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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, May 8, 2005


Silent Service shifts focus toward Asia

By Richard Halloran

Lurking somewhere off the coast of China, an American nuclear-powered attack submarine patrols quietly, listening by sonar to the movements of lumbering merchant ships and the telltale churn of cruising warships.

Occasionally, the captain orders "up periscope" to take a picture or an infrared image or pokes an antenna through the surface to monitor radio transmissions ashore. The submarine's powerful computers record all sorts of information, then compress it into a file that takes only a burst of a few seconds to transmit back to the United States.

Gathering intelligence that might escape a satellite's eye or ear in the sky is among the new missions of the U.S. Navy's "silent service." That is especially true in the vast Pacific and Indian oceans where the focus is on China's expanding military might and, to a lesser extent, on belligerent North Korea and its nuclear ambitions.

Officers with access to intelligence operations say the United States needs all the information it can get on China because, as one says, "The Chinese are masters at deception. They might build a submarine a thousand miles up the Yangtze River, and we wouldn't know about it until she went to sea." The submarine can loiter on station while the satellite must stay in orbit as it passes overhead.

Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. submarines have spent more time monitoring the busy shipping lanes of Asia and gathering data on Chinese operations, and less time patrolling the Atlantic.

Department of Defense

Moreover, submarines have given new priority to attacking targets on land with cruise missiles, which are flying torpedoes with stubby wings, small jet engines and a built-in navigational mechanism.

In the combat phase of the war in Iraq, 12 U.S. and two British submarines fired 270 cruise missiles in support of the invading soldiers and Marines.

A third mission is to work with special-operations forces like the Navy's Seals, putting them ashore undetected in new mini-submarines, which sound as if they came out of a James Bond spy movie, waiting for them to blow up a bridge or a communications center, and then returning in the mini-submarine to the mother ship.

Sometimes the second and third missions are combined. The submarine slips the commandos into enemy territory where they find a mobile target such as a medium-range missile, aim a laser beam at it from a thousand yards away and notify the submarine. It fires a cruise missile that rides the laser beam down to the target.

"Deterrence is what this is all about," says a senior submariner. A study by the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., notes that visible military forces usually serve as deterrents. The study adds, however, "the best movie directors have long known that the greatest suspense is created when an audience cannot see what it fears."

Before the end of the Cold War 15 years ago, the primary duty of U.S. attack submarines was to find and track Soviet submarines, especially those armed with long-range nuclear ballistic missiles. If the Soviet captain opened his hatches to launch a missile, the next sound he would have heard would have been an American torpedo exploding in his engine room.

With most of the successor Russian warships rusting at their piers, all that has changed for American submarines. Where the majority patrolled the Atlantic and its adjacent seas, today the Pacific and Indian oceans have become their main operating areas.

Where before they operated in the deep water of the open ocean, today they patrol in the shallow seas along the Asian littoral, which requires new navigational skills. Warm water and turbulent currents play havoc with the sonar listening devices. Shallow waters are noisy with coastal shipping that makes it hard to discern targets of value.

On the other hand, communications from underwater have improved. Where they were slow and required the submarine to come near the surface where the boat was vulnerable, now high-data antennae enable the submarine to transmit swiftly from depth.

A submarine on the Asian littoral can transmit a picture through a supercomputer on Maui and have it on the president's desk in Washington in 90 minutes, submariners say.

American submariners, always a special breed, have gotten even better. The high school lad who could talk on the phone, watch TV, play a computer game and do his math homework — all at the same time — makes an excellent sonar operator, fire control technician or navigational plotter.

On one recent patrol in Asian waters, a submarine crew handled 5,600 contacts in 30 days. "These guys have to adjust on the fly," says an officer. "They've got to be able to do all the missions at once."

Richard Halloran is a Honolulu-based journalist and former New York Times correspondent in Asia.