The U.S. Navy Project ELF managed to generate extremely low frequency (ELF) radiation at down to $\approx 76$ Hz (implying a wavelength of $\approx 3,945$ km!). I was curious, what kind of receiving antennas do submarines use to actually pick up these ELF signals? What are the size requirements? Do submarines just trail a very long cable that approximates a monopole or dipole antenna, use electrical lengthening to shorten the antenna to some length $\approx 3,945/k$ km, where $k \in \mathbb{Z}$, and then travel along an optimal vector to pick up a transmitted signal?

  • $\begingroup$ Maybe they detect the magnetic component? After all power transformers work in this frequency range and there the secondary coil picks up the magnetic field generated by the primary. $\endgroup$ – Urgje Mar 11 '14 at 9:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Urgje That would make sense from the (low) required broadband and compactness requirements (with respect to the wavelength)... $\endgroup$ – ESn Mar 11 '14 at 9:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Urgje Then again, perhaps not w.r.t. to the broadband requirements depending on how large the penalty is? $\endgroup$ – ESn Mar 11 '14 at 10:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Urgje Another factor would probably be the tolerance for the orientation of the receiving antenna - you probably want a broad / large dipole for this application. $\endgroup$ – ESn Mar 11 '14 at 10:21
  • $\begingroup$ I can't speak to the physics here, but they do just run a long antenna out the back of the boat. $\endgroup$ – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Mar 11 '14 at 16:08

There exist a wiki article on this, project elf.

The scaled-down system the Navy eventually constructed, called Project ELF, began testing in 1982 and became operational in 1989. It consisted of two transmitter facilities, one at Clam Lake, Wisconsin and one at Republic, Michigan. with a total of 84 miles[ of above-ground transmission line antenna. The two transmitters normally operated synchronized together as one antenna for greater range, but could also operate independently.


In 2004 the Navy shut down both transmitters, with the explanation that very low frequency (VLF) communication systems had improved to the point that the ELF system was unnecessary


The Russian Navy operates an ELF transmitter facility, named ZEVS ("Zeus"), to communicate with its submarines, located 30 km southeast of Murmansk on the Kola peninsula in northern Russia. Signals from it were detected in the 1990s at Stanford University and elsewhere. It normally operates at 82 Hz, using MSK (minimum shift keying) modulation. although it reportedly can cover the frequency range from 20 to 250 Hz. It reportedly consists of two parallel ground dipole antennas 60 km long, driven at currents of 200 to 300 amperes.[ Calculations from intercepted signals indicate it is 10 dB more powerful than the U.S. transmitters.Unlike them it is used for geophysical research in addition to military communications


As fore receiving antennas, they do not have to be large.It is the generation of a frequency modulated with a signal that needs the full wavelength length. The receiver if the signal is strong works with smaller dimensions.

Ground dipoles are not needed for reception of ELF signals. The requirements for receiving antennas at ELF frequencies are less stringent than transmitting antennas, because the signal to noise ratio in ELF receivers is dominated by the large atmospheric noise in the band. The level of signal strength at the antenna is far above the noise in the receiver circuit, so small inefficient receiving antennas can be used. Various types of coil and ferrite loop antennas have been used for reception.

This might help somebody designing an antenna.

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This is a very interesting question and, after studying submarines for decades, I have no idea.

I've heard bits and pieces about the ELF transmitter antenna arrays, but I don't know anyone who has seen one. I don't even know if they are built above or below the surface. The one thing I hear repeatedly is that the arrays are kilometers long.

How would you fit an antenna element kilometers long into a submarine that is not kilometers long? There are a couple of options that come to mind.

As I understand it, reception is maximized when the antenna lengths match (and are matched to the wavelength of the transmitted signal).

Option 1 is a 'trailing array'. Some of our newer subs use trailing sensor arrays. It allows them to use things that are very noisy without giving away the actual location of the submarine.

Sometimes I wonder if they stream the sensor array from the ELF antenna? But, in all the scenarios that I've seen, they don't use the ELF if they are moving. If they aren't moving, the ELF antenna would be subject to gravity, and would soon be in a vertical alignment. Since the transmitter arrays, as far as I know, are horizontal, it seems to me that there would be a polarity issue.

The other option I can think of is a partial wavelength antenna built into the hull of the submarine. But, if you consider the wavelength, and the length of the submarine, I suspect that the antenna length could only be a very small fraction of the transmitter antenna length, and, as I understand it, this can lead to significant losses in signal strength, all by itself.

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  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "ELF would be subject to gravity" - yes, but it is probably built with neutral buoyancy, so it would always remain in a roughly horizontal position. $\endgroup$ – Dave Coffman Mar 3 '15 at 2:15

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