On 12 December 2013 the BBC broadcast the second episode of a two-part series called The Silent War, which dealt with a secret underwater espionage war that the UK and USA fought against the USSR during the Cold War. Click here for my post on the first episode. The BBC website describes the second episode, titled The Russians are Coming! as follows:
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the front line of the Cold War was hidden beneath the ocean. Submariners from three navies – American, Soviet and British – played a deadly game of cat and mouse in a secret war of espionage and intimidation. The nuclear balance between East and West was constantly shifting. This was a constant struggle to gain technological advantage, and the Soviets developed submarines that were ever more sophisticated – bigger, faster and more luxurious – than any developed by the West.
For over 40 years the details of this tense stand-off have been a closely guarded secret. Now submariners from all three navies are able to talk more openly than ever before. They reveal how the underwater arms race took ballistic missiles beneath the Arctic ice, and they remember how it nearly ended in nuclear disaster at sea.
In 1973 the hunter killer submarine USS Flying Fish was sent to Barents Sea to detect and obtain intelligence on the new Soviet Delta class of ballistic missile submarines, which were thought to carry new long-range missiles capable of hitting the USA without leaving the USSR’s waters. The existing Yankee class, as NATO codenamed the Soviet Project 667A submarines, had to go to the mid Atlantic in order to be in range of the USA, making them vulnerable to American and British hunter killer submarines.
The Flying Fish was detected and became the target of a major anti-submarine exercise. She went closer in instead of withdrawing and watched the whole exercise. This provided vital intelligence about Soviet anti-submarine tactics.
The advent of the Deltas meant that American and British hunter killer submarines now had to enter the Barents Sea in order to detect and shadow Soviet missiles submarines. There are two methods by which a submarine can detect another whilst both are submerged. Active sonar is more accurate, but reveals the presence of the searcher by pinging the enemy. It is usually used to get an exact fix before firing. Passive sonar entails silent listening, which hides the searcher, but makes it harder to detect the enemy. American and British submarines were quieter than the Soviet ones, but the Soviets were working hard to close gap.
The Flying Fish was the first submarine to use a passive towed array sonar. This consisted of ultra sensitive hydrophones towed up to mile behind the submarine. They could hear more than the human ear and the distance from the towing submarine reduced interference from its noise.
By 1977 the Soviets had more ballistic missile submarines than the UK and USA combined. The Soviets were also developing cruise missiles to attack US aircraft carriers. Spying on Soviet weapons testing became more important than ever so that NATO could develop counter measures.
In 1982 the USS Grayling reported that the Delta that it was tracking was heading north, and was ordered to follow, although she lacked the necessary charts. The Delta disappeared below the ice, which was normal for the Soviets, who had surveyed the Arctic sea bed and possessed accurate charts of it. their submarines could hide under the ice, which is noisy, cancelling out the American and British advantage.advantage. The Delta had a hovering system that allowed it to go completely still then break through ice. A missile fired from the North Pole would reach the USA in 20 minutes, allowing little time for retaliation. The Deltas each carried 16 missiles with multiple warheads each.
The Soviets then introduced the Typhoon class, the world’s biggest ever submarines, which were designed to break through ice. They could stay submerged for six months: American and British submarines never patrolled for more than two months. A nuclear submarine’s endurance is limited only by its food supply and the morale of its crew. The Typhoons had better living conditions, including a sauna, swimming pool and gym. The crew slept in proper cabins, with even ordinary sailors having four berth ones. A Typhoon carried 20 missiles which each had 10 self guided warheads, allowing it to attack double the number of targets as a Delta.
In the early 1980s the Soviets introduced the Victor III hunter killer submarines, which were intended to destroy all American and British ballistic missile submarines in the event of war. They were approaching technical parity with the American and British hunter killers, and the West was alarmed and puzzled by the speed of Soviet technological advance.
After taking office in 1981 President Ronald Reagan reversed US military budget cuts and dismissed the policy of arms control as being a one way street. He approved the most aggressive naval exercises conducted since WWII in the North Cape region. John Lehman, his Navy Secretary, said that the purpose was to scare the Soviets. The USN’s war plan was now to attack Soviet Navy in Barents Sea, forcing them to keep their hunter killers at home to defend their ballistic missile submarines.
The level of tension was now the greatest that it had been since the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1985, however, Mikhail Gorbachev took power in the USSR. He restructured economy and reopened arms talks.
Also in 1985, the Americans uncovered a spy ring led by John Walker, an ex USN submariner & communications expert. He had recruited other spies, including his son, a US sailor serving on an aircraft carrier, and sold the Soviets secrets that enabled them to close the technological gap on the USN. He was betrayed by his estranged wife.
In 1987 the Soviets launched Operation Atrina. Five Victor IIIs were found by SOSUS, the US submarine detection system, as they moved into Atlantic. NATO wondered why the Soviets would send their best team out in strength? Four were quickly detected as they headed south. The fifth was quieter,: one of the ex-RN officers interviewed suggested that she was better maintained and managed.
Admiral Vladimir Chernavin, a submariner who was then Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy, explained that the second stage was to see if a submarine detected by enemy could become invisible and escape. He allowed he first use of a system of hydro-acoustic resistance. Special torpedo that emitted the same sounds as the submarine were launched, with the submarine then going a different way to the torpedo
The Victors escaped, and the Americans first searched for them at the entrance to the Mediterranean, but they were headed for the Sargasso Sea. Soviet submarines were not built for such hot waters, making conditions on board very uncomfortable. Their objectives were to confirm their belief that US ballistic missile submarines hid there, and to see if could have carried out a strike on the USA from such a position. They were spotted after eight days but had accomplished their mission in five days.
By 1987 some Soviet submarines were very sophisticated, but most were older, for example the K219. It suffered an explosion due to sea water leaking into its missile tubes and mixing with the missiles’ liquid fuel. Two sailors were killed in the explosion and another gas poisoning.
All compartments were quickly sealed, preventing the whole boat from flooding, but 25 men were trapped in the damaged section. The captain decided to risk opening the section in order to save them. There was then a 14 hour battle to save the submarine. The nuclear reactor had to be shut down, but the automatic system to do so failed. Sergei Preminin, a conscript seaman, volunteered to enter the reactor room and shut it down manually. He succeeded in doing so, but a change in the pressure meant that he could not open the hatch to escape the reactor room and was killed. The rest of the crew was rescued just before the submarine sank, along with 16 missiles and 48 nuclear warheads.
This was a human tragedy and a symbol of the unreliable condition of the Soviet Navy and economy. The USSR was broken by its huge investment in armaments. The Soviet sailors interviewed argued that they suffered a political rather than a military defeat in the Cold War.
There are profiles of some of the submariners interviewed on the BBC website. For UK viewers it is available on the I-Player until 19 December and is repeated on BBC2 at 23:20 on BBC2 on 18 December (23:45 in Scotland) and at 3:00 on 29 December: the latter showing may have signing for the deaf, as repeats of BBC programmes in the early hours of the morning often do.