Junior Sonar Operators learn how to hear and track a submarine

Navy News / December 19, 2019

By Capt Jenn Jackson

For Sonar Operators, listening is an art form. Not only do they have to listen, but interpret what they hear to determine what is occupying the surrounding waters – particularly if the “what” they hear may be an enemy submarine.

“Being a Sonar Operator means I have to always be looking beyond,” said Petty Officer First Class (PO1) Joseph Rempel, Senior Sonar Operator in Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Ottawa, and a former instructor.

“You have to set yourself up for success. Know where you think the submarine is and, if you locate it, be able to anticipate its movements to track it.”

Ordinary Seaman (OS) Trent Smith and OS Donald Legg are two of HMCS Ottawa’s junior Sonar Ops, having completed their basic trade course prior to joining the ship.

Ottawa’s deployment on Operations PROJECTION and NEON have given both the opportunity to practice their skills during three multinational cooperative deployments – all of which had large anti-submarine warfare components.

“The exercises during this deployment brought everything together for me,” said OS Legg.

“I realized how prepared I was when all of a sudden a line popped up out of nowhere on my screen. I recognized its significance and it was shortly after confirmed as a submarine we were looking for.”

“It was a big adrenaline rush to switch from searching to hunting and knowing my work contributed to success.”

“It is very rewarding and a huge sense of accomplishment when you find something,” echoed OS Smith.

“We are always looking for a needle in a huge haystack, but once you find it, the trick is not to lose it again in the hay – you have to track it.”

Both agree that the most interesting part of their basic trade course was the focus on acoustic analysis, even if it was the most challenging aspect.

“There is a lot of information to digest when it comes to learning acoustic analysis,” said OS Smith.

“In a way, it is like learning a code language – from the sounds you hear and see on your screen you learn to analyse it to determine what type of vessel it is based on things like how many propellers you hear and even what type of engine it is running.”

“Acoustic analysis meant taking a whole bunch of lines and transforming it into a picture of what is in the ocean around you,” added OS Legg.

“It is like picking out a specific voice in a crowd.”

Acoustic analysis starts with first gaining a basic understanding of oceanography – a little-known aspect of being a Sonar Op.

“Listening is one thing, but before we can listen we have to know and understand where to put our sensors, and what limitations they will have,” said PO1 Rempel.

“Knowing how sound will travel through the water where we are located involves analyzing factors such as the type of ocean floor, depth and seawater temperature. An interest in oceanography is an asset for a Sonar Op.”

Upgrades to the underwater warfare suite in the Navy’s Canadian Patrol Frigates were announced in early 2019, a change that will further enhance Sonar Op capabilities.

As a Sonar Op’s work is intricately related to underwater warfare tactics, the majority of it is classified, meaning members are unable to go into details of their work with friends or family. Operators make up for that by sharing their knowledge and lessons learned amongst those in their trade.

“We are a small trade, but a big community,” says PO1 Rempel.

If you would like to know more, or are interested in the becoming a Sonar Operator check out https://forces.ca/en/career/sonar-operator/ or contact your local Canadian Armed Forces Recruiting Centre.