Information Warfare: The War Against U.S. Submarines


January25, 2007: The Department of Defense has given the Navy a two-year exemption form certain provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a decision that will cause more lawfare from environmental groups. The primary purpose of this exemption is not only to let the Navy get realistic ASW training, involving the use of active sonar, but it will also allow the Navy to thoroughly document the environmental conditions of various ASW training ranges. This is being done in hopes of ending a long-running controversy that has tied up vital training that could lead to disaster for the U.S. Navy.

At issue is training with active sonars. These have become more important in the face of improved diesel-electric submarines. After all, a navy - or any other military force - fights like it trains. This is why places like the National Training Center have been so important to the U.S. Army. Because of this realistic and intensive training, American forces have had a decisive edge on the battlefield.

One example of what can happen, when the training is cut back, is the incident last October involving a Song-class submarine that surfaced near the USS carrier Kittyhawk. More aggressive use of active sonar would probably have picked up that submarine before it could have gotten within range of the carrier. The SURTASS LFA system in development reportedly can detect submarines up to 185 kilometers away, a significant increase when compared to current sonars. Another system will use small explosive charges to help detect enemy submarines.

However, the Navy has had to fight battles in court just to be able to train its sonar operators and to develop the new systems. Environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, many of which have famous people like actor Pierce Brosnan to lend their celebrity to the cause, have filed a number of suits against the Navy over active sonar, both the SURTASS LFA system, and medium-frequency systems like the SQS-53 used on Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and the SQS-56 used on the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates.

These suits have come despite the fact that there is no proof that the United States Navy has ever deliberately sought to harm whales. In fact, the Navy has halted exercises when requested to do so by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and when whales come within 200 meters of a sonar dome. The Navy also conducts aerial surveys before, during, and after exercises, looking for whales and dolphins. They never get much credit for these efforts.

These problems led to an authorization of exemptions from provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act for the U.S. Navy's sonar testing in the 2004 Defense Authorization bill. Even though they won that fight, the Navy is planning to take steps to minimize the risk to whales and dolphins during these exercises, based on the documentation of the ranges, which will enable then to determine what steps need to be taken.

Whether this will work remains to be seen. The exemption itself could be thwarted through lawsuits, like one in 2006 during the RIMPAC exercises. The NRDC has also been going to agencies like the California Coastal Commission, which voted 8-1 earlier this month to impose restrictions on Navy sonar training. The Navy's battle for realistic ASW training, particularly with active sonar, is one that seems to have no end in sight. - Harold C. Hutchison ([email protected])




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