In an effort reminiscent of the massive Apollo program that landed American astronauts on the moon, the Chinese government recently announced that they’ve brought together the combined resources and brainpower of 20 different research institutes and universities around their nation to do something many believe could be impossible. Like Apollo, this endeavor will require launching new technologies into space, inventing solutions to problems mankind has never faced before, and generally pushing the limits of what even experts in the field believe to be possible. Unlike Apollo, however, China won’t be using their amassed brain trust and budget to look outward toward the vast expanse of space. In fact, instead of looking up at all, China’s new space technology will be tasked with looking down; deeper into the ocean than any current defense technology is capable of doing.
As China, the United States and Russia continue to invest in anti-ship technologies intended to keep one another’s surface fleets at bay in the event a conflict should ever break out, there has been a resurgence of interest in how submarines can be used to offset the area denial bubble advanced long-range anti-ship missiles create. America’s carriers, for instance, could not close to within much more than a thousand miles of Chinese shores without becoming the target of hypersonic weapons no nation currently has the means to intercept or defend against… but theoretically, a submarine could. America’s Ohio class submarines could (in theory) encroach on Chinese shores and release a barrage of Trident missiles at anti-ship platforms, clearing the path for a massive Ford Class carrier to sail close enough to begin launching air strikes of its own.
In the United States, a number of efforts are already underway to shore up submarine defenses, including drone vessels tasked with policing the depths and sensor arrays that track the movement of marine wildlife to know when large numbers of animals are displaced by the movement of an enemy submarine. Among these submarine detection initiatives, DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has what many believe to be the most capable large-scale submarine detection apparatus: a powerful LIDAR system that when mounted on the nose of a spy plane can detect the presence of a submarine at depths reaching 200 meters (around 656 feet).
The LIDAR system works by projecting a powerful laser into the water, which displaces light at a rate in the neighborhood of a 1,000 times more quickly than the air we breathe. Existing satellites are said to be able to produce lasers so powerful, in fact, that they can penetrate up to 100 meters of water, spotting submarines lurking at depths of around 300 feet. As far as most experts contend, that 100 meter from space and 200 meters from DARPA’s best spy planes flying closer to the surface of the water is about the best the technology is capable of… but China isn’t listening to those experts. They’ve recruited an army of their own, and they’ve set a far loftier goal than 200 meters.
According to China, their new constellation of submarine detecting satellites (called Project Guanlan) will be able to spot encroaching vessels traveling at depths greater than 1,600 feet below the surface (500 meters), which for those keeping track, is some 300 meters deeper than light can penetrate. That’s so deep that submarines traveling at that depth aren’t accompanied by the type of sea life you’ve grown accustomed to seeing in underwater footage of subs… they’re traveling around with wildlife that look like this:
But according to China’s claims, their new satellites will be able to penetrate this shroud of aquatic darkness using a combination of technologies, making most submarines in the world visible to their prying eyes. How serious is a 500-meter detection depth (if their claims prove true)? Well, test depth for American nuclear submarines is 240 meters, and that figure serves as their maximum operational depth in peacetime operations. That means China’s eyes in the sky would be able to pick up any Ohio, Virginia, or even forthcoming Columbia class submarine operating at normal operational depths. As a general rule of thumb, the U.S. Navy treats that 240-meter mark as about two thirds the maximum depth the submarines are designed to be able to withstand, meaning that most of America’s nuclear submarines are rated for crush depths of around 720 meters, or a bit better than 2,300 feet.
Now, that’s no guarantee that these submarines can reliably operate long-term at such incredible depths, but it does mean American submarines could feasibly avoid detection while operating near China. However, launch depth for submarine-launched ballistic missiles is traditionally considered to be at around 50 meters, making identification a certainty while posturing for an attack.
China’s program aims to use different frequencies of light to penetrate deeper into the water than any system has before, then coupling that technology with existing satellite-based radar arrays and a forthcoming supercomputer that will combine data sets from the various sensor systems and produce a single feed that can either identify submarines deep below the water or produce a figure representing the likelihood that one is lurking. China claims the system will be able to sweep an area 100 kilometers wide (about 62 miles) or concentrate its focus on just one square kilometer for a thorough hunt.
Of course, despite China’s large scale effort and far reaching claims, there’s still no guarantee that they’d get such a system to work — even some experts inside China question how realistic their goal truly is.
“Five hundred metres is ‘mission impossible’,” a LIDAR specialist in China that requested anonymity told Business Insider. “They [project researchers] won’t be able to break through the darkness guarded by Mother Nature – unless of course they are Tom Cruise, armed with some secret weapons.”
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