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January 09, 2005

Penn State University Researching "Patriot Missile For Torpedoes"

Harvard University banned military research, so the Pentagon found a university whose sensibilities weren't quite so delicate:

Engineers from Penn State University's Applied Research Laboratory and the U.S. Naval Undersea Warfare Center prepare the anti-torpedo torpedo prototype for sea trials in 2000 at a test range off the coast of Keyport, Wash. The second generation prototype is undergoing land-based testing and will face another set of sea trials in 2006.

A landlocked university in Central Pennsylvania seems an unlikely birthplace for the first new torpedo in about two decades.

When the anti-torpedo torpedo begins defending U.S. warships in about six years, however, the weapon system will be a Pennsylvania native.

"For about 10 years, we've been working on the underwater equivalent of a Patriot missile," said Tom Goodall, a researcher working on the Penn State University project. "If a Navy ship should be fired on, this anti-torpedo torpedo will go out and destroy the incoming torpedo."

The Navy started looking in the 1980s for a torpedo that could pinpoint the whisper of an enemy torpedo in the water. The Navy picked Penn State's Applied Research Laboratory in 1992 to come up with the technology that would make such an anti-torpedo torpedo possible.

In this budget year alone, the lab is getting nearly $16 million for its work.

The lab has been a naval research center from its inception in 1945.

When Harvard University restored its prohibition against doing classified scientific research at the end of World War II, the Navy started searching for another university to house Harvard's successful Underwater Sound Laboratory.

In a handshake deal, Penn State agreed to accept the laboratory, and about 100 scientists responsible for developing the first acoustic homing torpedo moved to Pennsylvania.

Originally called the Ordnance Research Laboratory, the facility is now known as the Applied Research Laboratory and studies just about every aspect of naval technology.

A challenging prospect

Building a torpedo that can intercept an enemy torpedo offers a noisy challenge, says Leo Schneider, director of the Applied Research Laboratory's Torpedo Defense Program.

To do its job, the anti-torpedo torpedo must first hear the sound of a torpedo in the water -- and an ocean is far from quiet.

In addition to an ocean's normal clicks, whistles and other background noises, naval combat throws in propeller noises, sonar pings and bubbling countermeasures specifically meant to confuse torpedo homing systems.

Schneider compares the underwater chatter of naval combat to attending a rock concert where three bands are playing at the same time.

"Do it in a tunnel, so it's all bouncing around," added Goodall, the liaison between the lab and private companies working on the project.

Amid all of that noise, the anti-torpedo torpedo must pick out the faint sound of a torpedo's propeller.

"You have a friend (at the concert) in a seat 25 feet away from you, whispering and trying to have a conversation with you, and you're trying to pick that whisper out of that cacophony," Schneider said.

Schneider says the lack of direct ocean access isn't much of an obstacle. On the anti-torpedo torpedo project, the lab fed nearly six decades of underwater data into computer simulations that helped it test several ideas.

"The model allows you to do the preliminary sorting," he said.

Picking a few of the best ideas, the lab started turning them into hardware. Even then, most of the testing is land-based -- in the tanks that are the naval equivalent of wind tunnels.

The project is in a land-based testing phase that will run through next year. The next round of sea trials will start in 2006.

So far, the lab's design has passed all of its tests.

But for every advance in defense there's an advance in offense, and the offense generally has the advantage. Whether this is true or simply Russian disinformation I of course can't say, but this 2001 Newsmax article claims that the Russians have created a "supersonic" torpedo-- or, if not quite supersonic in water (where sound travels 4.5 times as fast as in the air), then at least incredibly fast:

Russia has developed new submarine-launched torpedos that travel at incredible speeds – perhaps as fast as the speed of sound underwater. Scientific American reports in its May edition that these supersophisticated weapons have been linked to the sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk last August, and even to the arrest and imprisonment of Edmond Pope.

Pope, an American businessman, was charged by Russian authorities with spying, specifically that he had sought to buy plans for the "ultrahigh-speed torpedo."

The magazine reports that "evidence does suggest that both incidents revolved around an amazing and little-reported technology that allows naval weapons and vessels to travel submerged at hundreds of miles per hour – in some cases, faster than the speed of sound in water. The swiftest traditional undersea technologies, in contrast, are limited to a maximum of about 80 mph."

The new technology that allows for these incredible speeds is "is based on the physical phenomenon of supercavitation."

According to Scientific American, the new generation of torpedos, some believed capabale of carrying nuclear warheads, are surrounded by a "renewable envelope of gas so that the liquid wets very little of the body's surface, thereby drastically reducing the viscous drag" on the torpedo.

The new technology "could mean a quantum leap in naval warfare that is analogous in some ways to the move from prop planes to jets or even to rockets and missiles."

In 1997 Russia announced that it had developed a high-speed unguided underwater torpedo, which has no equivalent in the West.

Code-named the Shkval or "Squall," the Russian torpedo reportedly travels so fast that no U.S. defense can stop it.

In late 2000, after the sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk, new reports began circulating that the Chinese navy had bought the Shkval torpedo.

Obviously it will be more difficult to track a torpedo's sound signature if the torpedo is travelling faster, or nearly as fast, as the speed of sound.

And hitting such a fast-mover is bound to be a problem as well.

More: Dave from Garfield Ridge has an interesting analysis of the "supersonic torpedo" -- including its manifold liabilities -- in the first comment below.


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posted by Ace at 02:48 PM

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