Contingent events

The Defense Industry Daily describes the Navy’s struggle to meet two challenges: enemy diesel electric submarines in littoral waters which can best be found by active sonar and environmental restrictions. Recently the Navy won a Supreme Court case 6-3 to train without reducing the power of its sonar.


This case stems from the legality of warfare training exercises conducted by the U.S. Navy off the coast of Southern California. The Navy trains in Southern California because its coastal bathymetry provides unique training opportunities, and because the area has the necessary bases to train integrated forces. The exercises, known as “SOCAL exercises,” test the Navy’s ability to conduct anti-submarine warfare (ASW) through the use of mid-frequency active sonar (MFA sonar). Active sonar, which allows a vessel to detect submarines in the vicinity, involves the transmission of a loud noise underwater from a sonar source, which then monitors whether the noise returns. If it does, it may indicate that the sound has bounced off a nearby submarine. The Navy prefers MFA sonar to other forms of sonar because it allows better detection of quiet diesel electric submarines.

The arguments before the USSC were of course legal in character. No one, not even Souter or Ginsburg, who voted against the Navy, seemed to dispute the utility of sonar in detecting enemy subs. But the questions was whether the Navy had made some procedural omission when it applied to train or whether by letting the Navy receive an exemption based on national security the Supreme Court would abet a violation of the separation of powers. The SCOTUS blog gives a flavor of the complex legal wrangling.

It’s interesting to consider what effect contingent events have on the formulation of public policy. There’s no way of knowing whether the United States will ever go to war against a naval enemy and what effect, if any, the absence or realistic antisubmarine training would have. It would be reasonable to think the absence of anti-submarine training might lead to disastrous results, but of course there’s no way of knowing it with certitude. Public policy is the art of balancing risks while a veil is drawn across the face of the future.


But suppose we could tell through some kind of time machine what the future held? If the Supreme Court Justices knew for a fact a lack of training would definitely cause the loss of say, an aircraft carrier, instead of simply imagining that it could, what effect would that have on the beliefs of Ginsberg and Souter? And if the crystal ball showed that the USN would never need the active sonar, how far would it invalidate Robert’s arguments?

Who knows? But at any rate, very few of the policy makers will be on the relevant ships or when the contingency occurs.


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