Soviet Sea Power

Hervé Coutau-Bégarie 


Chapter I - Strategic Nuclear Mission



The Western equivalent of this mission is called de­terrence. But the existence of this concept in Soviet strate­gic thinking triggers lively and bitter debates among West­ern specialists. Against those in the majority who think that Soviet doctrine does not recognize the logic of mutual deterrence, Raymond L. Garthoff and Dimitri K. Simes assert that, between the statements made by Marshal Grechko, the defense minister until 1976, and those of his successor Ustinov, there has been a slippage from the idea of victory toward the idea of assured retaliation [1]. This is not the place to try to get into very complex controversies; instead, caution requires us not to take up a concept as hotly disputed as this one. It seems nevertheless possible to say that the basic foundation of Soviet concepts is the search for damage limitation, as indicated by the interest in civil defense. In this general context, the navy has a twin mission: Offensive, with its shipboard missiles; defensive, with the protection of its submarines and the attack on the enemy’s ocean deterrent.  

Offensive Mission: Strategic Strike

The beginnings of the strategic ocean force were dif­ficult. Built hastily between 1958 and 1962 to counter the, Polaris program, the Golf‑class sub­marines [2] were die­sel‑powered and carried only three short‑range SSN4 mis­siles with a range of 300 nm, to be launched only while sur­faced.

In 1961 they came out with the Hotel class which was nuclear‑powered and which was equipped with SSN5 missiles having, a range of 700 nm, to be launched while submerged; they were also installed on the Golf submarines during their over­haul.

In spite of the progress represented by submerged launchings and nuclear power, the performances of the Ho­tel submarines were poor and the threat they repre­sented became increasingly marginal as the land missile force was gradually developed further. Not until 1967 did the strate­gic ocean force receive the equivalent of the Polaris subma­rines with the introduction of the Yankee‑class submarines equipped with the SSN6 missiles having, a range of 1 300 nm. Between 1967 and 1974, 34 Yan­kee‑class submarines were built and the rate was stepped up, starting in 1969, to the detriment of the SNA [nuclear attach sub­marines] so that the maximum number of units would be in service or on the slips prior to the conclusion of the SALT I accord. The number of submarines under con­struction in the Soviet arsenals furthermore was to consti­tute the last unsettled point in the negotiations; this point was to be settled only right before the signing: The Ameri­cans dated the start of the construction as of the time the boat was actually laid down whereas the Soviets took the date the equipment was supplied. They were almost fully satisfied in their demands since the accord was to give them 740 missiles carried on submarines – ­they had asked for 768 – instead of the 680 which the Americans had been thinking of in the beginning.

The Yankee submarines made the Soviet strategic ocean force credible, both in the eyes of the Americans and the Soviet leaders: As a sign of this recogni­tion, the 1968 addition of Strategie militaire henceforth placed it on an equal level with the ground missile force. But the Yankee series was still suffering from serious inadequacies: Built hastily prior to the signing of the SALT I agreement, it re­veals defects in manufacture, especially in the reactor cir­cuits; there were reportedly leaks [3]. Moreover, they are noisy, which makes it easy to detect them. And the short range of their missiles forces the Yankee submarines to ven­ture out into the North Atlantic where NATO defenses are strongest, in order to get into firing position. The Soviets tried to overcome this handicap by shifting a portion of the Yankee submarines into the Pacific where American ASW defenses are less strong and by increasing the range of the SSN6: 18 Yankee submarines between 1973 and 1977 re­ceived SSN6 Mod 3 with a range of 1 600 nm in the course of an over­haul which lasted 3 years (it had only taken 2 years to build them). But that did not solve the problem.

The Delta class was launched starting in 1972 in or­der to remedy these deficiencies. Three versions followed each other: The Delta I submarines displaced 8 100 t on the surface and carried 12 SSNB missiles with a single mega­ton warhead having a range of 4 200 nm, which enables them to be in firing position the moment they leave their bases on Kola Peninsula or Petropavlosk, far from western defenses and under the protection of Soviet naval air forces. In 1975 came the Delta II which were bigger and carried 16 SSN8 missiles, quickly replaced by the Delta III subma­rines which, with their 13 250 t submerged, were the world’s biggest submarines until the commissioning of the American Trident; this did not fail to produce a big cheer from the American maximalists. It carries 10 SSN18 mis­siles, an extrapolation of the SSN8 with three or seven MIRV warheads, according to the particular version and increased range, to at least 4 500 nm, although the opera­tional range will probably be less. The construction of the Delta I and Delta III submarines was continued simultane­ously, perhaps for technical reasons, but more probably to have a maximum of missile‑firing submarines within the missile ceiling established by S.A.L.T. I. The series was stopped after 1980 to give way to the Typhoon whose first copy began its sea trials and for which a new base was built at Yolanda, on the White Sea. Even bigger – 20 000‑30 000 t – the Typhoon carries 20 SSNX20 missiles with MIRV warheads in the course of development. For John E. Moore, this monstrous displacement “can only be attributed to the fascination of the Soviets with bigness; it is possible that, in contrast to the Delta submarines, this would be a sub­marine intended to operate in distant waters. Its missiles could reach any point in the United States from a patrol area located south of the Tropic of Capricorn, in the South Pacific, thus further scattering the already over­worked ASW resources of NATO” [4]. The recent appearance of a 22 500 t supply vessel for submarines, the Elbruz, ap­parently designed to resupply the strategic submarines on the high seas, tends to confirm this interpretation.

The rate at which the Typhoon submarines came out appears to have been rather slow, probably one unit every 2 years since the construction of such monsters creates nu­merous engineering problems. As in the case of the Delta submarines, its appearance caused considerable worry in the United States. But this is only an extrapolation of the Delta which itself was only a larger copy of the Yankee. Parallel to the construction of the Typhoon submarines, the Soviets began to remodel the Yankee submarines, which were to receive 12 new SSNX17 missiles in place of their 16 SSN6 missiles at this time. They were thus moving toward a strategic force with two components, one of them with high missile density – with the Typhoon submarines having 20 tubes and the Delta II and Delta III with 16 tubes – while the other one had low density, with the 12 tube Delta I and Yankee II. The 1972 interim accord on offensive missiles and the attached protocol on shipboard missiles, concluded for a term of 5 years, but still in force by tacit agreement among both parties, allowed the Soviets 740 shipboard missiles; this figure could be increased to 950 through the disarmament of the SS7 and SS8 ground mis­siles, an option which was finally selected by the Soviets. This takes into consideration only the missiles on modern submarines, which in all cases excludes the Golf subma­rines. On the other hand, due to the hasty drafting of the accord, the Hotel submarines, which are not included in the ceiling of 740 submarines, are indeed included in the 950 ceiling. At the end of 1982, there were 989 missiles. In spite of the continuation of construction work, this number de­clined slightly after 1980 due to the conversion of the Yan­kee submarines into nuclear attack submarines. The SALT II treaty, which called for a reduction in the total number of delivery vehicles of each party from 2 400 down to 2 250, would have made it necessary to retire the Hotel submarines and to speed up the remodeling of the Yankee submarines into 12 tube sub­marines or nuclear attack submarines. Its non-ratification put an end to this eventu­ality; this was painful for the Soviets who retire a weapon only when it is really too old, as witnessed by the continued use of the SSN5.

Out of 989 missiles, 39 are on the 13 Golf II, each of which carries three SSN5. Due to disappear soon, they are used for training or for tactical missions.

That leaves us with 950 missiles on 70 submarines, broken down as follows [5]:

-          One Golf II, carrying six SSN8 missiles; this old trial boat is now completely over‑age;

-          Six Hotel II, each carrying three SSN5 missiles; in spite of their age, these boats were modernized and the range of their missiles was increased to 900 nm; their long use can probably be explained by the poor operational avail­ability of the Yankee submarines but they are about to give out likewise and the Soviets are beginning to with­draw them; in 1980, there were eight of them;

-          One Hotel III, carrying six SSN8 missiles, which was used as experimental submarine;

-          25 Yankee I, each carrying 16 SSN6; some of them are still equipped with the single‑warhead SSN6 Mod 1 but most of them received the SSN6 Mod 3 with MRV war­heads and increased range; with their two turbines per shaft line, they are noisy and therefore easy to spot; but the power of their reactors gives them great speed; sev­eral are yet to be converted into nuclear attack sub­ma­rines or to be retired; like the Golf and Hotel subma­rines, the Yankee submarines are probably simed at coastal targets (nuclear submarine bases, ports of mili­tary value) or theater targets in Europe or the Far East;

-          One Yankee II, carrying 12 SSNX17, the first Soviet solid‑fuel ballistic ­missile submarine; the Yankee I sub­marines that were not converted into nuclear attack submarines are progressively to undergo the same re­modeling, by the time the SSNX17 will be ready. But it is possible that the project might be abandoned for rea­sons of cost and opportunity (the overhaul is a very lengthy and difficult procedure and the Yankee subma­rines are beginning to get old);

-          18 Delta I, each carrying 12 SSN8;

-          Four Delta II, each carrying 16 SSN8;

-          13 Delta III, each carrying 16 SSN18;

-          1 Typhoon, carrying 20 SSNX20; others are under con­struction.

This is a rather impressive total. Looking at the raw figures, the 38 strategic submarines of the U.S. Navy are heavily outclassed. But here again the quantitative appear­ance does not mean much. Their effectiveness does not de­pend on their number but on the quality of their missiles, their communication system, and their employment condi­tions. Let us study them in succession.

The table below summarizes the main characteris­tics of the strategic missiles of the Soviet fleet currently in service. The list therefore does not include the SSN4 in­stalled on the Golf I whose retirement has been finished.

In the face of the American Poseidon and Trident, the Soviet missiles appear outdated. A part from the SSNX17 and the SSNh20 under experimentation, they all run on liquid rocket fuel, which the Americans abandoned because of its instability. Only the SSN8 and 18 have suffi­cient range; the others force the submarines carrying them to approach the American coast, thus exposing themselves to the strongest enemy defenses. This handicap is further in­creased by the fact that, in spite of their anechoic coating – which absorbs a part of the sonar waves – they are indeed noisy; this makes it easy to spot them. Their PEC (probable error circl), due to an inertial navigation system which en­tails a certain margin of uncertainty and forces them fre­quently to redetermine their positions [6], deprives them of any counterforce capability: Only the MIRV of the SSN18 would possibly have such a capability with the help of their PEC which is less than 1 000 m; but this is still too much to hit a hardened silo with a charge of 200 kt. They would in­stead seem to be aimed at airfields and other unprotected military and economic targets.

The SSNX17 missile, which is now being tested represents a major innovation with its solid rocket fuel. But its development is a rather laborious thing and it still does not yet have any MIRV; above all, its range remains rather short. It will not solve the fundamental problem of the Yan­kee submarines, that is, the obligation to move very close to the enemy. The SSNX20 on the other hand is still in a rather early development stage and its perfection is turning out to be a difficult task (only two successful firings out of seven attempts between January 1980 and May 1981, al­though the trial program for 1982 did reveal definite pro­gress). In any case, it will not be fully opera­tional before the middle of the decade. For several years to come, its missiles will make the Soviet strategic ocean force vulnerable in all of its components other than those equipped with the SSN18 and will therefore bar it from any sophisticated mis­sion.

The communication system is not without its weak spots either. A former secretary of the navy of the United States, J. William Middendorf, stated in 1975 that “the Soviets have the best command and control system one could imagine” [7]. This kind of statement is a good example of maximalism. Like that of the U.S. Navy, their system is based on VLF radio communica­tions from five main sta­tions and 16 secondary stations, all of them situated in the Soviet Union, along the Arctic, the Pacific, and the Black Sea which cover all oceans. They are vulnerable to nuclear attacks and, just as in the United States, there are high‑frequency emergency systems, all of which can be jammed and, to a lesser degree, there is the Molniya satel­lite system which seems to have an anti‑ICBM mission but which could be used. A new type of satellite on a stationary earth orbit, called Volna, is in the process of deployment. It should considerably improve the communication system’s survival capacity which, for the time being, is not much greater than that of its American rival and may even be less due to its highly centralized structure and its depend­ence on satellites [8].

Table III






















date com­mis­sioned














range (nm)










1800 to






number of stages







number and power of warheads




































being developed















12* +

20 +

The employment conditions for Soviet submarines differ profoundly from those of the Americans: While the latter permanently keep the maximum number of subma­rines on patrol, the operational availability of their Soviet counter­parts is rather feeble: There are hardly more than four Yankee submarines on station usually, with three of them in the Atlantic and one in the Pacific, in other words, less than 157 of the Yankee submarines in service and per­haps half a dozen Delta submarines. The others remain hidden in their fortified pens at the base of Poliarniy in the Arctic and at the Petropavlovsk base in the Pacific. This is a consequence of the shortage of skilled personnel, which means that there is only one crew per submarine instead of the two crews for the western navies. Others emphasize the ease of maintenance deriving from this [9] or they mention the technical problems which the Yankee class creates and which explain the prolonged survival of the Hotel subma­rines – but the availability of the Delta submarines is not any better – or the deficiencies of the control and communi­cation system. But this state of affairs can also be blamed on the missions assigned to Soviet strategic submarines

Richard Ackley listed three conceivable missions for the Soviet submarines: Striking at land targets, such as the American nuclear missile submarines; fleet attack; strate­gic reserve, which the Americans call “intra‑war deterrence” or “war termination bargaining” [10]. The weakness of the per­manent deployment appears to him to be rather little com­patible with the first, while the second one seems to be little credible to him and while he selects the third one which seems to him to be perfectly in keeping with the minimum deployment; massive deployment would expose the Yankee submarines to rapid destruction in case of the opening of hostilities. The few units on patrol will participate in the initial nuclear exchange while the other ones, leaving their bases, would constitute a reserve protected by the ASW forces which could be used in a new strike or which could constitute a means for negotiation. The sortie by the Delta class does not contradict this assumption because, while it does confer new flexibility upon the submarine force, it con­tributes above all to increasing its survival capacity.

Carl Clawson [11] countered the statements by Ack­ley; for him, the primary mission of the Yankee submarines is not strategic; it is to attack the enemy missile‑carrying units. He bases his idea on the many Soviet writings that assign first priority to the fight against missile‑launching vessels, as well as certain features of the Yankee subma­rines, such as, great speed, high sound level, absence of inertial navigation system, shape of missile tubes, and testing, at the beginning of the 1970’s, of a tactical missile, the SSNX13. Only after the tactical‑missile submarine pro­gram was finished, did the Soviets undertake the develop­ment of the Delta class for strategic purposes. Although limited to the Yankee submarines, this demonstration is more ingenious than really convincing. The SSNX13 mis­sile, which Clawson makes so much of, was never deployed, either for technical reasons or because of the SALT agree­ments; the features of the SSNX13 could lead to its inclu­sion in the strategic missiles that are limited by agreement. More recently, when the Soviets wanted to as­sign the Yan­kee submarines to tactical missions, they were deprived of their strategic missiles, thus showing that, while they do not separate the strategic nuclear level from the tactical level in theory, they do not confuse strategic submarines and nuclear attack submarines in practice.

If we thus eliminate this mission of attacking enemy vessels, it is probable that the strategic ocean force consti­tutes a reserve to be used in a second strike in case the ini­tial exchange remained limited, since its potential on patrol gives it only a marginal place in the initial exchange [12]. But it would remain vulnerable: Contrary to what Ackley and Mac Gwire suggest, the minimum deployment offers only disadvantages; in particular, it seems doubtful that it would improve the survival chances of the submarines; the latter could be attacked in their bases with nuclear weapons – the Kola and Kamchatka peninsulas, which are practically de­serts, are particularly well suited for an atomic counterforce strike – or they would be bottled up in those same bases by very sophisticated mines, such as the captor. The ASW ca­pabilities of the U.S. Navy are considerable, with its mari­time patrol aircraft, its highly perfected detection networks

for which the Soviets have no equivalent, its Los Ange­les‑class nuclear attack submarines, which are very silent and which are equipped with highly sophisticated listening systems, making them particularly suitable for hunting submarines [13]. The second‑strike capa­bility – to use the easy Western concept – has been assured since the commission­ing of the Delta submarines but it remains still relatively limited; the Soviet strategic ocean force could suffer consid­erable damages once a conflict has been unleashed. Ian Bellany [sic] has drawn a significant comparison: “Out of the total capacity of the Soviet SLBM, only one quarter (at best) is at sea, available at any moment. Out of that quarter, more than half (the Yankee submarines) are constantly sail­ing under the threat of Western ASW forces. In other words, out of the 950 SLBM allowed the Soviet Union under the SALT agreements, one can reasonably count only on about 120 to participate in a second strike. Out of the 710 SLBM allowed the United States, 350 are available for a second strike – an obvious advantage even if one takes into account the greater weight of the Soviet warheads” [14].

These very real weaknesses must not cause us to forget that the strategic ocean force has made impressive progress and that the deployment of the SSN18 and the SSN17 will considerably boost its potential and thus its place in Soviet strategy. As Richard Burt put it: “With a production rate of six submarines per year, their force of 62 submarines could be made up almost entirely of Delta and new Typhoon submarines in 1985. If, for any reason whatso­ever, the restrictions contained in the 1972 accord should become outdated, Moscow could quickly increase its strategic submarine force to about 90 units by deploying new subma­rines and by keeping the older Yankee sub­marines. But be­yond the simple growth of the ocean force of the USSR, its increased ability to threaten new targets in the United States, particularly rather little protected military targets, such as the bomber bases, would give it a new dimension” [15]. Only the very serious personnel problems could then hinder its development and limit its effectiveness.

Defensive Mission: Strategic Defense

The defensive mission is a twin mission: On the one hand, it consists in protecting the strategic ocean force against Western ASW attacks; on the other hand, it is aimed at limiting the effects of a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union by locating and destroying the maximum number of enemy strategic submarines before they have launched their missiles. It is funda­mental, from both of these aspects, because the Soviets are very much afraid of the American ASW potential and because, having been hard‑hit by two very murderous and destructive invasions in the course of two world wars, they put the protection of their territory above everything else and are trying very hard to reduce the losses which they would suffer to a minimum, not only through a very broad passive defense but also through active defenses against bombers – 10 000 AA positions – missiles, with different but very intensive research efforts on all possible forms of antimissile defense, as well as submarines.

The two aspects of the defensive mission are closely tied together; in both cases, the basic idea is to destroy the submarines [16], either the missile firing submarines or the submarine‑hunting nuclear attack submarines which con­stitute the main threat to the missile‑firing submarines; this, in passing, reveals the very vague character of the dis­tinction made by many authors between strategic ASW and tactical ASW [17].

Soviet doctrine distinguishes two zones. In the close‑in zone, the essential means are surface vessels and ASW aircraft. They no longer have to track the American submarines whose Polaris and Poseidon missiles have a range that enables them to stay outside that zone. How­ever, their role is not over: More than ever before, they must protect the Soviet missile‑firing submarines against Western nuclear attack submarines. They could regain a strategic role if the American nuclear attack submarines were to receive the cruise missile whose range, 1,500 nm, would force them to patrol permanently close to the Soviet coast. And, on the other hand, one cannot rule out an enlarge­ment of the close‑in zone: The latest developments in Soviet naval shipbuilding suggest several indications along these lines [18]. Even if we look only at the strategic mis­sion – which is no longer sufficient to include the evolution of the Soviet fleet – it is certain that the Soviets will con­tinue to build surface vessels.

In the remote zone, the Soviets quickly understood that surface vessels cannot venture further and further out into a hostile environment in order to keep up with the in­crease in the range of the Polaris. The series of Moskva helicopter carriers, designed for action against the Polaris in the Eastern Mediterranean, was thus stopped after only two units, while the program initially, according to western estimates based on supplies for the shipyards, pointed to a series of between eight and twelve ships. The fight against American strategic sub­marines and protection for the mis­sile‑firing submarines, the Hotel and Yankee classes, in the remote zone, henceforth will be primarily a job for the nu­clear attack submarines armed with torpedoes. The five Echo I [19], which are old missile‑firing submarines converted into nuclear attack submarines, and the ­November subma­rines are very noisy and rather unsuccessful from all view­points: A November submarine sank in the Atlantic in April 1970. They should be with­drawn shortly [20]. The backbone of the torpedo‑firing nuclear attack submarine force consists of the Victor class whose three versions, apparently differ­ing little, followed each other after 1968: 16 Victor I were built between 1968 and 1974, six Victor II were built be­tween 1972 and 1978, and ten Victor III were built after that; production continues, parallel to the introduction of the Alpha class whose first copy came out in 1979. At this time there are six of them; the production rate is slow (about one unit per year) due to their complexity and their cost. Highly sophisticated, they have a titanium hull which gives them very deep submersion – at least 900 m and there was even talk of 1 200 m – and very great speed, at least 40 kn. On the other hand, they would be even noisier than their predecessors [21]. In addi­tion to their torpedoes, the Vic­tor and Alpha submarines are equipped with two ASW sys­tems that can be launched submerged: The SSN15 at 20 nm fires a nuclear grenade and the very recent SSN16, with a range of at least 500 nm, is equipped with a nuclear torpedo with a homing warhead. (It is not certain that it would be used at maximum range because of radar spotting difficul­ties.) These are redoubtable weapons, similar to the Subroc of the U.S. Navy.

The naval air arm could also participate in the stra­tegic ASW fight but it only has about 50 ASW aircraft, that is, Tupolev 142 Bear F with a big action radius (8 000 km). The 50 Ilyushin 28 May (3 000 km action radius) and the 90 Mail hydroplanes (1 000‑1 300 km action radius) cannot operate in the areas patrolled by Poseidon and Trident.

More serious, on the other hand, is the prospect of mine warfare: “Submarines or even transport vessels and fishing boats could secretly lay mines along the routes of enemy SSBN and, in wartime, this would also be the task of aircraft and surface vessels; the USSR would then accept the idea of loosing many air­craft if this would force the Ameri­can SSBN to remain bottled up in port” [22]. But, in addition to the difficulties arising from the conduct of such an opera­tion, we must not forget that, in contrast to their Soviet counterparts, more than half of the Western strategic sub­marines are permanently at sea. The impact of a blockade or a nuclear attack on the bases – anticipated by the Soviet strategists in spite of the considerable risk of escalation – thus could in any case be only very limited.

What could be the effectiveness of this hunt against Western strategic sub­marines being? Admiral W. Bagley recently sounded the alarm: “Technical improvements are strengthening Soviet capacities. Soviet progress is such that, strengthened by foreseeable progress in the matter of surveil­lance, they could progressively reduce the credibility of the Western SSBN in times of crisis” [23]. This statement must be looked at very carefully. The admiral himself admits that 709. of the Soviet ASW potential is made up of surface ves­sels and aircraft [24] which could not track the American sub­marines in their patrol areas; the aircraft could not do that because their action radius does not permit them to do so, with the exception of the 50 Bear F; the surface vessels could not do that because they are deployed for­ ward only in very small numbers and only during calm periods; in 1973, starting with the early signs of the Yom Kippur War, an ASW cruiser of the Kara class hastily returned to the Black Sea to be replaced by older units. Norman Friedman thinks that the ASW units could come out in force after the de­struction of Western naval forces by the previously deployed antisurface units [25]. This scenario is rendered possible if the Kara episode is re­placed by antisurface Kynda. But the range of the Poseidon and the Trident submarines would force these vessels to venture very far from their bases, without air cover, against the very strongest enemy de­fenses, with a success probability which, even in partial terms, would be hypothetical in view of the immensity of the areas to be watched. Only the submarines constitute a serious threat; but the performances of the conventional submarines are too poor to enable them to hunt SSBN. That would thus leave us only with the nuclear attack subma­rines among which only the Victor and the Alfa [sic] are really modern. But their excellent characteristics from the viewpoint of speed and armament must mot cause us to forget that they are still too few in number – less than 40 – in order really to watch the vast expanses, especially in the Pacific where only about one‑fifth of the Soviet fleet’s sub­marine‑hunting nuclear attack submarines are concen­trated. Besides, they themselves are being tracked by a highly sophisticated ASW defense.

But the main weak point remains detection. Their very high sound level places them in a position of inferiority as compared to the very silent adversaries. Their electronic equipment is quite inferior to that of the American subma­rines and information from external sources is insufficient. Until recent years, most of the information came from spy ships, some of which are stationed permanently off the six American SSBN bases.

(These surveillance patrols were established very early, starting in 1961 for the east coast of the United States and 1963 for the west coast, 1964 for Rota – which is no longer an SSBN base today – and Guam, 1965 for Holy Loch; a patrol has been watching the missile tests at the Kwajalein range in the Marshall Islands.)

The establishment of fishing zones or economic zones considerably re­stricted their effectiveness by moving them 200 mi out. On the other hand, the Soviets do mot have any fixed listening networks – the listening devices that were snagged in Icelandic waters in 1970 or off the Brest roads by French fishing boats (a French journalist said on televi­sion, without cracking a smile, that they were used for the detection of earth tremors) had been dropped and picked up by spys hips – except off their coastlines, in the Barents Sea and off the Kuriles and their ocean surveillance satellites are still rather underdeveloped: The former were not opera­tional until 1974; five or six are placed in orbit each year; they usually work with electronic listening satellites that pick up the signals emitted by vessels in order to permit their identification. The total volume of data available to the Soviets thus certainly does mot enable them precisely to spot Western SSBN. During the 1980 budget debate, Rear Admiral John Grove, commander of the British fleet of missile‑firing submarines, said that no British Polaris sub­marine has ever been spotted by the Soviets. This is true – or at least highly probable – for submarines equipped with Polaris A3, which have a range of 4 600 km; it is even more true for the American submarines that carry the Poseidon (5 700 km range) and the Trident (7 200 km range).

The Soviets are working very hard to catch up in the field of detection. They naturally are concentrating their main effort on acoustic detection, the only really effective way as of now: David Mann, director of research for the U.S. Navy, said, during a statement that was censured in 1979 that “we expect that the Soviets will have improved their acoustic detectors and probably also their towed sonars. This progress will supply better technical means for repelling, tracking, and attacking submarines operating close to the USSR in a narrow area or passing the choke­points.” William Perry, his counterpart in the Defense De­partment, said in 1980 that the USSR is “in the initial phase of setting up new submarine detection systems which, starting with the 1990’s, could turn out to be very effective against our active nuclear submarines”, in other words, other than the Trident. But Perry added that “the deploy­ment, by the Americans, of the long‑range Trident I missile and the Trident submarine, which is very silent, would make up for the anticipated installation of the new ASW system” [26].

Much attention was also devoted to nonacoustic de­tection: “Judging by the studies they are publishing, the So­viets are interested in a broad range of nonacoustic phenom­ena produced by the passage of a submarine: Changes in the sea level; magnetic, electromagnetic, and gravitational anomalies; increases in radioactivity due to the neutrons which escape from a submarine’s reactor and, finally, the thermal effects of the wake of a submarine, the waves which it produces, and those which they have on the reflectivity of the ocean. Radars, IR detectors, detectors of magnetic anomalies and nuclear engines, gravity meters, supercon­ductors, and lasers are all capable of detecting at least one of these different phenomena; the lasers moreover have the ability to find a submarine by sending a beam against its hull. (We find it difficult to visualize a laser penetrating under water. Considering the current state of the art, such an idea is chimerical.) If the potential of any of these systems were to be employed in practice to assure reliable detection of submarines, the LSSR would have made great progress” [27]. But so far, the effectiveness of these nonacoustic processes has remained very poor – several hundred meters for mag­netic detec­tion – and, while one can never rule out a tech­nological breakthrough, there is nevertheless little prob­ability that the Soviets would be able to derive a decisive advantage in the next several years especially since they are substantially behind at this point in time.

Finally, the probability that the Soviets could de­stroy a significant portion of the Western strategic subma­rine force on station is practically zero. It would hardly grow in the near future with the commissioning of the Tri­dent which will multiply the SSBN patrol area by 10 or 15. In the opinion of James Mac Connell, the Soviet strate­gists seem to have become aware of this impossibility and have drawn the proper conclusions from this: “During the period of 1963‑1965, engaging the Polaris submarines was the primary mission or the first priority of the Soviet navy. Contrary to a widespread but unfounded impression, this was not a top priority thereafter. Between 1966 and 1967, although denied as a primary mission, countering the Po­laris submarines was considered to be very important. In 1968, however, it seems to have been downgraded to the category of important and Gorshkov even recently men­tioned it as a secondary task” [28]. The episode of the Kara seeking refuge in the Black Sea during the Yom Kippur War “sug­gests that the urgency of the strategic ASW action in an ad­vanced zone, as of the start of the war, could have been ex­aggerated. The anti‑Poseidon mission is not central in the forward deployments in peacetime and this mission can be postponed in case of nuclear war until a more favorable en­vironment has been created for its accomnlish­ment” [29]. Other authors feel on the contrary that it is always central in the missions of the Soviet fleet in spite of its growing difficulty: Harlan Ullman remarked that “what appears ineffective to the Westerners may have some chance of success according to Soviet criteria” [30]; and Michael Mac Gwire did not go back on his initial analyses: For him, deployment in the new zones of the Indian Ocean remains always motivated by the announcement of the deploy­ment of the Trident [31]; out of the three primary missions of the Soviet navy, two are strategic according to the last article by Gorshkov (strike and defense) [32] and he even goes so far as to write, concerning the Mediterranean, that “its importance in peacetime springs from its use as a deployment zone for Western strike systems aimed against Russia” [33]. Like Mac Cornell, but arriving at the opposite conclusion, he bases his arguments on Soviet writings.

Such a conflict of exegeses is not as irreducible as it seems. The scenario described by Mac Connell and Friedman does not imply the abandonment of the strategic ASW struggle; it simply envisages a tactic suitable for giv­ing it the best possible yield. The difference is thus a differ­ence of degree rather than nature: Mac Connell mini­mizes the importance of this mission whereas Mac Gwire overesti­mates it. The truth is probably somewhere in be­tween. The Soviets did not renounce it but it no longer has the same importance as before due to the diversification of navy mis­sions.

Why this perspective, whereas the effectiveness is becoming more and more doubtful? Two explanations are possible. The first one is the effect of imitation: The Soviets are not renouncing it because the Americans seem to them to be developing such a strategic ASW capacity with their detection net­works and their fast nuclear attack subma­rines. The second one has to do with the search for damage limitation: The destruction of even a minimum portion of the American SSBN would constitute less of an impact on Soviet territory. But here the Soviets do not see the re­doubtable opposite effect of their attitude – and the Ameri­cans apparently do not either: The threat level which they place on the American deterrent is insufficient to reduce it seriously; but it can turn out to be sufficient – especially due to the vulnerability of the communication systems – to cause the Americans to launch their submarine missiles without waiting. The objective of preventing the Westerners from turning their strategic ocean forces into a reserve thus could be attained only at the price of rising to extremes and that would be contrary to the Soviet desire for damage limi­tation. One cannot try to challenge the balance of deterrence without exposing oneself to the con­sequences.

[1] See Dimitri K. Simes, “Deterrence and coercion in Soviet policy”, International Security, winter 1980‑1981, pp. 89‑90. For a good example of diametrically opposite conclusions as to the acceptance, by the Soviets, of the logic of deterrence and parity, see Raymond L. Garthoff, “Mutual deterrence and strategic arms limitation in Soviet policy”, International Security, volume 3, n°1, 1978, pp 112‑147, and the response from Donald Brennan in this same volume, n°3, pp. [illegible in photostat] 198.

[2] All of the designations given below come from NATO since the Soviets give no indication of this kind. We only know the names of their capital ships which they furthermore have the habit of changing during their ocean­going cruises.

[3] See Norman Polmar, “Soviet nuclear submarines”, US Naval Institute Proceedings, July 1981, p. 97.

[4] John E. Moore, Warships of the Soviet navy, Jane’s, London, 1981, p. 15.

[5] According to The Military Balance 1982‑1983, pp. 9‑10, and Les flottes de combat, 1982, Jean Labayle‑Couhat, Editions maritimes et d’outre‑mer, Paris, 1982.

[6] See SIPRI Yearbook 1980, Taylor and Francis, London, 1980.

[7] International Institute of Strategic Studies, Situation stratégique mondiale 1979, Berger‑Levrault, Paris, 1980, p. 34.

[8] See Desmond Ball, “Can nuclear war be controlled?”, Adelphi Paper, No 169, 1981, p 45.

[9] Michael Mac Gwire, “Naval power and Soviet ocean policy”, in Soviet ocean development, US Government Printing Office, Washington, 1976, p. 179.

[10] Richard T. Ackley, “The wartime role of Soviet SSBN”, US Naval Institute Proceedings, June 1978, p. 35 ff.

[11] Carl H. Clawson, “The wartime role of Soviet SSBN, Round two”, US Naval Institute Proceedings, March 1980, pp. 64‑71.

[12] The ultimate purpose of this reserve remains disputed. James Mac Connell maintains that it constitutes a “fleet in being” intended to serve as an instrument of pressure in case of negotiations. Mac Gwire, more cautiously, thinks that the “SSBN units would continue to be kept in the rear in order to see how things shape up”. See also “Naval power and Soviet ocean policy”, article cited, p. 179.

[13] See Herve Coutau‑Begarie, La puissance maritime americaine [American Maritime Power], to be published.

[14] Ian Bellany, “Sea power and the Soviet submarine force”, Survival, Jan‑Feb 1982, p. 6.

[15] Richard Burt, “Reassessing the strategic balance”, International Security, volume 5, No 1, 1980, p 42. Michael Mac Gwire thinks, on the basis of a lifetime of 25 years, that the Soviets “could stabilize their force at the end of 1992 at 75 submarines carrying 1 200 missiles.” “The rationale for the development of Soviet sea power”, US Naval Institute Proceedings, May 1980, p. 179. But one cannot rule out the possibility that the life of the Yankee submarines might be extended, with new missiles, up to the end of the decade of the 1990’s.

[16] Strategic defense is also aimed at the destruction of American air­craft carriers that carry aircraft with nuclear weapons which could participate in a strategic strike against the USSR. Gorshkov underscored this in 1976. See also John G. Hibbits, “Admiral Gorshkov’s writings: Twenty years of naval thought”, in Paul J. Murphy (ed), Naval power in Soviet policy, US Goverament Printing Office, Washington, 1978, p. 7. But this aspect has become marginal because the missions of the aircraft carriers are now essentially tactical.

[17] Kosta Tsipis, “Tactical and strategic anti-submarine warfare”, SIPRI Monograph, 1974.

[18] See below, p. ???

[19] Les flottes de combat 1982 include six Echo I. The Military Balance 1982‑1983 still reports only five. The latter figure seems to be correct because we cannot see where a sixth one would come from. Les flottes de combat 1980 reported five Echo I.

[20] The retirement of the November vessels has already begun. According to Les flottes de combat 1982, two were retired since the preceding edition. There is apparently a mistake here because there were only 13 and 12 are now remaining.

[21] This point is disputed; Les flottes de combat 1982 (p. 680) on the contrary estimates that it is more silent than its predecessors.

[22] Situation stratégique mondiale 1981, p. 69.

[23] See Worth Bagley, "Sea power and Western security," Adelphi Papers, n° 139.

[24] Worth Bagley, “Sea power and Western security”, article cited.

[25] Norman Friedman, "US and Soviet in fleet design," in Paul J. Murphy (ed), Naval power in Soviet policy, op. cit., p. 209.

[26] Situation stratégique mondiale 1981, pp 70‑71.

[27] Situation stratégique mondiale 1981, p. 70.

[28] James Mac Connell, “Strategy and missions of the Soviet navy in the year 2000”, in James L. George (ed), Problems of sea power as we approach the 22lst century, American Enterprise Institute for Policy Research, New York, [illegible in Photostat], p. 48.

[29] James Mac Connell, “Strategy and missions of the Soviet navy in the year 2000”, article cited, p. 53.

[30] Harlan Ullman, “The counter Polaris task”, in Michael Mac-Gwire, Ken Booth and John Mac Donnell (eds), Soviet naval policy. Objectives and constraints, Praeger, New York, 1975, p. 596.

[31] Michael Mac Gwire, “The Soviet navy in the seventies”, in Michael Mac Gwire and John Mac Donnell, Soviet naval influence. Domestic and foreign dimensions, Praeger, New York, 1977, p. 640.

[32] Michael Mac Gwire, “Soviet naval doctrine”, Centre for Foreign Policy Studies, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1978, unpublished, p. 30.

[33] Michael Mac Gwire, “Soviet‑American naval arms control”, article cited, p. 24.



 Copyright - 2005 - Conception - Bertrand Degoy, Alain De Neve, Joseph Henrotin