Glasnost is providing Soviet and Western readers with interesting glimpses inside the Soviet Navy. Captain H. J. Manthorpe provided a fascinating review of Soviet coverage of the MIKE sinking (‘The Soviet View,” U.S. Naval Institute ProceedinK5. August, September, November 1989) using Soviet media reports to examine the accident. While the Soviet willingness to discuss the tragedy in detail was unusual, it was not an isolated case of glasnost exposing problems within the Soviet Navy. Military problems that were not previously disclosed or discussed, have become subjects for open debate in the Soviet press. An observer can find many examples of problems in submarine units among the complaints being aired. Some interesting insights can thus be gathered from articles concerning the Soviet Navy’s most formidable arm, the submarine force. This essay reviews recent Soviet media stories concerning the Soviet Navy. It focuses on the submarine force, and discusses the significance of problems revealed in such stories.
Training is a recurring topic of complaints appearing in the Soviet media, with many aspects being criticized. The highest levels of fleet leadership acknowledge the deficiencies. The Northern Fleet Commander, Admiral Gromov, and his deputies are personally overseeing training in their fleet. In the fleet’s submarine force, the Deputy Fleet Commander for Training has been assigned the task of teaching tactics and torpedo attack procedures to submarine commanding officers!
Oversimplification of multi-unit exercises has been cited as another submarine training problem. One senior officer emphasized that the goal of multi-unit training was not to gain operational proficiency, but to avoid the unpleasant consequences of an unsatisfactory evaluation. This was accomplished by giving submarine captains “the places and courses in such a way that they can probably be met.” Critics claim that such artificialities lead to inaccurate indicators of force capability.
At the unit level, the Soviet Navy seems to organize its shipboard training on a standardized plan, but there is talk of granting a measure of independence to individual ships. Despite attempts to liberalize, one naval officer stated that “combat training still is closer in nature to a production cycle than a training cycle.” Although his comments were directed at the Navy in general, the Soviet’s centralized methods of control and execution imply the existence of such a situation in the submarine force as well.
At the individual submariner’s level, there are significant problems. Soviet submarine crews are often prevented from attending planned training programs due to additional duty requirements levied upon them from higher commands. Many submarine crew members are diverted from training to stand guard duty, garrison patrol, or other projects requiring manpower that is in short supply. At one base last year, “hundreds of man-days were spent on economic projects.” As a consequence, the level of training of Soviet submariners is probably not what their plans project. Other articles point out instances of submarine crews standing watch with insufficient training.
A related issue receiving attention in the Soviet media is the demonstrated inadequate level of initiative of officers in leadership positions — particularly commanding officers. One observer noted that a common trait of Soviet naval commanders is their tendency toward cautious action which stifles initiative. He stated that although opportunities exist for ship’s captains to be innovative, “inventing, creating, (or) testing something of one’s own becomes very difficult, since one risks being put off the plan, and this is a mortal sin.” As a result, many commanders eschew departure from “the plan.”
Some articles blame the lack of Soviet officer initiative on the near-continuous presence of senior riders aboard submarines. A submarine unit’s deputy commander, Captain 1st Rank Shvechkov, told the Soviet military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda that regulations require a senior commander to be aboard “whenever a submarine puts to sea for combat training.” For example, a Baltic Fleet submarine that lost its commanding officer overboard while leaving port was reported to be carrying the submarine unit commander, the superior formation commander and his staff. Critics claim that senior riders often interfere with the operational control of the ship. The Baltic Fleet’s deputy chief navigator, Captain 1st Rank D. Shtefanov, cited “a blurring of responsibility while senior commanders are present” as the cause, last year, of a disproportionately high number of navigational violations among vessels carrying senior officers. The presence of senior riders apparently causes a dilution of the commanding officer’s authority and an avoidance of responsibility. As one officer explained, “they say there is a senior commander aboard, and he will be held responsible.”
The MIKE-class submarine, KOMSOMOLETS, on its first operational cruise, carried a senior rider on its final voyage. The Chief of the Submarine Political Department, Captain 1st Rank T. A Burkulakov, was the senior officer on board.
Another highly-publicized incident provides another data point: The Soviet diesel submarine that grounded off Sweden’s Karlskrona naval base in late 1981, WHISKEY-137, carried an officer senior to the submarine’s captain. That officer told a Swedish naval officer who boarded the submarine that the senior officer was in charge after the grounding. While WHISKEY-137’s captain would only admit that his Kaliningrad-based boat was on a “mission,” and that they had grounded due to a navigational error.
A potentially serious problem area was recently revealed in the Soviet press. It is the apparently poor material condition of many Soviet submarines. The recent primary coolant leak aboard an ECHO-class nuclear submarine, requiring it to be towed home, emphasizes the rapidly approaching age limit of some portion of the Soviet submarine fleel The incident was followed by the Soviet announcement that they would retire their first-generation nuclear submarines ahead of schedule. Moreover, boats deemed suitable for repair, rather than retirement, are experiencing problems as to repair facility availability. One SSBN was recently moved from its garrison to a repair base, only to be told that there was no space available. Notably, Soviet submarine personnel do not exhibit confidence in their boat’s nuclear safety. The ECHO’s accident caused considerable concern among inhabitants of the submarine’s garrison, prompting rumors and questions about radioactive contamination which resulted in at least 86 personnel reporting to the garrison’s clinic– concerned about contamination. Officers of the SSBN’s crew expressed concern that, •we have been living for almost a month on a ship with an atomic power generator, even though at the base it is not recommended that long periods of time be spent on it. ”
An area receiving much attention recently is equipment deficiencies. Emergency equipment deficiencies were highlighted by the April 1989 MIKE sinking. Several deficiencies that were brought to light are worth noting. MIKE’s life rafts failed to function properly and problems developed with emergency breathing systems — apparently costing many sailors their lives. One officer questioned why the amount of emergency equipment listed on the ship’s emergency bill was insufficient for all hands. Yet, they are certainly not strangers to submarine accidents. Counting MIKE, they lost four nuclear submarines: a NOVEMBER in April 1970, a C~LIE I in 1983, and a YANKEE in October 1986, and also lost the conventional GOLF in 1968. Additionally, several Soviet nuclear submarines have been so severely damaged in accidents that they have been scrapped rather than repaired.
Articles have also criticized equipment provided to the Soviet submarine force for routine duties. Critics have attacked not only its quality and availability, but its usefulness and safety in the submarine environment. A recent example is foul-weather gear for submarine bridge watchstanders when running on the surface – an understandable concern for crews operating at high latitudes. The only protection afforded these exposed men, beyond layered clothing, is an insulated suit meant for the Army’s chemical service. It is described as woefulJy inadequate for sea service and is so bulky that it is impossible to wear a life jacket over it and pass through the bridge access hatch, on some classes of Soviet submarines. The men consequently do not wear life jackets and take the risk of being swept overboard in protective gear offering no buoyancy. This was the case in the Baltic incident involving the loss of a submarine’s captain. Soviet submariners complain that their allies in the East German submarine force wear “orange~colored, impermeable, insulated coveralls, which inflate when a sailor enters the water” while they have no equivalent. Soviet Vice Admiral Igor Ryabinin commented as follows: More than thirty years of my life is linked with submarine sailing ….. But I have yet to see any significant improvement in the clothing wom for standing watch topside. Topside clothing is not the only submarine hazard criticized in recent Soviet articles. According to Soviet accounts, they wear overalls that are probably similar in design to those worn by American submariners. However, an officer writes that ” … the overalls of … submariners … in a fire … go up like gunpowder.” This can cause disastrous consequences during damage control efforts.
The implications of the revelations concerning submarines presented in the Soviet media are: Submarine crews are poorly trained. Men are diverted to other duties, and conduct training exercises under oversimplified conditions. Sizable gaps exist between the proficiency levels projected by plans and the actual proficiency aboard individual submarines.
Excessive oversight of commanding officers by senior commanders stifles the degree of initiative that some Soviet writers credit to submarine captains. The presence on board of senior officers may lower the sense of responsibility among submarine captains and even the perceived authority of the captain in the eyes of the crew. This has potentially disastrous consequences. In today’s fast-paced underseas world, waiting for the approval of a senior commander and losing the crews’ respect may be the factors that allows an opponent to win. Moreover, the oversight of the Northern Fleet leaders does not speak highly of the tactical ability of Soviet submarine commanders.
Material condition of submarines is low with those in poor repair likely to be incapable of executing wartime missions. A lack of adequate repair facilities exacerbates this problem.
Finally, the Soviets may not be learning from past accidents. Damage control efforts during the MIKE incident may have been heroic, but reports reveal serious deficiencies in damage control gear and emergency equipment.
Not only is emergency and damage control equipment inadequate, but basic equipment such as foul-weather gear and work uniforms pose hazards to Soviet submariners. Poor equipment quality seems to be the fleet norm, rather than the exception.
In summary, the Soviet submarine fleet is experiencing many material, training and organizational problems. Recognition of these problems in the Soviet press will likely be followed by attempted solutions.
It is easy to sit back, observe the Soviet problems that glasnost is revealing, and assure ourselves that our forces are adequate to defeat the Soviet submarine fleet. However, we must not let revelations of Soviet problems lull us into a sense of complacency.