The recent undersea collision involving a U.S. Navy fast-attack Seawolf submarine in the South China Sea raises some interesting questions about the value of more recently integrated navigational technology now being used by Navy submarines.
The SeaWolf-class of submarines, first built in the 1980s, are Cold-War era boats intended to rival or out perform the Soviet Union’s Typhoon class. They emerged in the 1980s and then deployed in the 1990s, however the end of the Cold War resulted in a budget reduction in the Navy’s planned fleet size and the eventual creation of the Virginia-class submarines.
As older submarines, Seawolf boats, and the earlier Virginia-class attack submarines are not built with any kind of computerized or digital navigation systems. Starting with the U.S. Navy’s Block III Virginia-class submarines, boats are engineered with a computerized “fly-by-wire” technology wherein key variables such as depth, speed and descent can be regulated by computer automation to gather intelligence and map the ocean floor and, perhaps more importantly, prevent unwanted collisions.
The mechanical and hydraulic controls of the Seawolf submarine are quite different than computerized “fly-by-wire” joystick controls of the Block III and beyond Virginia-class boats. The collision incident, therefore, may seem to lend further evidence in support of those now calling for a faster production and deployment tempo for high-tech Virginia-class attack submarines engineered with “fly-by-wire” navigation.
Certainly the circumstances may not be know as to what kind of collision may have occurred, it seems quite possible that more advanced navigational technology might be able to prevent or certainly decrease the likelihood of this kind of collisions.
Virginia-Class submarines are engineered with a “Fly-by-Wire” capability which allows the ship to quietly linger in shallow waters without having to surface or have each small move controlled by a human operator.
With “Fly-by-Wire” technology, a human operator will order depth and speed, allowing software to direct the movement of the planes and rudder to maintain course and depth. The ships can be driven primarily through software code and electronics, thus freeing up time and energy for an operator who does not need to manually control each small maneuver. Previous Los Angeles-Class and Seawolf class submarines reled upon manual, hydraulic controls.“
Fly-by-wire” technology, using upgradable software and fast-growing AI applications, widens the mission envelope for the attack submarines by vastly expanding their ISR potential. Using real-time analytics and an instant ability to draw upon and organize vast data-bases of information and sensor input, computer algorithms can now perform a range of procedural functions historically performed by humans. This can increase speed of maneuverability and an attack submarine's ability to quickly shift course, change speed or alter depth positioning when faced with attacks.
An interesting paper from 2016 points out the margin of difference in terms of performance regarding the U.S. Navy’s transition to digital “fly-by-wire” navigational controls.
“The most important feature for maneuvering in littoral waters is the fly-by-wire control system, whereby computers in the control center electronically adjust the submarine's control surfaces, a significant improvement from the hydraulic systems used in the Los Angeles-class,” a 2016 Stanford University “The Future of Nuclear Submarines” paper by Alexander Yachanin writes.
U.S. Navy Seawolf-Class Submarine Collision
The exact nature of the collision in which a U.S. Navy Seawolf-class submarine “struck” an “object” may still be unclear. What was hit? Perhaps of even greater significance, some might wonder how this could happen, given the importance and sensitivity of U.S. Navy submarine missions in waters in or around the South China Sea.
“The Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine USS Connecticut (SSN 22) struck an object while submerged on the afternoon of Oct. 2, while operating in international waters in the Indo-Pacific region. The safety of the crew remains the Navy’s top priority. There are no life threatening injuries,” a Navy press statement writes.
The incident, while still under investigation, may prove to be of little actual consequence given that there were no serious injuries. However, the collision does draw attention to an interesting and potentially lesser recognized phenomenon regarding the importance of using attack submarines for clandestine undersea reconnaissance or “spy” missions.
Attack Submarines for Clandestine Missions
Land weapons, port activities and other enemy movements in coastal or island areas are more difficult for deeper draft surface ships to access, often complicating surveillance missions – without giving away their position. Surface ships and the drones or aircraft they operate could, in a variety of operational environments, be more “detectable” to enemy radar and sensors when compared to attack submarines. Improved undersea navigation and detection technology, using new sonar, increased computer automation and artificial intelligence, enable quieter, faster movements in littoral waters where enemy mines, small boats and other threatening assets often operate.
Interestingly, the concept of further developing undersea attack submarines for spy missions was highlighted by the Navy in public documents several years ago. Technological innovations with the Virginia-class submarines, which included a range of “quieting” improvements likely informed the maturation or further evolutions of these platforms in this respect.
The US Navy’s 2018 published “Commander’s Intent for the United States Submarine Force,” writes - “We are uniquely capable of, and often best employed in, stealthy, clandestine and independent operations……. we exploit the advantages of undersea concealment which allow us to: , Conduct undetected operations such as strategic deterrent patrols, intelligence collection, Special Operations Forces support, non-provocative transits, and repositioning,” the Navy strategy document writes.
By leveraging an ability to operate more quietly and in closer proximity to enemy shorelines and areas of high-interest, high-tech attack submarines can identify enemy surface ships and even attack them with torpedoes. They can generate a distinct operational impact in terms of reconnaissance, likely not achievable by larger, more-detectable surface ships unable to more closely approach hostile areas.
China is accusing the U.S. of strengthening support for “submarine warfare” against China because the U.S. Navy has been operating an oceanographic survey ship in the South China Sea.
The operations of the U.S. Navy ship, as cited in the Chinese government backed Global Times newspaper, are intended to “Collect underwater geographical and hydrological data to support its submarine warfare in the region against China.”
Despite the extreme or provocative language used by the Chinese paper, the actual presence of the ship may not be a warfare mission, but rather an attempt to better map the region to avoid accidents in international waters. It makes sense that the U.S. Navy might want to take some additional measures in response to the recent incident in the Indo-Pacific wherein a U.S. Seawolf-class submarine struck an object while submerged.
The incident is under investigation, according to a Navy report, which stated that there are no life threatening injuries from the collision. Could it have been some kind of undersea structure, mountain, cavern or ridge? There have of course continued to be longstanding efforts to generate the most detailed maps possible of the region for the purpose of maritime navigation and intelligence gathering.
The Chinese report said the U.S. is most likely trying to learn more about the undersea components of the region, something which would certainly make sense. The Navy does seem to be operating a greater number of undersea missions in the area and attack submarines are without question increasingly being used for surveillance and reconnaissance missions, given that they can more easily access areas less accessible to larger, deeper draft surveillance ships and of course remain less detectable.
The USS Connecticut, a Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine, struck some kind of “object” which may have been underwater terrain or something of great relevance to undersea navigation. Clearly sending an oceanographic survey ship would greatly help the Navy develop a deeper and more detailed intelligence picture of the undersea terrain in the crucial and highly contested region.
The number of island chains, and the expanse of ocean areas across which they span creates a pressing need for the Navy to operate coastal surveillance missions, and given the recent breakthroughs in the realm of “quieting” technologies, submarines are increasingly well positioned for clandestine undersea reconnaissance missions.
While certainly there is an intelligence-gathering or “war preparation” and “deterrence” element to mapping the undersea terrain in preparation for warfare, yet gathering information about a highly sensitive and disputed area under threat of Chinese aggression is not necessarily an act of “being at war.” It would seem to fall within the broad parameters of the Navy’s much discussed “deterrence” missions in the region.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox