A first principles analysis of new technologies and the detection of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs)

Roger Bradbury, Scott Bainbridge, Katherine Daniell, Anne-Marie Grisogono, Ehsan Tavakoli-Nabavi, Andrew Stuchbery, Scott Vella, Thomas Vacca, Elizabeth Williams

    Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report


    We considered the problem of disruptive changes in the technologies for detection of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and how they intersect with the growing or continued reliance on submarines for retaliatory nuclear capability. In simple terms, we sought to answer the question: Will future science and technology make the oceans transparent? We took a scientific perspective and considered the science and technology issues bearing on ocean sensing and the detection of submarines as anomalies in the water column. Our time horizon was the 2050s, as the next generation of nuclear-armed submarines become deployed through the 2030s and beyond. Our analysis identified broad areas of future science and technology – rather than specific ‘hot’ areas of the moment – that might have an impact on submarine detection as well as on counter-detection. Our analysis used the estimative intelligence software tool, Intelfuze. It’s used in the intelligence community to provide probabilistic assessments that are rigorous, transparent, defensible, and able to be updated. It is particularly suited for problems where the data are poor, uncertain and perhaps even speculative, and where there may be strongly divergent opinions on the quality and significance of those data. Our assessments showed that the oceans are, in most circumstances, at least likely and, from some perspectives, very likely to become transparent by the 2050s. This suggests that, despite progress in counterdetection technologies, SSBNs will be able to be detected in the world’s oceans because of the evolution of science and technology. There were two strong implications from our results. The first is that the favourable geographies that the West took advantage of in the Atlantic during the Cold War and more recently in the Pacific in its strategic rivalry with China will not have the same salience in the 2050s as during the Cold War. The evolution of science and technology is likely to make the oceans broadly transparent so that the strategic importance of geographic chokepoints in the ocean is likely to decline. The second is that the evolution of counter-detection technologies will not have the same salience in the 2050s as it did in earlier times. Over the duration of the Cold War, Western submarines were able to reduce their detectability, at least acoustically, by some orders of magnitude. By the 2050s, our assessments show, progress in counter-detection will only reduce the probability of detection from very likely to likely. This is nothing like the reductions gained in earlier times, and insufficient to prevent the oceans becoming broadly transparent. Even allowing for a generous assumption of progress in counter-detection in our analyses, we cannot see how counter-detection can possibly be as effective in the 2050s as it is today. We are forced to conclude that the coming counter-detection task may be insuperable.
    Original languageEnglish
    Commissioning bodyANU
    Number of pages1
    Publication statusPublished - 2020


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