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USA TODAY August 19, 2003

Sub hunt risks stirring up China, North Korea

2 nations' undersea fleets are seen as growing threats. U.S. will test new system in area where adversaries commonly conduct patrols

By Emma Schwartz and Tom Squitieri

The Navy plans to begin testing a new method for hunting hostile submarines this fall off the coast of Japan, and the test will include looking for the real thing: diesel-electric North Korean and Chinese subs prowling in the Sea of Japan.

The Navy says the tests are not intended to be hostile and technically involve hunting only for submarines from allies such as Japan. But Navy officials acknowledge that the tests will also be watching for North Korean and Chinese subs because they frequent the areas where the tests will take place.

Defense officials say both nations' submarines pose threats that are getting more serious.

"North Korea maintains one of the world's largest submarine forces," said a defense official who asked not to be named. The official monitors the threat posed by potentially hostile naval forces. "Although they are antiquated by U.S. standards, they could pose a significant risk to naval operations" in the event of a war on the Korean peninsula, the official said.

The official said that China is committed to extending the size and range of its submarine fleet while acquiring modern weapons to transform itself "from a coastal defense navy to a force capable of sustained open-ocean operations."

The tests, as well as similar trials off Hawaii, are scheduled to begin in about two months. They are intended to try out the prototype of a detection device that analyzes underwater color patterns and detects color gradations too faint for the human eye to notice. Early versions of the device -- called the Littoral Airborne Sensor Hyperspectral, or LASH -- have spotted whales and submarines below the surface.

Current detection methods used by the Navy rely on sonar and other methods to "hear" the location of enemy submarines. The LASH system is designed to permit the Navy to see where submarines are.

Analysts fear the tests will provoke an angry reaction from North Korea, which has responded belligerently to any U.S. military moves it perceives are directed against it, such as military exercises in South Korea. The tests come at a time when the United States and North Korea are already locked in a tense standoff over U.S. demands that North Korea give up its nuclear-bomb-making effort. Talks are scheduled to begin on that and other matters in Beijing next week. "No matter what the U.S. military says, you are going to get an adverse reaction from the North Koreans," says Charles Ferguson, a former submariner and a Korea expert at the State Department from 2000 to 2002. "I think the Pentagon is willing to live with that."

Ferguson adds that the North Koreans "will say, 'If you can reliably detect our submarines and sink our sub fleet before we have a chance to defend our coast, that is further justification to pursue weapons of mass destruction.' "

Military experts disagree about how serious a threat North Korean and Chinese submarines pose to U.S. and allied vessels. North Korea's fleet consists mostly of World War II-design diesel-powered subs. Although China is known to have one nuclear-powered submarine capable of carrying nuclear missiles, that vessel is believed to have problems that have largely confined it to port.

Even so, most analysts agree that the Chinese and North Korean subs could create serious trouble during a conflict in the region by menacing sea lanes and forcing U.S. aircraft carriers to stay farther away from targets for fear of being torpedoed.

"It is always a threat," says William Taylor, a retired Army colonel who was director of national security studies at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and has a specialty in Korean conflicts. "The subs can put special operations teams in place, they can target aircraft carriers, locate other targets, and with the Chinese nuclear (weapon) capability, there are different threat categories altogether."

The new surveillance system, which was developed by Hawaii-based Science & Technology International (STI), is useful only during daylight hours because it relies on reflected sunlight to illuminate a target. Special sensors relay the images to computers, where LASH technology is able to distinguish shades of color in underwater objects that look identical to the human eye.

Defense experts say they're not surprised that the Navy chose to test the system in the Sea of Japan, where Chinese and North Korean submarines patrol.

The Navy "is quite obsessed with North Korea and the Red Chinese. They are the navies that the U.S. is most likely to fight, and (their submarines) are not that easy to find," says John Pike, an analyst with GlobalSecurity.org, a defense research group in Alexandria, Va.

Pike says there is a real danger that the tests will ratchet up North Korean anxiety and possibly cause a clash. "They are already pegged at 11 on a scale of 10," Pike says of the North Koreans. "They are locked and loaded."

Tensions between the United States and North Korea crisis were inflamed in October when North Korea admitted it was pursuing a uranium-enrichment program to produce atomic weapons, a development that Washington believes could destabilize East Asia. Since then, North Korean officials have publicly charged that any U.S. military actions in the region, including a proposal to move U.S. troops off North Korea's border with South Korea, are part of a pre-attack agenda.

Military officials say that although many or most Chinese and North Korean submarines rely on technology that originated in World War II, advances in propellers, engines and electronics make these subs extremely quiet.

Adding to detection challenges: The relatively shallow ocean waters over the continental shelf are so noisy that it's difficult to hear submarines there.

"Sound waves are diffused and distorted in this coastal zone, and you have a huge number of vessels, motorboats, even whales making noise," says Jonathan Gradie, chief technology officer for STI. "There is a cacophony of noise that reduces the effectiveness of acoustic systems."

The tests will be conducted by Navy P-3 Orion sub-hunter aircraft and SH-60 Seahawk helicopters.


Copyright 2003, Gannett Company, Inc.