Submarines: This Judge Got It

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September 3, 2007: The U.S. Navy's efforts to maintain realistic anti-submarine warfare training got a boost when the Ninth Circuit Court temporarily reversed an injunction granted earlier this month. In essence, the Ninth Circuit stated that the lower court had failed to properly take into consideration the national security interests of the United States.

What sort of national security interests are there? Well, the United States military had long had an edge in the quality of its troops. This training is well known in cases like Red Flag, the National Training Center, or Top Gun. But other areas of warfare need this training, too. One of these areas has been anti-submarine warfare.

The use of active sonar during those training 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." This 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.

New non-nuclear submarines like the Russian Amur/Lama, the French Scorpene, and the German Type 212 are entering service. Unlike past non-nuclear submarines, which used diesel-electric plants, these submarines also come in 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 far away, fuel cells are much quieter, and that makes active sonar a necessity. The quieter a submarine is, the closer it can get to a ship using passive sonar. An active system negates this by bouncing sound waves off of the hull of a submarine. How quiet a submarine is does not matter when active sonar has located it.

Environmental groups, like the Natural Resources Defense Council, have filed multiple suits, and have won injunctions, limiting the use of active sonar in training exercises. They often did grant exemptions for war, but the problem was that war is the wrong time to start learning how to use active sonar.

This would be the equivalent of asking Pierce Brosnan (who has narrated a web video for the NRDC on sonar) to do a 007 movie without being able to rehearse the lines or stunts. Brosnan at least gets re-takes if he were to mess up. The appeals court, though, recognized that the U.S. Navy would not get any re-takes in war, nor could it re-float a sunken ship or to bring back dead sailors and Marines, and allowed the Navy to resume training - for now. - Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)

 


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