Way back in the 80s I read a dystopian World War 3 novel called Fire Lance, by David Mace. The premise was that a nuclear war had been fought and a few survivors on both sides were trying to pull their shattered societies back together. But, out in the Atlantic and taking orders from an extremist political faction, a single US Navy strategic missile unit is still operational.
The kicker in Fire Lance is that in the book’s near-future (for the 1980s) setting, the USA has abandoned Trident subs because technology has left them too vulnerable to attack. They’ve been replaced with enormous high-tech battleships carrying vast arsenals of long-range cruise missiles. These ships trade off being highly visible for the ability to carry heavy armor, an array of conventional weapons and even a small air group. They can’t hide like a submarine can, but they’re very hard to kill.
I remembered Fire Lance recently when I came across a news story claiming that Trident subs really will become vulnerable over the next few years. In the novel, the threat to the subs was surveillance satellites that could spot their heat signatures and call down a nuclear warhead on their position; the 21st-century version is swarms of low-cost, unmanned drones.
The article sparked my curiosity at first, but a little research soon raised some doubts. A big red flag was that it turned out to be based on a report by the British American Security Information Council, or BASIC. This is an impressive-sounding title, but in fact, the “council” is a small, anti-nuclear think tank mostly based in London. Its staff of less than a dozen people is a motley collection of academics and agitators, led by chief executive Paul Ingram – a journalist and former Green Party candidate who used to host a talk show on Iranian TV. Their expert on technologies affecting nuclear submarines is Miguel Batista, a Portuguese mathematician and member of a far-left political party, the Bloco de Esquerda. The BE is really far left, by the way. It’s not like the Democratic Party; it’s actually Marxist.
So, BASIC’s attitudes to Trident submarines may be just slightly affected by political bias, but what about their expertise? It turns out that Batista was once a Ph.D. student at a British oceanography school, but didn’t graduate. Given his political views, he won’t have been given access to any classified information on existing or planned UK or US Trident submarines. Nevertheless, he’s predicted that networks of cheap, easily deployed drones will make it impossible for submarines to hide.
The political agenda behind this isn’t hard to make out. The USN and Royal Navy are both developing new classes of ballistic missile submarine right now, and the far left don’t want the boats to ever be built. They’ve failed to convince the public that Trident is destabilizing or morally wrong, so now they’re claiming it’s useless because the subs will be easily detected and sunk. And they’re lying.
Yes, unmanned submersibles are evolving rapidly. Yes, some of them are capable of finding submarines. But there are some basic physical limits on their capabilities. A drone either needs a power source or it has to stay at the surface and use solar power to run its electronics. The surface is not a great place to detect a quiet submarine from – and the new Trident boats will probably be the quietest subs that have ever existed.
There are all sorts of science fiction ideas for how drones could find submarines, but they all have serious problems except one – sonar. Submarines are quiet, but they’re not silent, and the most reliable way to find them is by the noise they make. The problem is physics has a role to play here. Low-frequency sound travels furthest through the ocean, but it needs a physically large sonar set to detect it. There’s nothing that can be done about this; it’s just how sound waves work. A small hydrophone physically cannot detect long-wavelength sounds. So, the drones will have a limited detection range, and that means that even millions of them could only cover a relatively small area of the ocean. And the submarines, which have their own large and extremely sensitive detection systems, would simply detect the drones then go hide somewhere else.
I like science fiction as much as anyone does, but it’s entertainment – it isn’t what we make defense policy on. And the idea that drones are going to make it impossible for Trident submarines to hide in the vast ocean deep is science fiction.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.