In deciding how to deploy U.S. SSN’s in a future war with the Soviet Union, commerce destruction has taken a back seat to higher priority missions such as interdicting Soviet SSN’s, destruction of land targets, .and threatening Red fleet SSBN’s in their bastions. Yet commerce destruction, particularly in the Soviet Arctic, remains, for American SSN’s, a viable mission which has tactical and strategic importance much greater than the resources necessary to accomplish it.
We generally think of the Soviet Union as the prototypical land power: a nation little of whose trade is seagoing and for whom the effects of a campaign of commerce destruction at sea would be negligible. Is this really so? For instance, the Soviet Union’s merchant fleet is the most numerous in the world (apart from those flying flags of convenience), comprising over 2,000 ships. A large fraction of these ships carry commodities mined, pumped, or harvested from the Soviet Union, which provide much of her hard currency earnings. Many manufactured goods, like bulk commodities such as timber and ores, can only be transported cost-effectively on ships, or are destined for overseas customers. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of hard currency earned abroad to the Soviet Union, and in war her need for foreign exchange would be greater, particularly with the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact. While the Soviet Union is not as vulnerable is this regard as Japan or Great Britain, a campaign of blockade and commerce destruction might exert useful pressure in the event of war.
A significant fraction of Soviet shipping (80% of coastal traffic) is within the Soviet Arctic. From our perspective, this shipping has some interesting features. First, owing to the poor road and railroad system in Siberia, much of what is produced there must be moved down rivers for trans-shipment from ports on the Arctic coast. Similarly, shipping along the Soviet Arctic coast provides most of the supplies for many settlements in Siberia, particularly those along the Lena, Ob, and Yenisey rivers. Apart from the Trans-Siberian Railway and air routes, the Arctic sea lanes represent the main connection between Europe and Siberia and the Soviet Far East. Blocking these routes would tend to isolate the Soviet Far East from supplies of fuel and other bulk commodities. One is reminded of the Germans having to re-base their U-boats in Norway after the Normandy invasion in 1944 cut off supplies of fuel to the Biscay ports. Consider the environment and character of Arctic shipping. The Arctic coast east of the White Sea is typically icebound eight months of the year, and the Soviets maintain a fleet of more than fifty icebreakers to permit shipping operations. In 1983, a difficult year, the summer lasted only three weeks. It is the extreme character of the conditions which give commerce along the Arctic coast its unique character, and additionally make it so easy to interdict.
Let us consider these merchant vessels from a targeting standpoint. In the presence of ice, vessels travel in line ahead following icebreakers at an average rate of advance of less than five knots. In general the most southerly practicable route is taken, as the ice makes any other route difficult or impossible. Thus such vessels are easier targets than surface vessels on the open ocean, since they travel a predictable course at a slow speed, and have essentially no freedom to maneuver or change course. Moreover, most vessels must travel during the short Arctic summer or run the risk of being immobilized in the ice pack or frozen in harbor. Even minor disruptions and delays thus are magnified, and a blockade need only be active for a short period to shut down shipping for eight months. Targeting by satellite overhead imagery should be possible with even SPOT-level resolution (10 meters or so), since as they break through the ice the ships leave a wake of more or less open water. Also, the ships’ slow rate of advance and predictable course makes even low frequency coverage (one pass per day) adequate.
This theater of operations would appear to offer several advantages for submarine warfare. The ice pack renders useless ASW sensors such as radar, air-laid sonobuoys and dipping sonar, and degrades the effectiveness of all acoustic detection near the marginal ice zone. For surface vessels, operating a towed array might prove difficult in the ice, and a bow-mounted sonar would quickly become a casualty. Even emplaced hydrophone systems like our SOSUS are at risk from grounding ice keels, and are difficult to install and maintain. Similarly, airand surface-launched antisubmarine weapons might be stymied by the lack of open water. Of great importance is the extended length of the coastline, being three times the length of our own East Coast. This is a lot of territory to patrol, and as mentioned above, patrolling by aircraft would be ineffective. Minelaying against the surface targets might be a very effective tactic due to the circumscribed routes shipping must take, and the extreme difficulty of mine hunting and sweeping amidst the ice. Since the fmt vessel in line is typically an icebreaker, crippling or sinking her quickly immobilizes the whole group of ships. Indeed, sinking the icebreakers would pretty much stop the music for the entire Arctic coast. Mines also have the virtue that they were the first fire-and-forget weapons, and enable an attacking submarine to be two places at once. Mines .could be laid piecemeal over a period of months in several places, but would only become apparent during the summer when shipping passed by. Torpedoes might have to be reprogrammed to attack vessels amidst the ice due to the presence of ice keels. However, the facts that the targets are moving slowly and cannot evade suggest the use of torpedoes at long ranges with slow speeds, to conceal the bearing of the attacking submarine. Missiles such as HARPOON might be less effective since they may not cause a hull penetration below the waterline, and an ice ridge may provide a radar return that confuses the seeker. Note that towing a disabled ship through the ice is difficult, and that the ice is likely to finish off any abandoned ship.
There is a downside to such a submarine campaign. The minimal effectiveness of air and surface ASW assets is perfectly apparent to the Soviets, and they will respond with their own SSN’s to hunt our SSN’s. While from a tactical standpoint this is undesirable, it is certainly acceptable from a strategic standpoint. In particular, having several Soviet SSN’s tied down defending an extended coastline against a few attacking American SSN’s who can pick the time and place of their attack is good strategy. Every Soviet SSN along the Arctic coast chasing U.S. SSN’s is one less attacking our own shipping or protecting their SSBN’s. While the shallow water along the Soviet Arctic coast makes submerged navigation very demanding, it also provides poor acoustics which limit detection ranges. These circumstances favor us, since a shorter detection range implies the use of many more platforms to find our subs. By comparison, we need not find their subs, nor even detect our targets acoustically to complete our mission. Moreover, the Soviet subs must be SSN’s to operate in the Arctic, not dieselelectric SSK’s; therefore our convoy escorts elsewhere will face proportionately more Kilos, Tangos and Foxtrots, and fewer submarines altogether.
In summary then, it is proposed that it would be strategically very favorable to attack Soviet Arctic shipping in any general war with the Soviets. The reasons for doing this are to prevent the output of the eastern Soviet Union from coming to market and earning foreign exchange; to isolate Siberia and the Soviet Far East from the rest of the Soviet Union; and to compel the redeployment of Soviet SSN’s from other theaters.