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 two of three.
“Beginning in the late 1960s, the Soviet Union gained an intelligence source in the U.S. Navy that could provide details of U.S. submarine operations, war plans, communications, and the SOSUS program. This source was John A. Walker, a Navy communications specialist who had extensive access to highly classified U.S. submarine material. Based on Walker’s data and other intelligence sources, the Soviets restructured their own naval war plans. The previous American perception was that the U.S. Navy would win ‘easily, overwhelmingly,’ according to a senior U.S. intelligence official. “From the late 1970s…we obtained special intelligence sources. They were available for about five years, until destroyed by [Aldrich] Ames and others.’ Based on those sources, ‘we learned that there would be more holes in our submarines than we originally thought—we had to rewrite the war plan.’
“In the mid-1980s U.S. officials began to publicly discuss the Western anti-SSBN strategy. Probably the first official pronouncement of this strategy was a 1985 statement by Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, who declared that U.S. SSNs would attack Soviet ballistic missile submarines ‘in the first five minutes of the war.’ In January 1986, the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. James D. Watkins, wrote that ‘we will wage an aggressive campaign against all Soviet submarines, including ballistic missile submarines.’ Earlier Watkins had observed that the shallow, ice-covered waters of the Soviet coastal seas were ‘a beautiful place to hide’ for Soviet SSBNs.
“Only in 2000 would the U.S. Navy reveal some of the details of trailing Soviet SSBNs. In conjunction with an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History commemorating one hundred years of U.S. Navy submarines, heavily censored reports of two U.S. trailing operations were released: the trail of a Yankee SSBN in the Atlantic, and that of a Project 675/Echo II SSGN in the Pacific by SSNs.
“This particular Yankee trailing operation—given the code name Evening Star—began on March 17, 1978 when USS Batfish (SSN-681) intercepted a Yankee SSBN in the Norwegian Sea. Batfish, towing a 1,100-foot sonar array, had been sent out from Norfolk specifically to intercept the SSBN, U.S. intelligence having been alerted to her probable departure from the Kola Peninsula by the CIA-sponsored Norwegian intelligence activities and U.S. spy satellites. These sources, in turn, cued the Norway-based SOSUS array as the Soviet missile submarine sailed around Norway’s North Cape.
“After trailing the Soviet submarine for 51 hours while she traveled 350 nautical miles, Batfish lost contact during a severe storm on March 19. A U.S. Navy P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft was dispatched from Reykjavik, Iceland, to seek out the evasive quarry. There was intermittent contact with the submarine the next day and firm contact was reestablished late on March 21 in the Iceland-Faeroes gap.
“The trail of the SSBN was then maintained by Batfish for 44 continuous days, the longest trail of a Yankee conducted to that time by a U.S. submarine. During that period the Yankee traveled 8,870 nautical miles, including a 19-day ‘alert’ phase, much of it some 1,600 nautical miles from the U.S. coast, little more than the range of the submarine’s 16 RSM-25/R-27U missiles. The Batfish report provides day-to-day details of the Yankee’s patrol and the trailing procedures. Significantly, the SSBN frequently used her MGK-100 Kerch active sonar (NATO designation Blocks of Wood). This sonar use and rigidly scheduled maneuvers by the Soviet submarine, for example, to clear the ‘baffles,’ that is, the area behind the submarine, and to operate at periscope depth twice a day continuously revealed her position to the trailing SSN. Batfish ended her trailing operation as the Yankee SSBN reentered the Norwegian Sea.
“The routine repetitiveness of the ‘target’ was used to considerable advantage by Batfish. Certain maneuvers indicated a major track change or impending periscope depth operations. But would such predictable maneuvers have been used in wartime? The repeated use of her sonar in the Batfish operation was highly unusual for a Yankee SSBN on patrol. Would the missile submarine have employed countermeasures and counter-tactics to shake off the trailing submarine during a crisis or in wartime? ‘You bet they would change their tactics and procedures,’ said the commanding officer of the Batfish, Cmdr. Thomas Evans.
“There are examples of tactics being employed by Soviet submarines to avoid U.S.-NATO detection. Among them have been transiting in the proximity of large merchant ships or warships in an attempt to hide their signatures from Western sensors, and reducing noise sources below their normal level when transiting in areas of high probability of SOSUS detection. When the Russian cruise missile submarine Kursk was destroyed in August 2000, a Russian SSBN, believed to be a Project 667BDRM/Delta IV, may have been using the fleet exercise as a cover for taking up a patrol station without being detected by U.S. attack submarines in the area. (Another Delta IV, the Kareliya [K-18], was participating in the exercise at the time.)
“Not all U.S. trailing operations were successful. Periodically Soviet SSBNs entered the Atlantic and Pacific without being detected; sometimes the trail was lost. A noteworthy incident occurred in October 1986 when the U.S. attack submarine Augusta (SSN-710) was trailing a Soviet SSN in the North Atlantic. Augusta is reported to have collided with a Soviet Delta I SSBN that the U.S. submarine had failed to detect. Augusta was able to return to port, but she suffered $2.7 million in damage. The larger Soviet SSBN suffered only minor damage and continued her patrol.
“(U.S. and Soviet submarines occasionally collided during this phase of the Cold War, many of the incidents undoubtedly taking place during trail operations. Unofficial estimates place the number of such collisions involving nuclear submarines at some 20 to 40.)”