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Bubbleheads, etc.

I guess it was inevitable. The Air Force has its Leer Jet-sized drones flying circles around the globe, taking snap shots of Iranian nuke plants, Chinese sub pens and Haitian wreckage.

So what about the Navy, huh?

Well a tipster sent us an interesting story the other day about a DARPA project looking into producing unmanned frigates to locate and shadow enemy subs.

The three main objectives of the program are to build an “X-ship” that operates without anyone stepping aboard at any point in its operating cycle, secondly to demonstrate the technical viability of the system under “sparse remote supervisory control”, and thirdly to demonstrate the anti-submarine capability of the vessel and its “novel suite of sensors”. The ACTUV is unlike other unmanned vessels in that it is designed for global, independent deployment for months at a time.

The so-called Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel, would actively ping subs and do the laborious work of trailing them constantly, letting them know Uncle Sam is on their tail.

First, let’s consider the source. It’s DARPA after all, so we can’t really expect that this will ever happen. But what DARPA is good at (other than providing fodder for the first person shooter video game community) is to spur thinking an innovation and way outside the box areas. With the Navy continually downsizing and building ships that require fewer crew, why not begin looking into the idea of larger ships with computerized crew?

I’m no expert on anti-submarine warfare, but it seems to me both doable and foolish. Computers are doing most of the undersea sound analysis anyway, why not have a computerized ship doing the dull work of detecting and tracking tangos like a Predator might do. I also recognize that there’s a huge amount of interpretation needed in the detection and analysis of undersea target (all of which could be done at a distance, for sure) but I’m also nervous about a totally unmanned ship navigating shipping lanes and other waters without a man on board to take the wheel when the seas get rough.

One thing I do know, it wouldn’t make for a very good remake of The Hunt for Red October.

– Christian

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Nova’s new season premier on PBS the night of 5 January, “Killer Subs in Pearl Harbor,” makes great TV watching for any World War II enthusiast or military historian. The episode is based in part on work, begun in the early 1990s, by three collaborating naval researchers: CAPT John Rodgaard, USN; scientist Peter Hsu; and Dr. Robert Neyland of the Naval History and Heritage Command. Accordingly, DOD held a conference call on 6 January between these experts and several military bloggers; I represented Defense Tech.

I learned quickly during the phone call that Nova only covered the team’s investigations through the year 2000, and the producers of the episode gave the team no chance to react to scripted conclusions. So it’s not surprising that there’s more to the story of Japanese minisub operations inside Pearl Harbor early on December 7, 1941. Rodgaard, Hsu, and Neyland have made a very convincing case that, contrary to most history books and the Nova episode itself, in fact two, not just one, of the five 45-ton, battery powered two-man Japanese minisubs – launched from their full-size mothership diesel subs outside Pearl Harbor between 0100 and 0300 local time that day – succeeded in penetrating the harbor defenses and then fired their two heavyweight Type-97 torpedoes. Using digitized photogrammetry, technical knowledge of the physics of underwater explosions, and an exacting timeline analysis, they demonstrated that one of these minis, the first to be launched that morning (which Nova called “Minisub #5”), was caught in a Japanese aerial photograph a moment after she’d fired one Type-97 at the battleship USS West Virginia and one at the battleship USS Oklahoma – and scored a direct hit on West Virginia. Mini 5 might have also hit Oklahoma. This information has significant implications both for historians, who figure out what actually happened in the past, and for historicists, who draw lessons from history to apply to today and the future.

The traditional take is that only one minisub got inside the harbor and fired its two torpedoes but neither scored a hit. This positions the Japanese minisub ops at Pearl as ineffectual, a mere afterthought to a decisively crushing carrier-borne aerial attack. The work of Rodgaard, Hsu, and Neyland supports a rather different conclusion. If two minis actually got near Battleship Row, and one of them got off two shots that helped destroy one or even two American battleships, then Pearl Harbor was an effectively executed combined arms assault by the Imperial Japanese Navy. But because the IJN was our sworn enemy during the world war that ensued, and because it lost unconditionally, it did not get to write the history books on the attack, at least in the West.

Why does this matter today? Because history provides raw data for historicists, especially in military matters. And what Pearl Harbor demonstrates to me, after the reinterpretation of events by Rodgaard, Hsu, and Neyland, is that undersea warfare power projection is an indispensable force multiplier for naval aviation during littoral combat. There are other important lessons here for today’s budget-strapped Pentagon planners and Members of Congress: Minisubs in modern form to be carried by fast and long-endurance SSNs and SSGNs – such as something that works well in place of the failed ASDS project, and various UUVs and sub-launched UAVs – deserve a priority in development and acquisition funding. Harbor security, which bears on both homeland defense and force protection worldwide, dare not shortchange the undersea dimension. Perhaps most generally and most importantly, ships and planes, no matter how capable and numerous, cannot do all the work that requires a robust, adequately resourced U.S. Submarine Force.

Part of the confusion over the years as to the role of Minisub #5 and the fate of the two courageous men aboard her comes from previously unresolved ambiguities concerning the track they took and their “final” resting place. I won’t reveal any spoilers here, but the research team’s answer ties in with another long-guarded secret of World War II operations at Pearl Harbor – a U.S. Navy secret only recently declassified!

– Joe Buff

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On Saturday, 5 December, my wife and I attended the christening at General Dynamics Electric Boat, in Groton, CT, of the U.S. Navy’s seventh and newest Virginia-class fast attack submarine, PCU (and soon to be USS) Missouri, SSN 780.  Listening to the speeches, and watching from the partial comfort of an open tent as her crew stood tall in the drenching, freezing rain on her hull, I was moved to reflect that the chill in the air could also be metaphorical. Last month, DOD stated that in order to balance the fiscal year 2011 budget, the annual construction rate of Virginia-class boats – only just raised at last by Congress to two per year – might be slashed to one per year for some while longer. 

This makes absolutely no sense at all.

For much of this decade, the U.S. Submarine Force has faced a steady rise in demand for service coupled with a steady decline in total in-commission numbers. In 2008, the nation’s overworked fast-attack subs were able to take on barely half of the multifaceted missions requested of them. America is getting locked in to having fewer than the 48 fast-attack subs we’ll need during a critical 12-year stretch straddling 2030 – a near-future era when the whole world will surely be facing critical stressors to peace. These include persistent terrorism and failing-state lawlessness on land and at sea, unresolved dangers of nuclear and other WMD proliferation, escalating drug wars, and rising  nationalism among armed sub-national ethnic groups and political factions. Military conflict will also arise from the economic catharses, population disruptions, and regime volatilities caused by globalized natural resource shortfalls and rivalries, unpredictable climate changes, resulting floods and droughts and famines, desperate mass human migrations, continued emerging pandemics, plus other interconnected disasters we can’t even name yet.  

China is building both diesel and nuclear subs at an aggressive rate, and shows no signs of stopping.  Russia, although her navy and arms industry are currently in disarray, is doing what she can to field a modest sized but up-to-date submarine fleet.  She cannot be counted out as a worthy peer competitor 20 years from now. Other nations, such as India and Brazil, are working actively to acquire nuclear subs for the first time, while still others, such as Iran, are seeking to strengthen their forces of modern diesels.  Increasingly, diesel submarines come equipped with long-submerged-endurance air independent propulsion systems. The immediate post-Cold War peace dividend is definitely a thing of the past.  What we have been dragged into now is a relentless, destabilizing arms race which will neither be stopped nor won based on altruistic rhetoric and de facto unilateral disarmament alone.

At a time when so many weapons procurement programs have faced serious delays and cost overruns, the Virginia-class building program continues to surpass contract performance hurdle after hurdle and delivers outstanding operational results underway. While he was Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Mike Mullen set the Sub Force and submarine industrial base the joint challenge to get the cost of one Virginia down from $2.5 billion to $2 billion in constant 2005 dollars. Only when that happened, he said, could the construction rate of these very fine capital warships be raised to two per year. Since then, I was privileged to visit the GDEB facilities at Groton, CT, and Quonset Point, RI, as well as Northrop Grumman’s Newport News Shipbuilding yard in Virginia. Everybody, from rank-and-file submarine fabricators to top executives, worked with Navy people, from plank owner sub crews to flag officers, to find numerous ways to speed processes and cut costs.

Admiral Mullen’s price benchmark has been met. The Missouri is on target for a record low unit cost, $92 million under budget, with a record fast delivery time, only 5 years and 2 months.  This is 9 months sooner than originally expected, and an amazing 38 months faster than first-in-class USS Virginia herself.

Now, DOD and Congress need to keep their end of the bargain made with, and met by, the contractor employees and Sub Force personnel alike. They must continue funding the Virginia class build rate at two per year. The Lexington Institute, a pro-defense think tank in Arlington, VA, stated recently that reducing the acquisition rate to one annually would be “a catastrophic mistake.” I think doing so would also be a gross personal insult to all the Submarine Sailors and submarine shipbuilders – and their families – who braved that wind-driven downpour in the low 40s on Saturday to hear SECNAV Mabus, Senator McCaskill (D-MO), Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT), Rep. Ike Skelton (D-MO), and the other distinguished speakers who praised their superb efforts on behalf of America’s national security.

– Joe Buff

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Yesterday we received a call on our new Tip Line wondering if the Russians and US were working on submarine technologies that create an air bubble in front of the sub that allows it to travel 3x the normal speed.

Here’s what our readers asked:

This is more of a “Is it true” tip?? Someone told me just last night that the Russian Navy & the US Navy are separatley working on “an air bubble in front of a ship (sub) can make it travel 3 times its normal speed & that it was already tested on a torpedo & it moved as fast as 300 mph under water. Is there any truth to this story?? I am not beleiving anyone or any story unless I see it posted here or on military​.com. Can you let me what if anything you’ve heard about this. Thanks…

I don’t know much about subs, but I do know guys that do. So I sent this query on to our friend Joe Buff who had this reply (be sure to read his earlier post on DT regarding this subject):

Sounds like supercavitation. USSR/Russia has had supercavitating rocket torpedoes since the Cold War. USN also developed a good one prototype but decided not to deploy, preferring the mark 48 ADCAP torpedo. USN right now doing good work w. GDEB on “Underwater Express”, a 100-knot manned minisub which would give a “really quick and sonar-deafening getaway vehicle” for SEALs near the beach/surf zone.

The process uses rocket propulsion to get the underwater hull/vehicle going fast enough to create a partial-vacuum bubble around itself, eliminating water flow resistance against hull (but not the need to push water around and away from the bow/tip). Rocket engine burning fuel provides thrust allowing very high speed (200 to 300 knots for a sharp-tipped torpedo) not possible using a traditional rotating water screw (as in Ohio class) or pump-jet turbine (as in Virginia class).

I’ve not heard of this being applied to surface ships, where I think it would not work, and where air cushion, hydroplaning, or wing-in-ground-effect would give high speed much more practically. There are separately though things like “Prairie Masker” which emit bubbles (engine exhaust I think, not “air”) to isolate hull noises from the sea to provide acoustic stealth for the ship against enemy subs & sonars.

Well, there you have it. Hope this answers the mail and please keep the tips coming…

– Christian (with Joe Buff)

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The issue whether to include women in U.S. Navy nuclear sub crews has come up at every annual Naval Submarine League Open Symposium since I first began attending these great conferences in 1998. This year’s, on October 28 and 29 at the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner, VA, was no exception — except for one thing. Presentations by Commander, U.S. Navy Submarine Force (COMNAVSUBFOR) Vice Admiral John Donnelly, and by Commander, U.S. Navy Submarine Force, Pacific (COMSUBPAC) Force Master Chief David Lynch, made it clear that America’s sub crews are indeed gradually going co-ed, starting soon.

Implicitly, everyone up and down the disciplined naval hierarchy has already been tasked with facilitating the initiative’s success. Director, U.S. Naval Reactors (DNR) Admiral Kirkland Donald noted that not enough male Naval Academy graduates are volunteering for the Sub Force to meet the demand there for new junior officers. It is well known that some top-notch female Midshipmen have long wanted to go into subs. An open poll on Military​.com about whether women should be able to serve on subs shows 78% of respondents say “No.” But while naysayer comments and dire predictions are numerous, I’ve not seen any objection to co-ed crews that hasn’t been voiced for more than a decade already.

The Powers-that-Be now demand that pragmatic solutions be devised and implemented for difficult morale/retention and logistical problems related to everything from the severe lack of mental and physical privacy on long submerged patrols, to harassment and fraternization, to differing hygiene and medical requirements and physical abilities between the sexes, to the vexing need to mitigate toxic occupational exposures for women who are pregnant while at the same time maintaining vital mission stealth and adequate watch-station manning levels. Drawing on analyses that go back to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) of the late 1990s, the Sub Force is not starting from scratch with these issues today. Recent submarine-medicine studies do show that first-trimester pregnancies are particularly vulnerable to contaminants such as carbon dioxide that tend to build up inside nuclear subs running deep for weeks at a time.

[Continue reading…]

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Breaking with a tradition that spans more than half a century, the Navy is in the final planning stages to integrate female Sailors into its submarine fleet.

Long considered one of the most elite communities in the U.S. Navy, the small, secretive force has been comprised entirely of male officers and crew in large part because of the small living spaces and long endurance missions.

The service had examined assigning a small number of females on subs over the last ten years, but found the tight confines and lack of a well-defined career path for female submariners too daunting to change.

Until now.

According to a senior commander in the Navy’s submarine fleet who spoke to Military​.com on condition of anonymity, incoming Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has charged the service with overcoming past objections and assigning females to subs — breaking down one of the last barriers in the service to female assignments.

“We have now received a signal from the secretary of the Navy that he’s ready to move out on this. We have never had that signal before,” the senior sub commander said. “So now it’s time to do some detailed planning to ensure that this is executable.”

The official said the submarine fleet would likely not see female crewmembers for at least two years, but he said it was a change whose time had come.

“There is no job on a submarine that a woman can’t do,” the official said during a Sept. 25 phone interview. “We have a vast pool of very talented young women out there who want to serve on submarines.”

Read the rest of this story, including how the Navy plans to start this program, at Military​.com.

– Christian

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Women should be allowed to serve aboard Americas fleet of nuclear submarines, the nation’s top military officer, Adm. Michael Mullen, quietly has told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

If the Navy agrees to it, this would be a huge policy change and potentially a significant expansion of career opportunities for female officers and sailors.

Women have been barred by Navy policy from submarines, even as the sea service began 15 years ago to integrate females into other seagoing combat roles including aboard surface warships and in fighter jets.

Mullen, former chief of naval operations and a career surface warfare officer, made his position on submarines known in written responses to questions from the committee to prepare for Mullen’s confirmation hearing to serve a second two-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

“As an advocate for improving the diversity of our force, I believe we should continue to broaden opportunities for women. One policy I would like to see changed is the one barring their service aboard submarines,” Mullen told senators.

Opponents of lifting the ban have argued for decades that space is at a premium on submarines. To accommodate privacy needs of females, including separate berthing and “heads” or toilet/shower facilities, would be “prohibitively expensive,” Navy has argued. Watch duty, bunk management, extra supplies and incidents of fraternization and harassment would complicate submarine life, according to one study done for the Navy in 1994.

No senator actually raised the female submariner issue with Mullen during his Sept. 15 confirmation hearing. The focus was Afghanistan and Iraq. And Navy officials had no immediate comment on Mullen’s position.

Mullen’s spokesman, Navy Capt. John Kirby, said the chairman did tell Adm. Gary Roughead, current chief of naval operations, what position Mullen was going to take on women submariners in comments back to committee.

Mullen had focused some attention on this issue in the past, Kirby explained. While serving as CNO, Mullen had asked Adm. Kirkland H. Donald, director of naval nuclear propulsion, and other submarine community leaders to “take a look” at ending the ban on women in the “silent service.” That review was still underway when Mullen stepped down in 2007 to become chairman and, as such, senior military adviser to the president.

Allowing women on submarines, Kirby said, “was something he always had in his mind and still believes in.“

But Mullen doesn’t intend to hold “meetings or discussions with the Navy on this,” Kirby added. “As a former CNO, he understands the Title 10 responsibilities that the CNO has. I don’t think he is keen to be too deeply involved in what is clearly the Navy’s responsibility to manage the force.“

As to why Mullen even raised the issue, Kirby said, “He was answering a question honestly about women in combat, and that’s how he really feels.“

Among the dozens of written questions posed to Mullen was this: “Does the Department of Defense have sufficient flexibility under current law to make changes to assignment policy for women when needed?“

Mullen answered that the department has all the flexibility it needs. But he referenced military women’s “tremendous contributions to our national defense. They are an integral part of the force and are proven performers in the operational environment and under fire.“

He noted too that DoD policies “fully recognize that women are assigned to units and positions that are not immune from the threats present in a combat environment. In fact, women are assigned to units and positions that may necessitate combat actions — actions for which they are fully trained and prepared to respond and to succeed.“

More than 100 U.S. service women have been killed since 2001 while serving in Iraq, Afghanistan or Kuwait.

One Capitol Hill source said he was told by a submarine community officer that the Navy had readied plans at one point to allow women to serve aboard Ohio-class strategic missile submarines. Kirby was asked if Mullen had these larger boats, nicknamed “boomers,” in mind for gender integration as opposed to the smaller attack submarines.

[Continue reading…]

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The NY Times triggered a stir of reporting, analysis, and sheer speculation on August 5 with “Russian Subs Patrolling Off East Coast of U.S.” The bare facts, confirmed by official spokesmen from both countries are these: An Akula and an Akula II, fast-attack (SSN-type) nuclear powered subs among the very best in the Russian Navy inventory, have been sailing submerged on separate but concurrent long-distance voyages within about 200 nautical miles of the United States East Coast. One is supposed to have proceeded on toward Cuba, a destination highly favored by Soviet sailors for shore leave way back when.

The other sub reportedly is still nearby.

A flood of commentary in print and on-line media rapidly became available since the NY Times broke the news. There’ve been various assertions made about the possible Kremlin agenda(s) behind these deployments — so “rare” since the end of the Cold War — along with prognosticating about the possible significance to America’s 21st century defense posture. My own careful reading of 10 different pieces shows that opinions are varying across the map, literally and figuratively.

The NY Times said these sub patrols “raised concerns inside the Pentagon,” although the U.S. Navy’s Integrated Undersea Surveillance System did detect and track both subs from early on. Neo-Communist Pravda.ru’s sensationalized headline said “Two Russian Nuclear Submarines Make USA Shake With Fear,” which hardly seems to be the case. The Daily Mail (UK) called them “rogue subs,” though it sounds like they’re anything but that. DOD Press Secretary Geoff Morrell emphasized that “it doesn’t pose any threat and it doesn’t cause any concern.” Russia’s deputy chief of general staff, General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, stated “any hysteria in such a case is inappropriate.” He went on to emphasize that “The navy should not stay idle at its moorings” — something with which that great American seapower theorist and practitioner A. T. Mahan would have wholeheartedly agreed. All involved emphasized that the Russian subs’ behavior was fully in compliance with international law.

Even so, as respected naval commentator Norman Polmar points out, it’s been about 15 years since the Russian Navy is known publicly to have been able to and/or wanted to send nuclear subs on missions so far from home. Articles that DefenseTech readers can go read for themselves discuss and interpret possible connections to Russia’s recent greatly stepped-up long range flights of strategic bombers, Russia’s efforts to sell or lease its nuclear subs to foreign nations such as China and India, Russia’s desire to overcome the embarrassment of recent fatal accidents and test failures involving some of its other main naval assets, President Obama’s efforts to reset relations with Russia’s President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin, recently tense relations between Russia and NATO for various reasons and political posturing by the Kremlin mainly for domestic consumption.

[Continue reading…]

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The Day (New London, CT) on Monday had an intriguing article about DARPA’s Underwater Express. This program aims to prove engineering approaches for a manned minisub able to carry high value cargoes submerged at 100 knots — a “super-fast submerged transport,” or SST. Underwater Express was announced with a request for proposals in 2005. The RFP specified supercavitation, a form of enhanced submerged propulsion exploiting a self-made vacuum cavity or gas envelope between hull and ocean to reduce flow resistance by “60 — 70%.” Supercavitation, such as used in the Soviet-Russian Shkval rocket torpedo, is extremely noisy. Even allowing for a breakthrough in how the gas cavity is created and maintained, the classic power-versus-speed formula makes it highly likely that only a rocket engine could achieve the required 100-knot speed for the SST. Yet the RFP mentioned nothing about silencing the technology demonstrator minisub.

After a competition, General Dynamics Electric Boat was awarded a contract which by completion is expected to total $38 million. The deliverable will be a quarter-scale unmanned version of its winning design, to be demonstrated in the waters off New England in spring 2010. The demo is to include runs at up to 100 knots for 10 minutes, with maneuvers to show that the SST is safe at such speeds. GDEB says they’ve solved the challenges of maintaining a stable gas envelope while accurately controlling the test vessel’s depth, course, angle of attack, and speed. Details are top secret.

I’d been wondering what good there might be to a manned minisub that, unlike a rocket torpedo, has to be reusable and survivable — but which would, whenever moving fast, make a huge passive sonar signature, broadcasting its presence to any enemies for miles around. Besides, what missions would it be used for that couldn’t be done by a HALO insertion and Osprey extraction, or for that matter by a slow moving battery-powered mini like some Improved ASDS? When The Day’s article came out, I decided to ask a source. The rest of this is my interpretation of the answers I got, sprinkled with public info and my own conjectures and commentary.

[Continue reading…]

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RussiaToday​.com reported last week that the Russian Navy has released records of its warships and subs that — officially speaking — had close encounters with UFOs. It seems that alien visitors from advanced civilizations really like the water! Not surprisingly, one hotbed of this activity was near the Bermuda Triangle. Retired submariner RADM Yury Beketov described unexplainable instrument malfunctions and interference on a sub he commanded, and underwater objects detected that moved at speeds of 230 knots. The declassified records, which go back to the days of the USSR, also detail an incident during a nuclear sub’s “combat mission” in the Pacific Ocean. It was chased by six unknown underwater objects (UUOs, instead of UFOs?) which it could not elude. The captain ordered his submarine to surface. The objects continued to follow, then were seen to take off into the air and departed the scene.

I’m a fan of the idea of alien civilizations and flying saucers; scientific arguments make it seem likely that intelligent life evolved elsewhere in the universe — even the Vatican says it could all be part of God’s Plan. But in any specific such situation, it pays to begin as a skeptic.

One explanation for the Bermuda Triangle’s infamous effects is recurring gas seeps, perhaps solidified methane deposits rising suddenly up from the ocean floor as gas, breaking into highly energetic clouds of bubbles, and reducing ocean buoyancy near the surface or creating freak local weather disruptions. This could account for the mysterious losses of surface ships and aircraft over the years, and it would also account for what RADM Beketov describes. Any undersea ecounter at 230 knots is by definition a very fleeting, high-bearing-rate contact. Faced with a rising methane or natural gas bubble cloud, a sub’s passive and active sonars could very well seem to go haywire, yet would actually be giving real data on the behavior of the rapidly rising cloud. There wouldn’t be much time to interpret what was happening before the bubbles reached the surface and dissipated.

[Continue reading…]

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