In November, a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force plane noticed a suspicious object in Japanese waters off Okinawa.
News reports at the time said it was a Chinese submarine scouting coastal water routes. The observation sparked a small international incident and illustrated the rising threat of one of the most dangerous weapon platforms available, defense analysts say.
The amazing firepower of submarines, according to a congressional report, can take out ships and, if armed with cruise or nuclear missiles, even cities. They also can be used to spy, eavesdrop, transport Special Forces troops or float silently, awaiting the call to launch an offensive.
They can cut off an army’s supplies by impeding military sea- lifts and can disrupt commercial trade to entire nations.
Those capabilities, and their ability virtually to disappear, have elevated submarines to one of the key threats facing the U.S. Navy, according to the commander of all naval assets from San Diego to Africa, aside from the Persian Gulf.
Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Gary Roughead said he’s made anti-submarine warfare, or ASW, his biggest priority since assuming command this summer.
“If you want to be able to move freely” at sea “and have commerce flowing freely, you have to be able to overcome any submarine threat that exists,” Roughead told Stars and Stripes when visiting Japan last week.
Some 250 non-U.S. subs are believed to be in the Asia-Pacific region alone, he said.
The danger they represent and the means to track them has not changed much since the Cold War. But their numbers, capabilities and the countries now owning them means the U.S. Navy and allies must bolster their ability to find, track and, if needed, destroy them, he said.
China has 70 submarines, the Heritage Foundation reported in March. North Korea has 76, the world’s fourth-largest sub fleet.
Those subs could be monitoring military exercises or movements or tapping into communication channels. “The threat is hard to quantify because they’re hard to detect,” said Lt. Cmdr. Allen L. Edmiston, 7th Fleet Submarine Operations officer.
Salinity, topography and a host of other factors make detecting or “hearing” a sub underwater difficult, he said: “Sound goes through water in a special way.”
Improvements in underwater detection technology make the job easier but it still takes coordinated effort by the Navy’s ASW triad: helicopters and P-3 sub hunters in the air, ships on the surface and the Navy’s own submarine force.
To improve sub-tracking skills, Roughead said, he implemented “a cyclic approach” to training, using more frequent quarterly assessments. “We’re going to say, ‘OK, what all are we doing in ASW? What objectives did we have? Did we realize those and then what are we going to be doing in the next quarter?’”
The cycles include training exercises with other navies and integrating new technologies.
Among them is Composable Force Net, which integrates and displays multiple sources of information quickly for faster decision-making, Roughead said. It gives submarines an immediate view of something detected by a plane, for example.
Another new program uses sensors and other technology to form a “maritime shield.” According to a Pacific Fleet news release, it tells sonar operators about the ocean environment, helping them avoid obstacles underwater and allowing them to choose the best acoustic sensors for the environment.
ASW even is cropping up in other types of training. During this summer’s Singapore phase of Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training — a general naval training exercise — Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light 45 pilots had the rare opportunity to hunt a real Singaporean navy subm
Helicopter pilots usually hunt subs solely in simulators, said pilot Lt. j.g. Amy Sadeghzadeh.
Roughead said that type of training opportunity, with more or larger-scale ASW-specific training, will help the U.S. Navy remain dominant. “Make no mistake, we are very good at anti-submarine warfare,” Roughead said. “But as we look at how capability is growing in the world, we can’t simply sit here” and be satisfied with that.
By Jennifer H. Svan, Stars and Stripes
Pacific edition, Monday, October 3, 2005