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 three of three.
“The limited range of the Yankee’s RSM-25/SS-N-6 missile forced these submarines to operate relatively close to the coasts of the United States. Under these conditions, and upon the start of hostilities, the trailing U.S. submarines would attempt to sink the Soviet SSBNs as they released their first missiles (or, under some proposals, when their missile tube covers were heard opening). If feasible, the U.S. submarines would call in ASW aircraft or surface ships, and there were proposals for U.S. surface ships to try to shoot down the initial missiles being launched, which would reveal the location of the submarine to ASW forces. These SLBM shoot-down proposals were not pursued.
“U.S. anti-SSBN efforts again were set back in 1972 when the first Project 667B/Delta I ballistic missile submarine went to sea. This was an enlarged Yankee design carrying the RSM-40/R-29 (NATO SS-N-8 Sawfly) missile with a range of 4,210 nautical miles. This missile range enabled Delta I SSBNs to target virtually all of the United States while remaining in Arctic waters and in the Sea of Okhotsk. In those waters the SSBNs could be defended by land-based naval aircraft as well as submarines and (in ice-free waters) surface warships. These SSBNs were equipped with a buoy-type surfacing antenna that could receive radio communications, target designations, and satellite navigational data when the ship was at a considerable depth.
“Further, communications with submarines in Arctic waters were simplified because of their proximity to Soviet territory. The use of surface ships and submarines for communications relay were also possible. It was possible that civilian nuclear-propelled icebreakers—which were armed on their sea trials—were intended to provide such support to submarines in wartime.
“Also, having long-range missiles that would enable SSBNs to target the United States from their bases or after short transits, fit into the Soviet Navy’s procedure of normally keeping only a small portion of the submarine fleet at sea, with a majority of their undersea craft held in port at a relatively high state of readiness. These submarines—of all types—would be ‘surged’ during a crisis.
“This procedure was radically different than that of the U.S. Navy, which, for most of the Cold War, saw up to one-third of the surface fleet and many SSNs forward deployed. More than one-half of the SSBN force was continuously at sea—nautical at a cost of more personnel and more wear-and-tear on the ships.
“The Soviet SSBN operating areas in the Arctic and Sea of Okhotsk-referred to a ‘sanctuaries’ and ‘bastions’ by Western intelligence-were covered by ice for much of the year and created new challenges for Western ASW forces. U.S. attack submarines of the Sturgeon (SSN-637)-class were well suited for operating in those areas, being relatively quiet and having an under-ice capability. However, the Arctic environment is not ‘ASW friendly’: communications—even reception—are extremely difficult under ice; passive sonar is degraded by the sounds of ice movement and marine life; and under-ice acoustic phenomena interfere with passive (homing) torpedo guidance. Also, the Arctic environment, even in ice-free areas, is difficult if not impossible for Allied ASW aircraft and surface ship operations.
“The Soviet SSBN force thus became an increasingly effective strategic strike/deterrent weapon, especially when operating in the sanctuaries or bastions.”