The hunt for Red October gets easier. How submarine warfare is changing.

Improving technology could make it easier to find submarines. That's a threat to the US fleet – but it's also an opportunity for the Pentagon, a new report says.

L. Todd Spencer/The Virginian-Pilot/AP/File
The Virginia-class submarine John Warner awaits its formal christening at Newport News Shipbuilding in Newport News, Va., last September.

Today's submarines are in danger of becoming increasingly vulnerable as “game changers” in undersea warfare make it easier to detect them, a new report says. 

Deep sea submarines have been a key part of the United States military’s offensive and defensive missions for decades, but a significant part of their utility lies in their ability to operate stealthily. To this end, the US military has invested huge amounts of money into making submarines – in particular, the Navy’s Virginia-class nuclear submarines – quieter.

But rapid increases in computer processing power are offsetting these advances. Submarine detection techniques that do not measure sounds but rather the wake left by submarines, for example, have been known for decades. But “they have not been exploitable until very recently because computer processors were too slow to run detailed models needed to see changes in the environment caused by a quiet submarine,” according to a report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) released Thursday.

Today, "big data" is providing the capability to run sophisticated oceanographic models in real time, making these detection techniques more feasible. As computer processors shrink, some will soon be small enough to fit on the sea floor. “These systems have the potential to make coastal areas far more hazardous for manned submarines,” the report notes.

What’s more, emerging acoustic techniques will get better. For example, computers could help find submarines by comparing the normal ambient noise from marine life and waves with measured noise, and in this way “identifying where sounds are being reflected off a submarine or obscured by its hull.”

This is both good and bad news for the US military’s undersea warfare programs. The same technologies that make submarines easier to detect could help spur a new generation of technology that the Pentagon could use to its advantage. 

For instance, next-generation submarines could fool sonar by emitting special sounds to drown out their own radiated noise, “similar to the method used in noise-canceling headphones,” the report notes. The US Navy could also use unmanned underwater drones to conduct acoustic jamming. 

This points to a brand new realm for the military-industrial complex. “A new family of undersea vehicles and systems will be essential to maintain America’s undersea edge,” the CSBA report argues. Failing to “aggressively exploit” the latent potential of these emerging technologies “could create an opening for rivals,” it warns, “and, in so doing, pose a major threat to US security.”

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