In an informal interview with newsmen on 19 May 1983, Admiral James D. Watkins publically articulated for the first time the U.S. Navy’s strong new interest in the strategic opportunity and threat posed by U.S. and Soviet submarine operations under the Arctic Ocean ice. In a carefully worded but frank discussion he acknowledged that the Navy is “putting increased emphasis” on under ice operations to counter the “strong interest” of the Soviets in having their submarines there.
The CNO’s significant comments may signal a shift in the focus of both U.S. and Soviet naval strategy to the Arctic Ocean which like a frozen Mediterranean separates the East from the West at the top of the world. The naval power that can control the depths beneath the ice cover of this central northern ocean will establish a dominant strategic position that can count heavily in both deterring war and terminating it on favorable terms if it begins. It is unfortunate that the traditional naval mercator perspective of the world and possibly a misreading of Soviet naval strategy linked with other organizational factors prevented us from using the foundation of our pioneering nuclear submarine under ice operations to secure the Arctic Ocean in the 1960’s. Now we are apparently engaged in a scrambling technical and tactical developmental race with the Soviets to fill an Arctic naval strategic vacuum. The winner will have gained leverage that will be virtually impossible for the loser to offset at
any cost in other maritime areas. Oil not withstanding, it could be plausibly argued that
naval control of the Arctic Ocean is worth more than control of the Indian Ocean with the South Atlantic and South Pacific thrown in.
First, let’s look at what the Arctic means to the Soviets. The technological transformation by nuclear power of the Arctic icecap from a barrier to a potential access route has made Russia more vulnerable than at any time in its history. Both Tsarist and Soviet security policy has been directed to building a buffer around the Russian homeland. This buffer policy has been successful. The approaches to the Great Russian economic, political, and emotional core of the Soviet Union are blocked by satellite states, distance and maritime chokepoints. A single unbuffered exception is the 8, 000 mile long Soviet Arctic maritime frontier. In April, the edge of the Marginal Sea Ice Zone of the Arctic Ocean is less than 300 miles from the Kola Peninsula. Many of the things the Soviets value most are directly exposed to submarine seapower projected from the Arctic.
During the past 10 years, a Soviet naval strategy has emerged that is keyed to the protection of its SSBN force in homewater ocean bastions near and under the ice; which Admiral Watkins notes is “a beautiful place to hide.” Soviet Navy general purpose forces have two interlocking primary missions. One is to ensure the survivability and flexible readiness of their SSN force to launch nuclear strikes; the other is to defend the Soviet homeland from attack from the sea. Both of these compatible missions require Soviet sea control of a sizeable portion ofthe Arctic Ocean. In any case, about twothirds of the Soviet Navy general purpose forces and perhaps eventually all of its SSBNs will operate in peacetime and fight in wartime near or under the Arctic ice.
In an interesting aside, Admiral Watkins by saying “…if there are forces up in that area of the world, we’d better know how to fight them,” seems to have made reference to strategic ASW.
Such words also seem to put to bed the naive idea that holding the Soviet SSBN force at risk is destabilizing. Indeed a credibile U.S. wartime capability to attrit Soviet SSBN’s could be a convincing deterrent to war.
The implications of a possible Soviet shift of Soviet SSBN forward patrol areas to the deep Laurentian basin on the Canadian side of the North Pole must be considered. The unusually highmissile deck freeboard of the TYPHOON class SSBN may indicate that it can surface through the ice and immediately send as many as 420 nuclear warheads on express routes into the SAC bases and missile fields of the interior of the United States — without a pause to clear blocks of ice from its missile tube doors. SLBM’s launched from forward Arctic patrol areas would give as little or less warning as those launched from the current exposed YANKEE patrol areas off the U.S. coasts. The use of forward polar basin patrol areas would end the requirement for YANKEE open ocean transits and make them available to strike theater targets from protected Soviet homewaters. Additionally, if the Soviets wished to off-set NATO deployment of Pershing II missiles to Europe, the Soviet use of polar basin patrol areas, with their shortened missile arcs into the North American “heartland,” would be much less provocative than Soviet placement of missiles in Cuba.
Control of the Arctic Ocean, on the other hand, may mean more to the United States than it would to the Soviet Union. It would firmly anchor a forward naval strategy on NATO’s Northern Flank. And, in addition to denying havens and patrol areas to Soviet SSBNs there are other advantages that would accrue to the U.S. from Arctic naval dominance.
Access to the Soviet Homeland
The polar ice offers a direct, covered submarine route to the Soviet homeland. Ballistic
and cruise missile arcs to the vitals of the USSR are short from the Arctic Ocean. The advantages of a seabased power presence directly adjacent to the Soviet Union as a politically and militarily more flexible adjunct to our NATO land presence is apparent.
Neutralization of the Soviet Northern Fleet
Two-thirds of the Soviet Navy’s offensive power is concentrated in the Soviet Northern Fleet and in wartime would be held close to the Soviet Supreme High Command’s vest in northern homewaters. This “fleet in being” made up of SSBNs and supporting general purpose forces is vulnerable to U.S. Navy SSNs, some of which could use polar approach routes to the Northern Fleet operating area. Early and vigorous attrition of the Soviet Northern Fleet would: (1) downgrade it as a factor in war termination negotiations, (2) limit damage to the United States and its allies in the event of escalation to nuclear war, and ( 3) open the way for the projection of the full range of naval power, including the use of Carrier Battle Groups, against the Soviet Union-at a juncture in a war when it would be most
Forcing the Soviet Northern Fleet to cover the edge of the polar ice in the Barents Sea would extend its defensive perimeter and exacerbate its force allocation problems, particularly for modern SSNs. This, in turn, would ease NATO penetration through the Greenland-Iceland-Norway gap.
Pressure from the Arctic on the flank of the Soviet Northern Fleet and its Kola bases would deter or help check any Soviet offensive into northern Norway. If NATO can remain solidly anchored in Norway the security of Iceland, the keystone of our North Atlantic naval strategy, will be virtually assured. Arctic naval pressure would also divert Soviet submarines from an antiSLOC mission whose importance may be increasing once again with apparent Soviet preparations for a protracted, all- onventional war option.
In summary, U.S. naval dominance of the Arctic is a solid foundation for operations that can lock the Soviet Northern Fleet into a defensive posture, neutralize it, and eventually unravel and destroy it as an effective fighting force.
Perhaps the biggest oriented U.S. submarine payoff of an Arctic offensive against the Soviet Navy would be psychological. An immediate submarine counterforce campaign against the most
important element of Soviet seapower the Northern Fleet — in its own homewaters would have
an excellent chance of highly visible success. This could have a potent effect on a Soviet Navy
that has neither a tradition of victory nor a position of leadership in the military hierarchy.
In a sense, under-ice operations will serve as a force multiplier for the U.S. submarine force. Soviet diesel submarines make up a significant percentage of their combat power and can be a formidable adversary, particularly in their homewaters. Their newer boats have demonstrated impressive endurance on battery power. But their ultimate dependence upon the atmosphere for propulsion prevents them from operating in the polar basins and much of the Arctic coastal waters most of the year. This causes a welcome reduction in Soviet submarine players under the ice, although diesel submarines might remain a lethal factor in ice-edge ambush positions.
As another bonus, under-ice operational capability is a useful hedge against any unexpected Soviet technical breakthrough in nonacoustic detection of submarines. Most nonacoustic submarine signatures are blocked or attenuated by ice. If some hypothetical nonacoustic sensor made the oceans transparent, the ice would probably still remain sufficiently opaque to conceal submarines.
In spite of the pioneering under-ice voyages of NAUTILUS, SKATE, SEADRAGON, and perhaps most of the 637 class; much of the existing base of u.s Naval technology may be inappropriate for warfare
in the Arctic. Current U.S. submarines and their weapons and sensors were designed for deep water
open ocean operations with little if any attention to under-ice capability. Some technological areas
where there are serious shortfalls as well as promising opportunities are described below.
The under-ice effectiveness of submarine weapons designed for open ocean use is highly suspect. The ombination of ice cover and shallow water, often encountered in the Arctic, is a most difficult environment for acoustic homing torpedoes. u.s. ability to fight under the ice now hinges almost entirely on how well the MK48 torpedo works in the that demanding environment. Any attempt to execute an Arctic submarine strategy without a reliable under-ice torpedo is a waste of time and lives.
Now more than ever the outcome of encounters between submarines is driven by weapon
effectiveness. Torpedo launch is a rare event that culminates hundreds of hours of search and
usually many hours of tracking. Submarine vs. submarine combats are, in Admiral Gorshkov’s
words, a “battle of the first salvo.” When a u.s. submarine launches a torpedo its initial
significant acoustic advantage over a Soviet adversary dissolves, it is then subject to an
immediate snap-shot counterattack from a fully alerted Soviet submarine. The exchange ratio in
Arctic submarine vs. submarine torpedo combat is thus likely to be much lower than is presently
estimated. The premium placed on the relative quietness and superior long range passive sonar
detection of u.s. attack submarines is considerably lessened in Arctic waters. In situations where long range detections usually lead to short range attacks, exchange ratios may approximate those of the AIMVAL/ACEVAL air combat exercises. Kill ratios in these exercises were much less than anticipated for the more sophisticated platform with their superior detection capability. If extensive under-ice
tests reveal that the MK48 is not highly effective, a program should be initiated at once
to develop a suitable Arctic torpedo. It may be necessary to sacrifice guidance sophistication
The current vertical launching system (VLS) program to put TOMAHAWK launchers in the 688 class
will significantly increase SSN Arctic firepower. But larger missile/torpedo tubes than the 21-inch
variety are indicated for future submarines. A good big missile/torpedo is better than a good
little missile/torpedo. The Soviets understand this truism and we should too.
Arctic Mine Warfare
Under-ice mine warfare is a little explored topic. The prevailing mismatch between minelayer and minesweeper is nowhere greater than in the Arctic. currently there is no technique to deal with mines planted under the ice. There, they remain a menace until they either claim a victim or wear out. The mining of Soviet SSBN under-ice patrol areas and transit routes is a high-leverage ASW option. It depends, however, upon the development of suitable Arctic mines and mining techniques. CAPTOR with its MK 46 payload may not be very satisfactory in this environment.
As Admiral Watkins observed, the Arctic is na whole new ball game.n There are two quite different acoustic regimes in the Arctic. Ambient noise is low in the deep polar basins — partly because of the absence of shipping. Acoustic propagation is excellent, particularly at the very low frequencies associated with submarine blade rate tonals. In contrast, the Marginal Sea Ice Zone has a high ·ambient noise level caused by ice breakup and movement and, in some areas, it has the propagation problems inherent to shallow waters. There also may be unusual temperature and salinity gradients in Arctic waters because of the layer of ice at the surface.
Hard-wired acoustic surveillance systems may be impractical to place and maintain in the grinding
ice environment. However, concepts for self-contained line and three-dimensional arrays
that may be air dropped for self-penetration through the ice or planted by submarines are
promising. Such arrays could be radio linked via satellite or through high altitude unmanned
vehicle systems. It would take only a relatively few arrays to maintain adequate surveillance of
the quiet, deep polar basins. In the sea-ice zone, the use of surface ship towed arrays to look under the edge of the ice may be useful.
Submarines lying motionless in narrow leads of open water between rough, hummocky Arctic ice are
difficult targets to detect acoustically, visually, or by radar. This phenomena should be investigated from both the ASW and pro-submarine perspective.
Submarine communications have always been difficult in the trying physical and electromagnetic
environment of the Arctic. Long range communications with our submarines in the Arctic
are a requirement. Some techniques, such as the use of a trailing-wire antenna, may not be
practical for a submarine submerged beneath the ice. Interestingly, the pre-Cambrian granite
most suitable for extremely-low-frequency (ELF) antenna fields underlies most of the Soviet
Union, Canada, Norway, and Alaska surrounding the Arctic Ocean. Relatively small and highly
survivable ELF transmission systems for low data rate communications to deeply submerged
submarines in the Arctic could be quickly and cheaply constructed on the shores of the Arctic
Submarine Detection of Aircraft
Submarines surfaced in the Arctic ice should passively detect non-emitting Soviet aircraft at longer ranges than the submarine can be counterdetected by the aircraft. Acoustics in air may be one approach to winning this passive sensor duel, along with the reduction of relevant submarine signatures. An encapsulated, leavebehind anti-aircraft missile such as the developmental SIAM (self-initiated anti-aircraft missile) might be useful for a submarine submerging in a polynya under aircraft pressure.
All first-line SSNs must be ice-hardened for Arctic operations. The desirability of designing a capability into SSBNs for surfacing through the ice for an immediate launch of missiles needs to be evaluated.
The U.S. submarine force tactics which are well suited for a deep water, open ocean scenario might
be less usable in the Arctic. The time has come for a rigorous series of new Big Daddy type exercises benchmarked to under-ice operations and shallow sea-ice waters and should include the
penetration of barriers comprised of several diesel submarines operating together. Naval
domination of the ice covered reaches of the Arctic Ocean would give a very significant
strategic advantage to either the United States or the Soviet Union. An unhindered use of the Arctic
polar basins by one Navy would also dangerously affect the strategic balance. Conversely, the
Arctic provides a new axis for the leveraged projection of U.S. seapower against the Soviet
Navy and other elements of national power that are valued highly by the Soviets. A u.s. Navy Arctic
offensive strategy is a practical option that needs to be set in place.