Acoustic Warfare: The Case for Reimagining Sound as an Instrument of War

Written by Andrew Song

Historically, militaries wage war through conventional methods: the projection of raw physical power through the use of small arms, tanks, or multi-threat warships. However, an unexplored or rather neglected realm of weaponry is the acoustic battlespace, which would use sound as an instrument of deterrence or offensive advantage. Sound’s potential applications for the U.S. Navy are clear: the use of sound in place of bullets may force enemy capitulation with minimal to no casualties. Furthermore, research and development in sound technology are achievable and fiscally feasible. All the while, sound characterizes itself as a limitless resource because frequency and amplitude derive from air vibrations. Thus, acoustic technology lends itself a competitive economic advantage over certain weapons that require immense capital to manufacture. This paper does not downplay the role of traditional war mechanisms in military theory, but rather evaluates the past and contemporary uses of acoustic technology in the U.S Navy and assesses sound’s future role in war. If further studied and innovated upon, acoustic technology contains the promise of becoming a new “invisible” strategic arm of the U.S Navy in the protection of this nation.

The U.S. Navy uses sound technology in limited ways, primarily due to the lack of knowledge surrounding sonar technology beyond the submarine community. Under the purview of the U.S Navy, sound-related equipment primarily functions as a tool for detection and localization of enemy submarines.[1] The Proteus signal processor in the 1980s pioneered the advancement of anti-submarine warfare capabilities for the U.S Navy by providing quicker real-time data of submarine detection. In addition, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) largely initiated an acoustics warfare program in the 1980s to enable greater detection accuracy for submarines. The effects of the DARPA program strengthened the analytical range of U.S submarine force by providing the Fleet with undersea surveillance systems like SOSUS or Surveillance Towed Array Systems (SURTASS) that utilize hydrophones to process sound waves reflected by emitted echoes and translate these acoustic signatures by mechanical energy for signal processing systems.[2] The benefits of sound technology like SURTASS are plenty. SURTASS alone allows accurate imaging through sound vibrations at a cost-effective alternative and for oceanographers to study ocean depth and seafloor composition.[3] Despite the acoustic apparatus’ importance to the submarine community,sound-related technology, however, does not play as an integral role in otherwarfare communities nor is it promoted in viewpoint as a front-line weaponry.

The U.S Navy utilizes acoustic technology as a source of information collection, butlimits the inclusion or expansion of acoustic technology in the field of combat. The word “acoustic” or “sonar” is not mentioned a single time in Chapter Five of a 1996 RAND Corporation’s risk analysis on national security in “Issues of Strategic Warfare: A New Force of War.”[4] Simply put, acoustic warfare is not necessarily relegated in importance in the U.S Navy, but there neither exists an apparent recognition of what sound manipulation could provide in grand strategy. Sound offers a vehicle through which one obtains intelligence, but advancements in sound technology through scientific experimentation can also provide direct front-line impact. Specifically, sound offers tactical edge than other weapons due to the universality of its effects, the mobility of sonic equipment and its non-lethal qualities. Currently, the U.S Navy already employs sound in some combative forms – in restricted fashion. One recent military-civilian project focused on harnessing sound’s disabling characteristics labeled itself as crowd-control “air sparkers.” A variant of flash-bangs, the air sparker acts as a delivery rod when upon ignition emits blinding light, and pulsates high frequency soundwaves that have directionality, countering critics’ arguments on sound’s lack of discrimination.[5] Perhaps a more public success story of the implementation of sonic weapons in the Fleet is the Long Range Acoustic Devices. LRADs have more or less established themselves on U.S Naval vessels and are familiar to unrestricted line personnel. LRADs are non-complex equipment that provides sophisticated results. Analyzing LRADs allow us to understand how sound when weaponized provide discomfort to the enemy and deescalates hostilities as seen by LRAD’s effective riot-control results in law enforcement.[6] Beyond riot-control, LRADs allow the Navy to perform anti-piracy efforts off the coast of Somalia and to succeed because LRADs decreased the necessity for small arms exchange and required less personnel for engagement.[7]

The case for more focus on acoustic technology bases itself on the fact that indications of sound’s potential pivot acoustic warfare as a new trend toward of unconventional warfare. Like cyberwarfare, acoustic confrontations involves no actual bullets or ammunition in its battlefield, yet hosts much strategic importance. To elucidate this prediction, other nations have invested in acoustic warfare as a warfare medium of the future. Competing nations like the People’s Republic of China are reported to have tested sonic weapons on U.S diplomats,[8] sparking the argument that the U.S Navy needs to develop countersonic instruments and prioritize sound-based weapons for the protection of our citizens. As peacekeepers of the world, the U.S Navy should involve itself in the effort to research the ethics and practices of this emerging type of warfare. Essentially, our knowledge of sound and its applications should be used in a modus operandi umbrella. The purchase and insertion of LRADs for the U.S Navy are monumental steps in educating the Fleet on other mechanisms of deterrence than traditional armaments. However, the U.S Navy and the U.S government should allocate significant resources and more time in developing acoustic weaponry beyond the privately-produced LRAD and the sonar identifiers found in U.S submarines. In a period where the Arctic has evolved into a geographical region of interest, acoustics instruments may play a larger role because of the Arctic’s harsh weather and difficulty in mobilizing heavy weaponry. To that point of emphasis, future officers, midshipmen and leaders in both the U.S Navy and in the military should realize that acoustic-based weapons are the future: to ignore such a battlespace would lead to our ill-preparedness in future conflict in an era in which war modernizes.


[1] Joel S. Wit, Advances in Antisubmarine Warfare (Scientific American, 1981), (pg 31)

[2] Wit, Advances in Antisubmarine Warfare, (pg 33)

[3] Michael J. Buckingham, Seeing Underwater with Background Noise (Scientific American, 1996), (pg 89)

[4] Roger Molander, Issues of Strategic Information War (RAND, 1996), (pg 1-6)

[5]Raymond Schaefer, Michael Grapperhaus, Nonlethal Combined Flash and Sound Pulse Projector for Counter-personnel and Crowd Control (Kissimmee, 2006), (pg 5)

[6] Peter Chalk, Countering Piracy in the Modern Era: Notes from a RAND Workshop to Discuss the Best Approaches for Dealing with Piracy in the 21st Century (RAND, 2009), (pg 6)

[7] Chalk, Countering Piracy in the Modern Era: Notes from a RAND Workshop to Discuss the Best Approaches for Dealing with Piracy in the 21st Century, (pg 3)



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