There was a time, until about 1980, when we believed that the Soviets had a poor grasp of applying noise reduction, acoustic processing, computer fabrication, and so on. What we did not always perceive was that the technical antecedents of their programs were based upon lengthy research and development with respectable pedigrees. The apparent surprises from 1980 to 1985 were the products of well-conceived research and development programs often begun ten or more years earlier. Linear extrapolation of Soviet naval systems can be misleading when consistent research and development programs indicate a potential ~or step changes in capabilities. This is as applicable to passive arrays and space-based radars as it is to heavyweight torpedoes and mines.
What do the next 10 to 15 years portend? Research and development programs in the current Five Year Plan will bear fruit in the 1995 to 2000 timeframe. The new construction of the last two years or so will become the staple units of the Northern Fleet out to the turn of the century. The SIERRA, MIKE, and AKULA classes will become the mainstays of the SSN Order of Battle for at least the next ten years, with modifications along the way. By 1995, the Northern Fleet will possess a majority of quieter and more capable submarines. The older, noisier boats will be coming to the end of their hull lives. The technical improvements in Soviet submarine capabilities present the Soviet high command with several options and could potentially change the nature of operations. Much will depend upon their perception of and reaction to u.s. policy in the Arctic. If u.s. operations prove to be ineffective or not sustainable ~or long periods, there may be a significant redress in the balance of Soviet SSN and SS forces within the Arctic bastions. The new, quiet SSBNs of the DELTA IV and TYPHOON classes may require less SSN support because of the Soviets’ skillful use of the ice to mask SSBNs, thereby releasing some of the newer, quieter SSNs for operations further west and south.
Noise quieting itself makes submarine against submarine operations ever more precarious. Initial detection may become problematic for quiet Western submarines against quiet Soviet submarines. When contact is made, there are likely to be high speed melees with salvo attacks and counterattacks and a broader use of deception. Complex active sonars may acquire more significance. Stealth will remain important, but speed and weapon reliability may be equally important. However, will this type of submarine engagement become rare because of a significant reduction in the West’s acoustic advantage? Under the ice cap and along the marginal ice zone, the West may find it extremely difficult to make an initial detection of a quiet, stealthy, wellhandled Soviet SSBN. Full forward pressure by the West could conceivably become a “needle in a haystack” problem in a hostile environment.
If the Soviets opt for a shift in emphasis to anti-surface operations and support of the shore through submarine-launched land-attack cruise missiles such as SS-N-21 and SS-NX-24, we may see asymmetries develop which could present the United States with several dilemmas. Submarine numbers count. If the United States configures primarily for ASW, with anti-ship and land attack as secondary roles, we may find that the Soviets have bought an advantage with a flexible mix of weapons for use in certain situations and a dedicated role in others. It is conceivable, for example, that the most capable new diesels could be SLCM armed to patrol in the shallow waters off the east coast of the United States, while a new class of SSGN could be a SLCM firer from within the Arctic circle with long-range, 3,000 km plus, weapons launched from special tubes. The SS-NX-24 may already pose such a threat. These could be targeted at sensitive objectives in the northern plains states. The older diesels could assume a more pedestrian but highly important role as mine layers. Conversely, as the Soviets gain experience in the flexible use of land attack cruise missiles in lieu of torpedoes, there may be SSBNs carrying a limited number of secondgeneration land attack cruise missiles in order to add diversity to their self-protection torpedo payload.
Whatever the eventual mix of weapons for the typical Soviet SSN, it is likely that there will be many permutations. Larger numbers of Northern Fleet submarines will be spared from the pro-SSBN mission for other operations. These can be grouped into several distinct categories in keeping with the historical development of the Atlantic and Arctic defense zones. Anti-surface warfare will be considerably strengthened with larger numbers of more versatile platforms in an expanded number of groups. Protective ASW will be provided in part by submarines. But the main ASW effort will be concentrated in specialist ASW groups in which coordinated ASW will be the dominant feature. It is unlikely that the Soviets will opt for independent ASW operations except for targets of opportunity and at choke points. When a detection is made, the Soviets are likely to use sledgehammer tactics instead of precise surgical attacks. A pattern of nuclear depth bombs may be the Soviet response to targets in inner zones or close to the ice edge. The new surface battle groups will be the keystone of surface operations. The first carrier battle groups will be available in the first half of the 1990s. With the CGNs and new destroyers, they will make NATO forays above 60 north less trouble free. The SSGNs and the Soviet Naval Air Force anti-surface carrier missile launches will be integrated more into coordinated strikes with these surface groups.
The Soviet aim is to form an Arctic defense zone above a line from southern Norway through the Shetlands to Cape Farewell into a Soviet lake. “Mare nostrum” is a term well-known to the Soviet Navy. Iceland and the whole of Norway could lie within this Soviet naval sphere of influence. This would be a natural and logical development of Soviet naval policy since they first perceived and articulated a serious threat to the Soviet homeland from nuclear armed carriers and POLARIS submarines.
It is unlikely that the Atlantic will see the extrusion of major surface forces from the Norwegian Sea for wartime operations. Transits to Cuba and other surrogates in the south Atlantic will be commonplace, but they will not be part of any strategic deployment in the north Atlantic. Similarly, the Soviets will continue to use naval diplomacy as opportunities arise. The Soviet Northern Fleet Air Force may deploy to Cuba, Angola, and so on. But it is unlikely that overseas bases would be counted upon in wartime, except as expendable irritants to the West.
Although absolute numbers of submarines will decline, more are available for anti-SLOC in the northeastern and southwestern approaches, and off the coasts of the United States. In addition to the SLCH threat from nuclear submarines, the Soviets appreciate the value of diesel submarines in shallow water. If the United States seems to pressure the Soviet Union under the ice cap, the quid pro quo may be diesels in areas off the east coast where the U.S. Navy’s deep ocean ASW configuration may have limited effect. The strategic significance of such deployments in terms or arms control leverage and the impact upon European cruise missile deployment may be exacerbated by the likely megatonnage of follow-on Soviet cruise missiles such as the S5-NX-2~, but also larger successors to the ss-N-21 which could be fired from 65 em torpedo cubes. Not only would this upset the strategic balance as currently conceived, based upon ICBM and SLBH numbers and throw weight, but also inject a new range of problems for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). SDI will not be able to ignore the air breathing weapon, particularly if it can be carried in large numbers in 65 em Soviet torpedo tubes in lieu of the larger-diameter torpedoes. The relatively small 53 em diameter ss-N-21 may well have successors of a more troublesome complexion. However, the first practical problem for the U.S. Navy is to acquire a shallow water ASW capability and this may be at the expense of other systems.
The anti-SSBN mission in the Atlantic could become a more serious threat. More capable Soviet submarines released from pro-SSBN operations could be deployed in groups of two or three to destabilize Western SSBN operations. One can assume that current anti-SSBN operations have to be limited because of the low availability of frontline VICTOR III SSNs. There may therefore be an increasing requirement on Western SSBN operators to devise ever more rigorous deployment procedures, especially inside the 100 fathom line where Soviet barriers could possibly become effective.
The net effect of the above inroads by the Soviet Northern Fleet in SLCM deployments, antiSSBN operations, pressure on the approaches from and to the SLOC terminals on both sides of the Atlantic, in addition to the strengthening of the Arctic area from the ice cap itself to the Skagerrak will be to stress u.s. Naval forces. The counter has to be measured and effective. A full forward strategy may well have a short term psychological impact upon the Soviets. But for tbe long term effect of keeping the Soviets tied down north of the North Cape, a thoroughly orchestrated program will be required. Piecemeal hardware programs will help, but are unlikely to provide a lasting solution. At the same time, under-ice operations may present insuperable environmental problems for the side which is locating, and ideal advantages for the side which is evading. In the high refraction environment of the Arctic, chance detections may become more commonplace as the acoustic advantage wanes. When range and bearing data become further distorted under the ice, a winning strike may have to be nuclear-tipped.
Anti-SSBN operations, tactics to support SSBNs, and the potential melees which are augured for under-ice patrols could lead to accidents, and may be on the Navy decides strategy is therefore, possible crises. It anvil of experience that the U .S. whether a full forward pressure viable.
Whether a breakthrough occurs in ASW technology remains to be seen. If the Soviets were to acquire a limited capabil~ty (for instance, in shallow water), the impact could be destabilizing since most of their Northern Fleet SSBNs could be under the ice and secure from the type of remote sensors described in open technical literature. There are no prizes for coming in second in naval warfare, and this is clearly the one major technical area in which the Soviets may concentrate considerable research efforts. The impact upon both pro and anti-SSBN operations in initial transit areas, not necessarily the deep ocean patrol areas, could be considerable. But this has to remain highly speculative for the time being.
Although there may not be any surges into the Atlantic by major surface units, the added confidence and capability attached to submarine operations may lead to a truly maritime strategy within the Arctic and Atlantic consistent with a combat option. This would assume that the Soviet high command believes that not only does the Northern Fleet adequately defend the homeland and fulfill its strategic mission, it also possesses reserves of capability that could be used to stress the West in a truly maritime rather than continental posture.
In the 1990s, tbe U.S. Navy’s concept of “power projection” may be mirror-imaged by the Northern Fleet with simulated strikes against the Northern Flank, using cruise missiles, carrier support, and amphibious assault. Denmark and Iceland would be primary targets. Such operations would challenge the supremacy that NATO has enjoyed in the Norwegian and North Seas, thereby increasing pressure on the flanks of the NATO Central Front. Soviet strategy would be predicated upon gaining sea control. The essence of this would be the prevention of u.s. carrier battle groups and amphibious forces from penetrating the GIUK Gap, intense tactical ASW, and attacks upon NATO maritime air assets, command, control, and communications facilities, and extensive mining by aircraft and merchant ships. In other words, the Soviets• aim would be to maintain a line behind which they would have sea supremacy. The SSBN would be on station in the marginal ice zone and under the ice cap. A large proportion of SSNs currently employed on pro-SSBN duties would be used for sea control, operations against the shore, and anti-SSBN operations.
The land attack cruise missile adds a new dimension to Soviet maritime strategy in the Atlantic and Arctic. Furthermore, the Soviet SLCH presents complex arms control issues. The Soviets will acquire added flexibility to mix weapons in their 53 em and 65 em torpedo tubes, and to have multiple roles for their submarines. Soviet submarines deployed against crucial Western command, control, and communications and logistics sites may present a serious problem for ASW, especially in shallow waters. The quid pro quo for forward-deployed Western SSNs may be an increasing Soviet SLCH presence off the u.s. coast and harassment of deploying SSBNs.
Except for strategic ASW, the Soviet requirement for open ocean ASW is limited. They are likely to concentrate on transit and choke points, barriers, and protective ASW. Aggressive open ocean, anti-SSBN ASW has to be based upon a breakthrough in non-acoustic ASW. Should even a limited capability be possible, this might not only strengthen Soviet resolve to pursue a conventional option in its grand strategy, but also to pursue a new maritime strategy.[This article is a digest of submarine-related sections of a paper authored by Anthony R. Wells and delivered at the CNA Sea Power Forum on November 14, 1985.]