New Buoys Lets Submarines Join Military Data Network

In the bad old days of the Cold War, submarines had to rise dangerously close to the surface to send and receive messages. And in the 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, that hasn’t changed. Now, new communication buoys from Lockheed Martin may finally give submarines the ability to communicate back and forth with HQ while remaining safely, silently, beneath the waves.

The buoys, which can be launched from the submarine itself or dropped into the vicinity by a plane, serve as relay hubs for the communications of the sub. While the exact bandwidth is classified, we do know that they allow the sub commander to send and receive text messages.

Using current technology, communicating with a sub in that manner remains prohibitively difficult.

“Currently, they have to go up to near periscope depth to communicate,” said Rod Reints, a senior program manager at Lockheed Martin. “They become more vulnerable to attack as they get closer to the surface. Ultimately, we’re trying to increase the communication availability of the sailors while increasing their safety.”

When launched from the submarine, the 40-inch long buoys eject out of the ship’s garbage disposal chutes. They remain attached to the sub via miles-long cables, which transmit the signal to and from the vessel. When the sub finishes communicating, it cuts the buoys loose, leaving them to drift harmless amongst the sea.

Subs can also communicate with buoys dropped by planes using a specialized acoustic messaging system. Like sonar, the system uses sound waves to transmit the data.

Importantly, the ability to send and receive text messages in real time finally integrates the submarine service into the rest of the armed forces, said John Pike, director of

Over the last 10 years, the U.S. military has moved to digitally link together every element on the battlefield, and thanks to these buoys, submarines can now join that network.

“During the Cold War, it didn’t require much bandwidth to send a message to destroy the Soviet Union,” Pike said. “But in a tactically complex environment, with complex orders, they don’t have the bandwidth right now. So anything that increases that data rate could be interesting.”

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Stuart Fox currently researches and develops physical and digital exhibit experiences at the Science Liberty Center. His news writing includes the likes of several Purch sites, including Live Science and Live Science's Life's Little Mysteries.