What is Silent Running?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The term "silent running" is sometimes used to describe the standard operating procedure used by the crew on a submarine when they wish to become as undetectable as possible. It involves the observation of "noise discipline," minimizing noises which could alert other ship traffic to the presence of the submarine. Many people have romanticized the concept of silent running, thanks to war films featuring tense-jawed submarine captains and nervous crew.

Submarines switch to silent running when being pursued by an attack or engaged in clandestine operations.
Submarines switch to silent running when being pursued by an attack or engaged in clandestine operations.

In anti-submarine warfare, the biggest challenge is finding a submarine to attack. Fortunately for people trying to find subs, submarines present very large acoustic targets, showing up on sonar with some very distinctive signature sounds. The engines on board the ship generate noise, as do the propellers used to move the ship, and the air pockets created by propulsion also create a unique signature. Simply lowering a microphone into the water can identify all of these sounds, and very sensitive acoustic equipment can pick up the sounds of walking and talking crew members and other ambient noise created on board ship. This is known as passive acoustic observation, and it is very useful, because a passive ship can look for other ships while remaining silent, whereas in active mode, it would have to emit soundwaves to search for subs, making itself a potential target.

Submarines may begin "silent running" when they're being tracked by enemy destroyers.
Submarines may begin "silent running" when they're being tracked by enemy destroyers.

During the Second World War, when a submarine captain ordered "silent running," the engines of the ship would be shut off, allowing the ship to sit motionless in the water or on the seafloor, depending on where the sub was. Crew members would be expected to remain silent while they listened for signs of the enemy. At times, submarines entered into stalemates with each other, with one ship ultimately having to turn its engines back on to surface for fresh air.

Submarines that are used primarily for coastal defense, such as the Dutch Walrus class submarines, almost always run silently, as their main role is to ambush and monitor enemy vessels.
Submarines that are used primarily for coastal defense, such as the Dutch Walrus class submarines, almost always run silently, as their main role is to ambush and monitor enemy vessels.

Many modern submarines have propulsion systems which are designed to address the noise issue, using things like nuclear power to generate energy as noiselessly as possible. In addition, their hulls are heavily insulated to provide sound dampening, and crew members may wear special garments and shoes to make themselves as noiseless as possible. When silent running is ordered, people are simply expected to be as quiet as possible, making minimal conversation and being very aware of what they are doing to reduce the risk of dropped tools and other sounds.

The U.S. Navy uses several nuclear-powered submarines, such as the Ohio class submarine, that can run quietly.
The U.S. Navy uses several nuclear-powered submarines, such as the Ohio class submarine, that can run quietly.

Silent running and noise discipline are drilled into crew members at an early stage of their training, ensuring that the habit of noise discipline comes naturally to them. Submarines may go into silent running while out on patrol in hostile areas, or to practice their skills; in some instances, submarines have also been known to lie in wait on the continental shelf in total silence, waiting for an enemy ship to cross into territorial waters and then springing into action.

Since the goal of ballistic missile submarine such as the British Astute class is to be a platform for nuclear weapons, they almost always run silently and do not engage in fleet actions.
Since the goal of ballistic missile submarine such as the British Astute class is to be a platform for nuclear weapons, they almost always run silently and do not engage in fleet actions.
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

anon174454

Nuclear submarines are not actually silent (although U.S. nucs are acknowledged to get closer to that standard than any others).

There is no way to completely silence the nuclear turbine, which, when detected aurally, sounds like what you hear when you put the empty cardboard roll from toilet paper) up to your ear. The sound of your blood rushing through the veins in your ear simulates the sound of a nuclear turbine aboard a vessel.

Countries other than the U.S. still have diesel boats, which, when operating on battery power, are effectively silent. Most of the sounds detected from a sub are from turning machinery, although you can also detect the frequency put out by the AC electrical systems. When a diesel boat is operating on batteries, they are utilizing DC power, which doesn't put out a frequency, since it's continuous. As for anon174311's comment about hiding in/under thermal layers, that's true, except when a sonobuoy or hydrophone is used to place the detecting gear into or below the layer, thus intruding on the environment in which the sub is trying to hide.

anon174388

My father was killed on the USS SeaWolf during WWII while under silent running. She was bombed and torpedoed by our own forces. My father, was a US Army Alamo Scout, and 16 of his men were passengers listed on the USS SeaWolf (SS-197).

anon174311

Submarines are large acoustic targets, however the Bathythermographic temperature layers underwater can interfere with the propagation of sound waves and thus a submarine may hide within and/or under them. Just to make life more difficult for Anti-Submarine forces.

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