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For decades, the Navy has been striving to improve its ability to detect potential enemy submarines before they can get within effective weapons range of U.S. forces. In 1985, the Navy established the Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System (SURTASS) Low Frequency Active (LFA) sonar program to develop a long-range capability for detecting a new generation of quieter Soviet nuclear and diesel submarines operating principally in the open ocean. However, as the Navy conducted testing of the system in the mid-1990s, some public interest groups and scientists raised concerns that SURTASS/LFA may cause harm to marine mammals. The Navy discontinued operational testing of the system and initiated an environmental impact statement process. The Navy will not begin testing or operating the system until it receives a Letter of Authorization from the National Marine Fisheries Service. A decision on the authorization is expected later in 2002. SURTASS/LFA will increase the Navy's capability to detect submarines in the open ocean, where the system was originally intended to operate. The Navy has considered a number of existing alternatives to SURTASS/LFA and found that the system provides long-range detection capabilities not available with other systems.

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Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of the Navy Before the Navy operates SURTASS/LFA in littoral areas, the Secretary of the Navy should direct program officials to establish a test plan and conduct testing of the system to demonstrate its capabilities in those areas.
Closed - Implemented
For many years environmental groups have raised concerns about the Navy's testing and use of the SURTASS/LFA system because of its potential harmful impact on marine mammals. Shortly after GAO's report was issued, environmental groups filed a lawsuit and won a preliminary injunction to stop the Navy from testing the system. Subsequently, a U.S. federal district court ruled in August 2003, that the Navy is prohibited from testing the system in many parts of the world's oceans, including coastal (littoral) areas. Although the Navy is continuing to conduct operational testing of the SURTASS/LFA system, it is limited in its ability to conduct testing in littoral areas. According to program officials, demonstration of the system's capabilities in littoral areas can not be determined until restrictions on testing are lifted. The Navy is currently collecting additional data on potential environmental impacts and completing a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. The outcome for further testing and use of the system is uncertain at this point.

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