Hunting Red October - Sonar Top Guns By Geoff Meade Sky's Defence Corespondent August 22, 2007 http://news.sky.com/skynews/article/0,,30100-1280805,00.html For the first time the Ministry of Defence has opened the doors of its highly secret top gun school for sonar operators. For 30 years, during the cat and mouse game of the Cold War, when Royal Navy boats and RAF surveillance planes tracked the seas for Soviet submarines, the school was one of the services' closest guarded secrets. One of UK's top submarines on patrol If it wasn't for the combination locks on the doors and the notices warning operators to secure documents under lock and key before leaving the building, it could be almost any hi-tech industrial park. But close to the site of Farnborough's famous air show, hand-picked candidates struggle to refine what they call the black art of identifying vessels just from the sound they make. Stop watches gripped and with headphones clamped tightly they try and pick out the telltale sign of a potential enemy from thousands of sea bed recordings. Computer monitors show what look like transmissions from the far side of Venus. These human bats are able to pick out the patterns of specific ships by measuring the image with trellis-like dividers Britain's "A" course - short for "Advanced Acoustics Analysis" - is reckoned among the toughest in the world. America sends its operators to what's the pinnacle of professional training. To succeed you need a good ear, patience and mind-bending powers of concentration. Submarines may be known as the silent service. Underwater is anything but tranquil. These men and women have to pick out the distant sound of a warship's propeller amid a clutter of merchantmen and oil drilling. Even in the deep ocean there's the cacophony of sea life from the "chatter" of several million shrimp to the booming of sperm whales communicating at low frequency across hundreds of miles. "On a billion pound submarine, it comes down to one guy, sitting at his sonar set," said Steve Street, one of the four trainers. Sonar top guns learn their trade The work can be so intensive that in a submarine at battle stations, operators can only work in a maximum of 45-minute stints. And although the sonar on Brtain's latest "Astute" class nuclear boat is so sensitive it can detect ships leaving New York while sitting in the English Channel, the technology is a mixed blessing, overloading the operator with too much information. "The best bit of kit we have is still the Mark One Human Ear," jokes Richad Horsburgh, who served years on anti-submarine patrols. He demonstrated by playing an underwater recording. To me it sounded like a muffled swishing sound. In six seconds, Richard's trained hearing identified it as a freighter, steaming at 10 knots, empty and in rough seas. Disappointingly, there were no candidates from the latest course available to interview. However, after what they'd endured over the past month they were probably all lying down in darkened rooms and definitely not playing soothing sounds of whales and dolphins.