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The Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Rhode Island (SSBN 740) returns to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, March 20, 2013, after three months at sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber/Released)

The Mirage of a Transparent Ocean

By Rear Adm. Charles Richard
Director, Undersea Warfare (OPNAV N97)

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados (June 7, 2011) Navy Diver 2nd Class Ryan Arnold, assigned to Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2, snorkels on the surface to monitor multinational divers below conducting diving operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jayme Pastoric/Released)
BRIDGETOWN, Barbados (June 7, 2011) Navy Diver 2nd Class Ryan Arnold, assigned to Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2, snorkels on the surface to monitor multinational divers below conducting diving operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jayme Pastoric/Released)

Mankind is unique in the sense that when faced with a problem not solvable with our naturally gifted tools, we have the ingenuity to invent something that can assist in our endeavor. Humans are not amphibious yet, when the desire for exploration presented itself, the first mariners came to be. The past centuries have seen tremendous technological advancements but by no means do we have full awareness of all the climates we operate in today.

In the context of the undersea domain, a concept of a “transparent ocean” has been “the next big thing” for decades. Is there ever a way that we could see and know everything that operates in the ocean? Will big data, unmanned systems, ocean sensor systems and/or cyber threats have the same effect as radar had on airplane detection? Radar-based air defense systems revolutionized air warfare beginning in the 1930s and some might believe there could be a single technology to have the same kind of sudden, powerful and game-changing effect in the undersea domain. However, we are confident in our continued ability to exploit the undersea to our advantageeven with the continued progress of technology. Allow me to explain.

The recent tragedies involving Malaysian Flight 370 and EgyptAir Flight 804 is evidence the oceans are anything but transparent. Both of these commercial airliners have technology designed to help find a plane in the event of a crash — an emergency locator transmitter. In the case of the EgyptAir flight, the authorities were working from a fairly well-defined datum to localize their search but it still took weeks to pinpoint the exact location of the EgyptAir flight 804; the Malaysian flight remains missing. By comparing an active, stationary transmitter to a moving, quiet submarine, one can more readily understand why finding a submarine is still a difficult task.

ATLANTIC OCEAN (Aug. 18, 2014) PCU North Dakota (SSN 784) during bravo sea trials. The submarine North Dakota is the 11th ship of the Virginia class, the first U.S. Navy combatants designed for the post-Cold War era. (U.S. Navy photo/Released)
ATLANTIC OCEAN (Aug. 18, 2014) PCU North Dakota (SSN 784) during bravo sea trials. The submarine North Dakota is the 11th ship of the Virginia class, the first U.S. Navy combatants designed for the post-Cold War era. (U.S. Navy photo/Released)

 

The Physics of the Undersea Domain are Brutal.

Finding and attacking submarines isn’t as easy as it sounds. The general-purpose tools that work on the surface, land and in the air – radar, optics, radio, vision, bullets, bombs and missiles – are all useless undersea. Water distorts how information is sent and received, so these tools and weapons do not perform as expected or at all. The tools that do work undersea, like acoustics, still distort the information but, if translated correctly, the information can still be used. The translated information isn’t relayed as a complete answer. It takes sequential processing of seemingly implausible events, from indirect detection (hearing a noise) to direct detection (listening to a clear signal) to classification (understanding what we are listening to) and localization (knowing exactly where the source of the signal is at), just to find a submarine. If this sequence is broken at any point, the submarine remains hidden. To successfully attack a submarine, the entire sequence must be completed and a highly sophisticated weapon must be accurately placed. The physical properties of water make it very hard to find and kill submarines. The U.S. Navy has to take advantage of these difficulties to keep our submarines hidden while using systems that make it possible for us to find other submarines. It is a relentless, daily struggle with our global competitors.

Submarine Security is Not Automatic.

The daily struggle to maintain a dominant position requires superiority in both submarine security, aka hiding, and in anti-submarine warfare, aka finding. It requires a better understanding of the ocean environment, better tools, better information processing, better operators, better intelligence on adversary capabilities and better ability to counter advances by the competition. The Navy’s job is, and has been, to occupy the dominant position across all of these undersea disciplines so we must be vigilant in being the best in undersea science, technology, engineering, intelligence and operational skill. We are constantly striving to improve both our ability to hide and our ability to find.

Limitless Thinking Meets Rigor.

In 1968, realizing the importance of preserving our advantage in submarine security, the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (OSD-AT&L) and the Navy chartered the SSBN Security Technology Program to avoid surprises and preserve a survivable sea-based strategic deterrent. The Navy’s SSBN Security Technology Program and SSN/SSGN Survivability Program maintain healthy efforts to do just that. The SSBN Security Technology Program and SSN/SSGN Survivability Program identify emerging risk areas and map out proactive mitigation plans years before anything starts showing up in the mainstream media. The objective is to research what other nations might be doing to find our submarines as well as what is scientifically possible to achieve. The scientific rigor must be conducted; we cannot accept inaccurate answers or imprecise measurements in brutal competitions undersea.

These dedicated efforts and established rigor have resulted in a submarine force able to conduct undetected operations around the world, penetrate adversary safe havens, threaten attacks with surprise at the time and place of our choosing, provide persistent and survivable strategic deterrence, and leverage the multiplying effect of our submarines’ ambiguity and uncertainty. We will continue to do the hard work necessary so that our submarine force remains able to exploit undersea stealth and deliver our Nation all of the strength and power that come with it.

The Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Rhode Island (SSBN 740) returns to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, March 20, 2013, after three months at sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber/Released)
The Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Rhode Island (SSBN 740) returns to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, March 20, 2013, after three months at sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber/Released)

How We Sustain Superiority as Technology Evolves.

The SSBN Security Technology Program and SSN/SSGN Survivability Program are just two parts of an integrated Navy approach to preserving undersea superiority that spans the undersea community and rests on:

  • A culture built around monitoring, anticipating, recognizing and responding to changes in the threat. We work to ensure that we can make the needed changes early, quickly, smoothly and effectively. Every day it is predict, act, evaluate, feedback and repeat.
  • A culture empowered to think about what is possible and see if it can happen. We monitor and stimulate science, technology, engineering and intelligence to preserve our position on the cutting edge of undersea advances.
  • Robust stealth in the design, construction and maintenance of submarines. A stealthy new submarine can only be kept that way by careful maintenance, skilled craftsmen and operators over the life of the ship.
  • The technologies that we use to achieve stealth must be protected from compromise in how we plan and execute operations. Stealth can be undermined by too much speed or predictability, too many transmissions and too small of an operating area; this includes planners and submarine crews. Smart, highly-trained, experienced professionals plan undersea missions and operate U.S. submarines.
  • Sufficient numbers of submarines and operational unpredictability are required because even the stealthiest submarine can be found if an adversary knows exactly where and when to look. The U.S. Navy forces the competition to watch as many places as possible, all the time.

The Final Analysis.

The ocean will remain constant, unforgiving and brutal, but there is no doubt that change and adaptation will continue in undersea warfare. The U.S. Navy will continue to take vigilant, proactive steps accounting for technology advancements and behavior adjustments in the competition. Our nation expects and deserves nothing but the best in undersea science, technology, engineering, construction, maintenance, intelligence and operational skills. We will continue to find and we will continue to hide.

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