Cold War Strategic ASW (caption)An Echo II missile submarine with four of her eight Shaddock missile canisters in the raised, lauch position.
by Norman Polmar and Kenneth J. Moore

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.1 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.2 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.

U.S. Submarines Keep Vigilant Watch on Soviet Strategic Missile Submarines

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.3 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.”4 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.

Photo caption follows
The nuclear-propelled icebreaker ROSSIYA, as completed, with weapons and military electronics. Nuclear icebreakers may have provided a link between Soviet communication nets and submerged submarines.

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.

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.5 “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.”6

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.”7 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.”8 Earlier Watkins had observed that the shallow, ice-covered waters of the Soviet coastal seas were “a beautiful place to hide” for Soviet SSBNs.9


Cover of Undersea Warfare Magazine Winter 2005