Could US Navy Submarines search for MH370?

Hi All,

After four years of not finding the missing plane, and news of searches called off for rough seas, I am curious if US Navy Submarines could aid in the search. Could they search with the equipment they have installed or would the submarines need more sensitive equipment that could be towed behind them? Or ???


Take a look at this graphic. And this article. The debris would be far, far below the depth that a submarine could dive. In utter blackness darker than a cloudy moonless night. With hundreds or thousands of square miles the pieces of debris could be spread across. It is literally easier to look for crashed spacecraft on Mars (using an orbiter) than to look for something 3 miles underwater.

There are more efficient ways to map the ocean floor than to enlist warships. I’m sure submarines could do it, but it would also give away their position, which is another reason they wouldn’t do it.

In the end, the ocean is a large place, aircraft wreckage is very small, and they still don’t have any idea where to search, so it wouldn’t make any difference.

Passive sonar searches for repetitive noise (as from a turning prop or a generator) or noises from a hull creaking as the external pressure changes with depth. Active sonar sends out a high frequency wave packet (a combination of pulses at several different frequencies) which reflects not off of the metallic hull per se but the difference in density between the water and the air inside a pressurized hull. The fuselage of the aircraft (a Boeing 777) almost certainly either crushed at depth (if intact on landing) or more likely broke open and filled with water. There is bottom scanning sonar (often referred to as a “towed pinger”) which is being used in the search, but unless the ocean bottom in the search area is very flat or the aircraft fell tail or wing up, it would likely be lost in the scatter, and searching visually using bathyscopes or underwater drones is only practical if the crash location is known with good precision. After four years, wreckage at more shallow depths is likely covered with ocean growth as it makes for a good artificial reef, and at deeper regions may have partially sunk into the benthic soil, especially if seismic distrubances have caused the soil to resettle since the crash.

There are US Navy vessels specifically equipped for deep ocean search and rescue operations as well as research vessels designed for benthic exploration, but US Navy attack and ballistic missile submarines are not designed for these operations, and with such a large search area the likelihood of finding the aircraft outside of the original priority search area is not good, especially if the aircraft may have drifted a while before sinking (air captured in the fuselage or wing spaces giving it buoyancy below the just surface.


Submarines are designed to look for:

  • ships floating on the ocean surface
  • mines moored at or slightly below the surface
  • torpedoes at their depth coming toward them
  • other submarines at roughly the same depth

None of the equipment they have is designed for, or would work well, in looking 2-3 miles downward. Especially as the plane is likely to have broken up into small pieces at impact, and then been further crushed by the pressure at those depths.

Titanic was

  • way bigger
  • only about 3/4th as deep
  • reasonably accurate last known location
    and still took 73 years to locate.

Yes, the Navy could. Not well (see above) but it could try. “Why would they?” is a question I have for curious11. I used to build model airplanes, and have lived and worked near airports nearly all my life and one thing I learned when I was two* is that airplanes sometimes crash, and if you can’t find one after several hours the go-to assumption is that it crashed. Or is stuck in a tree, but 777s don’t do that well.

Finding the wreckage might show why it crashed and give some closure to people, but at this point the expense and unlikelihood of success outweigh that. Planes crash, people die, and folks have to accept that.

    • On June 9, 1956 an F9F Panther went in in a Minneapolis neighborhood. What sort of nut takes a toddler to rubberneck at an air crash with ground fatalities? Dropdad couldn’t get me into the back yard until we moved.

Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to ocean.

A private company has, in fact, been using submarines to look for the wreckage. No success yet, however.

When did we stop enforcing the pre-reqs for posting here? FTR, I’m a classicist and prefer the original radio plays over the TV series or movie, though the books are easier to copy and past. I mean, young people these days have never heard of that OR Firesign Theatre OR The Princess Bride, and the other day someone had to link to Kurlansky’s Salt, in case people hadn’t read it.

Straight to Hell in a handbasket, I tells ya. :smiley:

But yeah, the latest search is nearing its end: MH370: US team extends mission after failing to find plane in initial search zone | Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 | The Guardian

How would a submarine help in searching all the hangers in Kyrgyzstan? …

Ha ha …

But seriously … if the US military subs could do this, then that information would be classified … and then announcing the plane had been found this way would compromise that classified information … the same is true for Thailand’s military RADAR systems … if they told the world they tracked MD370, then the world would know how good Thailand’s RADAR systems are, something Thailand doesn’t want us to know …

A completely fact-free post with a conspiracy theory on top. Great work there.


Tangentially-related question: Are there environmental costs to conducting searches of this scale? I’m primarily thinking of active sonar, which is believed to be detrimental to marine mammals (and probably is to other animal life as well – why would a grouper or an octopus be immune to being blasted with high-energy sound?).

Normally the military uses passive sonar, and only uses active for short periods in localized areas. But a months-long search of thousands of square miles of ocean by a fleet of sonar-blasting submarines (or remote search units or drones or what have you) seems like it would result in much longer exposure of vast areas of the environment to the sonar. This capability is relatively new and I wonder if anyone has considered there may be unwanted negative consequences.

To be fair, he’s apparently posting from 1940, so it’s hard for him to link to sources.

There’s a big difference between looking for ship-sized objects in open water, (or devices emitting mechanical noises) vs. trying to scan the scenery down below. The fancier submarine sonar is more aimed at the former cases. Plus as mentioned the submarines cannot go deep enough to get good resolution of the seabed there. The devices they are currently using are designed to do seabed imaging. Also note, using sound waves limits the resolution, as does the distance from the seabed. They are looking for things that may not be much bigger than part of a wing, fuselage, or tail - so maybe two dozen feet across at best. To get good resolution the sonar unit has to be fairly close, which limits the area that can be scanned at any one time; so they are scanning using a back-and-forth pattern. Plus, this is sound imaging so nothing’s going to standout due to colour difference or the sun glinting off it. There’s the possibility that they’ve gone past the debris and missed seeing it.

My theory is the opposite - not conspiracy but incompetence; Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia don’t really want to reveal that their radar coverage is incomplete or badly managed. The aircraft’s pilot oxygen bottle broke the top off and it shot out the side like a cannon (as has happened to another airliner), while filling the electronics bay with pure oxygen which is almost guaranteed to start a fire. The pilots switched to oxygen masks, turned off the electronics and turned about 180 degrees back and set course to return to the nearest airport. As the hole in the side of the plane caused depressurization, the pilots maybe would have a few seconds after these emergency measures to realize they had no oxygen and pass out. The passengers got their drop-down masks but also passed out after about 15 minutes. The aircraft continues on its course with the altitude and heading maintained by autopilot; local radar either misses or ignores them because it’s not as good as the local militaries claim.

The question is what happens to a plane on autopilot when the fuel runs out? Is there enough electricity to maintain level flight all the way down until it flies level into the ocean? (If so, what speed?) Will the autopilot keep pulling up to maintain altitude until it stalls? Will it have no power and control without the engines running, and simply fall down or nosedive into the sea? The answer determines the size of the debris pieces we are looking for. A full speed dive will shatter the aircraft; a controlled flight into the ocean will mean the aircraft will probably be in much larger chunks, but even “landing” on the ocean at 200mph is guaranteed to break up the aircraft into chunks. Would the passengers regain consciousness as the craft descended, or would several hours of oxygen starvation and cold have killed them?

I now understand the sensors on the subs aren’t designed to search for a plane on the ocean floor. And the submarines can’t go that deep.

As to why, many of the current searches are called off for rough weather. A submarine 800 feet below the surface would be less affected by rough seas and could operate as a platform for the remote vehicles that have sensors designed to find the plane.

Submarines are expensive to build, maintain, and operate. Since the submarines are out there operating away anyway, why not divert one or two to help out?

If the navy operation needs to be kept quiet for operational security reasons, the location of the plane could be slipped to the pilot of the search ship or the search ship may be helped to drift off course and “serendipitously” find the plane.

Because they’re expensive to build, maintain, and operate, and they already have a full time job that doesn’t allow them to go search missions that they’re not designed for.

Because the submarines are already doing important things, and they aren’t going to help in any significant way.

I have a passing familiarity with systems that use sonar to detect underwater mines. It is a difficult and slow process to find those things in relatively shallow water, even when you know where you’re looking. You might as well say to me, “Hey, I was in Washington DC a few years back, and I lost my glasses case when I was walking around. You live in DC and you have eyes , can you try looking for it?”


When I asked “why would they?” I was asking “why would they bother?” Most searches at sea are called off in days or weeks. It’s been over four years. The Malaysian government declared the passengers dead in early 2015. There is no good reason to expend any more time and resources looking for them.

On a positive note, they have found a couple of shipwrecks.

There is a good reason… to find out what happened.

We think it was suicidal pilot, perhaps in protest , as his relative/friend, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was jailed that day.
It turns out the pilot was a little bit odd… the interest in flight simulators… the copilot smoking in the cabin with girls (albiet a previous flight …why did he allow it ? and what happenned ? ).

But its remotely possible it was some sort of hijacking … a hijacker might have known how to disable comms and adjust the autopilot ? There might be people to arrest ?