Rear Admiral Fages is Commander Submarine Group Two. In February 1997, he was a member of a Center for Naval Analysis delegation to Russia. This article describes the delegation’s visit aboard an operational Delta I SSBN in the Russian Far East.
Picture this opening scene. .. the thermometer reads minus 20 degrees, the wind is howling at 30 knots. A delegation of Russians and Americans has just pulled over at a roadside rest stop in the Russian Far East. The amenities include a frozen outhouse, shish-ka-bobs cooking over a small hibachi tended by an old man standing in the snow, and a gasoline tanker truck dispensing fuel to any driver with hard currency. And then, as the party reboards its Japanese minibus, they discover that the engine won’t start in the bitter cold. That was the less-than-auspicious prelude to an exciting trip to the Povlovskoye Naval Base, three hours from Vladivostok. I was privileged to be a member of a Center for Naval Analysis (CNA) delegation, hosted by the Russian Pacific Fleet Commander, for a visit aboard a Delta I SSBN. Our adventure was in conjunction with the ninth in a series of exchanges between CNA and its Russian counterpart organization, the Institute for U.S. and Canada Studies. This particular trip included seminars in Moscow and Vladivostok as well as the Delta visit which will be detailed in this article … and we were eventually able to get the bus started!
In Moscow, we participated in a seminar in which we were fascinated to find ourselves on the sidelines of a heated debate between members of the Russian Duma and General Staff regarding military reform as well as find ourselves on the receiving end of visceral dialogue regarding all of the ills that would come with NATO enlargement. We also had private sessions with the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, members of the Security Council, the Defense Council, and officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Our flight from Moscow to Vladivostok was aboard a Boeing 757 operated by Transaero Airlines. Transaero is an upstart competitor with Aeroflot. The flight was as comfortable as any nine hour flight in coach class can be and was remarkable only in the fact that the breakfast meal was whatever had not been eaten six hours earlier. White wine and breaded calamari as a special breakfast treat!
Landing in the Russian Far East, only 50 kilometers from North Korea, we were met by our military hosts and spirited to the Vlad Motor Inn-believe it or not. This hotel was a Canadian venture which purported to provide Western style accommodations, hot and cold running water, and a menu with foodstuffs that were recognizable. We anticipated spending only one night and then were to board Russian military aircraft for a flight to Kamchatka and visit aboard a Delta III at the Petropavlovsk Submarine Base. Ultimately, that portion of our trip had to be canceled due to blizzard conditions in Kamchatka. We all regretted missing the opportunity to visit that remote and mysterious submarine outpost. None of us were unhappy, however, that we had missed the chance to swim in the Kamchatka hot springs and then roll in the snow, an adventure our Russian hosts had also promised to avail to us!
Vladivostok was a bustling, though rundown metropolis of about one-half million. Moored at the harbor in the center of the city was a Slava and three Udaloy class surface combatants. The ships were handsome and appeared well-preserved. We paid a call on Admiral Kuroyedov, Commander of the Pacific Fleet, who was engaging, forthcoming, and optimistic about the role the Pacific Fleet would play in the economic development of the region in the years ahead. He was also realistic about the current economic difficulties facing the Navy. Another seminar would be held in Vladivostok the next day, to be followed by our excursion to Povlovskoye.
We left the next morning for a three hour drive through the Russian countryside. The birch trees and snow covered landscape were reminiscent of the movie Dr. Zhivago. Along the way, we made a pit stop at a wide spot in the road. It was at this juncture that we joined our Russian hosts in an impressive display of Navy to Navy cooperation and push-started that minibus before we all froze on the road to Povlovskoye!
After passing through several checkpoints, we were met by the Base Commander and escorted onto the base. What a sight to crest a hill, look down on a protected harbor and see an Akula, three Victor ills, Delta ill, three Delta Is, and four Echo Is. The harbor was ice covered and there was essentially no movement at the waterfront. We saw no industrial activity, no maintenance facilities, and many empty buildings. Robust physical security measures were not evident. This was the rare submarine base which does not have a parking problem!
We were met at the brow of Delta I by the Commanding Officer, a 42 year old Captain Third Rank (0~) who was in his tenth year of submarine command. He and his Base Commander had been notified of this visit about 18 hours earlier, so the snapshot we saw was probably quite representative. His ship was 20 years old and would be retired in the next year or so as a consequence of START treaty limitations. Its nominal service life was 25 years.
This Delta had two crews, but such was not necessarily the norm. We were told that for many SSBNs there were three crews for two ships and for SSNs, four crews for three ships. The crew was composed of about 40 officers, 40 warrants or michmen, and 40 enlisted conscripts. The on-crew cycle was not of fixed duration, but depended on how long it took for a crew to complete its certification process. Certification was followed by a somewhat indeterminate period in which the ship and crew were considered combat operationally ready. In 1996, this crew had conducted one 60 day patrol. At the time of our visit, the crew was combat operationally ready, but there was no scheduled underway period on the horizon.
The sail superstructure through which we entered was welt preserved and below decks, the ship was clean and odor free. We were taken to the Control Room and issued two piece denim coveralls for the tour. The skipper indicated the coveralls were provided to each crew member and this clothing was easily disposed of if it became contaminated! Each crew member carried breathing protection that offered about five minutes of oxygen, to allow for space evacuation. There is an emergency air breathing system, but the masks are fixed in place.
The Control Room was of another era and reminded one of NAUTILUS. With the exception of a damage control status panel, nothing appeared to have been modernized over the years. There were no digital displays. The ship control panel had a joystick control for the rudder and a single joystick control for the horizontal control surfaces. The fire control panel display was a single PPI. One depressed a push button to select the parameter to adjust. Torpedo presets were ordered from this display. There was one sonar display in the Control Room. Periscopes were raised and lowered by cable host. A remote monitor was available in Control for observing certain reactor and turbine compartment areas. It did not appear that manual target motion analysis was conducted in Control. The Navigation Space, aft of Control contained inertial navigation displays and a plotting table. Remarkable in this space was the slide rule that was used for performing navigation calculations.
The Torpedo Room contained two over two, center-line 53 cm tubes. Outboard each side at deck level was a 40 cm tube used for decoy launch. Torpedoes are pneumatically launched. The ship did not carry wire-guided units. There were no electrical connections through the breech door. Four units were tube loaded and eight were stowed in the room. Units in the room looked like Type 53-65s. Some had metal propellers and some propellers were plastic. Torpedo firings were a routine element of each crew’s certification process.
Delta carries the SS-N-8 liquid fueled SLBM. Eight tubes are in the forward missile compartment and four in the aft compartment. Missile Control Center was guarded and closed to our visit. We saw nothing that would suggest additional precautions for liquid fueled missiles or more robust fire fighting equipment.
The Commanding Officer’s stateroom was of similar size to ours but remarkable for its total absence of instrumentation, not even a gyrocompass. Officer berthing was in four man compartments. Crew berthing was throughout the ship, including the turbine spaces, so that there were always people living in the compartment in which they worked. We were told that annual radiation exposure for Engine Room personnel was on the order of several rem, with five rem as the limit. We wondered if the measure of effectiveness for a shielding engineer was to design a system that allowed exposure close to the limit, or to design a system that minimized personnel exposure!
The Wardroom was tired, but clean, and could accommodate about 16 at four tables. It was also home to a family of cats that were obviously well fed-and we saw no mice aboard! We concluded our visit with several rounds of toasts and a light snack. As a departure gift, we each received a sailor’s cap, a kerchief, set of anti-contamination underwear (as described by the Captain), and the denim coveralls we had worn below decks. And, needless to say, we each came away with wonderful memories of a never to be forgotten experience.
It would be easy to draw the wrong conclusion from this visit. Clearly the capabilities of this ship were very limited and it will soon be decommissioned. But, the crew and her Captain seemed committed and proud of what they were doing with the tools they and been given. As we all know, the Russian submarine force has some very impressive platforms and ships like those in the hands of a well trained crew will remain a force to be reckoned with for years to come. We must never lose sight of that fundamental fact as we continue to stabilize our relationship with the Russian Federation.
CAPT John H. Bowell, USN(Ret.)
GMC Keeven (Gunner) Hurtt, Jr., USN(Ret.)
CAPT J .S. Schmidt, USN(Ret.)
Daniel H. Wagner
Gordon W. Yetter