.”
And the Navy must be able to quickly sweep large areas to ensure they are free of hostile submarines, said Yoshihara.
“All it would take is just one lucky sub to get a hit on a carrier, and we have a huge problem,” said Rick Burgess, a former anti-submarine warfare officer who is managing editor of Sea Power magazine.
A modern American aircraft carrier has a crew of about 5,600.
After reading "Blind Man's Bluff", I am confident that the US Navy will be able to deal with this threat. Subs designated as enemies can easily dissapear...