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Vice Admiral Samuel Locklear on the Navy’s sonar controversy and the future of the size and shape of the Navy

Friday, December 21, 2007

HH: Joined now by Vice Admiral Samuel J. Locklear. Admiral, welcome, it’s great to have you on the program.

SL: Well, thank you, Hugh, it’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for asking.

HH: First of all, congratulations on thirty years of service. I guess you graduated from Annapolis thirty years ago.

SL: I did. I graduated with the great class of 1977. Of course, you know, when you go to an institution like that, every class considers themselves the greatest class. So there’s probably people who are listening that will disagree with that. But it was a great opportunity.

HH: Well, Admiral, thanks for your service. You’re the commander now of the 3rd Fleet, which is based out of San Diego. And for the benefit of the audience, that fleet’s got a storied history. But what’s its principal mission?

SL: Well, its principal mission, Hugh, as the 3rd Fleet commander, I’m the head of the operational control of the forces that are on the West Coast of the United States. I have an operational area of responsibility, of oversight, as you were, from a Navy perspective, that extends from the coast of the United States to the North and the South Pole, out to about the international dateline, just short of Guam.

HH: Wow.

SL: In that AOR, I’m responsible for all Naval activity that occurs there. I have a role with Homeland Defense, I have a role with the support of the Northern Commander in that regard, and I’m also the training fleet, so I’m responsible for the training of all the rotational forces that go to various places in the world to do the job that our Naval forces do. I’m responsible for their integrated training, which means I take the ships, the airplanes, the men and women, the submarines, and I put them all together into an integrated war fighting package, to get their skills honed up, so they can do the job that we’ve asked them to do.

HH: Now yesterday on the program, Admiral, we spent a couple of hours with the Marines from Pendleton who are involved in the battlefield simulation center there, and the unfolding ability to use simulation to train up Marines for their deployment around the world. That’s a vital training mission. Obviously, so is the Navy’s training mission. Of course, the Marines a sea service of the Navy. But how many sailors have you got in training in any given time?

SL: Well, in any given time, I would say that we probably have between, in integrated training, we’re always, we’re training at the basic level all the time. But in integrated training, we’re probably talking between ten and fifteen thousand sailors at any one time.

HH: All right, because we’re going to come back to…what we’re talking about today is the sonar controversy, but I want to set the table first. And how many ships and submarines are under your command, Admiral?

SL: Well, it kind of varies from week to week, depending on how we are packaged in the forces to go forward. As you recall from my earlier comments, I put these forces together, and then when they trained, I actually send them around the world where they work for fleet commanders that are forward deployed. But I would say that on any given day, I probably have about 70 ships, which includes a number of aircraft carriers, a number of expeditionary strike group, or big deck amphibious ships, probably around forty to forty-five thousand people on any given day, and about 1,500 airplanes.

HH: Wow. Now Admiral, what we want to talk about today, it’s the time of the year when we do some stories which we normally don’t have time to do because Congress is out of session, and we’re able to concentrate on some stuff below the surface, if you’ll pardon the pun. And this month, the 9th Circuit got involved again in the ongoing dispute between some environmental groups and the Navy over sonar. Before we get into the particulars of that, can you give us a brief overview of what sonar is, and how it operates, and how important it is to the fleet?

SL: Sure. You know, sonar, active sonar was developed just after World War I in Britain, and in the United States. And that sonar technology was kept secret until World War II, when it was used very effectively in those critical years to counter the devastating attacks of the German U-boats. During the Cold War, we had, made a lot of improvements to our sonar technology, and were able to, as you probably, most of the viewers out there at one time or another watched the movie Red October, where we, in those years, were primarily concerned about ocean, large ocean covering submarines from the Soviet Union. And in those days, we used sonar effectively to determine where those submarines were, and to be able to ensure that our national interests were protected globally. There’s actually two pieces to sonar. One is, when you talk about sonar, there’s passive sonar, and passive sonar is basically listening. And that’s the technology that we pursue aggressively, and it puts no sound in the water. It basically capitalizes on the sound that other things make. It’s a listening device. And for certain types of submarines that our out there, it’s an effective counter. The type of sonar that the courts are primarily interested in is deep frequency sonar, which is active sonar, where you have ships, and in some cases, airplanes, that are putting active sound into the water in the mid-frequency range, using the characteristics of the sound flow in water, and allowing that sound to go out and bounce off of an underwater object, and then give you a return, which gives you a range and bearing, and plus potentially the depth of, in this case, an enemy submarine, which is what we’d be looking for. But that’s in a nutshell what sonar is.

HH: And in a nutshell, about why we still have to look for submarines, because those of us who’ve read Blind Man Bluff, we remember the Cold War days, and the amazing, not just the movies, but the books about it. But now, a lot of people are kind of asleep at the switch and believing hey, there is not near peer competitor to the United States Navy. Do we still have to be worried about submarines?

SL: Absolutely. Submarine technology is exploding around the world. It doesn’t get much playtime on the evening news because of the other aspects of the global war on terror that are out in front right now. But today, there’s about 400 submarines in the world. There’s about 80 of those are, 80 to 90 of them are probably what I would consider nuclear submarines. Most of those are owned by the United States. The other three hundred or plus are in the category of extremely quiet in the technology, like I said, it’s exploding, extremely quiet diesel submarines. And they’re cheap, they’re being mass produced, I would say, compared to other submarines, and they’re available for just about any country that would want to pursue the technology. The benefit of these particular submarines, to whoever owns them, is that they are able to lay into shallow water, into the choke points of the world. And in fact, to interdict shipping, to stop the flow of shipping, to stop the flow of military forces that were trying to flow through an area because of their lethality.

HH: Admiral…

SL: They can only really operate in these littoral, close to the coast choke points, very shallow water. They’re very difficult to find. And it requires a lot of practice, and it requires, until technology produces something different, it requires mid-frequency sonar to be able to effectively ensure that we continue to have access to the places we need to have access.

HH: About a minute to our break, Admiral. Can you give us a rundown of which countries have submarine fleets of these extremely quiet diesel submarines?

SL: Well, I think there’s about 41 of them, so it probably would take the whole time to do that…

HH: Whoa.

SL: But let me just give you some of the ones that come off the top of my mind. China, China is pursuing a significant fleet. They have a fleet in excess of sixty-something diesel submarines, and that’s growing. Iran, I just understand recently where Venezuela may be pursuing these. So you see the types of countries that are looking for them, and the potential of how they might choose to use them to interdict the world we know today.

– – – –

HH: Admiral, when you hear the word diesel, you don’t think extremely quiet, in terms of what the Soviets used to have that we chase around in movies and in books, et cetera, and the civilians would know about. What percentage of quiet are they? Are they equal to the old Soviet fleet in terms of their ability to evade the United States Navy?

SL: Well, let me put it in this context. You know, we call them diesel because that’s their primary power generation method. But the reality of it is that they use the diesels to power batteries. And so when they’re in operation, they actually are on battery powered operations. So I would just equate it to the difference in, if you’ve ever ridden in a golf cart.

HH: Yup.

SL: If you’ve got a gas powered golf cart, you know how loud it is?

HH: Yup.

SL: If you have an electric powered golf cart, you can hear the engine running?

HH: Yup.

SL: So in some of these submarines, these diesel submarines, today, the quieting technology when they are on battery, when an engine is other than an electric motor, is not running, they have air independent propulsion systems, which means that when they get ready to recharge those batteries, they don’t have to come to the surface like they used to. They can actually lay on the bottom for days, and they are, and I would say, rather than being noisy, they are an absence of noise. That’s how quiet they are, very difficult problem. And really, the only solution we have been able to come up with over the last fifty years or so is mid-frequency sonar.

HH: Now the complexity of the battle space beneath the water, is it greater than it was prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall? Obviously, there are not that many nukes running around out there, but in terms of the number of potential hostile submarines, is it more or less from the old days?

SL: Well, in the old days, it was primarily a blue water force, our Navy was, designed for all practical purposes against a Soviet blue water force. So we anticipated that most of the anti-submarine operations would be in what I call blue water, I’m talking about in the deeper ocean, in that they would be against nuclear powered submarines, which are not as quiet as diesel submarines, and can in general be effectively tracked using passive measure, where you don’t want to put sound in the water. Since that time, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and since the world is shaping up like it’s shaping up, there’s been a movement of submarine technology into what I call the littorals, which is into the more shallow waters and choke points of the world.

HH: Right.

SL: The realities of sound propagation in water is that in the deep ocean, it’s one problem. In the shallow waters, it’s a totally different problem. In the shallow waters, first of all, that’s where most of shipping is, so you have a lot of background noise. It’s where most of the drilling and off-shore industry are, so there’s a lot of noise there. It’s where most of your fishing is going on, so there’s already a lot of noise in the water. Plus, you have a bottom topography that it has slopes and valleys, and underwater things that make the use of sonar in those areas much more difficult to use effectively, because of bottom reverberations and that type of thing.

HH: I’m talking with Admiral Locklear, commander of the U.S. 3rd Fleet. Now Admiral, who’s manufacturing the extremely quiet diesels? Where are they coming from?

SL: Russia, Germany, Sweden, some countries in South America.

HH: Okay.

SL: India.

HH: Can anyone buy… I mean, are they capable of falling into the hands of obviously rogue regimes, yes, you mentioned Iran, but what about terrorist third parties?

SL: I think that would be a stretch for me. I think that the technology to effectively operate even a simple diesel submarine is, and the training required, is pretty sophisticated.

HH: Does North Korea have any of these?

SL: Absolutely.

HH: All right. Now Admiral, what part of active sonar, how does that operate? Who does it? Is it only from submarines, surface ships, or do airplanes do it to find these submarines?

SL: Right. Well, let me give you the context of the Navy at large. There’s 280 ships in the Navy. Only 58% of those ships have a sonar capability. The rest of them just don’t bother with it, because it’s not in their mission set. Of those ships, about half of them would be at sea at any one time. At the most, I think, barring any major world war, half of them at sea. And the amount of time that they’re using that active sonar is about 1% of the time that they would be underway.

– – – –

HH: I appreciate the time, Admiral. I think this is riveting, actually. So we’ve got about 280 ships, 58% of which have sonar capacity, about half of which are at sea at any time, it’s about 85 ships then. And they’re only using their active sonar about 1% of the time they’re at sea. So let’s pick up there, that’s where we left off. And so is that a rising number or a falling number, in terms of use of active sonar?

SL: Well, over historical numbers of our Navy, it’s fallen. I mean, in the Reagan era, you know, we were building to a 600 ship Navy, which active sonar was a preeminent weapon system in that force. Today, we’re a Navy of about 280 ships, highly capable, but still a smaller Navy. So I guess historically, you’d say it’s fallen.

HH: And how much time does it take to train a sailor in the use of sonar?

SL: It could take upwards of twenty years…

HH: Wow.

SL: …to produce, I would say, an effective artisan. I mean, there’s really an art to this. We start them out early through a very aggressive classroom training, where they go off to schools, where they’re learning the classification of contacts, because remember, they’re learning both the passive and the active side. But it can take up to twenty years to produce someone that I would say was proficient in being able to understand the art, where you could take a ship or a group of ships into littorals, and you could be effective at finding and being able to manage extremely quiet diesel submarines.

HH: So what we’ve established thus far is that we need active sonar, that it’s rarely used, and it takes a long time to train on it. Let’s go to the litigation now, Admiral. What did the 9th Circuit say? What’s the controversy? We know it involves whales, but why don’t you set it up for us.

SL: Well, the use of sonar, I mean, it puts sound in the water. And by virtue of putting sound in the water, it has impacts on things around it. There has been, over time, there has been sporadic evidence that some use of mid-frequency sonar against certain types of marine mammals, beaked whales in particular, there was an incident back in Bahamas in March of 2000, during a choke point exercise, where you take a large military Naval force through a very confined water space, like you would in the Straits of Hormuz, going into the Persian Gulf, for instance.

HH: Okay.

SL: And there was a confluence of several factors acted together that we think, like the numbers of sonars that were in there, the unusual water conditions, the limited egress or routes for marine mammals, and there was beaked whales that appeared to be affected, it was a dozen or so of them that were affected, and we believe were grounded because of that particular activity. Now beaked whales, as far as I know, are not found off the coast of Southern California, and certainly today, among a lot of mitigation activities that we do to ensure that marine mammals aren’t impacted negatively, we specifically stay away from the areas, first of all, where beaked whales might be. We know that they might be susceptible, we think they might be susceptible. And we also stay away from places that have the same contoured bottoms, and the same imagery, and the same issues associated with what we say in Bahamas in 2000, none of which exist here in San Diego.

HH: And so, what is the, is there a restraint currently on the Navy in the amount of active sonar training you can do, Admiral?

SL: Currently, the Navy has adopted 29 mitigation measures that, and I won’t go through all 29 of those, but any time we’re operating active sonar in any fashion, we have to do several things. And we’ve been able to accomplish these things and not significantly degrade the type of training we have. Those type of mitigations are, first of all, we’re aware of the environment we’re in, we’re aware of the migratory patterns of the whales that are in the littorals, particularly off the coast of Southern California, which I’m concerned with. We’re aware of where the topography or the bottom topography might be sensitive to them. We have specialized training for all of our lookouts. We have night vision devices that we purchased that allow us to see approaching whales at night. And whenever we do sense that there are, or have indications that there are marine mammals in the area, we have certain ranges of when we get close enough to that mammal, that we either turn away from it, and so that we won’t disturb it, and if that’s not effective, when it comes within certain ranges, we actually power down the sonars. The first power down actually takes the sonar down by 75% of its power, so that we’re not adversely affecting these wonderful creatures.

HH: Now Admiral, I don’t want to go all…here, but I am a little bit concerned that concerns over environmental stewardship which are legitimate are not blinding the United States in any significant way to threats to the United States. Are you confident that that’s the case?

SL: (laughing) I think that on any side of the issue, there are people who are passionate about that issue. You know, from an admiral in the Navy’s perspective, I’m passionate about the defense of this country, and being able to accomplish what the President and the American people want us to do. And I’m also very much interested in making sure that the young sailors and the Marines who are out there, that they are able to go accomplish their mission safely, and actually return home. I would say that where we are today with submarine technology and mid-frequency sonar technology, that there has to be a balance. There has to be a balance between the good environmental stewardship and our ability to get our job done, and our ability to train and get that done. And sometimes, I think there are folks who don’t seek that balance. I believe the Navy is very much seeking that balance, and we will continue. You know, we’re putting about $14 million, and it’s going to go to $18 million dollars a year into marine mammal research. We do, we sponsor research at over thirty different organizations, universities, scientific organizations around the world. And we’re going to continue to do that. And we’re looking at how do we investigate better where the marine mammals are, and what their movements are, and develop criteria and better thresholds to estimate the effects of sound on these creatures, and then to continue to help us to develop mitigation methods. But we have to be careful in making sure that balance is correct, because if you go too far to the extreme in one direction, we end up not able to accomplish our mission, and that’s, I don’t think that’s in the best interest of this country.

HH: I agree with that.

– – – –

HH: Admiral, thanks for your time today. If I could broaden this out just a little bit, we’ll follow the litigation. I know the 9th Circuit has sent it back to the district court in Los Angeles to take a look at the measure the Navy has adopted in terms of mitigation on active sonar. But I want to step back to the 280 ship Navy. I was part of the Reagan administration when it was up to 600. And we talked to a lot of the presidential candidates. Are 280 ships enough to the tasks that the Navy faces these days, Admiral?

SL: Well, I think the short answer to that is no. We’re, you know, the world is far more globalized than it’s ever been. 90% of everything that travels in the whole wide world travels on the ocean. There’s a population explosion going on around the world. Most of those people are going to live within 200 miles of the sea. And there’s places out there, countries, and factions that don’t necessarily like what we have or who we are here back in this great country. And so, you know, the Navy is a big part of ensuring that we have access to the world the way that this country has always had. And 280 ships is probably not going to get it done. We’re on a program right now to try and get up to 313 ships in the next several years. But we’re always faced with challenges. It’s expensive, and we compete with other priorities in this country. But we’re going to need more ships.

HH: And Admiral, I’m one of the few civilians that actually reads Proceedings, so I kind of agree with that. But my question is do you see the resolve in the civilian population, or the understanding in the civilian population, about what the Navy does, and why 280 just doesn’t cut it?

SL: Well, I would say that that’s one of our largest challenges of leadership of the Navy, of which I’m a part of, is making sure that the Navy’s relevance to the day to day security of this country is well articulated, and what that means from the size and support, size of the Navy and support that we need to maintain it. We’ve embarked, as a Navy, on a campaign of redefining our strategy. We just came out with a new maritime strategy that was co-signed by the Commandant of the Marine Corps and the Commandant of the Coast Guard, which better articulates that. In fact, we’ve been going around this country having conversations with America about our Navy in the heartland, from colleges and universities all the way to industrial leaders and typical men and women on the street, trying to make sure they understand why you have a Navy, and why it’s so critical to you.

HH: Well, I appreciate the time you’ve done to do that today, Admiral, and a very Merry Christmas to you and everyone in your command. Thanks for your service, and all of their service down in San Diego, and we look forward to continuing to cover not just the sonar story, but also the Navy’s next generation of ships and sailors. Thanks very much, Admiral.

SL: Thank you, Hugh, and have a great holiday season.

HH: Will do.

End of interview.

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