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Undersea Technologies Are Threat, Opportunity

January 23, 2015 (Photo Credit: General Dynamics Electric Boat)

WASHINGTON — A new generation of technologies is emerging with the potential to change the nature of undersea warfare, warns one naval analyst, and the US Navy needs to not just develop and employ the new tools, but also needs to change its operational concepts.

"We need to think about a new strategy for undersea warfare," said Bryan Clark, a former submariner and Navy strategist now with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

"Right now we tend to rely on submarines doing tactical operations on their own, in an environment where they can operate largely with impunity. All those things are going to change in the future," he told reporters Jan. 22 in Washington. "The threat is going to improve, opportunities to offload missions onto other vehicles are going to improve, and we can take advantage of that if we're going to again be the first mover into this new technology of undersea networks, unmanned vehicles and communication technologies."

Clark, in a new report on the emerging era in undersea warfare, urges the adoption of new technologies and a different approach to anti-submarine warfare (ASW).

New passive sonar technology is increasing detection ranges, he noted, and greatly improved processors can filter out background noise to reveal a target. But the targets themselves are ever-quieter, with some subs employing active noise-canceling technologies, making then increasingly hard to find via traditional acoustic methods.

Non-acoustic sensors, such as those that detect wave effects on the surface and in the water, may become tactically useful, he said, with processing and modeling improvements to enable real-time detection. The technologies include radar, electo-optical and infrared detection of surface effects.

A revolution also is occurring in undersea communications, Clark noted. Wired systems, fiber optic, laser, radio frequency, acoustics, light emitting diodes, all being used to transfer data and information. The techniques vary widely in bandwidth capability and transmission speed, but combined into a network, they can become effective.

Better communications techniques also improve the ability to control and use unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs), an area where technology is rapidly improving, particularly in commercial fields.

"UUVs could take over some submarine missions such as close-in surveillance," Clark said. "Submarines could shift to more of a carrier mothership role, deploying UUVs." The vehicles could be armed, he suggested, with new lightweight anti-torpedo torpedoes, and would also be able to carry out reconnaissance and surveillance missions closer to shore.

The Navy also needs to alter the way it approaches ASW, he urged.

"Operationally, we need to think about a different approach for ASW — not killing submarines, but maybe just rendering them ineffective as we've done in previous competitions, in World War I and World War II and the Cold War," Clark said.

New anti-submarine weapons are needed with ranges greatly exceeding the 12-nautical mile radius that basically defines existing anti-submarine rockets carried by surface ships.

"You could take an anti-ship cruise missile and put a torpedo on the end of it — a compact, very lightweight torpedo — and drop it on top of a submarine even if that submarine is 100 or 200 miles away," Clark said. "That torpedo doesn't have a high probability of kill, because you're shooting a long way away, but if you're the submarine, you don't have the luxury of waiting to see if that torpedo is going to hit you or not. Once it hits the water and it's relatively close to you and it goes active and is looking for you, you have to evade.

"So this submarine has now been rendered ineffective, he's been taken out of the fight. Either he's going to go fast to get away … or he's been taken out of the fight for days or longer while he regains his stealth."

The report is available online at http://csbaonline.org/

E-mail: ccavas@defensenews.com

Twitter: @cavasships

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