Two recent stories have me a smidgen troubled. First off, Iran announced that it had successfully flown at least one spy drone over a United States Navy Aircraft Carrier Battle Group — and released the video to prove it. I’m a bit of a Navy buff, so I studied the extremely fuzzy photo and concluded that it is, indeed, a Nimitz-class carrier, sailing at a fairly decent clip and with an E-2C Hawkeye airborne radar plane on the catapult. Other aircraft appear to be F/A 18 Hornets and perhaps some S-3 Vikings — but I’m guessing on the last one. That information conforms to where the Navy says their ships are — the USS Eisenhower, CVN-69, is currently in the Arabian Sea. To my very amateur eyes, the photo could indeed be the Ike.
Next up, we have a report from the Washington Times that a Chinese submarine stalked the USS Kitty Hawk off the coast of Okinawa recently. (There was no word if the battle group was scouting for new bases for the troops currently in Iraq, as per Congressman Jack Murtha’s plan to move them just around the corner and a fifth of the world away.) That is nothing new — during the Cold War, Soviet subs, spy trawlers, and other warships routinely followed our ships around to the point where they would sometimes be given notice of course changes as a matter of courtesy (and a subtle insult on the pursuer’s navigational and observational abilities). In the absence of open hostilities, it’s something we must accept — and use to our own advantage, as it gives us just as close a look at their vessels as they get of ours.
The new element in this story, though, is that the Chinese submarine — a Song-class diesel electric attack sub — apparently approached well within weapons range, then surfaced and revealed itself barely five miles from the Kitty Hawk. This apparently caused some consternation among Navy brass, because the Songs carry cruise missiles capable of causing a world of hurt on an aircraft carrier — as well as torpedoes that can send one straight to the bottom.
For the record, the United States has not lost a big carrier since 1942, with the sinking of the USS Hornet off Guadalcanal. The last time we lost any fleet carrier was with the sinking of the USS Princeton, and the last carrier of any type to be sunk was at the Battle Off Samar, both in October of 1944.
The Song-class submarines are a formidable weapon. Instead of nuclear power, they use large batteries to operate underwater, and use diesel engines for power near or on the surface to move and recharge the batteries. They lack the range, speed, and flexibility of nuclear subs like we use exclusively, but they have numerous advantages of their own — they are smaller, cheaper, and quieter when running on batteries. The fact that one got so close to one of our carriers before revealing itself is troubling indeed.
But are we seeing what happened, or what appears to have happened? Did these two vessels — the Iranian drone and the Chinese submarine — really get that close without being detected?
I’m not so sure.
There are definite advantages to detecting another nation’s attempts to spy on you, and not interfering. It can let them think that their intrusion methods are more capable than they really are. It can give us a chance to see their systems up close, as well — and give us insights into their technology. And in Iran’s case, the idea of letting them see clearly just what kind of military presence we have — and how ready they are — operating right off their coast.
At least, I hope so. I have a special fondness for the Navy, and I’d hate to think they’d be submect to two such embarassing (and potentially dangerous) lapses in security in such short order.