To Survive, American Submarines Must ‘Get Deeper’ (Thanks to China)

David Axe

The U.S. Navy is rethinking the way it deploys its submarines, all in order to help the powerful vessels avoid detection by increasingly sophisticated Chinese sensors.

“Get deeper,” is how Vice Adm. Chas Richard, commander of the 70-strong American submarine force, summarized his guidance. Richard spoke at a professional symposium in Virginia on Nov. 6, 2019. USNI News was the first to report Richard’s comments.

Richard and his staff reportedly are preparing a new strategy document, Vision 20XX, that will “outline the submarine force’s role in a future fight,” according to USNI News reporter Megan Eckstein.

The rapid improvement of submarine-detecting sensors is driving Richard’s rethinking. Traditionally, navies rely on active and passive sonar aboard surface ships and submarines to detect enemy boats. The U.S. fleet for decades has designed its own subs to counter that manner of detection, shaping the vessels to reduce their sound signatures while also developing tactics for slipping between layers of warm and cold water to mask noise.

But China’s new acoustic sensors on the Pacific Ocean seafloor, and space-based laser sensors that China also is deploying, complicate the U.S. fleet’s undersea operations. Thanks in part to new, more powerful computers that can process sensor data faster than ever before, there are more and more ways to hunt submarines.

“Instead of standard sonar, sub-hunters could use lasers or even light from LEDs, carefully tuned to frequencies that carry best underwater,” Bryan Clark, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C., told Breaking Defense.

“You could even eschew active sensing altogether and passively monitor changes in the ocean environment, such as changes in background noise from sea life or tiny ripples on the surface from a sub passing underneath,” Clark added. “These indirect detection methods also have their anti-aircraft counterparts, where ‘passive radar’ looks for stealth aircraft by analyzing disturbances in the background chatter of radio transmissions that are part of modern life.”

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