While hyperbole, perhaps, Metcalf’s remark underscored the Navy’s still-growing concern about the torpedo. For example, information on the 50-knot Soviet Type 65 wake-homing torpedo, what naval strategist Norman Polmar, writing in the December 1989 U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, called the “largest and most lethal non-nuclear torpedo in existence,” greatly stimulated research in the United States and other allied navies on ways to defeat these weapons. Later news that the Soviets had developed a rocket-propelled, hyper-velocity (200-knot-plus) Shkval torpedo further accelerated the search for effective countermeasures.
The danger from even “obsolete” World War II-era torpedoes was dramatically illustrated when the Royal Navy submarine HMS Conqueror fired two MK 8 torpedoes, sinking the Argentine cruiser ARA General Belgrano during the 1982 Falkands war – the first time torpedoes had been fired in anger against a warship since 1945. (During the Korean War, according to Polmar, air-launched U.S. Navy MK 13 torpedoes were used effectively against a dam in North Korea.)
Although the Soviet Navy imploded following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russian submarines, sensors, and weapons are commercially available, and they compete for market share with the platforms and anti-ship/submarine torpedo systems of other countries. Iran, for example, operates three Russian-built Kilo submarines and makes no apologies for attempting to acquire Shkvals and advanced wake-
homers. “The submarine threat to our strategies and operations is real, and it is growing” the Navy’s unclassified ASW publication Changing the Calculus: Guide to U.S. Navy Anti-Submarine Warfare...Threats, Concepts, and Programs 2005, concludes. “High speed, wake-homing, and other torpedoes are now available for open purchase,” it continues, and “...several navies have taken advantage of the availability of Russian high-performance wake-homing torpedoes that can be fired at long range with a significant probability of kill.”
These assessments continue to spur developments on anti-torpedo systems that are just now beginning to bear fruit, and look to provide practical – not hyperbolic – solutions to defending U.S. submarines and surface ships from the nearly ubiquitous threat of torpedo attack.
Past is Prologue
At a classified Undersea Warfare Conference in Washington, mid-August 1948, representatives from the office of the Assistant Chief of Naval Operations (Undersea Warfare) and the National Research Council assessed a burgeoning Soviet submarine force that had begun to incorporate advanced German technologies and systems. The Battle of the Atlantic was still fresh in their minds: “For success we must achieve two things,” they concluded, “first we must vitiate the effectiveness of the submarine torpedo, or develop an equally effective counter-weapon.
“Second, we must remove the detection advantage presently enjoyed by the submarine force over the surface ship.”
In the following years, several efforts – including “Project GENERAL Type 2-A,” a hard-kill anti-torpedo device streamed behind surface ships, which was the focus of the discussions in August 1948 – were undertaken to address the torpedo threat. The U.S. Navy’s T-MK 6 Fanfare soft-kill system, which was based on WWII “foxer” devices to defeat German acoustic homing torpedoes, showed some promise, and in 1985 the Navy deployed the AN/SLQ-25 “Nixie” towed decoy. These and other hard- and soft-kill systems – for example, electromagnetically-launched kinetic-kill projectiles to intercept incoming torpedoes, submarine-generated shock waves to disrupt torpedo guidance systems, and a variety of ship- and submarine-launched expendable acoustic decoys and jammers – provided only limited improvements in countering the more advanced and sophisticated torpedoes coming into Soviet and other navies’ inventories.
Two decades later, in mid-2006, the Navy is pursuing several programs intended to “vitiate the effectiveness” of the torpedo, whether launched from a submarine, surface ship, or aircraft, and accomplish the first goal of the 1948 Undersea Warfare Conference, even if the second goal – removing the detection advantage of the submarine over the surface ship – seems as elusive as ever.