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Dust off that active sonar!
As the surface navy has come to rely on the best passive surface sonar system in the world, the SQQ-89, the use of active sonar for anything other than completing those all-important torpedo exercises and practicing at the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center range has become taboo. Even more significantly, as our active sonar “stacks” have continued to gather dust, our efforts to develop better active antisubmarine warfare tactics seem to have slowed to a standstill.
The main argument against using active sonar is that it greatly increases the transmitting ship’s counterdetectability. When surface ships ping with their sonars, they give up the tactical advantage of covertness. This is a solid argument, especially when passive detection ranges are far greater than active ones, which often is the case when working against noisy targets. In this case, a surface ASW platform should not go active and risk giving away its position; it can remain covert and passively detect and track a target at extended ranges possible on a SQR-19 towed array.
But as the source levels of new Soviet submarines become lower and lower, and the passive figure-of-merit gets smaller with it, active detection ranges will become greater than passive ones. When this occurs, the tactical advantages of passive systems such as the SQQ-89, and the passive tactics that go along with it, fly right out the window. If active ranges exceed passive ranges and allow a ship to detect a submarine outside her weapons envelope or torpedo danger zone, then why not go active? If active ranges are within a submarine’s firing zone (but greater than passive ranges), it is still better to prosecute a target actively and take the position of the aggressor, rather than passively searching for something you might never find. And finally, if passive and active ranges are similar, then a combined passive-active prosecution should be considered. The classification time of a passive contact could be greatly reduced if active sonar was used more often.
The risk to all this is counterdetection, but if better active tactics were developed, this risk could be minimized. Most current active tactics in the surface navy are devised for dual or multiship active prosecutions. These tactics, such as the old faithful “plan red/plan black cordon,” are outdated, and, more importantly, will not be effective in the single-ship, one-on-one active ASW that we will need in the future. The active equipment and assets we currently have on our ships are good; we just need to think up new ways to use them. The LAMPS-III, for example, although designed to localize passive targets at long range, could be just as effective acting as a pouncer for a ship’s active contacts. The hulh mounted SQS-53B sonar can actively detect and track contacts at convergence zone ranges. But the use of these and other assets in this manner is mostly ignored.
The surface navy cannot afford to rest on the success and achievements that a system such as the SQQ-89 has made in passive ASW. Against the right targets and when deployed in the right environment, this type of passive ASW and its inherent covertness will always be the best way to hunt submarines. But the quietness of new classes of Soviet attack submarines also requires us to re-energize our active sonars and to develop new single-ship active tactics. If we do not, the surface navy will once again fall behind the power curve in ASW and be forced to leave this vitally important warfare area to the submariners.
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Proceedings / June 1990