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Joe Buff: Toward Nano-Fish-Bots?
Joe Buff: Toward Nano-Fish-Bots?

About the Author

Joe Buff is a professional writer on national security and defense preparedness. He is also a novelist of tales of near-future warfare featuring nuclear submariners and Navy SEALs in action at their bravest and best. Two of Joe's non-fiction articles on future submarine technology and tactics, which appeared in The Submarine Review, received literary awards from the Naval Submarine League. His latest novel, Crush Depth, made the Military Book Club's Top 20 Bestseller List after being selected as a Featured Alternate of the Club in late 2002. His next work, Tidal Rip, will be released from Wm. Morrow in hardcover in November, 2003.

Joe is a Life Member of the following organizations: the Navy League of the United States, the Fellows of the Naval War College, CEC/Seabees Historical Foundation, and the Naval Submarine League. He is also a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute. Joe's father was an enlisted man in the Navy (Seabees in the Pacific Theater) from 1948 through 1953, and his uncle was a merchant mariner on the North Atlantic convoys late in World War II, before being drafted into the U.S. Army to serve in the Occupation of Nazi Germany.

Joe Buff Article & Column Archive

Joe Buff Contact Info:
readermail@joebuff.com http://www.JoeBuff.com

Joe Buff Books:
Tidal Rip
Crush Depth
Thunder in the Deep
Deep Sound Channel

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Equipment Guides: Vessels and Subs

Proceedings: Article Index

February 12, 2003

The concept of swarms of nano-robots populating the oceans is beginning to seem no longer just a science fiction fantasy. The thought has been bandied about that these "nano-fish-bots" could detect and report on the whereabouts of submarines everywhere, both friendly and enemy, possibly fomenting world disarmament. But America's subs are important deterrent, intelligence, and land-attack platforms, now and in any future time of national crisis. Would such a global anti-submarine patrol force, perhaps under U.N. auspices, be a good thing? Could tiny undersea vehicles render full-sized nuclear submarines obsolete?

Semi-autonomous and long endurance robotic probes are already beginning to plumb the world's oceans down to considerable depths, for purposes of scientific and economic research. These civilian unmanned undersea vehicles have sometimes been called "ocean rovers." They report their data by periodically coming to the surface for long enough to make a radio transmission. Since good oceanographic data is important to undersea warfare, ocean rovers may in fact present a boon to submariners -- and by extension, to the joint warfighting community at large.

The concept of "nano under the sea" is not so far-fetched. The move to Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS) minisubs, to torpedo-tube-launched unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) for minefield surveillance and other dangerous duty, and the planned armed unmanned undersea combat vehicle MANTA, can be viewed collectively as a trend toward miniaturization serving twin purposes: increasing stealth, and minimizing casualties if stealth were compromised. A "smaller" undersea target -- analogous to a smaller radar cross section -- has a better chance to fall below a detector system's imagery resolution limit, or be lost in environmental clutter. And the fewer humans aboard, the fewer people lost were that vehicle destroyed. The trend toward miniaturization, whose ultimate manifestation would be nano-technology, is by itself supportive of, not contradictory to, existing undersea warfare programs and goals. Stated differently, a spectrum of vessels and probes, with smaller size and less human occupancy, designed to penetrate further and further into the shallow high-threat coastal littorals, is a smart idea the Silent Service is already pursuing intensively.

The U.S. Navy is in the process of adapting the four oldest Ohio-class "boomer" SSBN strategic missile submarines into a new configuration called SSGN. Most of the two dozen missile tubes will carry a sleeve holding seven Tomahawk or improved Tactical Tomahawk cruise missiles, while a few tubes will be fitted out to support SEAL operations. One SSGN will be able to carry sixty-six or more commandos, and up to two ASDS minisubs. The minisubs in turn will carry SEALs, Marine Recon, CIA operatives, trained partisans, or other special forces to the forward battle area in a warm, dry, shirtsleeves environment. Although the first SSGN will not be ready for several years, it is important for our friends (and enemies) to know that they are coming. Each will be able to launch up to 154 Tomahawks, a true revolution in stealthy long-legged land attack firepower.

But an SSN or SSGN -- the latter possibly holding instead anti-shipping cruise missiles -- will always be far more than just a transportation vehicle to some distant global trouble spot. Our trans-oceanic sea lines of communication, for commercial trade and military logistics, will surely remain important forever. Over a protracted future timeframe, blue water naval battles and campaigns are probably inevitable, and global disarmament seems now more than ever a hopeless cause.

The question of whether ocean rovers might, even unintentionally, today or tomorrow compromise an SSN or SSBN they encounter is significant. Just one multi-national civilian program, ARGO, intends to have a fleet of 3000 research ocean rovers fielded in three years -- raising the specter of the serious risk of collision at sea. Presumably these issues are being addressed already by the Undersea Warfare community. The Navy is participating in scientific ocean rover development, for instance by experimenting with several Remote Environmental Monitoring Units. These are fed mission profile instructions via laptop, and then tossed in the water by hand from a surface vessel's deck. (This question of the threat of ocean rovers to submarine stealth is not entirely new, since the increasing use of military UUVs implies the need -- and the opportunity -- to consider their use as ASW detection sensor/platform systems by friend and foe alike. Ever-improving stealth, and quashing of inappropriate technology proliferation, are vital to our national security.)

It is possible that some day submarine warfare will be fought exclusively by UCUVs: unmanned combat undersea vehicles. This may be very desirable if it minimizes human casualties. These UCUVs might become ever smaller, until they reach true nano-proportions -- the trend from a 6000 ton SSN to a 60 ton ASDS to a 60 pound ARGO points us toward a Moore's Law for conflict at sea. (Moore's Law refers to the exponential improvement in microchip miniaturization and processor speed.)

But the conundrum remains of how one side in a shooting war will respond if its unmanned combat vehicles are defeated by those of its opponent, while it still maintains the will to resist. Humans will surely then be back in the loop, making decisions in the heat of action and shedding blood. Future nano-combat might serve only as a trip-wire, or a curtain-raiser, to a more conventional war between manned vehicles. Aviation enthusiasts should note that this would seem to apply to aerial combat as much as to undersea combat!

By the inescapable fundamentals of naval architecture and engineering, high speed and ample heavy-weapon loadout demand large hulls. Miniaturization, therefore, does not threaten to render full sized, large crewed nuclear submarines irrelevant or obsolescent in the least. Rather, the future SSN, SSBN, and SSGN -- the true all-weather capital ships with their cohort of ancillary vehicles and suit of armor provided by the ocean itself -- become more capable, more survivable, and more essential than ever.

Review of Joe Buff's Crush Depth by Booklist

In 2012, the Axis and the Allies are again dueling at sea, but the Axis this time consists of a South Africa under apartheid again and a resurgent imperial Germany. Limited nuclear war has taken place, but the key to the outcome is command of the sea. That is disputed primarily between two supersubmarines, the South African "Voortrekker" and the American "Challenger," both ceramic-hulled arsenals of superweapons that can dive three miles deep. Commanding the Voortrekker is megalomaniacal Ter Horst, while his American counterpart is Jeffrey Fuller, whose lover, oceanographer and South African resistance fighter Ilse Reebeck was once Ter Horst's woman! The duel between submarines and captains should keep readers flipping pages, especially if they love undersea action. But the tension created by periodic approaches to the strategic nuclear brink, Buff's frequently successful attempts at making Fuller a fully developed character, and the portrait of the suffering and stress in a U.S. facing a long-duration hot war all raise the yarn rather far above the standard literary tub of military hardware.



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