Submarines: The Enemy Wins One


August 9, 2007: A federal judge has managed to wreck the Pacific Fleet's ASW training in the most sweeping ruling concerning Navy sonar to date, prohibiting the Navy from using active sonars through 2009. How has this happened? Simply, put, the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a suit demanding a halt to the Navy's use of active medium-frequency sonars. The judge's ruling is a boon to countries that are acquiring advanced diesel-electric submarines like the Amur/Lada, Type 212/Type 214, and Scorpene.

This is not the first attack on the Navy's efforts to properly train its sailors in using active sonar. The 2006 RIMPAC exercise dealt with interference due to an injunction that later resulted in a settlement. Those exercises are one of the rare opportunities the Navy has to practice against some of the latest diesel-electric submarines with good crews (Australia, South Korea, and Japan sent such submarines to RIMPAC 2006).

Even then, these are advanced diesel-electric submarines. The Amur/Lada, Type 212/Type 214, and Scorpene have variants that use fuel cells or other forms of air-independent propulsion. While diesel engines can be loud enough to permit passive sonar to detect them soon enough to deal with them before they can fire their torpedoes, fuel cells are much quieter, and that makes active sonar a necessity. But having the tool doesn't guarantee success. One has to know how to use the tool. For military personnel, this often means practicing in conditions that come as close to war as possible while maintaining a safe environment for the personnel.

The use of active sonar during these exercises is necessary, not only to train American sonar operators, but also to train American submariners to deal with countries that use active sonar (and which don't have to deal with environmental groups suing the government to ban the use of active sonar). The military lives by the axiom, "you fight like you train." Realistic training gives the United States military its biggest advantage over opponents, much as was the case for the Roman army in ages past (the saying went, "Their drills are bloodless battles, their battles are bloody drills.") and for the U.S. military, too. Comments about Desert Storm often compared the experience to the Air Force's Red Flag exercises or the Army's National Training Center - with the caveat that the Iraqi forces weren't as tough.

This is an outgrowth from the success that the NRDC has had in the past in tying up the SURTASS LFA sonar system. In addition to delaying testing of that system, the lawfare over that experimental provided a precedent for the present suits against the medium-frequency systems. Now, the NRDC's lawfare, which has imposed a 29-month gap in training on the use of active sonar, has the potential to do real harm. In time of war, sailors will have no practical experience in using the active sonar on their vessels - or dealing with the use of active sonar by an enemy.

This would be the equivalent of asking Pierce Brosnan (who narrated a web video for the NRDC on sonar) to do a 007 movie without being able to rehearse the stunts. Brosnan at least gets re-takes if he were to mess up. The U.S. Navy will not be as lucky. There are no re-takes in war, and no way to re-float a sunken ship or to bring back dead sailors and Marines. - Harold C. Hutchison ([email protected])




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