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Keeping It Real

by Thomas H. Freeman

Today's torpedo is of course much more capable and much more complex than the MK 14 as it has to be to meet today's challenges. The target set has grown dramatically just in the last 20 years. In addition to the blue water threat, a torpedo must now be effective against diesel-electric submarines operating quietly in shallow coastal waters. In addition to traditional ocean-going surface combatants, it must now deal with small and mid-size high-speed vessels, not to mention surface action groups that include a mix of ships. At the same time, most of these threats have become more adept at counter-detection, counter-fire, and evasion. The Submarine Force must be able to kill this wide range of difficult, capable, constantly evolving targets with a single weapon in what is perhaps the most challenging environment for any weapon system.

State-of-the-Art Testing
Extensive torpedo testing on multiple levels across the undersea enterprise is more essential than ever for maintaining readiness, assessing performance, developing and refining tactics, and countering emerging threats. The Submarine Force typically conducts over 500 exercise firings per year. These firings support not only fleet readiness and training and tactical development (TACDEV), but also developmental testing and operational testing (DT/OT) of system improvements and new capabilities.

It has become standard practice for most firings to serve multiple objectives. There are simply not enough resources—submarine availability, range availability, target ships, countermeasures, exercise torpedoes, etc.—for each training and testing activity to "do its own thing." A host of activities—including program offices, fleet schedulers, fleet trainers, Submarine Development Squadron Twelve, the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC), and the Navy's Operational Test and Evaluation Force—continuously plan and coordinate to make limited firings meet everyone's objectives as well as possible.

It helps that torpedoes are unique among weapon systems in having an exercise variant that can be recovered and reused after firing—unlike missiles or gun projectiles, which cannot be recovered and reused. In an exercise torpedo (EXTORP), the warhead section is replaced by an exercise section containing data recorders, range tracking instrumentation, and redundant safety mechanisms to prevent inadvertent impacts with own-ship or target vessels. However, other than a reduced fuel load and the lack of an explosion at the end of its run, an EXTORP performs exactly the same as a full-up warshot in every respect.

Every EXTORP firing provides a wealth of data that supports multiple objectives, from training to ensuring performance and reliability to developing tactics and systems. And after several firings, every EXTORP is converted into a warshot, a full-up round for use in combat. The fact that every warshot in U.S. submarines has already run as an EXTORP significantly improves reliability.

Ex-USS John Young (DD 973) after being struck by a single Mk 48 Mod 6 warshot torpedo, fired by USS Pasadena (SSN 752), April 13, 2004. U.S. Navy photo.

Live Testing for Fleet Training
Submarine crews require realistic training to certify and maintain proficiency. Since a submarine-launched torpedo is not a "fire and forget" weapon, operator training must ensure equal proficiency both before and after launch. And it must ensure proficiency with a wide variety of complex systems, including as many as 14 major variants of combat systems and multiple variants of torpedo hardware and software. It must take into account variations in input and performance capability across all of these systems, variations that can range from very great to very subtle and can affect both pre-launch and post-launch training.

Prior to launch, a crew must execute approach and attack tactics, develop a satisfactory firing solution, and prepare the weapons — all while maintaining a tactical advantage and determining what tactics to employ after launch. In performing target motion analysis (TMA) and developing a satisfactory firing solution, they must consider numerous characteristics of the combat system, the operating environment, and the target. Once weapons are launched, they must respond quickly and correctly to the rapidly evolving tactical situation —including evasion and counter-fire by the target — both to maximize the probability of a hit (Phit) and to ensure the submarine's own survivability.

Only actual weapon firings can ensure crew proficiency in all of these complex and demanding tasks. Land-based simulators and onboard trainers have improved to the point where they can increasingly augment live training, but they cannot replace it without sacrificing the critical ability to "train as you fight." Serious shortcomings in emulating torpedoes, operating environments, and targets make them inadequate substitutes for actual torpedo firings

Among the many fleet training evolutions that call for exercise firings are tactical readiness exams (TREs), periodic proficiency tests, and Submarine Command Course (SCC) exercises. The SCC exercises involve the most extensive and most visible torpedo training tests. A typical quarterly SCC exercise includes three submarines, multiple surface combatants and aircraft, and up to 70 torpedo firings in a mix of anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare scenarios in both deep and shallow water.

In addition to their training value, exercise firings provide critical insight into torpedo performance. This is particularly true of SCC exercises, which offer some of the most challenging tactical scenarios. Multi-target scenarios in deep and shallow water; aggressive counter-tactics, including deception, evasion, countermeasures and counter-fired torpedoes; and even occasional exploration of alternate tactics provide particularly robust tests of weapon system performance.

Platform Readiness and Certification

A submarine is one of the most complex platforms in the Navy. Dozens of shipboard systems, procedures, and human factors come into play in shipping, stowing, handling, tube-loading, launching and controlling a torpedo. Heavyweight torpedo firings are among the few end-to-end tests for making sure the entire undersea combat system—sonar, combat control, launcher, weapons, etc. — is operationally ready for deployment. While the more than 500 firings per year mentioned above may sound like more than enough to ensure readiness and proficiency, it amounts to only a handful per year when divided among more than 80 submarine crews — and fewer still for crew members who rotate during the year.

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