New anti-torpedo decoys for U.S. Navy submarines may do more than protect them from Russian or Chinese anti-submarine weapons.
They could also make U.S. submarine skippers more confident that their boats have a fighting chance even when their boats have been detected or fired on by anti-submarine weapons, according to an American naval expert.
At first glance, the impetus for this seems a routine military development project. The U.S. Navy is asking the private sector for ideas on how to create a layered defense of decoys to protect subs from torpedoes that use sonar to locate and home in on submarines.
Essentially, the Navy is looking for an underwater equivalent of the electronic warfare systems that protect military planes from anti-aircraft weapons. Modern combat jets like the F-35 have defensive suites that detect and jam enemy radars, and release flares to confuse heat-seeking missiles. What the Navy wants is a system that can use acoustic decoys – which use sound to divert or confuse homing torpedoes -- in a coordinated fashion to create a multilayer defensive screen.
“The countermeasures, which are based either on the existing 3-inch diameter Acoustic Device Countermeasure (ADC) Mk 2 Mod 7 and/or the existing 6-inch diameter ADC Mk 3 Mod 1, would have the ability to identify the incoming direction of a threat torpedo through an onboard receiver(s) or other devices/platforms in the engagement,” said the Navy research solicitation.
The Navy acknowledges that developing layered defense won’t be easy. “The innovation challenges involved in this topic execution are twofold: first, coordination of the communication capabilities amongst multiple torpedo countermeasures and with the host submarine platform need to be robust in what is anticipated to be an acoustically cluttered environment,” said the Navy. In addition, the system has to use decoys no larger than the current 3- and 6-inch devices.”
However, better acoustic countermeasures could profoundly change the way U.S. submarines fight, according to Bryan Clark, a former U.S. submarine officer and now a researcher at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis.
In the past, inadequate countermeasures encouraged American submarine commanders – cautious like all sensible sub skippers should be – to retreat once detected or fired upon. Even if Russian or Chinese anti-submarine capabilities weren’t that great, the tendency was to leave the area, which effectively suppressed the sub and kept it from accomplishing its mission.
“In the Cold War, our countermeasures were okay but not great,” Clark told the National Interest. “The Soviets had a lot of new torpedoes that were pretty effective. The thought was, ‘if you get shot at by a Soviet submarine, you need to get out of there. They’ve detected you, they’ve taken the first shot, you’re on the defensive, you don’t have sufficient countermeasures, so you need to leave.”
U.S. submarines still maintain their traditional technological edge over Russian and Chinese anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities. Yet better decoys mean that American subs will be “more likely to remain in a contested area even after being detected, and then figure out a way to regain their stealth, as opposed to having to leave because they don’t feel confident in their countermeasures,” Clark says.
“I think everyone will focus on survivability of these new countermeasures. But that translates into confidence.”