U.S. Navy Seeks Better Sub-Hunting Technology to Counter Putin

USS Ponce

The U.S. Navy wants to upgrade its ability to detect Russian submarines in response to assertive naval moves by President Vladimir Putin.

The Navy is seeking to deploy a sophisticated surveillance device made by Lockheed Martin Corp. in the Atlantic Ocean. The device, towed by a ship, already is in use in the Pacific. As soon as mid-2016, the service also wants to send to the Atlantic a prototype networked “undersea sensor system” that “addresses emergent real-world threats,” according to a Defense Department budget document.

Both systems are intended to meet “an urgent requirement” sought by U.S. combatant commanders responsible for Europe and homeland defense, the Navy said in a June budget document requesting a shift of $56.5 million to start the projects.

The Navy’s requests were submitted to Congress three months after Russia’s top admiral boasted of increased submarine patrols and a month before Russia unveiled a new, more expansive maritime strategy.

The unclassified requests, still pending before Congress, provide a glimpse into mostly classified programs. They are the Navy’s equivalent of the Army’s well-publicized increase of troop rotations, exercises and equipment repositioning in the Baltics and other locations to reassure European allies. That move was initiated last year after Russia invaded and annexed Crimea and increased military support of Ukrainian separatists.

Lieutenant Rob Myers, a Navy spokesman, said in a telephone interview that “long-term intelligence data and time-critical contact reports” of submarines “are vital for maintaining a clear operational picture.” He declined to comment on whether Russia is the target for increased Atlantic surveillance.

Choke Point

The prototype sensor network will be best used “in a choke point like Gibraltar” or a stretch of the North Atlantic from Greenland and Iceland to the U.K. where Soviet submarines transited during the Cold War, Bryan Clark, a naval analyst for the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said in an e-mail. Clark is a retired Navy commander who served on nuclear submarines and as a strategy adviser to the chief of naval operations.

The Navy proposals are evidence that “the U.S. military views Russian submarine activity in the Atlantic as both an immediate risk and an emerging long-term threat,” said Tom Spahn, a Navy reservist who writes on undersea warfare issues.

Aging Sensors

The projects may be part of a strategy “to replace or upgrade our aging” undersea sensor system of hydrophones -- underwater microphones -- “made famous during the Cold War, which again points to Russia as the target,” Spahn said.

Data on Russian submarines probably would be distributed to Navy vessels such as the new Littoral Combat Ship equipped with an antisubmarine warfare module, as well as frigates and surveillance aircraft, including the P-3 Orion and P-8 Poseidon.

The TL-29 towed array “could be outfitted to ships quickly as a stopgap until the second project’s prototype undersea sensor system is ready to deploy” for “a more permanent counter to Russia’s imminent ‘Atlantic pivot,’” Spahn said. It “will provide an immediate boost to the Navy’s undersea surveillance capabilities.”

The USNS Impeccable, which was confronted by Chinese government ships in 2009, is an ocean surveillance ship that uses the TL-29, he said.

The TL-29 and the new underwater network “use different techniques to acoustically detect submarines,” Clark said.

Russia’s Strategy

Russia unveiled a new maritime strategy last month that places greater emphasis on Atlantic operations. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization “has been developing actively of late and coming closer to our borders, and Russia is of course responding to these developments,” Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said at the unveiling.

Army General Charles Jacoby, who was commander of the U.S. Northern Command at the time, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2014 that Russia is “capable of introducing cruise missiles into a theater from submarines.”

“They’ve just begun production of a new class of quiet nuclear submarines specifically designed to deliver cruise missiles,” Jacoby said.

Russia is building three new classes of submarines, including the Borey nuclear ballistic missile model, three of which are operational, according to a Navy analyst who asked not to be identified to discuss operational developments.

The first in a planned Yassen class of general-purpose nuclear submarines, as well as the first of a new Kilo-class diesel-electric boat also have been fielded, the analyst said.

From Russia With Sub

Russian Navy chief Admiral Viktor Chirkov said in March that “the intensity of” its submarine patrols “has risen by almost 50 percent” from January 2014 to March 2015, compared with all of 2013.

The Navy analyst said Chirkov’s assertion was credible even though there’s no indication over the last six months that Russia has stepped up submarine patrols in the Atlantic, Baltic Sea or Mediterranean.

That, however, doesn’t rule out increased Russian submarine patrols in the Barents and Norwegian seas, the western Pacific and Sea of Okhotsk, the analyst said.