In its Spring 2005 edition, Undersea Warfare magazine published a story called “Cold War Strategic ASW,” which dovetails nicely with the radar-picket submarines we learned about in last week’s “Tidbits.” Today’s installment is part one of three.

“Soviet strategic missile submarines were the greatest naval threat to the United States during the Cold War. Accordingly, strategic antisubmarine warfare (ASW) became a major role of the U.S. Navy, especially the attack submarines. This excerpt from Cold War Submarines: The Design and Construction of U.S. and Soviet Submarines by Normal Polmar and Kenneth J. Moore briefly describes the development of strategic ASW. Cold War Submarines was written in collaboration with the Rubin and Malachite design bureaus, which developed most of the Soviet submarine projects of the Cold War, as well as other Russian agencies. Mr. Polmar is a leading naval author, analyst, and historian; Mr. Moore, president of the Cortana Corporation, is a submarine technologist.”

“The appearance of the Project 667A/Yankee (SSBN) strategic missile submarine had a profound impact on the U.S. Navy’s antisubmarine strategy.Heretofore Western naval strategists looked at the Soviet submarine force as a reincarnation of the U-boat threat of two world wars to Anglo-American merchant shipping.

“From the late 1940s, for two decades, the U.S. Navy contemplated an Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) campaign in which, in wartime, Soviet submarines would transit through ‘barriers’ en route to attack Allied convoys in the North Atlantic and then return through those same barriers to rearm and refuel at their Arctic bases. These barriers—composed of maritime patrol aircraft and hunter-killer submarines guided or cued by the seafloor Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS)—would sink Soviet submarines as they transited, both going to sea and returning to their bases.Also, when attacking Allied convoys, the Soviet submarines would be subjected to the ASW efforts of the convoy escorts.

“In reality, by the mid-1950s the Soviets had discarded any intention of waging an anti-shipping campaign in a new Battle of the Atlantic. The U.S. Navy’s development of a carrier-based nuclear strike capability in the early 1950s and the deployment of Polaris missile submarines in the early 1960s had led to defense against nuclear strikes from the sea becoming the Soviet Navy’s highest priority mission. New surface ship and submarine construction as well as land-based naval and, subsequently, Soviet Air Forces aircraft were justified on the basis of destroying U.S. aircraft carriers and missile submarines as they approached the Soviet homeland.

“When the Project 667A/Yankee SSBNs went to sea in the late 1960s, the Soviet Navy was given another high-priority mission: Strategic (nuclear) strike against the United States and the protection of its own missile submarines by naval forces. The Yankee SSBNs severely reduced the effectiveness of the U.S. Navy’s concept of the barrier/convoy escort ASW campaign. These missile submarines—which could carry out nuclear strikes against the United States—would be able to pass through the barriers in peacetime and become lost in the ocean depths, for perhaps two months at a time. Like the U.S. Polaris SSBNs, by going slow, not transmitting radio messages, and avoiding Allied warships and shipping, they might remain undetected once they reached the open sea. If the Soviets maintained continuous SSBN patrols at sea (as did the U.S. Navy) there would always be some ballistic missile submarines at sea. During a period of crisis, additional Soviet SSBNs would go to sea, passing through the barriers without Allied ASW forces being able to attack them.

“Efforts to counter these submarines required the U.S. Navy to undertake a new approach to ASW. A variety of intelligence sources were developed to detect Soviet submarines leaving port, especially from their bases on the Kola Peninsula. These included High-Frequency Direction Finding (HF/DF) facilities in several countries, Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) intercept stations in Norway and, beginning in the 1950s, Norwegian intelligence collection ships (AGI) operating in the Barents Sea.Commenting on the AGI Godoynes, which operated under the code name Sunshine in 1955, Ernst Jacobsen of the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, who designed some of the monitoring equipment in the ship, said that the Godoynes—a converted sealer—was ‘bursting at the seams with modern American searching equipment, operated by American specialists.’ The Central Intelligence Agency sponsored the ship and other Norwegian ELINT activities. The Norwegians operated a series of AGIs in the ELINT role in the Barents Sea from 1952 to 1976. In the Pacific, there was collaboration with Japanese intelligence activities as well as U.S. HF/DF and ELINT stations in Japan to listen for indications of Soviet submarine sorties.

“From the early 1960s U.S. reconnaissance satellites also could identify Soviet submarines being prepared for sea. Once cued by such sources, SOSUS networks emplaced off the northern coast of Norway and in the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) gaps would track Soviet SSBNs going to sea. Presumably, SOSUS networks in the Far East were cued by similar ELINT and other intelligence sources.

“Directed to possible targets by SOSUS, U.S. attack submarines would attempt to trail the ballistic missile submarines during their patrols. These SSBN trailing operations were highly sensitive and until the late 1970s were not referred to, in even top secret U.S. Navy documents. Navy planning publications—highly classified—began to discuss trailing operations at that time as the U.S. understanding of the Soviet submarine roles in wartime began to change.”


A Soviet Yankee II submarine.

A Soviet Yankee II submarine.