No, I haven’t gotten drunk while watching Mary Poppins. But I have been reading up on a technology that will revolutionize naval warfare to a degree unseen in our lifetimes. It’s called “supercavitation.”
Navies move slowly, and changes in naval warfare don’t come quickly, either. The Egyptians and Romans rowed even after the Phoenicians set sail. Thousands of years later, steam gradually replaced sail when the navies grudgingly admitted that it enabled ships to move against the wind. Revolutions came more rapidly after that. Steel replaced wood one day in Hampton Roads when Monitor and Merrimac dueled. At Pearl Harbor, and again at Midway, aircraft carriers proved the decisive weapon. In the Cold War, nuclear missile submarines — slow, quiet and powerful — were a cornerstone of deterrence. Today deterrence is a thing of the past. And progress hasn’t stopped.
Since the Gipper left office, our navy has atrophied by half, to about 300 ships. Our shipbuilding program is so small that we will not even be able to maintain that level for long. Ever since the Evil Empire went broke, we’ve heard that the Russians were so hard-up they couldn’t even sortie their ships for training. But as broke as they were, they managed to scrape together a few billion rubles and launch a half-dozen new classes of ships. The Russians went ahead with faster naval weapons — ships, torpedoes, and aircraft. Somebody never told them that the Cold War arms race is over, so they just keep running. And they have hit a jackpot in supercavitation.
Cavitation — for those who don’t remember The Hunt for Red October — is the sound created by the air bubbles that form around a propeller spinning underwater. It’s the submarine equivalent of a radar signature, and just as stealthy aircraft are designed to reduce their radar return, submarines are designed to be quiet. Sound is detectable, and when you’re the one making the noise, the enemy can find you. If you’re quieter than the other guy, you are the hunter rather than the hunted.
America spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing propellers that would create less cavitation. Then the Walker family spy ring gave most of our top-secret information about anti-cavitation technology to the Russians, which pretty well eliminated our advantage. The Russians are still working hard to make their new submarines even faster and quieter. The technical problems are enormous because going fast under water is a real drag, or at least is up against one.
Water is about 1,000 times denser than air, and an object moving through it has to work that much harder to move the same distance at the same speed. Submarines, on a good day, can hit perhaps forty miles per hour. Standard Russian torpedoes can do as much as sixty, and can catch everything we have. Our torpedoes are slower, simply because we haven’t chosen to spend the money to develop something faster, far less something like a supercavitating weapon. But the Russians now have the advantage of a torpedo that can travel almost five times faster than ours. It’s the world’s first supercavitating weapon. It will take us years to catch up.
Supercavitation is what happens when something underwater reaches the speed of about 100 miles per hour. At that speed, water can’t move out of the way fast enough, and it literally comes apart into gas molecules. Think of it as the underwater equivalent of breaking the sound barrier. At about 100 miles an hour, a bubble of air forms around the speeding object. This barrier of air is a “supercavity” and the phenomenon creating it is called “supercavitation.”
The Russians have taken supercavitation out of the lab and put it to sea in the rocket-powered torpedo they call “Shkval” (squall). It’s huge — about 27 feet long — and has a range of over four miles. The Shkval reportedly can reach speeds of more than 250 miles an hour. It goes so fast that it doesn’t need its warhead to destroy most targets. The equation is now much simpler for any new fast Russian sub fitted to launch the Shkval. If an American sub shoots a torpedo at you, you fire a Shkval right back at him. And then you can outmaneuver — or even outrun — the relatively slow American torpedo. If you can get within range of an American aircraft carrier, you can be sure of a kill, because there’s no way the big ship is going to dodge so fast a torpedo, and it has no other defense. We won’t have subs protecting other ships with our own supercavitating torpedoes for the simple reason that we don’t have any.
In August 2000 the Kursk — a new Russian nuclear submarine — sank after two explosions on board. Underwater cameras showed that the Kursk was missing most of its bow. In all probability, the Kursk was sunk testing the Shkval. The first explosion was most likely an accidental ignition of the Shkval’s rocket motor. The second one could have been the rocket bursting the torpedo tube and the hull, or detonation of the warhead, either one powerful enough to blow the bow off the Kursk.
Russia is selling Shkval torpedoes to other nice folks such as the Chicoms, who are buying them as an offset to our naval protection of Taiwan. If Chinese submarines or aircraft can launch supercavitating torpedoes at our ships, our choices are defeat or retreat.
We will soon reach a crisis in our diminishing naval strength. Our fleet is stretched thin fighting the war on terror, and meeting our other commitments at the same time. The shipbuilding budget won’t even maintain what we have now, far less rebuild the fleet. Dubya, Dick and Don need to stop kidding themselves — and us — about the need to invest more in defense. The navy needs strength and speed, and we need to redo the budget to give both to them before a couple of dozen Shkvals give us a high-speed Pearl Harbor.