Stealthy U.S. spy subs said to comb the deep

February 07, 1994|By New York Times News Service

The United States has for decades operated a fleet of specially equipped submarines whose secret work is to comb deep waters for military intelligence virtually unobtainable by any other means, experts in naval warfare say.

These spy submarines are the Navy's counterpart to reconnaissance satellites, but better in some respects. They can not only examine distant objects on the ocean floor but also sometimes retrieve or manipulate them.

The naval experts said objects of interest include lost ships, submarines, planes, weapons, rockets, spacecraft and nuclear warheads, as well as functioning equipment, such as other countries' undersea cables and listening devices.

A vivid example of the spying technique was recently given to Congress by a former senior Navy official who disclosed an early mission of one of these submarines, the Halibut, to examine a sunken Soviet submarine in the Pacific in 1968.

The naval experts, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Halibut was the first of these submarines, which constitute a new class of American submarine made to lower gear-laden cables for deep reconnaissance, recovery and manipulation. Typically, the experts said, aging attack submarines, which are primarily used to hunt missile-carrying subs of other nations, are converted for the role, with three or four operating at any one time.

The method, highly classified for more than a quarter of a century, is important, the experts said, because it is still used by the United States and perhaps by other countries, such as Russia. The disclosure of its existence, they said, may have repercussions for military budgets and international diplomacy. They added that foreign governments might conceivably take military or political steps to to counter this American capability.

In great secrecy, the submerged subs can drop miles of electronic cables to the ocean floor and use them to run complex gear for deep reconnaissance and recovery. Most submarines are easily crushed by pressure if they go too deep, so the long cables extend the Navy's operational depth into the abyss.

The method is similar to what Robert D. Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution used in 1985 to find and photograph the sunken hulk of the Titanic in waters more than two miles deep. Dr. Ballard, however, worked from a ship to lower cameras and lights on a tether.

Unlike surface ships, the submarines are stealthy, since they cannot be photographed by spy satellites and, when stationary and silently deploying their deep-sea gear, are nearly invisible to acoustic detection. Moreover, they are steady, unaffected by the waves and storms . And most important for the United States, they have been doing such work secretly for decades.

The Halibut, first of these subs, gathered intelligence information on a Russian submarine shortly after it sank in the Pacific in 1968.

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