This article is extracted with permission from the 2008 issue of the Maritime Walfare Bulletin of the Canadian Forces Maritime Walfare Center, of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Editor’s Note: The author has provided the following context for the longer article in this issue of the Mari time Wat fare Bulletin from which this piece is extracted:
“This article is a result of declassification of Canadian Navy Cold War submarine operations in support of CTF 84 ASW missions against Soviet SSBNs in the Canadian Atlantic Area of Responsibility (AOR). The article is part of the fourth volume of the official history of the Royal Canadian Navy, to be published in 2010 as part of the 1OOth Anniversary of the Canadian Navy. The fourth volume covers from 1967 to first Gulf War (1991 ). Although our three Oberon class SSKs were only a small part of our Fleet during this time frame, we did have some success detecting and tracking Soviet submarines. In particular, the patrol HMCS OJIBWA conducted against a Delta 2 SSBN with Victor 3 delousing was quite noteworthy. I have found no other record of a NA TO SSK prosecuting a SSBN for the length of time OJIBWA remained in trail, although I presume some of these ops are still classified.
“As we bring our four Victoria SSKs (ex-RN Upholders) into operational service, we continue to build on the history of the important contributions that the Canadian Oberon have made to support of our NATO, CAN-US and national commitments.”
Summarizing the heavy load of exercising and training serials OJJBW A had borne in 1984, her commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Phil Webster-Ace to his colleagues- repeated the hoary adage that operations at sea are typically 99 per cent boredom, one per cent wild excitement. Although complete patrol records are unavailable, there is enough evidence to apply that maxim to OSP 1/85. After the last minute loading of torpedoes and other supplies, OJIBWA departed Halifax on the afternoon of 25 February 1985. Despite the confidence accrued through outstanding performance in NA TO exercises in 1984, Webster lamented that OJIBW A’s crew did not have the benefit of a dedicated training period prior to the patrol to shake off the rust that had accumulated over a maintenance and leave period. This was an old lesson, and senior officers subsequently acknowledged, “that rigorous equipment shakedown and significant preparation must precede all patrols of this nature.”
OJIBWA was headed to a patrol area in the Labrador Sea southwest of Greenland where Soviet Delta SSBNs regularly occupied firing positions. It was a Jong transit. Typical for the time of year, the weather was poor and a following sea made snorting difficult. The intelligence Webster received during the initial part of the trip also was not promising and with the prospect of a long boring patrol ahead he tried to catch up on his reading. One of the first books he cracked was Lothario-Gilberte Bucharest’s Das Boot, and he recalls the environment described in the classic novel of U- boat warfare was not all that different from what OJIBWA was enduring. Despite the routine nature of the transit there was still work to do. The command team practiced BINT procedures and the torpedo crew conducted maintenance checks on the Mk 37s. OJIBWA also carried out noise radiation checks with CP-140s (Editor’s Note: Canadian Maritime Patrol Aircraft) that indicated that the boat was running “incredibly quiet.” Despite that, Webster had concerns that poor communications discipline ashore and from an MPA may have compromised their location.
After a nine-day transit OJIBWA reached her patrol area on 6 March 1985. Although they obtained a number of inconclusive long-range sonar hits there were no other signs of activity, and Webster worried OJIBWA might come up empty. The picture improved on 10 March when they received information that a Soviet SSBN, designated LD-0 l 0, had been detected moving into the CANLANT zone. As OJIBWA awaited curing, CP-140 Auroras, guided by information from SOSUS, flew constantly, sewing sonar buoy patterns in an attempt to find the boomer. In waters notoriously bad for sonar and with the SSBN likely running deep and slow to reduce its signature, this was an exceedingly difficult task: as one submarine recalled, “it was a very hard place to find a quiet submarine.” After four days, however, MP As localized the contact, classified it as a Delta class SSBN, and controllers sent OJIBWA north to intercept.
Since the 1970s American attack boats had attempted to shadow all Soviet SSBNs, throughout their patrol. The rationale was brutally simple. In 1985 Secretary of the Navy John Lehman announced that American SSNs intended to attack Soviet missile boats “in the first five minutes of the war.” Although this was the first public declaration of the strategy, the Soviets had been aware of it for some time-probably from information provided by the Walker spy ring. In an attempt to preserve their first strike capability, the Northern Fleet began to use its own attack boats to screen their SSBNs. This practice- used by both sides during the Cold War-was known as delousing, and in the early 1980s the Soviets introduced the new Project 671 RTM Victor lII class SSN into this high-stakes strategic waltz. Victor Ills were the most advanced submarine yet produced by the Soviets and they quickly assumed almost mythical status within the NA TO ASW community. They could be tracked with great difficulty through the GIUK Gap and other choke points, but once they were in the open Atlantic, as OJIBWA discovered, they were extremely elusive.
On 16 March, while OJIBWA searched for the Delta, controllers informed Webster that a VICTOR III was in the immediate area, and, worse still, might be trailing him. The hunter had become the hunted. Webster immediately took his boat deep into the sound convergence layers where sonar achieved best results and, sure enough, soon picked-up a contact. Although initially classified as biological, further investigation indicated it might be a submarine, and this was suddenly substantiated by an active sonar transmission from down the same bearing. Since Soviet submariners often banged away on active sonar, this was probably confirmation of their presence. It also signified that OJIBWA might have been counter-detected. The next time he went to periscope depth to check communications, Webster received a strep based on MPA tracking that suggested OJIBWA had passed close to the DELTA and probably the VICTOR III as well. At the same time, MARCOM ordered Webster to head south along the projected course of the SSBN. Unsure if they were themselves being followed, OJIBWA crept away as quietly as possible.
The next 72 hours brimmed with tension. As OJIBWA moved south, Auroras put up a maximum effort, flying around the clock to track the DELTA. With SOSUS support they managed to localize the contact, and on St. Patrick’s Day afternoon, Webster received the go-ahead to close the Delta for the purpose of gathering acoustic intelligence. It was a long, challenging search. Biological contacts fouled broadband and the SSBN used the standard Soviet tactic of keeping close to the North Atlantic Ridge to mask its signature: like all 0-boat crews involved in Operation- al Surveillance Patrols (OSPs) OJIBWA’s attack team lamented the lack of sophisticated narrow band equipment. Teamwork between the SSK and MPAs remained almost seamless. When OJIBWA had to snort, MPAs cued her back to a promising area upon completion.
Finally, OJIBWA hit the jackpot. At 0 I02Z on 19 March – the day before she was to begin her return passage to Halifax – the sonar crew gained hits with both 2007 and 187. A firing solution was immediately input into the fire control system, and Target Motion Analysis tracked the DELTA as it conducted a routine tum to clear its stern arc. The big missile boat kept coming and passed so close down the starboard side – Webster estimated under 800 yards – the crew could hear the quiet thumping of machinery as the SSBN slunk by. Webster recalls no real excitement in the boat; the crew just went about their business, quietly and professionally. OJIBWA stuck with the DELTA throughout the 20th, tailing her from about 2000 yards, and maintaining a firing solution. Each time they went to snort MPAs brought them back into contact. All the while OJIBWA gathered a treasure trove of acoustic intelligence.
After hours of what now seemed like routine shadowing, the situation suddenly became exceedingly tense. When the delta turned to clear its baffles in the late hours of 20 March, a second contact popped up on sonar, heading the other direction. Webster immediately classified it as the VICTOR III he had been warned about four days earlier. The delouse did its job. Breaking towards the Canadian boat it lit up OJIBWA with active sonar. The effect was dramatic. Soviet SSNs used high frequency active sonar that NA TO code named Blocks of Wood; the sound it made on the hull of its target was precisely that of a pair of two-by-fours being slapped crisply together. Now certain he had been detected, Webster faced a difficult situation. His primary responsibility had to be the safety of his boat and he was far from port, so far in fact that if something went wrong his nearest refuge was the UK, not Halifax. Moreover, he was maneuvering in extremely close proximity to two adversaries, one of which was trying to drive him away. Rumors of collisions between NA TO and Soviet submarines abounded- current unofficial estimates put the number at as many as 40 incidents-and Webster was determined that OJIBWA not join that company. Due to begin his homeward passage within hours anyways, and already possessing acoustic data from both contacts, at 2300 20 March Webster broke off contact. Summarizing the drama in his patrol report, he ruefully noted, ” … was counter-detected … and actively prosecuted …. The second submarine was successful in riding off the patrolling unit.”
Despite the fact that Webster broke off the operation, OJIBWA had conducted the most successful surveillance patrol mounted by an 0-boat in Canadian waters. It certainly achieved Commander Nesbit’s objective to demonstrate to the Americans that we could look after our own backyard. On her way back to Halifax, COMPLAISANT notified MARCOM and OJIBWA, “Your recent ASW prosecutions most impressive and productive. Your efforts have contributed significantly to the LANTFLT ASW picture and have not gone unnoticed.” That was about as wide as the celebration got, as OSP 1/85 remained cloaked in secrecy. When OJIBWA reached home, the squadron commander mustered the crew-Webster had kept them in the picture-and threatened if anybody uttered a word about the patrol he would cut off a vital part of their anatomy. Likewise, when Vice-Admiral J. Wood, the Commander MARCOM, reviewed the patrol with Nesbit and Webster, he said they had better keep the information to themselves.