Report: U.S. Undersea Dominance is in Jeopardy

A new study says emerging submarine detection technologies, computer processing power and platforms such as underwater drones could quickly erode the U.S. military’s global undersea dominance and ability to operate in high-threat areas such as locations near enemy coastlines.

The U.S. military relies upon submarines and undersea technological superiority for critical underwater intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance missions, which place assets near the surface fleet or coastline of a potential adversary.

In coming years, the technological margin of difference separating the U.S from potential rivals is expected to get much smaller, requiring the U.S. the re-think the role of manned submarines and prioritize innovation in the realm of undersea warfare, according to a January report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments titled “The Emerging Era in Undersea Warfare.”

“America’s superiority in undersea warfare results from decades of research and development, operations, and training. It is, however, far from assured. U.S. submarines are the world’s quietest, but new detection techniques are emerging that don’t rely on the noise a submarine makes, and may make traditional manned submarine operations far more risky in the future. America’s competitors are likely pursuing these technologies even while expanding their own undersea forces,” the report states.

Navy officials told the service was doing all that it could to retain its undersea technological advantage.

The U.S. has enjoyed an undersea technological advantage because it has quieter submarines that are more difficult to detect — combined with advanced sonar technology designed to find enemy submarines, the report’s author told

“At the end of WWII we did not have an undersea advantage. The Germans had developed submarines with snorkels and the US was searching for how they would deal with them. The new subs could avoid radar detection and were quiet when using their batteries. Then, nuclear submarines came along. Passive sonar worked really well against them because they make noise continuously.  Passive sonar works well against nuclear submarines and is less effective against diesels,” said Bryan Clark, the study’s author and senior fellow at CSBA.

Submarines are built to be quieter and less detectable through special engineering techniques which reduce the resonance of sound from the propeller and place insulation and sound-absorbing mounts in parts of the boat which radiate sound, Clark explained.

“This requires high-end manufacturing techniques. You engineer every component on the ship to be quiet and engineer them such that the noise does not reach the hull,” he said.

In the report, Clark details some increasingly available technologies expected to change the equation regarding U.S. undersea technological supremacy. They include increased use of lower frequency active sonar and non-acoustic methods of detecting submarine wakes at short ranges. In particular, Clark cites a technique of bouncing laser light or light-emitting-diodes off of a submarine hull to detect its presence.

“The physics behind most of these alternative techniques has been known for decades, but was not exploited because computer processors were too slow to run the detailed models needed to see small changes in the environment caused by a quiet submarine. Today, ‘big dat’” processing enables advanced navies to run sophisticated oceanographic models in real time to exploit these detection techniques,” Clark writes.

If U.S. attack submarines, SSNs, or nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines, SSBNs, equipped with the latest in quieting technology are unable to elude detection by potential adversaries – then strategists and planners might need to re-examine their roles and missions, the report suggests.

“In the last 20 years there has been a dramatic increase in computer processing power and a miniaturization of computer processing. It used to be that some of these technologies could not be used in real-time. The ability to process and use information in real-time was not there. Processing power is now small enough and powerful enough to fit onto a platform,” Clark told

As a result, Clark foresees a much greater use of low-frequency active sonar detection, a technology which can successfully detect submarines at greater distances than most current systems.

“Most hull mounted sonars are medium band transmitting 1,000 to 10,000 hertz (Hz), whereas low frequency active sonar is less than 1,000 Hz. At lower frequencies you get longer ranges. At high frequency you get good resolution. At really high frequency you can get almost photographic like images,” Clark explained.

With longer range frequencies, sonar systems can have greater success searching multiple areas concurrently, he explained.

Underwater Drones

In addition, the report points out that unmanned underwater vehicles, or UUVs, will increasingly be used for “covert coastal surveillance and mining” previously reserved for manned submarines.

“Advances in battery and fuel cell technology are expected to enable non-nuclear submarines, UUVs and other undersea systems to operate for months submerged and power a growing number of sensors and other payloads. For example, the newest Japanese Soryu-class submarines will use lithium-ion batteries instead of air-independent engines for power when submerged,” Clark writes.

The same improvements that are making submarine detection easier will also likely enable a new generation of sophisticated counter-detection technologies and techniques, the report says.

“Against passive sonar, a submarine or UUV could emit sound to overcome its own radiated noise using a technique similar to that used in noise cancelling headphones. Against active sonars, undersea platforms could–by themselves or in concert with UUVs and stationary or floating systems–conduct acoustic jamming similar to that done by electronic warfare systems against radar,” the report states.

Clark also sees a rapidly increasing ability for UUVs and manned submarines to work in tandem. For instance, he explains how the Navy’s now-in-development Compact Very Lightweight Torpedo, or CVLWT, could be fired from UUVs as an offensive weapon.  The CVLWT is less than one-third of the size of the smallest torpedo currently operated by the Navy.

“Although the CVLWT has a short range, large UUVs could carry it as an offensive weapon and exploit their small size and signature to maneuver the torpedo close to a target,” Clark added. “Similarly, small UAVs such as the Navy’s Experimental Fuel Cell UAV have relatively short endurance but can be launched by submarines or UUVs close to adversary coasts. They can take advantage of continued miniaturization in electro-optical, infrared and radar sensors to conduct surveillance or electronic warfare missions.”

Undersea communication technology is rapidly changing as well, potentially allowing submarines to remain somewhat stealthy while communicating with other submarines and surface forces.

“Acoustic communications are increasingly able to operate over operationally relevant distances, while at shorter ranges LEDs and lasers could provide greater bandwidth. And new floating or towed radio transceivers enable submerged platforms to communicate with forces above the surface without risking detection,” Clark writes.

Clark recommends the Navy consider the prospect of thinking about manned submarines as an undersea equivalent to aircraft carriers – meaning they could project power, provide support and send forth smaller UUVs for sensing and attack missions.

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.
  • rat

    It was inevitable (here and airpower) that the rest of the world would catch up to worlds Super Power(s). The US’s advantage (here and elsewhere) may be reduced, but an advantage still exists, and no one has an advantage over the USN for a while yet.

    Prompt Global Strike will also help out by easing some burdens of some missions on the attack subs.

  • blight_

    It’ll be a boom time for new smaller subs to do great things. The big subs will be able to ply the deep ocean in ways that smaller subs will find challenging.

    Winning underwater warfare will belong to the people with the best underwater cartography, and those who have mapped out every nook and cranny of the deep. Those who know the thermoclines, the best layers to hide in, the best layers to propagate a sonar signal through, etc and those with the best sensors to see in will have a serious advantage.

    Larger subs will be able to mount larger, more powerful detection gear, which can equalize things with smaller subs. It should be interesting.

  • Dfens

    Hey, I have an idea. Let’s keep paying defense contractors more to screw up, more to drag out the design of all our weapons. Let’s make the design of weapons more profitable than building them, and then we can all stand back and wonder why we lost our technology advantage. We can wake the hell up before the enemy comes over the hill or wait until after. After is going to hurt a lot worse.

  • Kostas

    The whole study is very weak because it is based on a notion that is not adequately supported. There has been no breakthrough in submarine detection technology neither one is expected. The low frequency sonar has been around for decades without changing the game. Laser and LED light for the detection of subs? I really cannot follow the imagination of the writer here. Big data? the limiting factor is not the computing power. I need to see something more convincing about the potential of future detection systems. Until then I continue to regard submarines as the ultimate stealth platform.

  • Lance

    I agree we always need to update our SSBNs and our VA and LA class attack subs. But enough with drone im sick and tired of computer geeks trying to get rid of our attacks subs. I do not see China getting better subs as well Russia has good designs but very few built. With lad war against Ukraine doubt the Russian Navy will get funding for them anytime soon. Overall we need the newest sensors and computers for the sub more stinking drones NO.

  • bevisbutthead

    It is back to blind man’s bluff. With off board sensors and weapons, who knows what could and will happen with plausible deniability. They aren’t called the silent service for nothing.

  • Tad

    This article contradicts itself. First, it says in two places that US submarines are the quietest, but then a paragraph or two later it says:

    “Then, nuclear submarines came along. Passive sonar worked really well against them because they make noise continuously. Passive sonar works well against nuclear submarines and is less effective against diesels,”

    The US only operates nuclear submarines. So how can they be the quietest when passive sonar, i.e., listening, is more useful against nuclear subs than diesel subs.

  • tomatojuice

    Gotland class anyone?

  • Sandy

    would you submariners please stop using the word “covert” - nothing you do is “covert”. It is clandestine, not “covert”…look up the meaning of the word.

  • Virgil Cuttaway

    We are going to see large drops in our military preparedness. Too much money in the future set for social programs.

  • blight_

    If anyone cares, I think this is the “report” in question.…

  • guest

    Maybe a mix of expensive nuke boats, and less expensive but ultra quite and smaller diesel boats is the answer. Lately we have been putting all our eggs in the large nuke basket.

  • isaac

    Seems like there exploiting there own capabilities that they have internally discovered lol I always wondered that being so massive wouldn’t you accidentally out do your self in certain areas discover something that makes your own ideas be forced to change and adapt boy would I love to be a black budget defence contractor I’m my own competition

  • mike anderson

    The problem is, newer and smaller, Hi speed fuel cell direct drive, sonar defeating hull coatings and the big one out numbered 2 - 3 to one. Owning the oceans vast center is good, but the action is in the seas and coastal shelves where size has its drawbacks. The navy has continued to build Cold War Subs many years after the threats have changed. If you want a comparison the Russians have even learned to build for today’s reality. While living on Guam I met and spoke with some Australian ASW guys who had just made an ASW trip from Pearl to Guam and were heading out to NZ and Au. They were bragging on the many times they had fragged the Seawolf and how the networked ships had a new advantage over our boats. Made me mad as an older sub guy, but our boats are going out with problems that when I was in would not have been allowed. Our big advantage for awhile will be our experienced crews till the tech guys get it together again.

  • M. K. Smith

    Big budget manned platforms are a thing of the past. Smaller cheaper drones are the future. We can’t park a multi-billion sub or air craft carrier off some countries shore and expect it not to be destroyed. Although they do have there place still it will be drones doing the close in work.

  • DennisJP

    It is funny to me . We used ASDIC sonar and acoustic torpedo’s to sink batter operated and desil engine subs in WW2 and then we went nuclear and now there making a big deal about WW2 vintage subs again..

  • Robbie

    Those aren’t drones in that photo-they’re dolphins, people, dolphins. Talk about creating a story out of nothing. :)