GREGG K. KAKESAKO / GKAKESSAKO@STARBULLETIN.COM
With the push of a single button, Navy Petty Officer Matt York, a sonar technician on the destroyer USS Howard from San Diego, can power down the ship's sonar detection equipment when necessary under court-ordered restrictions.
Rules on sonar foil Navy work
ONE HUNDRED MILES SOUTHWEST OF HILO » One of the Navy's most lethal weapons -- the nuclear aircraft carrier and its screen of warships -- has been spending the past week honing a crucial warfighting skill: detecting the quiet, but dangerous, diesel submarines now in the hands of potential U.S. enemies.
Two major classes of sonar
Passive sonar uses listening devices such as underwater microphones that receive, amplify and process underwater sounds. The advantage of passive sonar is that it places no sound in the water and does not reveal the location of the listening vessel. However, passive sonar is ineffective at detecting diesel submarines, because the can stay submerged running on batteries.
There are three levels of active sonar -- high frequency, mid-frequency and low frequency. Mid-frequency sonar is the primary tool to identifying submarines.
Active sonar emits pulses of sound that travel through the water, reflect off an object and return as an echo to an underwater acoustic receiver. The echo is heard as a high-pitched whistle by the sonar operator and not as a "ping" as is commonly represented in Hollywood movies. Active sonar is used sparingly because it can also help an enemy submarine pinpoint the location of the ship sending out the sound waves.
Source: U.S. Navy
Navy leaders like Rear Adm. James "Phil" Wisecup, who leads the USS Reagan strike group, say lawsuits by environmentalists to protect marine mammals from the potential effects of sonar are causing a hardship on the Navy's No. 1 warfighting priority in the Pacific -- submarine detection.
Wisecup added that the Navy is caught in the middle trying to strike the "right balance" between doing things it needs to do to prepare its sailors for combat while being good stewards of the sea and the wildlife that live in it.
The Navy has long maintained that the welfare of its sailors and warships depends on proper training to detect diesel submarines that operate on batteries and can lie on the ocean bottom for days, surfacing only to recharge their batteries. More than 300 of these diesel subs belongs to the navies of China, Iran, North Korea and other potentially hostile nations.
But when the Navy trains off of Southern California and Hawaii, it must follow a set of 29 measures it worked out with the National Marine Fisheries Service, which established criteria governing the use of active sonar whenever marine mammals such as whales and dolphins are spotted. That agreement, which expires in January, was to guide the Navy until it completed the Hawaii Range Complex environmental impact statement.
The draft EIS sets guidelines for Navy warships when a marine mammal is sighted. Rules include posting lookouts during the exercise and the use of only passive sonar when a marine mammal is seen within 200 yards of a vessel. Sightings of whales or dolphins also require sonar operators to power down their equipment.
Over the past 18 months, federal courts here and in California have set more stringent requirements on when the Navy must shut down its sonar operations and even increasing the number of lookouts on the bridge of the warships.
GREGG K. KAKESAKO / GKAKESSAKO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Petty Officer Edward Perez is one of the sailors on the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan with the additional duty of trained lookout. His job is to warn the warship if there are whales or dolphins nearby.
The new guidelines result in more work for people like Petty Officer Edward Perez, 23, normally a cook, who got three hours of extra duty regularly as a marine mammal lookout.
"Its taxing for all the ships," added Cmdr. Curtis Goodnight, Perez's boss on the destroyer USS Howard.
Candidly, Goodnight, an undersea warfare expert, told reporters last week: "The question at the end of the day comes down to the plight of the whales or my sailors. That is really the trade-off. ... What is it? Is the training more important? Is the whale more important? That is what the courts have been working with."
Wisecup, a 31-year Navy veteran, acknowledged the new guidelines initiated by the courts "just complicates things."
"In a work area that already is very complex," Wisecup added, "you are just adding additional things to do."
"In the end just give me one standard and I can meet it. But if the standard changes -- and it is changing from one area to another -- as different judges interpret the law and make decisions on a very complex issue -- then we have to adapt."
Daniel Hinerfeld, spokesman for the National Resources Defense Council, one of the groups that sued the Navy, said the Navy has acknowledged that sonar harms marine mammals. But it continues to train without mitigating the harm, resulting in lawsuits, he said.
"The root of the problem is the Navy's unwillingness to do the responsible thing," Hinerfeld said. "The responsible thing to do is to work out mitigations that addresses that problem and also still allow the Navy to train effectively."
About 90 percent of Navy warships are equipped with active sonar -- the only effective means to detect, track, and target subs under all conditions. But active sonar -- where pulses of sound are projected and return as an echo to an underwater acoustic receiver as a high shrill whistle -- is turned on only sparsely because its use will reveal the sending ship's position.
Capt. William Nault, commander of Destroyer Squadron 7, added that "we would like to train like the way we fight, but in some cases the legal mitigation may obscure that" and sonar operators have to take that into consideration.
For instance, when operating in waters off Southern California, Navy warships must shut down sonar when a marine mammal is sighted within 6,000 feet. In Hawaiian waters, U.S. District Judge David Ezra reduced that range to 5,000 feet, and all vessels must have six lookouts on the bridge instead of the five mandated in California.
Goodnight also explained how the training has been affected, pointing out that during an April underwater warfare exercise about 80 miles off the coast of San Diego sonar operators in his 508-foot destroyer had detected what it thought was an "enemy" submarine and sent a helicopter to the area and to drop sonobuoys.
"When the helicopter got there it spotted whales," Goodnight added, "and because of the court ruling I couldn't drop any sonobuoys," -- something he would have done in combat to continue to track the sub.
"The sub fired a torpedo at us, but before that occurred I had moved my ship. But had that been a real situation I would have not been there since I would have dropped the sonobuoys and would have moved on." Since Tuesday, the Reagan carrier strike group has been working in a 80-by-120-mile box several hundred miles southwest of the Big Island in what Wisecup likens to a graduate course in undersea warfare "cat-and-mouse" games with two Pacific Fleet nuclear attack subs. The Navy likes to train in Hawaiian waters not only because of the differing underwater environments, but also because its carrier-based jets can use the ranges at the Big Island's Pohakuloa Training Area to drop their inert concrete practice bombs.