Navy is closing system used to spy on ships

June 12, 1994|By New York Times News Service

The Navy, facing increasingly tight budgets, is shutting down most of a $16 billion system that spied on enemy ships and submarines for decades by monitoring their undersea sounds. But scientists are fighting to save as much of the network as possible for environmental research and other civilian uses.

In a post-Cold War windfall, scientists and federal experts have been using the system to track whales, spy on illegal fishing, monitor earthquakes and volcanoes at sea, and look for shifts in ocean temperature that could portend climatic trouble.

"It's ridiculous to throw away a $16 billion investment when it's got so many uses for mankind," said Adm. James D. Watkins, a former chief of naval operations who is now president of the Joint Oceanographic Institutions, a Washington-based consortium of universities and research groups that study the seas.

The Sound Surveillance System, or Sosus, was used during the Cold War exclusively to track the ships and submarines of America's foes.

Started in the mid-1950s, it spans the globe with a network of more than 1,000 underwater microphones grouped in arrays and tied to Navy shore stations by some 30,000 miles of undersea cables. It can track undersea sounds over hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles.

With military budgets shrinking fast, the Navy has quietly begun cutting maintenance, closing shore stations and preparing to dismantle or mothball about 80 percent of the undersea arrays, Navy officials say.

A Navy team was kept from destroying part of the system around Bermuda this month only by the intervention of Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown.

Among other things, the Commerce Department is studying the undersea network as a way to monitor vessels involved in drift-net fishing and whaling, which are banned by global agreement.

The Sosus budget is down sharply, from about $335 million in the fiscal year 1991 to $165 million this year. For the fiscal year 1995, the Clinton administration has requested about $60 million. The number of personnel fell from 2,500 last year to 2,000 this year and is to drop to 750 by 1996.

"The Navy is chartered to do national defense, not marine-mammal research," Capt. Harold A. Williams, director of undersea surveillance at the Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, said in an interview. "But personally, I think it would not be a very wise long-term decision to let the system go under."

A few federal officials are trying to find a remedy that would pool money from various agencies to save much of the system for scientific studies and as a reserve weapon in case East-West hostilities are ever renewed. But two years of informal talks have produced little.

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