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Submarine Communications

Submarines communicate via multiple, complementary RF systems, covering nearly all the military communications frequencies. No one communications system or frequency band can support all submarine communications requirements. Submarine shipboard communications systems consist of RF antennas and radio room equipment, both RF transmitters/receivers and baseband suites. Submarines require a suite of antennas to provide the necessary communications, navigation, and Identification, Friend or Foe (IFF) capabilities. Submarine antennas, as compared to surface ship antennas, are unique in design, shape, materials, and performance due to a submarine’s space and weight limitations, extreme environmental conditions, and stealth considerations. UHF SATCOM provides a relatively high data rate but requires the submarine to expose a detectable mast-mounted antenna, degrading its primary attribute — stealth. Conversely, extremely low frequency (ELF) and VLF broadcast communications provide submarines a high degree of stealth and flexibility in speed and depth, but are low data rate, submarine-unique and shore-to-submarine only.

The US Navy is investing in new and previously demonstrated techniques for communicating with submarines at speed and depth for coordinated ASW operations. These techniques most commonly use either trailing wires or towed buoys for submarine communications, which impose limitations on the submarine's maneuverability and stealth, and therefore negatively impact the submarine's ability to fully conduct ASW operations. An airborne laser which could penetrate shallow water would permit submarine communications without the restrictions of floating wires or buoys.

ELF [Extremely Low Frequency 30 Hz - 300 Hz 10,000 Km - 1,000 Km wavelength] - This is the only band that can penetrate hundreds of meters below the surface of the ocean. The US Navy transmits ELF messages using a huge antenna in Wisconsin and Michigan created by several miles of cable on towers in conjunction with the underlying bedrock. This band is used to send short coded "phonetic letter spelled out" (PLSO) messages to deeply submerged submarines that are trailing long antenna wires. The communication is only one way, therefore it is used primarily for prearranged signals or to direct the submarine to come closer to the surface for faster communications. Environmental factors do not have a strong influence on changing the signal and therefore it is quite reliable.

VLF [Very low frequency 3 kHz - 30 kHz 100 Km - 10 Km ] This band can penetrate several meters below seawater and can transmit much more information than ELF, therefore it is useful for submarine communications when the submarine cannot surface, but can come close to the surface. It can be affected by salinity gradients in the ocean, but these usually do not present problems for near-surface submarines. There are natural sources of VLF radiation, but in general, like ELF, it is not strongly influenced by changes in environmental conditions therefore it is useful for reliable global communications. The transmission antennas need to be large, therefore it is primarily used for one-way communications from shore-based command centers to surface ships and submarines. It can also be used to broadcast to several satellites at once, which can in turn relay messages to the surface. The Navy's VLF systems serve as a back-up for global communication use during hostilities when nuclear explosions may disrupt higher frequencies or satellites are destroyed by enemy actions. VLF is also used for aircraft and vessel navigation beacons and for transmitting standard frequencies and time signals.

HF [High frequency 3 MHz - 30 MHz 100 m - 10 m ] - The Navy makes extensive use of this band for communications. It is also used for long range ("over-the-horizon") radar. Due to the skywave transmission mode, HF radiation can travel great distances, sometimes to the other side of the earth. Due to its versatility and large coverage area, this is a very crowded band and the military can only use a few frequency regions scattered throughout this band. The most efficient transmissions require fairly large antennas, therefore it is most useful when at least one of the stations is on shore. The antenna size limits its use on aircraft. It cannot be used for satellite communications since it is reflected by the ionosphere. Many of the former uses of HF by the Navy are now being taken over by satellite communication systems. However, we expect that the Navy will continue to use HF for quite some time in the future. The primary drawback to HF use is that it is highly susceptible to changes in the ionosphere and therefore several frequencies must be available for use.

One of the immediate tasks delineated by the Navy in “From the Sea” is to continue the full integration of SSNs into expeditionary task forces. To be effective units of a Naval Task Group within a joint, Tailored Forward Element (TFE), submarines must be fully interoperable with both Naval and Joint communication systems. Submarines must be capable of tailoring on-board capabilities to optimize their support for the Joint Task Force (JTF) and Naval Component Commanders.

Coordination between multiple assets such as aircraft, surface ships, and submarines is critical to an effective ASW campaign. Integration of submarines into an overall ASW effort, arguably the most effective platform for wide area search and tracking, has traditionally been hampered by lack of or minimal communications to the submarine while deep.

Submarine communications were once limited to those necessary to communicate mission support information and the minimal command and control that a submarine previously required. The Navy continues to implement the principles of Network Centric Warfare, where the capability of the total force is made greater than the contributions of individual platforms through networking of sensors, weapons control systems, and information systems.

As submarines continue to conduct a variety of missions to include intelligence collection, Indications and Warning (I & W), anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, strike warfare, and mine warfare, they will have to be an integral part of networked sensors and platforms.

Submarines’ future missions will require a revolution in communications connectivity and supporting bandwidth. The vision is to allow submarines to communicate without the current restrictions of depth and speed and with sufficient bandwidth to maximize the effectiveness of data and intelligence collected by the submarine, such that real-time connectivity and reach-back is achieved.

The development of these advanced communications has already begun with the incorporation of Narrowband based systems that are IP architecture based. Following this is development of a higher data rate antenna and wideband based communications and ultimately a buoyant cable antenna that allows two-way communications at depth and speed.

Ultimately submerged data exchange and communications capabilities will be a key enabler for employing off-board vehicles, sensors, and distributed networks of UUVs, sensors and other payloads.

Navigation and Communication Submarines

Modern submariners have much better navigational tools than their earlier counterparts. During World War II, submarines, as well as other ships and aircraft, began using radio signals beamed from ground stations to calculate their approximate location. (To learn how such radio navigation works, see Loran). Until the 1960s, however, submarine navigators still used handheld sextants to plot their positions by the stars.

Missile submarines in the 1960s and 1970s began using mechanical dead reckoning calculators and charts of the known landscape features on the ocean floor to chart their locations. Dead reckoning calculators use a previous position, the submarine’s speed and direction, and the time traveled to calculate position. Because they did not take currents or variations in speed into account, these were also relatively inaccurate. Powerful digital computers and sophisticated gyrocompasses (gyroscopes used as compasses for direction-finding) now help submarines navigate. Submarines also use the Global Positioning System satellite network, which provides navigational accuracy measured in meters as opposed to kilometers. See also Navigation.

Submarine communications remain limited today more by tactical necessity and the need for stealth than by limits in modern communications capabilities. Submarines have retractable antennas for receiving and transmitting radio messages, although on most missions the submarines operate on electronic silence, merely copying incoming messages broadcast by satellites. Also, both missile and attack submarines in the U.S. Navy can receive messages via very low frequency radio waves, which can be picked up by a trailing wire antenna while they operate submerged. ©2018.