Photo of LTJG John Ekelund

The 
Ekelund 
Range:

 

A story of JO Innovation, Determination, and Communication 
By JOC Michael Foutch, USN

The young lieutenant knew this was an exciting time to be a submariner. Suddenly, everything seemed possible. The reports coming back on the successes of USS Nautilus (SSN-571), the Navy’s first nuclear-powered submarine, were being devoured eagerly by the newest submarine recruits and the highest-ranking officers, who were all inspired by the new innovation. The second such boat was being built even now, giving the silent service the beginnings of a fleet that could stay underwater indefinitely and be as quiet as a mouse – those World War II veterans could not imagine that.  

Never mind the speed advantage these new nuclear submarines would have over the current diesels. Anti-submarine warfare was fast becoming the primary mission of the Submarine Force, too, and the new passive sonar arrays would give submariners the ability to measure bearings to targets more accurately at greater range. Yes, the summer of 1956 was a great time to be serving in the Submarine Tactics Department at the Navy Submarine School in New London, Connecticut.

Then - LT John Ekelund was six months into his assignment teaching future submarine officers to use state-of-the-art sonar and electronics to gain accurate bearings for target motion analysis. There were plenty of junior officers (JOs) like him on the faculty – with tours on two different submarines and additional time on the Pacific Fleet submarine staff, he knew a little about undersea warfare operations. The son of a submarine officer, the young man grew up traveling from one part of the world to another, from Guam, to Puerto Rico, Florida, Washington, D.C., and plenty of places in between. He had followed his older brother to the Naval Academy and found a home in the submarine community.

As a student in school, he had liked mathematics courses and thrived on engineering. Fooling around with problems and puzzles in that environment was something he found fun – certainly not daunting or mysterious. One might even call him a tinkerer.

During his first few months at sub school, LT Ekelund had beefed up his knowledge on fire control systems and was making himself quite an expert in data analysis. That’s when he began to appreciate a key problem. Despite the new advances in technology, the submarine still relied on slow and arcane plotting methods to determine target range passively, and these required making shaky assumptions about target speed. Even as capabilities were radically improving, this problem continued to bug operators at sea. Maybe they could detect a target five times better than before, but even with faster speeds and better weapons, how could they determine range to the target passively, accurately, and quickly? 

To fire a weapon at a submerged submarine effectively, one needs to know target bearing, range, course, and speed. These are a lot of variables. No matter how advanced the applicable mathematics, none of it showed a way to solve a single algebraic equation with several unknown variables. Thus, the lieutenant was effectively presented with an insoluble mathematical conundrum. 
Only he didn’t see it that way. What was needed was some new way of looking at the range problem. According to Ekelund, figuring out how to make it work “just fell out.” By making a few assumptions he discovered a way to calculate the range. Because of the artificiality of those assumptions, it was also necessary to determine how badly they affected the accuracy of the range estimate itself.

Ekelund convinced a co-worker at the school to spend countless lunch hours in an attack-training simulator to run hundreds of scenarios with different targets, ranges, speeds, and geometry. The loss of those lunch hours was well worth the resulting proof that his mathematical algorithm actually worked. It delivered an effective technique for finding target range based on the bearing rate before and after own-ship maneuvers. 

While he didn’t think his procedure was easier or quicker but just made more use of the available information, Ekelund was excited about the prospect of getting word of his discovery to the fleet. In one stroke, the problem of putting the new long-range weapons on target seemed to be solved, and that was important news. 

The young officer wrote a detailed letter explaining his new formula, and observing proper protocol, placed “Officer in Charge, Submarine School” on the “From” line. That, he figured, would get this up the chain and out to the fleet more quickly. Once everyone saw how great an idea this was – he surely believed – we could start using our new technology in a better way. Day after day, he checked on the progress of the letter, eager to see the effect on the fleet. Day after day, the letter sat. The Officer-in-Charge had other matters on his mind, administering an entire submarine school, for one. There was little time to spend analyzing mathematical trickery that a fresh, callow officer claimed would benefit the entire force.

So LT Ekelund finally let his impatience get the best of him. He reclaimed the letter, retyped it to put his own name in the “From” line, and re-addressed his ideas to the Submarine Force Commander. That surely would get someone’s attention. Indeed, the letter made its way slowly to the top echelon, which published the new formulas in its quarterly bulletin. Just a few months later, after submarines in the fleet started working with the new procedure successfully, Ekelund’s innovation became part of the official curriculum of the Basic Officers and Prospective Commanding Officers courses.

The Ekelund Range helped revolutionize modern undersea warfare and is now a household phrase in the submarine community. An established method still used by tacticians and in automated fire-control algorithms, it has long been part of the course of study in target motion analysis at the Submarine School.

Now living comfortably down the way from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, where his son-in-law is an associate professor, retired RADM Ekelund spends his days playing golf and serving occasionally as second reader for a student’s graduate thesis. In the years after his Submarine School experience, he wrote several subsequent articles on range determination and other navigation problems. Nonetheless, he never forgot the lessons he learned from his most famous discovery – not only from developing the Ekelund Range, but also in getting the word to the people who needed it most.

“As I worked my way up to being an XO, then a CO, I always urged people to communicate about problems and philosophies,” RADM Ekelund said. “There are whole bunches of people who under- stand the problems out there. Only you might know the answer.

“There was a tremendous value to that quarterly bulletin,” the admiral added, referring to the first publication that printed his formula. “It was an avenue for information to flow into the Sub-marine Force, thus exposing a problem, seeking a solution, and letting a greater community of minds throw in their two-cents worth.”

While the Ekelund Range is used every day on submarines around the globe, there is one place the inventor resists the temptation to use it. “I do play golf,” he said, laughing. “But I don’t use the range formula to measure the distance to the hole.”

JOC Foutch is a Military Editor of UNDERSEA WARFARE Magazine.

The Development of the Spears Wheel
by JOC Michael Foutch, USN

As the 21st century begins, the new excitement felt by submarine Sailors is certainly understandable. There is the USS Seawolf (SSN-21), first of a new class of submarines with stealth technology second to none. The new Virginia (SSN-774)-class boats are adopting advanced technologies and modular design to accommodate payloads and sensors yet to be fielded – and our new SSGN initiative is a giant step in moving from Cold War thinking to the demands of asymmetrical conflict. These innovations combine to create a fertile environment for new ideas to take hold. 

In September 2000, aboard USS Scranton (SSN-756), LT Brian Spears was serving as the Assistant Weapons Officer during a very demanding underway period. In addition to SEAL training, weapon firing drills, and other hectic events, the fast-attack submarine was hosting several Prospective Commanding Officers onboard for training of their own. 
Photo of Spears Wheel.
The young officer, like LT Ekelund, was the son of a military man. “My dad was in the Army, so I grew up all over the place,” he said. After high school and college in Texas, he joined the silent service. While he says his wife might call him a tinkerer, he’s not the type of guy to get under the hood of a car to figure how it works or how to fix it, but he does claim he’ll “question whether things were done the best way possible.”

LT Spears remembers a daunting task during Scranton’s cruise: explaining how to quickly calculate periscope look intervals – essentially how frequently one needs a visual observation of a surface contact to maintain safety. Submarine Development Squadron 12 (DEVRON 12) had just provided new guidelines that the lieutenant found cumbersome. He said that to find the calculation, one had to look “in a thick publication, with all these formulas… Basically, this all deals with the safety of a ship driving right at you at maximum speed.” The formulas provided by DEVRON 12 allow the ship time to get to a safe depth in the event of a previously unseen contact or a contact maneuver, but in an environment rich with targets, the Officer of the Deck would have to do all the numbers with a calculator or in his head. Either method is too cumbersome for use in the thick of all the other demands associated with driving a nuclear-powered submarine. 

So the task of providing the training to the PCO class fell to LT Spears, and it occurred to him: With a lot of contacts up there, we have to have an easier way to determine look intervals. He decided to illustrate how to do the calculations with a method he says, “was almost intended to be silly.”

“I took a manila envelope and cut out two circles, one smaller than the other,” the lieutenant says, telling how he made his tactical aid. “I stuck them together with a folded up paper clip and marked the contacts you could have on the top wheel, from a fishing boat to an aircraft carrier.” He marked the circumference of the larger wheel with a range scale and cut a small square hole in the smaller for each type of contact, such that if one lined up a contact of interest with its range by sliding one wheel over the other, the correct safety sweep interval would appear in the window. He explained how the procedure of safety sweeps worked, brought his invention out from behind his back, and told the future submarine commanders, “To show you how to do this, here’s the Spears Wheel!”

Unlike the story of LT Ekelund, LT Spears idea was an almost-immediate hit – “I spent my sleep time aboard the ship making lots of wheels for the PCOs to take with them,” he says. His invention earned mention in the PCO lessons-learned message and in an appendix of the Periscope Employment Manual. Even DEVRON 12 liked the whiz-wheel method so much that they paid $10,000 to distribute professionally printed versions. On each was clearly stamped the name first intended by the inventor in jest: the “Spears Wheel.” Thus, when submarines operate at periscope depth today, they use a decision aid first assembled on a galley table by a junior officer during a busy cruise.

The Spears Wheel was not the first idea the young submarine officer envisioned. On his first deployment, he worked with a fellow lieutenant to develop a spreadsheet for analyzing a submarine’s environment based on information gathered from the conn, acoustic conditions in the water, and a database of contacts. 
Currently, LT Spears is an ROTC instructor at the University of Mississippi. When he takes on an optics course this fall, he says the wheel “will definitely be a part of the curriculum.”

JOC Foutch is a Military Editor for UNDERSEA WARFARE Magazine.

 Table of Contents