Friday, March 10, 2006

A Whale Of a Controversy Over Sonar

A disclaimer is in order. Let it be stipulated that I am in no way an authority on the United States Navy, the science behind sonar technology or the navigational systems of sea mammals such as whales.

But hey, that's never prevented me from espousing a point of view and now seems an inappropriate time to begin all that time-consuming nonsense of learning the facts. This is commentary.

SonarThe Navy is looking for a site for their sailors to practice sonar in a shallow-water environment, which sounds logical enough and they’ve selected the waters off North Carolina, a dicey choice. That particular area is habitat for two groups of whales, both the Beaked and Right whale. Right whales are endangered already and beaked whales have proven to be particularly sensitive to sonar.

But I guess the training has to proceed, else how are we to protect ourselves against the thousands of North Korean and Chinese submarines that ply our coasts? Only the Navy or Secretary Rumsfeld would have the answer to that and it's not likely as a high priority while the rest of their tactical world is melting down.

RightwhaleBe that as it may, some 190+ words into this commentary, I have a proposed solution. Potentially, a pretty good one. Why is it not possible to carry off this entire training exercise by sonar simulator? We have flight simulators that reduce the need for expensive flight time in commercial aircraft. Why not apply the same logic and technology to the sensitive environment of sea mammals?

No one can deny (according to what I’ve read) that the Navy needs to conduct sonar training in shallow waters, where sound propagates differently than in the deep ocean. So, who am I to deny that? But I suspect that the ‘propagating differently’ that sonar does in that shallow water environment can be programmed into a computer.

SonartrainingI have a  friend, working for NASA, doing computer-generated Mars simulations, so when they go there, they’ll know what to expect. We don’t talk about it, because it doesn’t interest me much, it’s way beyond my technical understanding and I suppose he’s not supposed to gab about it. But if they can simulate Mars, it seems probable they can simulate the shallow water off South Carolina.

Give me a break. It's zaps, right? Send a zap, listen for a zap, make sure you can tell this zap from that. Learn to tell the Russian zap from the Korean or Chinese zap, make sure our Navy is able to close the zap-gap.

Simulators have the further agreeable component of being able to produce an entire Disney-World of possibilities. You want a simulated collision, malfunction, near-miss, ghost reading, blackout, thunderstorm, power failure or broken link in the chain-of-command, you can have it and never so much as come to the attention of a nearby whale. If Donald Rumsfeld has the hiccups after a big lunch, computers can simulate it and sailors can learn to recognize it. Understandable language from Rummy might be beyond them, but hiccups they can do.

You can accomplish this on a ship at sea, on land in a closed-in cubicle or in all probability within the confines of the Starbucks of your choice.

JustinchatwinUnless I miss my guess, sonar isn’t something you lean over the rail and try to hear coming back at you over the rush of a bow-wave. In all likelihood, it’s done at a desk within the bowels of a submarine or perhaps even an aircraft-carrier, by a serious looking young sailor under the pressure of a commanding officer breathing down his neck. A slam-dunk for Justin Chatwin in the upcoming film, “Sonar.”

Supposedly, the three sites favored by the Navy were chosen for practical reasons: they were close to home ports, air stations and federal shore facilities; had appropriate water depths; and had a satisfactory climate. That last is code for the Fleet Admiral being able to play golf nearby at his favorite club. Okay, I admit that’s a cheap-shot. But certainly whales were not on the to-do list.

What’s the problem with simulators, Admiral? Not salty enough?

A bunch more environmental issues muddying the waters on my personal web site.