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by Joseph J. Buff, [IMAGE]2003

Published in THE SUBMARINE REVIEW in the July 2003 issue

Photo Courtesy: Walter P. Noonan
[IMAGE] In the last few years pundits have occasionally posed a negative thesis regarding the future of America’s submarine fleet: “If some new detection technology emerges that can ‘see’ for a great distance right through the turbid oceans of the world, submarines would be useless as warfighting platforms.”

The present two-part article will address this thesis and largely refute it, by drawing on already ongoing U.S. Navy development programs in Undersea Warfare tactics and offensive and defensive weaponry. We will assess the subject objectively from first principles, guided always by the following premise: Any new technology that would supposedly be able to locate every submarine from long range, regardless of even the best acoustic and non-acoustic stealth, would still have to obey the laws of physics and of information theory, just as every other weapon system does. This premise will give us a handle on an open-ended subject, to organize this exposition into logical stages.

[Joe Buff / JoeBuff.Com] Let us label this hypothetical all-seeing new detection technology “MAGIC” -- to express its conjectural nature, and yet by adopting a project codename from Word War II also remind readers that breakthroughs (e.g., ASDIC, MAD, SOSUS) have repeatedly occurred in the past. Part I of this article will address the technical limitations which would inevitably apply, and develop (mostly passive) defenses and countermeasures suggested by those limitations. Part II will consider more active defenses, and attacks, against an enemy force equipped with hypothetical MAGIC.

Possible Technology Parameters

First, to demystify MAGIC, we note that it must have one or more of several attributes, in each of several parameters which would appear to apply to all naval target detection and tracking systems:

1. Emplacement of MAGIC: MAGIC might be based on the seafloor, “looking” around and upward; or based in the atmosphere and/or outer space, looking downward; or based on the ocean’s surface, operating from a surface ship; or based within the water column itself, on a submarine and/or a dipping or towed variable-depth platform (supported from on or above the surface); or based at least in part on land (either by choice or by necessity). The option might exist to base MAGIC in more than one of these ways.

2. Physical extent and portability of a MAGIC emplacement: MAGIC might employ a “single-point” small, mobile platform sufficient for making valuable observations; or might need multi-point observation nodes linked by a network to produce even minimally useful data; or might require a large fixed installation set up over a broad area to constitute just one indivisible observation point/platform/node (as in SOSUS or an ELF transmitter antenna).

3. Counter-detectability of MAGIC while in operation: Active, in the sense that the device itself makes emissions that could be observed via various counter-detectors; or passive, in that the device itself need not make observable emissions to perform its function. (Note the latter does not preclude the platform on which MAGIC is installed -- aircraft or surface ship for instance -- from itself being detectable.)

4. Symmetry/asymmetry of MAGIC: Can MAGIC be used by both the hunter platform and the hunted submarine, to “see” each other with equal clarity? Or is it “unilateral,” in that MAGIC can be used by the hunter platform but not by the hunted, for technical reasons? Symmetry also applies to whether one or both sides in a conflict possess the technology, and whether if only one side possesses it, the technology remains secret, i.e. its existence is not known by the other side.

The actual threat to submarines, and the specific impact on undersea warfare, would depend on exactly what MAGIC’s attributes were in each such parameter. However, whatever the details, certain limitations would apply implicit in these attributes, as discussed next. And as will be overviewed later, such limitations -- consistent with prior naval history -- always suggest tactics and technologies for self-defense, countermeasures, and spoiling attacks.

Limitations of All Detection-and-Tracking Systems

Because the basic rules of practical science apply to all devices that utilize any combination of matter and energy to perform useful work, MAGIC would have limitations in the following regards:

1. Attenuation rate: Emissions and signatures, of search devices and targets, spread out with distance according to physical laws. (Even focused laser beams do spread.) This leads to weakening, or attenuation. For instance, when the spherical spreading model applies, the signal strength of an SSN’s broadband and tonals declines inversely with the square of range. The signal strength of an active sonar echo off that SSN’s hull, as picked up by the platform emitting the “ping,” declines inversely with fourth power of range.

2. Image resolution: Every search system has a limit, as to the angular separation between two distinct objects, below which the system cannot tell the two objects apart. Similarly, every system has a limit as to the angular size of an object, below which that object cannot be recognized by the system as existing at all. The greater the distance between an object of a given size and the search system, the smaller the angle subtended and the more likely the object is to fall below the resolution limit. Wear-and-tear on equipment, and “creeping miscalibration” or deferred maintenance and battle damage, can worsen resolution far below the nominal or theoretically ideal. If the bearing to the detector is known, a vessel can also maneuver to present its smallest aspect toward that bearing.

3. Environmental noise and clutter: Whatever combination of matter and energy are utilized by a search system to do searches, the environment in which the system exists (including its internal equipment, electronic circuitry, and power supply), and the environment in which potential targets exist, will both contain other matter and energy which baffle the system’s automated algorithms and also confuse its human operators. This unwanted, misleading, or distorting naturally occurring matter and energy is “noise.” Noise causes false positive detections, whose prosecution waste time, effort, and ammunition, and can lead to increasing operator fatigue, apathy, and carelessness. Noise can cause false negatives, in which real targets fail to be noticed. The latter, to the hunter, is a highly undesirable outcome.

4. Aggregate area search rate per unit time: The surface area of all the world’s oceans is several trillion square miles. Even when the zone relevant to a given operation is greatly narrowed, a search system requires an allowance of adequate time to carry out complete surveillance with minimal positive and negative false alarms: The area search rate -- and also, the total field of view and the mobility of a single MAGIC installation -- would determine how many separate installations would be needed to cover a given theater of battle rapidly. The achievable aggregate search rate might be protracted compared to the period during which crucial command decisions must be made.

5. Data integration lag, and processing delay or failure: Some forms of search technology must observe each individual small unit of area or volume for a non-trivial period to be able to gather meaningful and reliable data. Some types of raw data are not useful for target detection and command decision-making until after computational processing which may require non-trivial intervals of computer time. During savage battle, computer time might be available only in competition with other critical tactical and strategic requirements, and then only in the face of aggressive opposition-force information warfare attacks (eavesdropping, virus and worm hacking against communication links and switching equipment, plus degradation of computer hardware, operating systems, data storage, and applications software).

6. Cost, lead-time, and security of system specifications: New technologies and weapon systems are expensive; no nation’s defense budget can ever expand to infinity. From initial proposal of concept, to solving of practical implementation problems, to prototyping, testing, mass production, and field deployment and operator training, can take years. Delays and budget caps may limit the actual utility of MAGIC. Espionage and counter-espionage might also prove decisive to the effectiveness of MAGIC -- knowledge by the opposition of operating details and performance specs enables devising optimal counter-techniques, as will be elaborated below.

These six broad limitations, piling up in chaotic real-world combat conditions, place maximums on:

  • 1. The area over which MAGIC could be employed, and
  • 2. The reliability of MAGIC inside that area.
  • [Joe Buff / JoeBuff.Com] Actions by the defender to “erode” this area size and reliability will be treated in the following section.

    But first, note that even if the hunted submarine were acquired by MAGIC, all is not lost. “Detected” does not necessarily mean “damaged or destroyed.” The target can fight back: against the detection system itself, against prosecution platforms dispatched because of the detection system, and against weapons launched from the prosecution platforms.

    When network-centric warfare is running full tilt, this fighting back can employ many friendly assets working in concert with the threatened submarine or submarines. The present concept of Joint Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (JSEAD) would extend to a Joint Suppression of Enemy Anti-Submarine Defenses (JSEASD?), in which total “water superiority” is achieved by a hypermodern combined-arms blitzkrieg extending even into cyberspace. This will be the main theme of Part II.

    Countermeasures and (Mostly Passive) Defensive Tactics

    Were MAGIC to indeed emerge -- whatever form it took -- the value of naval submarines would by no means disappear. If the future of military technology trends/counter-trends is at all consistent with present and past -- and even allowing for discontinuities such as the transistor or laser -- then means would be found to help submarines “disappear” from MAGIC’s “radar scope.” These means could derive from the following versatile toolkit:

    1. Physical barriers to line of sight and signal: The atmosphere, the ocean, and outer space are subject to obstructions to line of sight, which may obscure completely, or garble/distort, or weaken detection signals. These obstructions can be permanent or transient, fixed or mobile. One example is the blend of dry-land geography and jutting seafloor terrain. An island, or towering underwater seamount, may completely block the ability to detect a submarine if the line of sight from the detector intersects this solid terrain. Over long enough ranges, and depending on the altitude of the detector platform, the earth’s horizon or the entire bulk of the planet interferes. In addition, both the atmosphere and the ocean are subject to weather phenomena. Clouds, massive waves in major storms, and undersea currents, sonar layers, and “storm fronts” as well, can degrade detection technologies as well as impair the operation of their host platforms (e.g., aircraft or surface ships). Other sources of obscuration, or concealment from MAGIC, might be man-made or artificial, such as oil slicks or plankton blooms. Note that even the gravimetric gradiometer, which relies on gravity fields to “see” through solid rock, is reportedly unable to detect a moving object -- including the mass concentration of a nuclear submarine’s very dense reactor shielding and core.

    2. Jamming and spoofing: When the specific characteristics of a detection system are known, such as the form of electromagnetic energy or other energy it emits or relies upon, it is possible to mislead or overwhelm the detection system. Just as with radar, where knowing frequency and pulse rate and pulse shape can be used to create false targets or disguise real ones, MAGIC -- whatever form such a new technology might take -- could similarly be vulnerable to a combination of intelligence on its detailed workings and engineering know-how to devise ways to delude it.

    3. Decoys and diversions: Unlike toying with the fields -- electromagnetic, gravimetric, magnetic, acoustic, etc. -- that MAGIC might utilize, the threatened target sub might deploy physical objects (decoys) to confuse the detection system or its operators. In addition, a well planned operation can include many forms of maneuvers, attacks, and distractions which would serve as diversions to defeat the effectiveness of MAGIC itself, and/or to confound the opposition-force human leadership relying on MAGIC data.

    4. Low observable materials and equipment: As with items 2 and 3 above, intelligence as to the technical specifications of a MAGIC device can be used to “engineer around it.” A smart and ingenious team of scientists, naval architects, oceanographers, and submariners can aim to swiftly invent materials and/or hull shapes which either absorb or deflect active MAGIC detection emissions, or repress submarine signatures on which a passive MAGIC might rely. If, for instance, it is learned that the behavior of certain types of moving parts within the submarine, such as heavy equipment which rotates rapidly, somehow can be located via “action at a distance” by MAGIC, steps can be taken to redesign that equipment, or to surround it by shielding that blocks whatever it is MAGIC is trying to find and localize and track.

    5. Maneuvering to avoid: If the location of MAGIC platforms can be identified by friendly battle formations or recon or intelligence sources, then submarines can seek to avoid detection by planning their routes and operations so as to maneuver away from MAGIC. Similarly, if the range, resolution, field of view, and search/scanning patterns-rates of MAGIC detectors are known, this information can be used to plan successful undersea warfare campaigns that stay outside MAGIC’s effective detection zones.

    Conclusion of Part I

    Unconventional detection and tracking devices can also be countered by unconventional high-tech and low-tech subterfuges. These include:

    1. Shell games in port: While MAGIC might allow tracking of submarines at sea, and possibly even identification of individual vessels, the situation in port could be different. While it is obviously impossible to install physical anti-MAGIC shielding over a large area of the ocean, to do so in a sheltered harbor or submarine base might become feasible and cost-effective if the need ever really arose. This would permit the shuffling around of different submarines of the same class under an impenetrable “awning,” to help confuse the enemy, at least for a while.

    2. “Glomar Explorer II”: The vessel constructed in the 1960s to recover a sunken Soviet Golf-class SSK with nuclear missiles from the ocean floor points the way to an important question: When is a submarine not a submarine? Answer: When it’s concealed inside a surface ship that serves as a covert transporter. If a stricken Golf could be swallowed whole by a ship built in the 1960s, why might a perfectly functional SSN not be swallowed whole by a ship built in the 2020s? Perhaps one way to fool MAGIC would be to covertly build several such SSN-transporter ships, and use them to play shell games at sea in the face of the enemy. These ships might prove useful in any case, such as to carry a submarine through a canal or nautical choke point unnoticed.

    3. “Boomer” or SSGN?: Since four of the Ohio-class SSBNs are being converted to SSGNs, and they will from any distance still appear virtually identical, another form of shell game or bait-and-switch might be used to confuse an enemy possessing MAGIC. Boomers could behave on deployment like SSGNs, at least part of the time, and vice versa. This can enhance the security of both the SSBNs and the SSGNs. An enemy not sure which was which might very well hesitate to attack either, given the potentially catastrophic strategic implications of threatening an opponent’s SSBN fleet: thermonuclear retaliation.

    4. Underway/undersea replenishment: The Glomar Explorer II concept alluded to above, combined with the need for the largest possible submarine weapons loadout in a future conflict scenario involving MAGIC, together suggest another technique worth investigation and possible development -- underway undersea replenishment of submarine “magazines.” Entry into a clandestine SSN-transporter vessel from below, while local countermeasures to MAGIC are taken, might permit an SSN or SSGN to replenish torpedoes and missiles while at sea, near the forward battle area. This would maximize on-station time, and therefore increase the overall utility of each friendly submarine hull. This in turn might compensate -- or more than compensate -- for any disadvantage caused by MAGIC in enemy hands.

    Part II will attempt to show that in a future world which seems quite believable based upon informed projection from now, submarines do not require total stealth in today’s sense to remain an indispensable type of war-winning capital ship.

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