What is Acoustic Warfare?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Acoustic warfare utilizes acoustic energy underwater to identify and intercept targets and to protect friendly shipping. Specialists in acoustic warfare work with various acoustic sensors and sonar equipment, typically on submarines and ships. Effective utilization of the underwater acoustic spectrum is an important aspect of modern warfare, allowing nations to protect themselves from enemy submarines and shipping and ensuring that countries have control over their territorial waters.

In submarine warfare, acoustic devices are used to detect the presence of other vessels.
In submarine warfare, acoustic devices are used to detect the presence of other vessels.

There are several different aspects to acoustic warfare. In the first sense, technicians use acoustic information to gather data. For example, a technician on a submarine might identify an unusual sound, and suggest that the staff investigate it to determine whether or not it is a threat. A skilled technician can figure out whether an animal or a device is causing a sound, and in some cases he or she may be able to determine what kind of device is causing the sound; a friendly fishing boat, for example, as opposed to an enemy submarine.

Destroyers use active SONAR and hydrophones to hunt enemy submarines.
Destroyers use active SONAR and hydrophones to hunt enemy submarines.

Technicians can also use active emission of acoustic energy to jam enemy electronics systems as a countermeasure. Many submarines have equipment which is designed to mask their distinctive acoustic signatures, allowing them to move silently or under the cover of an acoustic shield of some kind which obscures their characteristic sounds. These countermeasures are usually designed in such a way that they block the enemy's usage of the acoustic spectrum without interfering with friendly ships and submarines.

The concept of acoustic warfare started to come into its own in the Second World War, when the Germans utilized U-Boats to devastating effect against Allied convoys and shipping. The Germans realized that the unique conductive properties of water could be utilized as a powerful military tool, and also that they needed to be aware of their own acoustic emissions to ensure that they could move stealthily through dangerous territory. After the Second World War, several nations invested in the development of submarine fleets and supporting tools for acoustic warfare.

Someone who wishes to specialize in acoustic warfare is typically offered unique training. He or she may have to take special exams to qualify, since the technician will be entrusted with delicate and complex equipment. Technicians learn about a wide array of acoustic warfare measures and countermeasures which are routinely used as part of their work, and they are also given ample field experience which helps them prepare for a range of situations.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I find the development of war programs so strange. I mean, we know that many of the larger countries have weapons which could pretty much wipe entire populations off the map.

But at the same time, no one can use them (we hope) so there's all this work going into developing smaller things like acoustic warfare.

I guess I feel like once you reach the point of being able to cause ultimate destruction, you should be able to stop altogether.

But that's what the people who developed atomic weapons thought as well, I suppose. And at least developing acoustic warfare methods has quite a few obvious spin offs in different technology sectors.


@pastanaga - I have mixed feelings about that program. The US government claims that they never trained dolphins to carry bombs or to harm humans, although apparently other governments have.

Whether that's true or not, keeping dolphins in captivity is almost always pretty hard on the dolphins, simply because it's difficult to have a tank big enough for them.

On the other hand, the dolphin programs have military backing, which means military money and expertise. So there has been a ton of research done on dolphins and the way they live and communicate and sonar and so forth that would otherwise not have been possible. I don't doubt that conservation efforts in this area wouldn't be as successful as they are if not for the research done by the military.

Of course, some of that research resulted in better methods of acoustic warfare, so it's a mixed blessing.


One of the things they did during the war was try to train dolphins to work as soldiers.

They would train them to swim alongside boats with bombs or to identify underwater mines.

They also trained some to help rescue people who were lost at sea, which is much less scary than the idea of a dolphin with a bomb.

Dolphins use sonar so they are ideal for working underwater, particularly back in the days when human technology in acoustic warfare was not so advanced. It would be difficult to detect something so small, and in fact there would probably be lots of fish and things around that were around the same size. You couldn't blow up all of them.

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