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Since Admiral Sergei Gorshkov’s appointment as Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Nayy in 1956, the development of the Soviet submarine fleet has enjoyed the highest priority among the Soviet naval programs. Today, the USSR has an impressive fleet of nuclear and diesel-powered ballistic missile, as well as nuclear and diesel attack submarines.

The purpose of this article is to examine Gorshkov’s views on the submarine, to relate the chief events in submarine construction, and to note those major submarine operations that regularly occur on the high seas. The article concludes with a discussion of this fleet’s implications to the West. It is hoped that this will provide a base for further discussion concerning the Soviet submarine threat in subsequent issues of this journal.


Gorshkov’ s writings are  a  clearing house  for Soviet naval views and positions. Since they embody naval perceptions concerning the need for a strong Soviet Navy, they are an indispensible part of a total understanding of Soviet submarine development.

Gorshkov’ s views are most completely developed in his eleven-part series of articles entitled “Navies in War and Peace,” and in his book, ·Sea Power  of  The    State.1 In   them, he  maintains   that the    navy    fulfills two  missions: fighting naval engagements, and  participating  in anti-shore operations. He views naval engagements or “ship against ship” as the least important, saying that these rarely were of strategic value in history. Concerning operations against the shore, Gorshkov says that these date back hundreds of years in naval history. Due to technological advances, these became more important in the twentieth century, and included amphibious operations, shore bombardment, and then carrier strike operations against land targets. However, Gorshkov believes that a crucial turning point was reached when nuclear technology was applied to naval missiles and     propulsion.   The    result  was the nuclear powered ballistic missile-equipped submarine (SSBN), which projected the navy into the preeminent position among the several branches of the Soviet Armed Forces. Vastly increasing the strike capability of the navy, this technology has made anti-shore operations the primary mission of the service.2

Gorshkov goes even further. He asserts that the navy possesses weapons with such long ranges that it is now capable of conducting operations that can have devastating impact on the operations in the land theater and the development of Soviet strategic submarines has the highest priority in naval thinking.

Gorshkov’s    preoccupation  is  not limited to ballistic missile submarines, however,  but includes attack submarines as well. His observations of German submarine operations in World ·Wars I and II confirm this. He says that German submarine operations against Great Britain had a great effect on the courses of these wars, that Allied naval losses required great expenditures on new ship construction and antisubmarine warfare forces and that German submarine warfare finally failed because the submarines were not adequately supported and protected by surface combatants. In spite of this failure he recognizes that submarine warfare inflicted impressive casualties on allied shipping. Secondly. Gorshkov notes that, given the vast expenditures that the Allies made on ASW and the great numbers or men and amounts of equipment that the Allies devoted to ASW, their results were meager. He concludes that, in World War II, “of all of Germany’s naval arms, the U-boat fleet alone continued to pose a threat of serious dimensions, and the underseas war’ ended only arter German territory was occupied by the Allied armies.”

Thus in Gorshkov’ s writings, no weapon system receives as much praise as the submarine, the so-called “main striking arm” of today’s navy.


In naval construction, the submarine has received paramount emphasis. Since the submarine is integrally tied to the strategic defense of the USSR, it has dominated Soviet naval construction. This emphasis has been so great that it appears that decisions on whether to begin classes of air capable ships, surface combatants and amphibious  ships has rested on whether ongoing submarine construction was sufficient to meet national defense requirements. The following brief summary of Soviet submarine construction since 1956 reflects this emphasis.

Ballistic Missile-equipped Submarines

Soviet ballistic missile submarine development began with the ZULU class diesel powered ballistic missile submarine (SSB). Six ZULU hulls were completed as or converted to SSBs, but all but one have reverted to attack submarine status. 4 The ZULU V was armed with two SS-N-4 SARK missiles, making them the first submarines in the world to carry ballistic missiles. The limited 350 nautical mile missile range and the fact that the ZULU had to surface to fire its missiles, reduced the strategic threat that ZULU posed. The GOLF-class SSB and HOTEL-class SSBN which succeeded ZULU provided operational improvements. The early units of both classes carried the SS-N-4 SARK, which had to be fired on the surface. However, several GOLFs and HOTELs were modified to carry the SS-N-5 SERB, which could be launched while the submarine was submerged. These made the GOLF and HOTEL less detectable, thereby enhancing the threats that they posed.

The appearance of YANKEE in 1968 was a dramatic improvement in the Soviet SSBN fleet. YANKEE was initially equipped with sixteen SS-N-6 missiles, which had a range of 1300 nautical miles (nm) Subsequent missile variants increased this range to 1600 nm. YANKEE patrols began in the Atlantic off the u.s. east coast in 1969, and off the u.s. Pacific coast in 1971. These patrols significantly increased the Soviet SSBN threat against the United States.

The   DELTA-class    SSBN,  which   appeared  in 1971, further enhanced the SSBN threat. Armed with twelve SS-N-8 ballistic missiles with a range of 4300 nm, the DELTA I could launch missiles against the U.S. east coast while remaining in Northern Fleet waters. Fr011 the Pacific, the DELTA needed to voyage only a few hundred miles eastward from its home base at Petropavlovsk to be in range of the U.S. west coast. Such range vastly enhanced the invulnerability of DELTA, with a concomitant increase in the threat it posed. DELTA II, which carries sixteen SS-N-Bs, and DELTA III, which carries the MIRV capable ss-N-18, represent further enhancements.

Finally, the latest class of SSBN is the TYPHOON, which was launched in 1980. This new 25,000 ton submarine carries twenty SS-X-20s, a MIRY-capable missile with a range of 5000 nm.

This dramatic progression in Soviet SSBN · development has insured the strategic defense of the USSR and has established Soviet strategic parity  with  Western  SSBN  develoments. Ongoing  controversies center on several issues. One pertains to submarine positioning and employment . . .  whether the Soviet SSBNs would be used in a Soviet first strike or whether they would be held in reserve to be used in a third strike. A second controversy considers the Soviet MIRV capability and characteristics, strengths and vulnerabilities of DELTA and TYPHOON to determine if and how much of a superiority the Soviets have in the SSBN field . One thing is certain. The Soviet SSBN program has been hallmarked by remarkable progress which has negated the traditional U.S. superiority in this area.

Cruise Missile-equipped  Submarines

Developments in the cruise missile (SSG/SSGN) program have been equally impressive. The first units were the ECHO SSGN and the JULIETT SSG. Sixteen JULIETTs were built in the early 1960s, each were equipped with three SS-N-3 SHADDOCK surface launched missiles. The five ECHO Is were also armed with the SS-N-3, each unit carrying six missiles. The necessity of surfacing in order to fire increased their vulnerability, with a resultant decrease in the threat that they posed. The ECHO II was an improvement. Each was armed with eight SS-N-3s and, for years, was considered the primary anticarrier threat.

The  CHARLIE-class  SSGN was  a significantimprovement. The CHARLIE I, which became operational in 1968, carries eight SS-N-7 missiles that can be fired while CHARLIE is submerged. The improved CHARLIE II may carry the SS-N-9, with a nm range, double that of the ss-N-7. CHARLIE’s capability of firing missiles while submerged, drastically increased the Soviet ACW threat, and CHARLIE is still one the the greatest threats to US carrier operations. A succeeding class, the PAPA SSGN, never went into series production.

The most recent addition  to the Soviet  SSGN inventory is the OSCAR. The initial unit was launched in 1980. At 12-14,000 tons, OSCAR is the largest general purpose submarine in the world. With an armament that includes 24 SS-N-19 missiles (having an estimated range of 250 nm), and torpedoes, it poses a formidable threat. A controversy exists as to OSCAR’s mission, but the best estimate comes from Captain William Rube, u.s. Navy (Retired), who sees OSCAR as an anticarrier weapon system. Over twice the size of CHARLIE, OSCAR probably relegates CHARLIE to anti-convoy operations.5

In summary, the Soviet SSBN fleet has been complimented with an impressive fleet or SSGNs. Today, these SSGNs pose a potent threat against u.s. attack  aircraft  carriers  and convoy operations. As such, they are an important factor in the US-Soviet balance of power equation.

Attack Submarines

Captain Rube is correct in his observation that the term “SSGN” is a misnomer, since today’s attack submarines also have impressive missile arsenals.6 In the context of this blurred distinction, the Soviets have made impressive progress in their attack submarine construction program. This began with several diesel powered classes, the most notable being WHISKEY, ZULU and FOXTROT. WHISKEY relied heavily on German design concepts, and 235 of these units were built. 26 ZULUs were built from 1952 to 1955. ZULU had a longer range and more torpedo tubes than WHISKEY, and therefore was capable of more significant operations. However, a very significant advance was made in FOXTROT. Introduced in the late 1950s, FOXTROT was a very popular fleet attack submarine. For years, FOXTROT has been the mainstay of the Mediterranean Fleet submarine force, and has also been deployed to the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

Whereas some FOXTROTs continue to deploy regularly to the open seas, WHISKEYs and ZULUs are now used less frequently for naval missions other than training. (Some exceptions immediatety come to mind, the most notable being the WHISKEY which ran aground in Swedish waters in 1981, creating an international incident and severely damaging an ongoing Soviet peace initiative in Europe). Continued Soviet interest in diesel powered attack submarines was evident when TANGO beca~~e operational in 1973. Several units have been constructed. TANGOs deploy regularly to the Mediterranean Sea, and a TANGO was included in the latest combatant deployment to the Caribbean, which began in November 1982.

Turning to nuclear powered attack  submarines (SSNs), the Soviets have  five  classes: ECHO, VICTOR, NOVEMBER, ALFA and YANKEE. ECHO is a conversion from the ECHO I SSGN and deploys periodically for operations on the high seas. (An ECHO SSN had an internal accident off Okinawa in August 1980, in which several of the orew were killed or injured). Similarly, the YANKEE SSN is a conversion of the YANKEE SSBN, converted because the continued construction of DELTAs required YANKEE conversions in order to conform to the provisions of SALT I.

The NOVEMBER SSN, the first Soviet nuclear powered submarine, became operational in 1959. The most famous is the NOVEMBER which sank in the eastern Atlantic  in April  1970. TheVICTOR SSN appeared in 1967. Armed with torpedos and possibly ASW missiles, VICTOR was a significant improvement over NOVEMBER. Follow-ons, including VICTOR II, established VICTOR as the mainstay of the SSN fleet in the 1970s.

The   appearance  of  ALFA, the latest  in Soviet SSN design, has had great significance. With a non-magnetic titanium alloy hull which mkes it difficult to detect, and a maximum speed of over 40 knots which makes it difficult to destroy, ALFA  is a very crictical threat. Controversy exists concerning ALFA’ s purpose, but protection of Soviet SSBNs appears to be the most plausible.

In summary, Soviet naval construction has conformed to the pro-submarine emphasis found in Gorshkov’s writings. To be sure, Soviet submarines are not without their liabilities. Crew        habitability,   for example,  is  low. Nonetheless, one marvels at  Soviet progress. Since 1956, they    have   neutralized  the  US strategic advantage  by building  an opposing  SSBN  force of about 70 units and have constructed attack submarine fleets which pose serious threats to US aircraft carrier and shipping operations. It remains to explain how these submarines have been used.


The   Soviet Navy’s  use of  its  submarine   fleet has been innovative and efficient. The result has been a continually increasing submarine threat to U.S. operations in most of the world’s major ocean areas.7

Ballistic Missile Submarine  Operations

With the appearance of YANKEE, the Soviets posed a critical SSBN threat against the US and NATO. Patrols along the US east coast began in 1969, and eventually reached a level of three submarines constantly on station. West coast patrols began in 1971, and a two submarine patrol was eventually established. Both the Atlantic and Pacific patrols insured missile coverage of US bases in Alaska and Hawaii and coverage or almost all of the continental United States. This threat was enhanced with DELTA, which can launch its missiles from local Soviet Northern Fleet and Pacific Fleet waters and hit its US targets. The fact that inch for inch, the Northern Fleet is in perhaps the most heavily defended area on the earth today, makes locating and destroying DELTAs in wartime potentially a very costly endeavor. The benefits of all this to Soviet security are obvious.

This strategic threat is supplemented by Soviet submarine operations in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, and the Caribbean and Mediterranean Seas.

Atlantic  Ocean  Operations

Excluding SSBN operations, Soviet submarines spent 2600 ship days in the Atlantic Ocean in 1982, for an average daily presence of ten submarines. These figures reflect a critical threat to Allied supply lines across the North Atlantic. We can be sure that these submarines will be governed by a sound naval strategy. The references to the Gorstikov theory presented earlier in this article demonstrate the Admiral’s impressive analysis of German submarine warfare in World Wars I and II. (Interestingly, this point is supported by Sir John Hackett in his book The Third World War: August 1985. Rumor has it that the Hackett team’s assessment was that the Allies would lose World War III. Hackett’s publisher informed him that his conclusion would be psychologically and commercially disastrous. The team then attempted to determine the most likely Dlistake that the Soviets would make if they were to lose the war. They concluded that this error would probably be a failure to follow Gorshkov’ s strategy. Thus, in Hackett’s scenario, Gorshkov has died, his strategy has been ignored, Soviet submarines have not been properly protected, U.S. forces reach Europe, the NATO front is reinforced, the Soviet advance is halted, and the Soviet bloc collapses. Barring such an unlikely spot of good luck, NATO should expect a major disruption of u.s. supply lines should a war occur in Europe.)

West  Africa

In 1982, Soviet attack submarines spent approximately 300 ship days off West Africa, for an average daily presence of almost one submarine. These units augment the surface combatant sea power in the area. In crisis periods similar to the Angolan Civil War, this submarine level would probably increase as the Soviets increase their naval force level.

Caribbean Sea

In 1982, a TANGO attack submarine participated in the twenty-second deployment of combatants to Cuba. This is the latest incident in a Soviet attempt to deploy the widest variety or submarines to the Caribbean. In the past, they have sent NOVEMBERs, ECHOs, FOXTROTs, a TANGO and a GOLF II SSB, a ballistic missile platform which took part in two deployments, in 1972 and 1974.

In conjunction with these operations, the Soviets have demonstrated an interest in Cienfuegos, Cuba, possibly for use as a submarine base. They have assisted in upgrading the facilities , which are now used to support Cuban FOXTROTs. As Soviet interest increases concerning insurgency in Central America, the USSR may decide to establish continuing presence in the region.

The  Mediterranean Sea

The  Soviets     first     standing    submarine  force  on the high seas  was established in the Mediterranean in 1958. Staging from Valona, Albania, the force of approximately twelve submarines operated in the region until 1961, when denial of the Albanian facilities forced an end to this activity.

However,   operations     recommenced in     1964   and continue through today. From 1967 until April 1976, the Soviets. used Alexand~ia to support their Mediterranean Fleet and used El Gabbiri shipyard for submarine repair. Similar repair activity has occurred in Tivat, Yugoslavia since 1975,   and   in   Menzel-Bourguiba, Tunisia  since1978. Syrian  ports  have  also  been  used  since 1967.

In 1982, Soviet submarines spent 2600 days in the Mediterranean, for an average daily presence or seven units. Most of these submarines are FOXTROT and TANGO diesel powered boats, but at least one cruise missile submarine (usually a CHARLIE) and often a VICTOR SSN are deployed. This force poses a potent threat to the u.s. Sixth Fleet, since it exercises regularly in anticarrier warfare and is quite proficient. In crisis periods, such as the October 1973 War, the force will be bolstered, and as the oldest standing Soviet submarine force on the high seas, it is extremely relevant politically. It stands ready to challenge NATO and Israel and to support Soviet policy in the Middle East, and as the events or October 1973 demonstrated, we cannot afford to ignore this threat to our military and political initiatives in the region.

The  Pacific  Ocean

In addition to the Pacific Fleet’s SSBN force, that fleet has an impressive number of attack submarines. The total force or 127 boats is second in size to the 188-boa t Northern Fleet, based on 1981 figures. The Pacific Fleet submarine force is proficient in defense of the homeland operations and exercises regularly. It has the ability to disrupt the sea lanes leading to Japan, Korea, and the People’s Republic of China.

As a result of their support to Vietnam in the Sino-Vietnamese War or 1979, the USSR acquired access to Vietnamese ports. Operating out of Cam Ranh Bay and Da Nang, the Soviets have a standing submarine force in Southeast Asia. Most of the 2200 ship days that Soviet attack and cruise missile submarines spent on the high seas in the Pacific  in 1982 were spent in or near these Vietnamese porta. This amounts to an average daily presence of over five submarines, including an average or two cruise missile submarines. This amounts to a major threat to the balance or power in the region, Since it means the introduction or significant naval power in an area where the United States has enjoyed naval superiority. It also means that the Soviets can now react much more rapidly to crises in the Indian Ocean, since they can now sortie from Vietnam, whereas before 1979, all reacting naval forces sortied from Vladivostok, which seriously delayed their responses. In light of these factors, it is reasonable to conclude that this Soviet force is a major political and military factor in Southeast Asian affair and will play an even more significant role in coming decades.

The  Indian  Ocean

In 1982, an average of two attack submarines were deployed daily tn the Indian Ocean. This is a moderate presence, which augments the surface forces deployed to the region. Acceas to the facilities at Kahlak Island is adequate to support a larger force, should the Soviets choose to bolster their naval presence.


Defense  of  the  Soviet Union is  a consistent theme of Gorshkov’s writings. The Admiral comments repeatedly on U.S. naval power and views NATO as a maritime alliance in which the u.s. Navy is the key force. He is certainly correct in this assessment. The United States is a first rate maritime power, which bas used its naval strength repeatedly tor defense and foreign policy purposes . Furthermore , it the USSR hoped insure its stategic defense and actively support so-called “progressive forces” in the Third World, then it had to find a means of reducing the u.s. naval advantage. It found this means in its submarine program, which has provided both strategic security and a certain tactical advantage.

From the above discussion, it is reasonable to conclude that, guided by the strategy of Sergei Gorshkov, the Soviets have built a potent fleet of ballistic missile, cruise missile and attack submarines. This fleet operates constantly on the high seas and provides the USSR with several advantages.

Concerning strategic security, although the Soviets have not been successful in blunting the u.s. SSBN threat through their antisubmarine warfare program, they have built an impressive SSBN fleet which neutralizes this U.s. advantage. This effort has been so successful that we can no longer employ strategic escalation, as we did in October 1973, to achieve our foreign policy goals. We must realize that IIBintaining this parity is the highest Soviet naval construction priority. It will therefore be very costly and difficult, if not impossible, to regain our previous advantage in the SSBN field. Thus, containing and countering the Soviet SSBN force is a far more realizable goal than attempting to achieve a decisive u.s. superiority in SSBNs.

Cruise missile submarines are a critical threat to u.s. attack aircraft carrier operations. This is most true in the Mediterranean where Soviet SSGNs are targeted against the U.S. Sixth Fleet. Countering this Soviet capability is a continuing problem for the u.s. Navy.

Finally, the Soviet attack submarine is a critical threat to u.s. surface combatants and merchant ships. Whether the Soviets can interdict u.s. convoys to Europe in wartime is hotly disputed and is contingent upon the type of scenario, the length of the war, and other factors. One thing is certain: the Soviet submarine threat is such that the United States is not certain that it can insure SLOC security through the North Atlantic in wartime. The political effect of this predicament on NATO is obvious.

Inversely, while this fleet is impressive, it suffers from some significant weaknesses . or these, systemic liabilities, geography, and susceptibility to U.S. capabilities are the most noteworthy.

Concerning systemic design problems, the Soviets have some serious deficiencies. Noise control has been a chronic problem and Soviet efforts to reduce the noise levels in their submarines have often been unsatisfactory. The result, noisy submarines which are more easily detectable, is a significant weakness. Other design problems include insufficient radiation shielding on some units and reliability. Concerning reliability, the Soviets have a tradition of building systems that are less complex than U.S. naval systems, but systems that are highly reliable. Nonetheless, the Soviets have experienced many submarine mishaps on the high seas, and these must have caused some misgivings concerning system reliability. Among the effects of this possible loss of confidence may be the perceived requirement for submarine access to overseas bases.

Geography is also a significant problem. The exits from the Northern and Baltic Fleet areas are restricted, making submarine detection a problem. To make matters worse, the Hontreux Convention prohibits staging submarines from the Black Sea, so there is no staging area between the Baltic Sea and the Pacific Fleet bases. The Soviets have alleviated this problem by acquiring access to several foreign ports to support their submarine operations. But this has not been an ideal solution, since they have been expelled from several ports, including Valona, Albania in 1961 , Egyptian ports in 1976, and Somali ports in 1977. Host of these expulsions have disrupted Soviet submarine operations, and similar hardships will result if the Soviets are expelled from other ports in the future.

Finally, U.S. ASW systems pose a great problem for the Soviets. SOSUS and other systems afford an impressive detection capability. Moreover, the U.S. Navy is proficient in ASW, which threatens Soviet submarine operations on the high seas in wartime. In short, while the Soviet submarine force is a serious threat, the u.s. Navy has an impressive ASW capability which will combat Soviet submarine warfare operations should war occur. The Soviets, therefore, cannot count on easy success in war either now or in the near future, and this deters more assertive Soviet submarine operations.

Considering both the strengths and liabilities of the Soviet submarine force has been a major preoccupation of the Department of Defense since 1956. While there has been significant success in defining the threat that the Soviets pose, much less attention has been paid to its implications for the West. There is an erroneous distinction which pictures the Soviet submarine as far less politically useful than the Soviet surface combatant. The Soviet submarine, however ; should be viewed as a very important political weapon and one that must be employed in a different way than the surface combatant in order to exert political influence. For example, it is used far less often than the surface   combstant  inthe showy official port visit. Inversely, its patrols and its level or submarine activity in an area have great political content. Who can argue that Soviet submarine operations in the Mediterranean Sea in October 1973 did not threaten u.s. policy objectives through the threat it posed against our Sixth Fleet? Likewise, during the Carter administration, the Soviets dramatically increased the number of submarines deployed to the Atlantic on several occasions when President carter was critical or Soviet human rights abuses. These escalations were so consistent that they had to have been political messages, particularly in light of Carter’s Naval Academy education and his submarine background.

Other examples abound . . .  Vietnam, West Africa, the Norwegian Sea and the Baltic Sea to name a few. They amount to assertive political operations whose political content is too seldom analyzed. Their political results thus include contributing to the dissolution of NATO and a weakening of the far more assertive foreign policy which we pursued twenty years ago. In the future, Soviet submarines might have greater influence on our relationships with Israel, the nations of South Asia, Japan, Korea, the Peoples’ Republic of China, and many other countries.

It is hoped that this article has directed attention to both the military and the political value or the Soviet submarine force and that it will prompt discussion on this subject in future issues of this journal.

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