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Acoustic Intelligence: Charting the Undersea Frontier
"It's a hostile environment our job is to keep us at the forefront of undersea warfare."

In the Acoustics Intelligence Laboratory at the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), STSCM(SS) Tim Hella and a small cadre of colleagues are charting the elusive sound prints of the still-mysterious ocean frontier.

From their work has come an ever-expanding body of knowledge from which new naval tactics and technologies are derived.

The information developed by these specialists enables sonar technicians in the fleet to sort through tens of thousands of possible contacts and identify friend from foe.

“ACINT (acoustics intelligence) is as much an art as a science,” says STSCM(SS) Gerald A. Behnken, ONI Acoustic Intelligence Specialist.

Since the ACINT Specialist Program was born out of Cold War necessity in 1962, only a few individuals have been selected to carry out the critical mission. Currently there are just 49 qualified specialists, 39 submariners and 10 surface warriors. All are volunteers, and each brings years of sonar experience to the job. Virtually all of them joined acoustics intelligence as an E-6 or above. Their most common shared characteristic however, is their desire to excel.

“This is such a competitive bunch of guys. We all try to outdo one another,” Behnken says. Hella amplifies. “Imagine getting every ‘Type-A’ person you ever knew into one small room.”

Typically, qualifying to become an ACINT specialist takes 16 to 18 months. Candidates are handpicked from the most capable submarine and surface Sonar Technicians in the fleet. The intensive training is not a formal school, but a selective, self-paced course of study coupled with formal qualification checkouts, on-the-job training, briefings, practical examinations, and time at sea under the supervision of a qualified ACINT specialist.

Photo caption follows
ACINT Specialist STSC(SS) Allen Sanders receives environmental data for a sonar search plan update while underway.

“If you want to be a Sonar Technician, this is the place to be. This is where the action is,” says STSC(SS) Arthur D. Pistorio, who, at about the half-way mark in ACINT specialist training, has found new meaning to the word “rigor.” It’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. It’s very difficult. A lot of hours. An amazing amount to learn.”

Additionally, each trainee is required to demonstrate his knowledge before a qualification board mid-way through the course and at its completion. “The pressure was amazing. When I walked
out of my interim qual board I was so relieved,” Pistorio said.

Eventually, each candidate who qualifies as an ACINT specialist will play an important part, along with ONI civilian analysts, in assembling and maintaining a voluminous acoustics intelligence database. ACINT data must be collected and analyzed over many years.

At sea, the threat contact must first be acquired on sonar. An ACINT specialist is able to quickly determine the general type of vessel (submarine, surface warship, merchant vessel, trawler or torpedo). More time and analysis are needed to make a specific identification. If it is classified as a contact of interest, the data collected on it is forwarded to ONI. In order to classify to a specific vessel or hull number, other types of collateral information are required to narrow the possibilities.

ACINT specialists support a wide variety of training programs to prepare students for the challenges ahead.

The assembled acoustic database serves numerous important purposes. ACINT data help identify threat acoustic vulnerabilities; vulnerabilities which may be exploited by new sensors, processors and displays. The improved detection capabilities are refined in exercises, which eventually become new tactical doctrine.

Despite the expanding array of sophisticated technology and tactics, it is still the ears and the minds of the specialists that are the final determiners of good ACINT. “The human factor is still necessary. That’s what makes it so interesting,” Hella says. ONI’s ACINT specialists are deeply involved in fleet training, devoting many hours to formal instruction in such topics as acoustic analysis and the importance of sound silencing for the SONAR division, the wardroom, and the crew.

“Their real importance is that they’re authoritative data guys,” says CAPT Arnold O. Lotring, Commanding Officer, Submarine Learning Center, in Groton, Conn. “They back up the database with vast experience. Any database can degrade. These people keep it alive with their experience.” An ONI ACINT specialist serves on the instructional staff at the new Submarine Learning Center.

ACINT specialists support a wide variety of training programs to prepare students for the challenges ahead. They tune acoustic training programs and technical systems for attack team trainers to replicate actual threat contacts. At sea, ACINT specialists direct on-watch OJT, passing years of sonar experience on to junior petty officers.

“ACINT specialists are an integral part of bringing the crew up to the highest levels of preparedness and training,” Lotring says. “Underway they are critically important to the mission’s success. Not only on the sonar side, but to the commanding officer and the wardroom.”

Should he qualify, what can Chief Pistorio look forward to? Challenging work, the comradeship of a select group of individuals with a keen sense of legacy, and a lot of time at sea.

Although the ACINT program is not considered traditional sea duty, specialists spend nearly half of every year at sea. During the 16 to 18 month training period, aspiring specialists typically take part in three to four submarine missions. After qualification, they average two to three missions per year.

“When you look at the sea time that they put in, they do take it to another level,” Lotring says. “I wish we had more communities that have that kind of personal pride and dedication.”

Although the Cold War has ended, and with it the primary mission of collecting acoustic intelligence on Soviet ocean platforms, ONI ACINT specialists have nimbly responded to challenging naval worldwide operational priorities, such as the Global War on Terrorism.

Despite these changes, ACINT specialists consider one principle to be immutable: a commitment to delivering the highest quality service to the fleet.

“When you leave the boat, you’ve made your mark,” Behnken says. “You’ve passed on something of value.”

Mr. Althage is the Public Affairs Officer at the Office of Naval Intelligence.