It is important to periodically stand back and review accepted wisdom about Soviet military purposes and capabilities. One such “given” is the widely accepted notion that the primary rationale for the Soviet Navy is the protection and defense of the Soviet Union’s SSBN force -YANKEES, DELTAS, and TYPHOONS — in near-home waters, the so-called SSBN “sanctuaries” or “bastions.” This essay proposes that caution may be warranted in accepting and planning for the “reality” of a Soviet bastion strategy, especially in light of certain, seemingly anomalous features of the recently-deployed TYPHOON class SSBN.
The Soviet SSBN bastion concept has formally been sanctioned by the u.s. intelligence community as an authoritative estimate of Soviet peace and wartime SSBN deployment strategy, yet Soviet literature has little acknowledged either a “bastion” policy or the related idea of an SSBtJ strategic witholding posture. Although the bastion concept, as elaborated by Western, primarily u.s., analysts of Soviet naval affairs, offers a persuasive and logical explanation for Soviet SSBN deployment practices — so different from the U.S. Navy’s POSEIDON and TRIDENT fleet -it should be recognized nevertheless that “proof• depends heavily on logical inference and circumstantial evidence. A particularly disturbing anomaly in this pattern of bastion thinking is the TYPHOON class submarine. Its characteristics are such as to place a question mark on its role in an alleged “bastion” strategy, and warrant consideration of alternative options. What needs asking is why the Soviets would build a ballistic missile submarine almost three times the size of the DELTA class, yet increase its armament by only four missiles.
The process whereby Western analysts of Soviet naval affairs have arrived at the conclusion that the Soviets have fallen back on a bastion strategy needs review.
Early deployed a in the 1970’s, the Soviet Union new class of SSBNs, designated the DELTA class. Armed with the SS-N-8, a 4,500 nautical mile range missile, these boats are capable of striking continental U.S. targets from operating areas near the Soviet landmass. This capability, plus the estimated vulnerability of Soviet submarines to Western surveillance — SOSUS in particular — contributed to the conclusion that the DELTA/SS-N-8 deployment reflected a deliberate Soviet decision to henceforth safeguard the Soviet SSBN fleet from Western antisubmarine forces by limiting their operating areas to the seas within easy reach of protective “pro-SSBN” surface and subsurface forces. Admiral of the Soviet Fleet Sergei G. Gorsbkov’s literary references to the value of a fleet-in-being as a tool for late war bargaining were interpreted by some Western analysts as further evidence of a Soviet decision to “conserve” the YANKEES and DELTAS in home waters as a “strategic reserve force.” Additional “proof” of a Soviet bastion strategy came by way of the proposition by some analysts that keeping the SSBNs close to home was congenial to the Russian psyche and traditional Czarist/Soviet naval policy — based on a continental geography, naval inferiority, caution, and a cultural dislike of the open seas.
Against this background of developed logic it is important to recognize apparent flaws and inconsistencies. While it is granted that the intercontinental range of the SS-N-8 permits the DELTAS to empty their launch tubes near or even inside their home ports, and that staying within easy reach of friendly “pro-SSBN” general purpose forces offers an added degree of protection, it does not necessarily follow that the development and deployment of the DELTA/SS-N-8 combination reflects a deliberate Soviet bastion strategy, or that such a choice was forced by the acclaimed effectiveness of Western antisubmarine measures. The latter argument contains perhaps a touch of wishful thinking — a presumption that the Soviets have acknowledged the West’s superior antisubmarine warfare capabilities. Moreover, the recent trend in Soviet warship design toward greater endurance, larger displacements and larger weapon magazines could as readily be explained by a possible Soviet requirement to guard the Deltas through a protracted period of hostilities, not in home waters, but in greatly expanded and far removed ocean areas of the world.
Perhaps one of the most troublesome questions, however, is why the Soviets have gone to the trouble and expense of building ~ and ~ large nuclear SSBNs. If the DELTAS and TYPHOONS, particularly the TYPHOON class, are destined to spend their wartime patrols in local areas, it makes little obvious sense to invest in speed, endurance and great size. Rear Admiral Sumner Shapiro, then the Director of Naval Intelligence, informed a Congressional committee of the TYPHOON as follows in 1981: “We never dreamed that the thing would be that big. It is a monster ••• it can probably carry extra people, extra equipment ••• It can probably stay out for long periods.”
The TYPHOON is reportedly far quieter than previous Soviet SSBNs. Its large size and evident large reserve buoyancy indicate that the boat’s double-hulled construction with a wide separation between the outer and inner hulls, affords considerable protection against contemporary Western antisubmarine weapons. Moreover, a displacement of 25,000 tons prompts speculation about the presence of an array of active defenses — perhaps as a mother ship — to permit independent operations in remote areas of the ocean.
As to the alleged vulnerability of Soviet SSBNs to Western surveillance and detection, concentrating the YANKEES, DELTAS, and TYPHOONS inside geographically well-defined and limited sea areas might actually ease the Western detection and localization problem. If, as has been reported, the Soviets have made important strides in reducing the radiated noise of their submarines (Dr. Robert Cooper, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Technology told an audience in 1984 that Soviet submarines now “are as quiet as our (own)”), it seems inappropriate to help solve the opponent’s antisubmarine warfare problem in this fashion. Since the DELTAS are also reportedly being “quieted,” the Soviet rationale for bastion deployment becomes even less convincing. The survivability of the “pro-SSBN” surface forces that would presumably guard the Soviet SSBNs in their bastion areas is probably not very high under conditions of nuclear war. Yet, nuclear war is the contingency that the alleged role of the SSBNs as a “witheld reserve” implies.
The tempo of Soviet SSBN deployments is much lower than that of the U.S. POSEIDON/TRIDENT force, suggesting a possibly lower state of readiness. This pattern is not exclusive to the seabased strategic portion of the Soviet fleet; its surface component similarly deploys only a fraction of the time theoretically available. It has also been reported that the Soviet Union’s land-based ballistic missile force is generally kept in a lower state of readiness than is routine for its u.s. counterpart. The contrast between U.S. and Soviet strategic readiness postures may be a reflection of different estimates of the likelihood of a strategic surprise attack. The threat of a “nuclear Pearl Harbor” has pervaded U.S. defense thinking since the end of the Second World War. The Soviets do not share this concern to the same degree and evidently expect that a nuclear exchange will be preceded by a period of escalating tensions, giving them time to raise readiness levels. Thus keeping the bulk of the fleet, including the SSBNs, in port and home waters during peacetime makes good economic sense.
In conclusion, the evidence is not enough to reject the Soviet bastion theses; neither is it sufficient to asses its validity. Clear, however, is that the totality of facts and whunches” about Soviet naval activities, strategic thinking, and operational behavior leaves enough room for divergent interpretations of why the Soviets are doing what they are doing. Although the Western navies are in almost daily contact with their potential opponent, and the basic characteristics and operating routines of Soviet Navy platforms and weapons are reasonably well known, our understanding of Soviet operating doctrine and potential wartime strategies remains quite limited. The Soviets themselves publish a wealth of literature on military matters, but unfortunately, most of the information tends to be highly theoretical or couched in the most general terms. Western analysts are hence forced to decipher the significance of Soviet hardware and operating routines by reading-between-the-lines. This interpretive effort is absolutely necessary and has produced valuable insights. It is equally important, in the words or Alberta Wohlstetter, the author of Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, “to play with material from different angles and in the context of unpopular as well as popular hypotheses — whether the end is the solution or a crime or an intelligence estimate.”
This article is a condensed version of an essay, entitled “The Soviet Navy’s SSBN Bastions: Evidence, Inference, and Alternative Scenarios,” that first appeared in the March 1985 issue of the Journal of the Royal United SerVices Institute. (RUSI).
Jan S. Breemer