SUBMARINES OF THE RUSSIAN AND SOVIET NAVIES,
by Norman Polmar and Jurrien Noot
Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991
pp 370, Price: $58.95
Reviewed by Rear Admiral Summer Shapiro USN(Ret.)
I admit that I approached the review of this weighty tome with some misgiving. My first reaction was, “Submarines in 1718 – they’ve got to be kidding!” Once I had accepted the premise that submarine development might have started way back then, and by the Russians to boot, I began to question whether the authors could actually condense two and a half centuries of technical development and operational experience into 370 pages, and come up with a useful product. I have to say that they surprised me. They successfully and artfully crammed an impressive amount of useful historical data between the covers, providing a reference of considerable value to students of the Soviet Navy. If I have a reservation about the book, it is not with the historical treatment, but with its technical assessments of postwar Soviet submarine developments, and with the projections of where Soviet design can be expected to go in the future. I find myself in basic disagreement with some of these assessments; others have been invalidated by recent developments in the rapidly changing Soviet environment. Since Norman Palmar acknowledges that he alone is-responsible for the chapters addressing post-World War IT submarine programs, I guess my argument is with him. Norman would probably claim that I have a built-in bias -against him and anything he writes – but that is only partly true. When Norman sticks to the facts, I have no argument with him. When he ventures into the realm of speculation, as I feel he does in those chapters, we tend to have our differences intellectual and professional.
But back to Submarines of the Russian and Soviet Navies. 1718-1990, and its positive aspects. A tremendous amount of diligent research obviously went into the historical narrative, tables, photographs and illustrations of this reference work. I am reasonably familiar with Russian and Soviet naval history, but I have never seen anything to match the chapters on early Russian submarine developments, and their operations up through the first World War. I found this fascinating to read and highly enlightening. I was also quite taken with the book’s coverage of the Allied Intervention following the Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviet shipbuilding programs between the wars, and the operations of Soviet submarines during World War II. All very solid material, and well presented. Although not specifically referenced, I assume that much of this historical material was derived from the several prestigious reference works listed in the book’s extensive bibliography. I would like to have known where it came from.
I view this omission as a shortcoming, but it does not detract from the quality of the work involve(l, nor the value resulting from the ambitious task of compiling all that information into the useful, readily accessible and highly readable form presented by the authors. In short, the material may be available in various other sources, but not at the unclassified level, and not in the detail and as well packaged as in this reference. It is a remarkable compendium of data on Russian and Soviet submarine developments and operations through World War II. I doubt seriously that anything like it exists elsewhere. In that respect, it is a unique and exceptionally valuable reference.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about the chapters covering the period since World War II, and particularly the past 20 to 30 years. Perhaps because that period is still fresh in my mind, much of what I read in that part of the book seems old hat to me, and not as exciting as the earlier narratives. Since I am personally much more familiar with that period of Soviet Navy history, the warts were also much more apparent to me. Quite possibly, it is simply too early to attempt a history of that period. Every day we learn something that alters our previous understanding of developments and events, and invalidates the conclusions which we reached. As a result of Soviet openness – glasnost – and a variety of factors like the sinking of the MIKE in the Norwegian Sea, access to Soviet scientists, technicians and operators, an abundance of open source material, etc., we are able to establish ground truth and thus revise or fme-tune earlier perceptions and estimates. I saw little if any evidence of this having been attempted in this book. .Rather, you get the impression that a picture has been frozen in time, and little effort appears to have been made to update or correct observations overtaken by subsequent events. Especially flawed are conclusions set forth by the author(s) with regard to technical developments and capabilities of current Soviet submarines, and projections of future trends.
Take, for example, the ALFA SSN. A case is made in the book for the small, fast, deep-diving ALF A to serve as the prototype for future Soviet submarine development. The ALFA has since been written off by the Soviets, and subsequent submarine designs now in series production begin to look more like their U.S. counterparts – large, multi-mission ships with the emphasis on stealth, rather than excessive speed and depth capabilities. And then there is the book, The Nayy; Its Role. Prospects for Development and Employment, written by three Soviet naval officers with a foreword by Admiral Gorshkov, and published with some fanfare in 1988. A lot of stock has been put in that book as a roadmap for where the Soviets are headed in undersea warfare development. The trouble is that this book, like Lenin’s writings, has something in it for everyone. Just pick what appeals to you and run with it – as many U.S. analysts did. Now, like Lenin and his writings, the book has lost its credibility. It is OBE – overtaken by events. All bets are off, and it is back to the drawing board – both for Soviet planners and developers, and for those of us who try to fathom where they are headed next. Talk about a Soviet supersub -which that book helped engender – is just that. If the supersub was ever anything more than the figment of some analysts’ imagination, the chances of its realization now are indeed very remote. Likewise, while I agree that the Soviets have strived in recent years for qualitative improvements in their submarine force — and made significant progress in that regard — I fail to see any real evidence of their reaching the point by the year 2000, as cited in Submarines of the Russian and Soviet Navies, where their submarines will be equal or superior to the U.S. Navy in all technologies except passive sonar and in the quality of personnel.
Presenting such speculation as fact does a disservice to the reader, not to mention the job that it does on the credibility of an otherwise excellent reference book. Let’s face it, though, there have been many very significant changes throughout the
Soviet Union and within its defense and military industrial establishments. A lot of analysts -within the U.S. Government and elsewhere – are busily revising their estimates to accommodate these changes and take advantage of the growing openness of Soviet society. It must be recognized, though, that glasnost notwithstanding, there is still much about the Soviet Submarine Force of today that we do not know. There is even greater uncertainty about the future. Under the circumstances, I submit that there might be some advantage to backing off and waiting another five years or so before trying to reconstruct the picture of the current turbulent period in Soviet Navy history. Perhaps by then, sufficient information will have come available and we will be in a position to make more reasoned judgements of where the Soviet Submarine Force is and where it is going.
Much is to be gained, I suggest, in looking back and learning from the past There is good iJlustration of that in those portions of this book which confine themselves to historical fact As you read those chapters, it is abundantly clear that there was nothing wrong with the submarines and the submariners of the Russian and Soviet navies in the two world wars. They just were not employed very well. However, when given the opportunity to demonstrate their technical and operational prowess in what were essentially defensive land-locked wars, they proved to be quite innovative, resourceful and capable. The question before us is how will that technical and operational capability -· machines and men — be employed in the future? How will it be used, either by the Soviet Union or the Republic(s) that happen to own them then — or, for that matter, wherever else in the world and under whatever flag they might appear? History tends to repeat itself. The answers — or at least some helpful hints – may be found within the pages of a book like Submarine of the Russian and Soviet Navies .
Dateline New York Times. Wednesday. November 20. 1991.
By Walter Goodman
“‘The striking thing about Submariae: Steel Boats, Iroa Mea is the list of underwriters. Ready? The hourlong documentary … was paid for by Newport News Shipbuilding, Hughes Aircraft, GE Aerospace, General Dynamics, Lockheed, Rockwell International, mM, Westinghouse and 11 other companies known better to the Pentagon than to the public.
“Viewers like you? “This consortium should be reasonably satisfied with what they have launched. The documentary, which was filmed in part aboard the HYMAN G. RICKOVER, a nuclear-powered fastattack submarine named for the admiral credited with developing America’s nuclear navy, is a celebration of submarines and a tribute to their crews.
“‘That is not to suggest that the military contractors had a hand in planning the program or that the producers, David Hoffman and Kirk Wolfinger, did anything unbecoming in taking their money. How else, given the propensities of public broadcasting, could they have fueled their vessel? ”
If they had set out to torpedo America’s nuclear arsenal, they might have got some assistance from Froatliae. If they were exposing the conflict between submarines and ocean life, the Costeau or National Geographic folks might have been interested. If they had promised a report on multi-culturism in undersea schools, PBS would certainly have sprung to their aid. But a flattering program about nuclear submarines? Where could they find support but at companies that have a stake arms and the men who use them . …
“The producers report that their cameras are the first in more than 20 years to be permitted aboard a Navy submarine. As the armed forces compete for shares of a diminishing military budget, taxpayers can look forward to programs from inside a bomber, a tank, a humvee. Producers in search of subsidy can start with the list of tonight’s underwriters.
“Hey PBS, time for an expose’ of the military-industrialtelevision complex?”
Letter from PBS to Walter Goodmen. November 22, 1991
… “Come on Walter. You know you can’t fire salvos at public television like those launched in your review of Submarine: Steel Boats, Iron Men (11/20/91) without getting some kind of response from us. So here I am, wearily loading the torpedo tubes to fire back, knowing that this has all been done before . …
“For the record, the editorial focus of Submarine was always meant to be a day In tbe life of the people who work on a nuclear submarine, not an examination of submarine technology nor of U.S. defense policies. PBS looked very carefully at the content of the program vis-a-vis the funders, and found that no special interests are represented in the film, nor was there any form of editorial involvement, rights of review, or content control in any form on the part of the funders. We’re satisfied the producers bad full editorial control.
“If the point you were trying to make in imagining different submarine programs and their funding scenarios was that public television needs stable permanent funding we’re in agreement. But suggesting that public television is somehow captive of the military Industrial complex is nonsense ….
Mary Jane McKinven
Director, National Press Relations”
Letter to NSL from Varied Directions, Inc .. November 27. 1991.
“The airing of Steel Boats. Iron Men was one of the proudest and most rewarding of my career; I know I speak for everyone at Varied Directions in thanking NSL for letting us makes this remarkable story into a film . .. !’Usually, when our films are broadcast, we hear reports from our colJeagues in the business and the people immediately attached to the production; this broadcast was very different. The 800 number inviting people to purchase the tape ignited a flood of calls from across the country that lasted until 2:00 a.m. and all through the day on Thursday. While not everyone buys the tape, their feelings about the production are unanimously euphoric.
“As I suspected, Walter Goodman’s blast at PBS in the N.Y. TIIDes raised the specter of controversy and no doubt contributed to the excellent ratings the show received. SBIM won the evening and also out performed the Wednesday 9:00p.m. time slot for the year by more than a full percentage point, in rating terms, a most impressive showing …. I’m impressed with [PBS’s] bold response; quite unusual for them. It also should make our underwriters pleased that PBS is willing to go to bat for their right to fund a project of this nature. PBS is beginning to understand that it can’t be the domain of any single political ideology . …
“Once again, our sincere appreciation for alJowing us to be a part of this project.
Producer and Director, Varied Dinctions, Inc.”
Vitro, Babcock & Wilcox, Kollmorgen, Bird-Johnson, Treadwell, Computer Science Corporation, Zachary Fisher, Advanced Technology, Honeywell, Purvis, Trident Systems, EDO Corporation and Sclentlftc: Atlanta. NSL again expresses its sincere gratitude to the Underwriters, Varied Directions, Inc. and the Navy for helping to bring this major project to fruition.]