In early 2014 U.S. Navy submarine detection experts got a scare when a Russian Vishnya class AGI (Auxiliary General Intelligence, or electronic reconnaissance) ship was seen several times off the east coast of Florida, in the vicinity of naval air and submarine bases. The Vishnya spotted off Florida was accompanied by a sea going tug. Both ships used Cuban ports for resupply. The two ships apparently first showed up in Cuba in February. What scared the submarine detection crowd was the recent realization that computers had become cheap and powerful enough to make it possible to detect submarines via the faint signs (like disturbance of the surface waters above them) that they leave. It has been known for decades that these telltale signs existed and that with sufficient computing power and sensitive enough sensors you could use this method to track submarines in real time. In other words, it no longer mattered how quiet a sub was, just whether it was there or not and moving. U.S. Navy experts had been doing the math and realized that the time was rapidly approaching, if not already here, when the sensors were sensitive enough and the computers fast enough to unmask all current subs. All this sort of thing is generally known in academic circles but exactly what the navy or intel agencies know is top secret. It is believed that the Russians have, for decades, done a lot of theoretical work in this area. Since the early 1990s Russia has had access to the fastest computer tech and latest commercial sensor technology. Thus on paper this puts the Russians very close to a breakthrough. No one is saying what the Vishnya type ship was doing off the American East Coast in 2014 although it could just have been the usual AGI collection of electronic signals (ELINT) or simply to annoy the Americans.
The Vishnya’s are 3,500 ton vessels that are 94.4 meters (312 feet) long and carry a crew of about 140 sailors and technicians. These ships sport several domes protecting antennae and the ship is crammed with computers and signals processing gear. What the Americans were not sure of was what underwater sensors the Vishnya’s carried and how much computer power was installed. It was known that armament consisted of two 30mm autocannon for missile defense and several shoulder fired surface to air missiles for dealing with aircraft that get too close. But that was not the problem, what was hidden inside these ships was. Seven of these ships were built doing the 1980s and all are in service although they spent most of their time in port since the 1990s. In the last few years these AGIs have been seen at sea a lot more.
The question was had the Russians, or the Chinese, developed the sensors and software to make this now form of submarine detection work. Were the Russians and Chinese even working much in this direction. It was known that during the Cold War the Russians were active in this area, at least in terms of the theory. That was confirmed after the Cold War ended. But since the late 1990s Russian research in those areas has gone dark again and it’s the uncertainties that are making American submariners nervous.
AGI ships are mainly about electronic reconnaissance and collection. Just keeping track of the enemy's electronic devices has become a major operation, especially since no one knows exactly how everyone’s electronic equipment will interact until there is a sustained period of use. Such use does not occur in peacetime, when the EW equipment is used infrequently for training and testing. All electronic equipment has a unique electronic signature. Even equipment that is not broadcasting will appear a certain way to various sensors like radar or sonar. Thus a critical peacetime function is to determine what these signatures are. For this reason navies and air forces devote a significant amount of their time tracking other nation’s capabilities.
As a counter to ESM (Electronic Support Measures), equipment is disguised where possible. Signals can be varied in some circumstances. For equipment that is detected by shape and composition, like aircraft and ships, their shape and substance can be designed to minimize detection. This is the essence of the stealth technology that the United States is applying to a number of vehicles, especially aircraft. Small ships, aircraft, helicopters and vehicles loaded with sensors do most of the collecting. Low flying satellites are useful for catching signals deep inside a nation’s territory. UAVs are used also, plus robotic sensors that are left on the ground or sea bottom. Collection involves more than sensors. Recording devices, foreign language interpreters and signal processing equipment also come into play. AGIs are useful because they can sit off the coast and listen for days, weeks or longer.
Computers are increasingly crucial in sifting through the ocean of data swept up. Huge libraries of signals are collected, analyzed and boiled down to manageable amounts of data that friendly troops and weapons can use. ESM has been so successful that one entire class of sensors, active sensors, has become endangered. Active sensors detect things by broadcasting a signal. When this signal bounces off something, the sensor detects the bounce back and knows something is out there. This is the basis of radar, which broadcasts microwaves, and sonar, which broadcasts sound. Because of the signal being broadcast, a passive sensor can detect it.
Passive sensors just listen. Because active sensor signals must reach an object in sufficient force to bounce something back, a vehicle (aircraft or ship) carrying a passive sensor will detect a vehicle carrying an active sensor first. This is what happens you use a radar detector in your car to detect police speed trap radars. You usually have time to slow down before your illegal speed is detected by the police radar. As users of these devices well know, there is constant competition to come up with better radars and countermeasures. Passive sensors are the hot item in research and development these days, and for obvious reasons. Passive sensors are nearly impossible to detect. Passive sensors can also pick a wide variety of signals. Infrared sensors can detect heat, including something as faint as body heat or the hot skin of an approaching jet aircraft.