I Spy With My Little Eye, Military-Grade Awesome

SOSUS: Tracking Submarines, Whales, and Mysteries

In the years after WWII, it became increasingly apparent that the Soviets and the West were not going to be friends. The uneasy alliance that fought off the Nazis fell apart the moment Germany surrendered. The technological advancements of the war meant that the Soviets would have increased capabilities on the land, in the sky and under the ocean. That last one really worried military planners who would like to be able to warn their bosses when something bad was going to happen. One of the mechanisms they used to figure out what a modern military would need was the Committee for Undersea Warfare. This group researched the newly expanded world of submarine warfare. One of their major tasks was to develop a system that would allow the US and its allies to tell when a Soviet submarine was on the move. What they came up with is known as SOSUS.

That 1949 decision meant that researchers at MIT would begin work on Project Hartwell in 1950. Soon they contracted Western Electric to build the first six hydrophones of a system that would soon cover the globe. The demonstration system was deployed near the Bahamas. At the same time, teams at Bell Labs and Columbia University were studying underwater acoustics.

The research of all these teams was far enough along in 1952 that the US Navy began deploying a network of six arrays for the North Atlantic. Later that year three more arrays were deployed. The classified name SOSUS (SOund SUrveillance System) was used as the official name of these listening posts on the ocean floor.

Basically, each array consists of a string of hydrophones located at certain distances along the ocean floor and connected to listening posts on the coast. The hydrophones are placed so that they are aimed in certain directions. Based on which hydrophones pick up a signal, and that signal’s strength, the location of the offending submarine could be triangulated.

In 1962 enough arrays were in place that the Navy was able to track the USS George Washington, a ballistic missile sub, from the US to the UK. A Soviet Foxtrot class submarine (like the one shown in the lead photo) became the first enemy sub tracked when it passed by the SOSUS net by the Bahamas during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Various upgrades were made to the system over time, and additions were made until virtually the entire globe was under surveillance by the SOSUS network. When the Cold War ended in the 1990s, the Navy began turning its focus to systems that could be theater deployed. While it still maintains overall control of the SOSUS network, the network is used for scientific research now.

Fifteen years ago, the SOSUS network picked up a sound that was unidentified. While this isn’t all that unusual, it was the power and believed source of the sound that is a mystery. The sound had a biological signature — a signature similar to sounds given off by whales and other living things — but it also had a very high power level. It was louder than a blue whale. Usually, this means bigger. This “Bloop” was picked up by multiple sensors up to 3000 miles away.

Scientists still have no idea what it was, and they have never heard anything like it since. All we can do is speculate as to what it is. Is it some superfish that only lives at the deepest of depths? Was it a cheer from a group of radioactive lemurs in their undersea lair? Who knows.

[Image Credit: Public Domain]