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Attack against strategic missile-carrying submarines, often termed “strategic antisubmarine warfare”, is a controversial topic for those interested in deterrence, escalation of war and war termination. The concept involves the potential for unwanted escalation during the conventional phase of a war, some difficult command and control issues and a potential new area for arms control between the superpowers.

Attack on strategic missile-carrying nuclear submarines already involves more than just the two superpowers. Three other nations have such submarines: China, France, and the United Kingdom. Also many nations have existing antisubmarine forces that might be involved in military operations against the nations who have submarines carrying strategic ballistic or cruise missiles.

The prospect of many nations potentially conducting strategic antisubmarine warfare reinforces the Soviet concept of “equal security.” The Soviet military argues that, in order to have the same level of security as that enjoyed by the United States, it must have a defensive capability against all possible enemies.

There is general agreement by all nuclear powers that a nation must have a survivable nuclear reserve force capable of striking back, even if subjected to a coordinated, surprise first strike.

Traditionally, nations have looked to navies to provide strategic nuclear delivery systems that can survive enemy attacks and threaten nuclear retaliation. Western strategists often argue that as long as sufficient warheads remain on survivable submarines at sea they provide a threat so powerful that nations would hesitate to escalate a war to the use of nuclear weapons or to all-out nuclear strategic war.

The Soviet Union fired a ballistic missile from a submarine in 1955, well before POLARIS appeared in the u.s. As sea-based ballistic missile ranges improved, Soviet submarines did not have to close enemy shorelines in order to threaten North America. However, some Soviet submarines carrying ballistic and cruise missiles have continued their pattern of patrolling off the shores of the u.s. and Canada over the years. The u.s. Navy’s first maritime nuclear deterrent force was one of REGULUS cruise missiles on submarines and surface ships. Then, sealaunched ballistic missiles were developed and married to submarines, and strategic cruise missiles were abandoned until the advent of the very long-range land-attack TOMAHAWK.

The Soviets argued, in the first Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT), that they required compensation in numbers of missile submarines, because their shorter missile ranges required them to sail their submarines long distances to forward patrol areas. SALT I gives the Soviet Union a significant advantage in numbers of missile submarines; indeed, the USSR has almost twice as many of these submarines as the rest of the world combined. The advantage in numbers of submarine hulls is understood once one attempts to plan campaigns to attack all of them.

An interesting asymmetry developed between Western and Soviet navies. The U.S., French, and Royal Navies retained the shorter range POLARIS, POSEIDON, H-20 and M-4 missiles and relied on stealth to provide security for their ballistic missile submarines on patrol. The Soviet Navy, on the other hand, deployed its newer submarines in bastions, such as the Sea of Okhotsk, with a protective array of air and sea power and favorable geography to ensure that its forces retained their “combat stability” (mission capability). Implicit in the deployment of protecting forces providing combat stability to strategic missile-carrying submarines is the assumption that the Soviets obviously expect them to be attacked during war.

Despite this asymmetry, nuclear-capable nations could feel relatively secure that no matter what happens during the conventional phase of war, “sufficient” nuclear weapons on submarines will remain to threaten an enemy credibly with an unacceptable response. However, many in the West feel that offensive operations should not be taken against Soviet missile submarines during the conventional phase of a war, since it would automatically trigger vertical escalation because the USSR would rather use than lose them. Implicit in that argument is the assumption that Soviet submarines with strategic missiles constitute ih2 nuclear reserve of the Soviet military — ini force that threatens the West with retribution no matter what happens to the other two legs of the triad. But, there is no evidence that either the Soviet Navy or sea-based nuclear systems will be ~ force that directly influences the outcome of a war. It would be decidedly non-Russian to allow the ~ to field the ~ nuclear reserve.

Another problem with viewing Soviet missilecarrying submarines as only a nuclear reserve is that older and shorter-range missiles deployed off the coasts of enemy nations can perform unique damage limitation missions. For example, Soviet ss-N-6 SERB missiles aboard YANKEE submarines can strike u.s. Strategic Air Command bases or vital command, control, and communications facilities much more quickly than can intercontinental missiles launched from the USSR, or from protected bastions. Such missions are consistent with Soviet military strategy and tasks given to the Soviet Navy.

Some of these sea-based systems deployed in theater oceanic areas also allow the Soviets to circumvent the loss of SS-20s, dismantled by the new INF Treaty.

Fortunately, when the Soviet Union deploys its submarines outside protected bastions, it moves them closer to enemy antisubmarine warfare forces. Because of military utility and lack of survivability, it is likely that some submarine systems have a role in a first nuclear strike rather than only as a part of the strategic nuclear reserve. Moreover, as the Soviet Navy deploys hard-target capable warheads, it is likely that the number of submarines assigned to first strike missions will increase.

If these short-range sea-based systems deployed within striking range of Europe, Canada, Japan, China, and Korea were a part of a secure nuclear reserve, the Soviets should have withdrawn them to protected home waters, such as the Sea of Okhotsk, where they could present a subsequent escalatory threat if surge-deployed close to enemy shores. Instead, by siting them in relatively exposed forward areas, we must conclude that they are designed to be used as part of a combined arms attack in the event of war, or that the Soviets have a high regard for their survivability. It could also mean that they serve only a pre-war political role and are either expendable in combat, or would be repositioned.

Another theory suggests that the USSR intends to hide these units in the territorial — and perhaps internal — waters of other nations. Although originally suggested with regard to the Baltic, is this option present in Japanese waters or the Canadian far north? It would certainly present unique challenges. For example, what should be the Canadian response if it again detected a Soviet submarine near its shores -this time a missile-carrying submarine in Arctic territorial waters during a NATO crisis ~ directly involving Canada? Does the response change if a NATO/Warsaw Pact ~ is raging in Europe, but the submarine is in Canada’s Pacific 200-mile fisheries zone?

Despite the large portion of Western missile submarines deployed in the deep ocean expanse, Soviet military spokesmen have openly stated that the destruction of enemy sea-based nuclear assets is a strategic goal for them and a main mission of the Soviet navy in any future war. Such statements, coupled with aggressive antisubmarine warfare programs and other actions taken to reduce further homeland vulnerability to attack, reinforce the conclusion that the USSR has never accepted the theory of assured vulnerability required by mutual assured destruction. Fortunately for the West, Soviet antisubmarine warfare capabilities have never matched their aspirations.

Essentially, to the Soviet military, it is far better to strike an enemy submarine in the conventional phase of a war, and destroy perhaps hundreds of warheads before they launch, than allow that threat to exist. The destruction of even one OHIO class ballistic missile submarine armed with TRIDENT C-4 missiles might cause the loss of 192 nuclear warheads. This damage limitation mission is totally in conformance with Soviet military strategy for deterrence.

The Soviet theory is that the capability to alter the correlation of forces, by sinking enemy strategic missile-carrying submarines on the high seas during the conventional phase of a war, will both prevent nuclear escalation in the event of war and limit damage to the Soviet homeland, if the war turns nuclear. The Soviets, on the other hand, apparently do not anticipate that the U.S. or any enemy nation – would initiate nuclear war over the loss of strategic missile-carrying submarines during the conventional phase of a war. NATO and u.s. declaratory maritime strategies have long included the possibility of offensive action against Soviet strategic missile-carrying submarines during the conventional phase of war. A strong additional side benefit to NATO is that if the Soviets are engaged in defending their bastions, only minimal residual forces may be available for open-ocean strikes against vital allied sealanes of communication.

Whether an enemy submarine carries nuclear or conventional munitions, a prudent assumption military planners should make before a war is that ~ enemy submarine found off one’s shores is a potential threat that must be neutralized in the event of armed conflict with that enemy. Forwardbased submarines are prime targets for enemy navies, since they represent not only a first strike nuclear threat, but also provide vital attack assessment and other intelligence information — and because they present a conventional torpedo and missile capability. Additionally, every submarine sunk during the initial stages of a war is one less that can be re-used if reloaded. Most nations have the necessary antisubmarine forces to deal with Soviet intruders close to their shores.

Actually attacking a missile-carrying submarine is a far more difficult task than generally credited by civilian analysts unfamiliar with antisubmarine warfare operations. One must assume, however, that submarines deployed near an enemy’s main antisubmarine forces, including mines, (as is the case with submarines of the West trying to attack Soviet submarines in their bastions) are more likely to be destroyed than stealthy strategic submarines in the broad expanses of the world’s oceans trying to avoid ASW units.

Attacking enemy missile-carrying submarines in defended bastions is much more difficult and will undoubtedly involve a high cost. Yet if the benefits of such actions are substantial, one must assess the relation of benefits to costs. For example, if the United Kingdom, France, or China took every possible precaution to ensure the survival of their sea-based nuclear forces during the conventional phase of a war, but the Soviets could destroy them anyway, then the United Kingdom, France, or China might not have any nuclear “cards” left to play at war termination -and, therefore, might not participate — a political result well worth a few Soviet ASW units.

Posing a strategic antisubmarine warfare capability does not necessarily undermine deterrence, but rather reinforces the belief that deterrence is best served by a credible capability to prevent an enemy from achieving his own war aims. The U.S. understands that to deter the Soviets, the West must present a capability that the Soyiets respect. A credible capability to limit damage to its homeland by attacking nuclear weapons delivery vehicles during the conventional phase of a war is a principle that the Soviet military has advanced for years, and conforms totally with the Soviet philosophy of deterrence.

In a war, attacking an enemy force before it attacks you is militarily sound. The numbers of Soviet strategic missile-carrying submarines of all types on forward deployments or in bastions make it unlikely that the West could ever destroy sufficient numbers to deplete the Soviet strategic nuclear reserve. Marshals of the Soviet Union, Nikolai Ogarkov and s. Akhromeyev, have written over the past few years that it is impossible to destroy all of either superpower’s means of nuclear attack.

The loss of a submarine at sea is not likely to “require” a nation’s political leadership to seek overwhelming retribution through nuclear escalation. Conversely, opportunities to reduce enemy nuclear forces in the event of war should be seized. Soviet missile-carrying submarines should not be listed as targets that require authorization to attack, once armed conflict commences. The Soviet military has stated repeatedly that they will attempt to attack enemy missile submarines during a war; we should attack theirs.

Every submarine destroyed reduces the number of warheads providing a threat by the Soviet Union during the conventional phase, or which could be used in nuclear combat operations, or which could be used or threatened to be used during the termination phase or the war. Even the threat or such actions will cause the Soviets to consider defending their missile submarines in bastions and is likely to influence the numbers of submarines left over for attacks on the distant sealines of communications. No matter how much we talk before war about avoiding actions that might risk military reaction, in war, political leaders will demand options from their military for actions to create as favorable terms of war termination as can be achieved. Altering the nuclear correlation of forces by attacking an enemy’s submarines is the type of step that might lead to war termination before vertical escalation.

CDR James J. Tritten, USH

Naval Submarine League

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