A Soviet Delta I SSBN
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,10 and that of a Project 675/Echo II SSGN
in the Pacific by SSNs.11
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
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.12 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
patrol and the trailing procedures. Significantly, the SSBN frequently
used her MGK-100 Kerch active sonar (NATO designation Blocks
of Wood).13This 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.14Batfish 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.15
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.16
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.
|(top) A Soviet Yankee SSBN transiting
on the surface. Yankees, designed for high speeds while submerged,
could reach 25 knots
(bottom) An Echo II sail with radio antenna raised at
the after end of the fairwater structure.
(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.)
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.17
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
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,
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.18
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
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
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.19 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.
Soviet SSBN force thus became an increasingly effective
strategic strike/deterrent weapon, especially when operating
in the sanctuaries or bastions.
(c) 2003 N. Polmar and K. J. Moore, Cold War Submarines (Dulles,
VA: Brassey’s - Potomac Books).
1) The first major studies of this subject to appear in public
were Donald C. Daniel, Anti-Submarine Warfare and Superpower Strategic
Stability (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), and Tom
Stefanick, Strategic Anti-Submarine Warfare and Naval Strategy (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1987).
2) The term SOSUS, believed to have been coined in 1952, was itself
classified until about 1967; the unclassified code name Caesar
was used as a cover name for production and installation of the
3) HF/DF - known as “huff-duff” -
sought to detect Soviet submarine-to-shore communication to determine
the location of submarines. The U.S. name for these facilities
was Wullenweber, the name as well as the equipment being copied
from the Germans; the Soviets had similar facilities to detect
U.S. naval forces. HF/DF of submarine communications was a major
factor in the Anglo-American victory over German U-boats in World
4) Riste, The Norwegian Intelligence Service, p. 147.
5) Confidential source A discussion with N. Polmar, Washington,
D.C., Aug. 22, 1997.
6) Ibid. Ames was a CIA counterintelligence officer who spied
for the Soviets and, after the fall of the USSR, for Russia. When
Ames was arrested in 1994, federal officials said that he had perpetrated
the most costly break of security in CIA history. During at least
nine years as a Soviet agent, he had revealed more than 100 covert
operations and betrayed more than 30 operatives spying for the
CIA and other Western Intelligence services.
7) Quoted in Melissa Healy, “Lehman: We’ll Sink Their
Subs,” Defense Week (May 13, 1985), p. 18. One of the first
meaningful public discussions of this subject was Capt. John L.
Byron, USN, “No Quarter for Their Boomers,” U.S. Naval
Institute Proceedings (April 1989), pp. 49-52.
8) Adm. James D. Watkins, “The Maritime Strategy,” supplement
to the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings (January 1986), p. 11.
9) George C. Wilson, “Navy Is Preparing for Submarine Warfare
beneath Coastal Ice,” The Washington Post (May 19, 1983),
10) From Commanding Officer USS Batfish (SSN-681), to Chief of Naval Operations (Op-095), Subj: Report
of Mission LS-26, March 2-May 17, 1978; May 17, 1978, ser LS-26-D-0006-T-78.
Also see Thomas B. Allen, “Run Silent, Run Deep,” Smithsonian
Magazine (March 2001), pp. 51-61.
11) From Commanding Officer USS Guardfish (SSN-612), to Commander
in Chief U.S. Pacific Fleet, Subj: Trail of Echo II nuclear submarine
(Case Papa 07) during the period May 12-June 6, 1972; June 10,
1972, ser 00015-72.
12) USS Batfish report, Enclosure (1) “Abstract,” p.
13) The active sonar was used every one
to three hours through the Yankee’s transit to patrol area and while in the alert
area; there was one three-day period when the sonar was not intercepted
after the Yankee began the home transit; USS Batfish, Enclosure
(1) “Abstract,” p. 7. The NATO term is derived from
the “ping” of the active sonar, said to sound like
the sharp clapping together of two blocks of wood.
14) Such baffle-clearing maneuvers at
high speeds, sometimes involving a rapid descent to a deeper
depth, are referred to as “crazy
Ivan turns” by U.S. submarines.
15) Rear Adm. Thomas Evans, USN (Ret.), discussion with N. Polmar,
Washington, D.C., Jan. 26, 2001.
16) See, for example, Milan Vego, Soviet Naval Tactics (Annapolis,
Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1992), pp. 163-164, and B. N. Makeyev,
Voyenno-morskiye aspekty national bezopasnosti (Naval Aspects of
National Security) (Moscow: Nonproliferation and Critical Technologies
Committee, 1997), pp.63-67.
17) As part of the U.S. Navy’s
SSBN security program, the Anti-Launch phase Ballistic missile
Intercept System (ALBIS) project culminated with the live firing
of a Terrier surface-to-air missile against a submerged-launched
Polaris A-2, reflecting a belief that the Soviets could employ
a tactic. The attempted Polaris intercept failed.
18) One of the few discussions of these
activities is N. Polmar and Raymond Robinson, “The Soviet Non-naval Force Multiplier,” U.S.
Naval Institute Proceedings (December 1987), pp. 66-69. The large
nuclear icebreakers Arktika and Rossiya were armed on their trials;
the KGB Border Guard icebreakers were armed and other naval icebreakers
had provisions for weapons and naval electronics.
19) The first 39 submarines of the subsequent Los Angeles (SSN-688)-class
were not configured for under-ice operations.