The arming of U.S. submarines with Trident I and II ballistic missiles and Tomahawk cruise missiles should greatly increase the strategic threat to the Soviet Union. It is possible that Soviet defense policymakers may not react to this heightened threat and thereby implicitly guarantee the security of the U.S. second-strike forces. More likely, however, the Soviets will seek to respond to these developments in such a way as to minimize their potential to inflict damage.
Based on the Soviets’ past behavior and their current overall strategic doctrine, they are very likely to seek a counter to the increased capability of U.S. submarines equipped with cruise missiles and improved ballistic missiles. For example, since I960 the Soviet Navy has devoted considerable effort, materiel, and money to defend against submarines carrying Polaris and Poseidon missiles. Also, as a growing number of U.S. analysts of Soviet defense posture have noted over the last two years, the Soviets seem more interested in developing a warfighting capability than in building security based on deterrence.1 This means that the Soviet Union is unwilling to accept the concept of assured mutual destruction upon which deterrence theory rests. Rather, Soviet strategic theorists have sought to develop a doctrine that will permit the Soviet Union to fight and win a nuclear war. Given the past and present emphasis on strategic defense, it seems apparent that the Soviet Union will react to the threat posed by U.S. missile-carrying submarines in the 1980s. The key question therefore is “what options are open?”
Conceptions of Antisubmarine Warfare (ASW): Before examining the measures that the Soviet Navy could employ in countering the enhanced U.S. submarine threat in the next decade, it is first necessary to understand how Soviet naval doctrine conceptualizes the problem. Although the Soviet Navy had little concern for ASW prior to the introduction of the U.S. Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) in I960, since then, Soviet naval leaders have recognized the importance of the U.S. submarine threat and so have stressed the Soviet Navy’s ASW mission. This ASW theory, as it has evolved since the early 1960s, has conceived the problem in terms of "nearzone” and “far-zone” ASW operations with Soviet writers usually defining the near zone as a narrow strip along the coast and the far defensive zone as extending from the outermost boundary of the near zone to the maximum range of the enemy’s SLBMs.2
This two-zone ASW doctrine has in turn influenced the type of systems developed to counter the U.S. undersea threat. In discussing near-zone operations, many Soviet naval authorities have emphasized the deployment of specialized antisubmarine surface vessels, aircraft, and helicopters. By contrast, combat in the far zone was usually thought to rely on attack or hunter-killer submarines or, as Vice Admiral A. I. Sorokin expressed it, . . the most powerful enemy of an atomic submarine is another atomic submarine, a special anti-submarine, or as the Americans call it, an attack submarine.”3
Near-Zone Defense: When the U.S. SLBM threat first arose, it consisted of the Polaris A-l, a missile with a maximum range of only 1,200 nautical miles. Later, even though U.S. technology improved, the range of the new systems still extended to only 2,500 nautical miles. Inasmuch as most of these missiles’ targets were far inland, the U.S. ballistic-missile submarines were forced to operate rather near Soviet shores and so, from the early 1960s until today, most Soviet ASW activities could be concentrated within the near defense zone.
As discussed earlier, Soviet naval leaders of the early 1960s not only formulated the concept of two defensive zones, they also wrote about the most appropriate ASW systems for each zone. Apparently these doctrinal discussions either gave the impetus to a large-scale surface ship construction program or were an ex post facto justification of decisions already made. Either way, the Soviet Navy in the 1960s made a large commitment to constructing a fleet of antisubmarine warfare ships after the U.S. SLBM threat emerged.
This commitment to building a powerful fleet of ASW surface vessels was translated into the construction of seven new classes of cruisers, destroyers, and frigates as well as two classes of small aircraft carriers. In a revealing move, the Soviet Navy chose to designate the new cruisers, destroyers, and frigates as Bol'shoy Pritivolodochnyy Korabl (large ASW ship) and the aircraft carriers as Protivolodocbnyy Kreyser (submarine-intercepting cruiser). Doubtless, these Soviet designators were intended to be functionally descriptive of the new classes’ proposed roles. This interpretation of the Soviet building program was reinforced by a recent article in International Defense Review which viewed the principal objective of the construction of large antisubmarine ships and “carriers” to be “. . . to move the Russian ASW perimeter out to the maximum range of the Polaris missile. . . .”4
The Soviet Navy has also sought to employ aircraft in ASW activities in the near zone. For instance, several times in his latest book, Sea Power of the State, Admiral Sergei G. Gorshkov, chief of the Soviet Navy, made the point that the best use of Soviet Naval Aviation is antisubmarine warfare.5 The Soviets have also realized the value of helicopters which are seen “to play an increasing role in the anti-submarine warfare.”6 This philosophy was implemented in the Ka-25 helicopter, especially designed for ASW operations off the Moskva. Such interest in air-capable ASW vessels may also extend to the development of wing-in-ground effect vehicles.
Clearly during the 1960s and 1970s, the Soviet Navy has sought to minimize the potency of the U.S. Polaris and Poseidon missile forces by planning to attack the submarines which carry them. Such a strategy has been possible and practical in large measure because the operating range of U.S. fleet ballistic-missile submarines has been constrained to a rather narrow band around the Soviet coast.
Far-Zone Defense: Soviet naval authorities sought to prepare a far-zone defense even when near-zone measures appeared adequate to contend with the U.S. missile-firing submarine threat. Recurrently, the writings of Soviet admirals echoed the theme that long-range ASW defense was well suited for hunter- killer or attack submarines. For example, Admiral Gorshkov wrote in 1965 that nuclear-powered submarines could ”... cope in full measure with battle missions against the surface and underwater striking forces of the enemy navy. . . .”7 Seven years later, Gorshkov still held the same view as evidenced by his remark, “Submarines are also becoming valuable antisubmarine combatants, capable of detecting and destroying the enemy’s missile-carrying submarines.”8 Concurring with Gorshkov, Vice Admiral Sorokin emphasized:
“Of all ASW forces only a submarine finds itself in the same environment and under the same conditions as an enemy submarine. Its speed and autonomy permit it for a long time to pursue a target or remain in position. A submarine, as the enemy of something like itself, has many advantages.”9
Thus, although some Western analysts have criticized this Soviet approach to ASW as impractical, it is evident from the statements of men such as Gorshkov and Sorokin that the Soviet Navy believes that hunter-killer submarines are not only practical but the first line of defense in the far zone.
The Soviet Navy has apparently sought to put this concept of hunter-killer submarines into operation through its commitment to build improved nuclear attack submarines. This is in part suggested by the design of the “Victor 1” and “Victor II” classes which Western observers feel are for “anti-submarine area- defense.”10 Such use of hunter-killer submarines in antisubmarine roles is also suggested by the Soviets’ fielding of the SS-N-15 missile—a weapon designed for use by submarines against other submarines.11
A close reading of Soviet doctrinal literature indicates that hunter-killer submarines are intended only to supplement near-zone defenses in the era of Polaris and Poseidon missiles. Presumably during this era, Soviet hunter-killer submarines are intended to interdict and destroy as many U.S. missile-armed submarines as possible before they reach their firing stations so as to relieve some of the burden from the near-zone defenders. In addition, Soviet ASW submarines may have been designed to reinforce more conventional ASW forces at the farthest edge of the near zone where the power of the near-zone forces is presumably weakest.
The U.S. Threat in the 1980s: With this rudimentary understanding of past Soviet ASW measures, it is now possible to turn to the question of how the Soviets could respond to the threat posed by U.S. missile-carrying submarines in the 1980s. However, before exploring this issue, it is essential to examine the nature of the future U.S. threat since it differs substantially from that of the 1960s and 1970s. One obvious difference is that the Soviet Navy will have to counter both ballistic missile and cruise missile- carrying submarines. The dissimilar characteristics of these systems will pose differing problems for Soviet ASW forces. The other major distinction between the ASW environment of the present and that of the future is the vastly increased range of U.S. submarine- launched ballistic missiles. Trident 1 and II are expected to have maximum ranges of 4,000 nautical miles and 6,000 nautical miles, respectively, so both systems will considerably outdistance the 2,500- nautical-mile range of the Polaris and Poseidon systems.12 Such increases in the range of the U.S. systems and in their potential areas of operations will seriously impact on the Soviet problem of defense. In fact, the greatly expanded range of Trident I ballistic missiles allows submarines to patrol “ten to twenty times the total sea area available to today’s SSBN’s.”13
Meeting the Cruise Missile Threat: The standoff range of U.S. submarines armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles provides a significant clue as to how the Soviet Navy will seek to neutralize this threat. The range of the current model is no more than 1,500 nautical miles; however, this could be extended to 2,500 nautical miles through modifications now under consideration.14 Thus, from the Soviet standpoint, the problem of defending against the Tomahawk-carrying submarines is analogous to that of defending against Polaris- and Poseidon-armed submarines. Given the Soviets’ zonal concept of ASW defense, it seems probable that they will continue to employ the concepts and equipment now used by the near-zone defense forces.
If the Soviets do, as anticipated, view the U.S. cruise missile-firing submarines as a near-zone problem, they will stress continued development and production of large ASW ships and ASW “carriers.” In addition, they could seek to perfect some unconventional ASW platforms such as wing-in-ground effect vehicles. This interpretation of future Soviet weapons policy is supported by a review of Gorshkov’s Sea Power of the State wherein the reviewer concludes, "In the realm of surface combatants, primary emphasis will be placed on antisubmarine warfare platforms, to include additional Kiev-class carriers and even follow-on classes of antisubmarine warfare-oriented air-capable ships.”15
Because of the aerodynamic nature of cruise missiles, the Soviets do not have to treat them as strictly an ASW problem. Instead, Soviet naval and Air Defense Forces could increase the quantity of existing surface-to-air missile systems in hopes of shooting down the U.S. cruise missiles before they reach their targets. However, based on past Soviet practices in developing surface-to-air missile systems, it seems unlikely that they would develop new systems specifically to counter the U.S. cruise missiles.
A third strategy could be a political one; that is, the Soviets could seek through negotiations to ban or seriously restrict cruise-missile deployment. Such an approach seems to have been tried already during the early phases of SALT 1! (strategic arms limitation talks) negotiations wherein the Soviets first argued for banning strategic U.S. cruise missiles as impediments to arms control, and, failing this, to limit the numbers of SLCMs deployed. From the scanty information now available about recent U.S.-U.S.S.R. negotiations on a SALT II agreement, it is clear that the Soviets achieved neither objective. Their political strategy, however, apparently did produce one significant concession from the United States—range limitations on fielded cruise missiles for the first three years of the SALT accord. Although official confirmation of the precise range limitations agreed upon is unavailable at the time of this writing, several newspapers have reported that the cruise missiles will be limited to 1,500 nautical miles.
Such SLCM range limitations have important consequences for Soviet operations against the U.S. submarines which will be launching Tomahawks. A maximum range of 1,500 nautical miles in effect means the U.S. submarines will be forced to operate well within the Soviet near defensive zone—an area already heavily defended by large ASW ships and ASW “carriers.” Thus, an ASW response against cruise missile-firing submarines will require a relatively modest Soviet investment.
Meeting the U.S. SLBM Threat: Whereas the operational characteristics of U.S. SLCMs make the job of defending against the submarine threat easier for the Soviets, the maximum ranges of the Trident I and II missiles make the task of defeating U.S. ballistic- missile submarines much more difficult. The standoff distances for Trident submarines will be far outside the Soviet near defensive zone. Given the relative weakness of the Soviets’ existing far-zone forces and systems, it seems likely that they will seek to bolster these forces after the Trident-armed submarines become operational.
The most likely course of future Soviet action would be to strengthen ASW defenses in keeping with current long-range concepts. Presumably this would involve producing more nuclear-powered attack or hunter-killer submarines of existing designs. Another possibility would be for Soviet naval architects to develop new attack submarine designs which would more heavily emphasize ASW capabilities. Such an approach is in line with past remarks by Admiral Gorshkov and Vice Admiral Sorokin.
To improve long-range ASW operations, the Soviet Navy is not constrained simply to upgrading the caliber of its hunter-killer submarines. Another approach is to increase the ASW submarines’ chances of success by developing or refining auxiliary systems. For example, the Soviets will probably choose further development of antisubmarine missile technology of the kind embodied in the SS-N-15 missile. Refinement of this technology would permit Soviet hunter-killer submarines to attack U.S. Trident submarines from long range—possibly several hundred miles. The effectiveness of hunter-killer submarines armed with antisubmarine missiles could be further increased if the Soviets were to coordinate information gathered by maritime reconnaissance satellites with ASW operations. In these operations, the reconnaissance satellites would provide target location information which in turn would be fed to a Soviet attack submarine waiting to launch its missiles against a Trident submarine. In fact, the Soviets may already possess this capability since recent statements by U.S. defense officials indicate that the Soviets have developed two new classes of satellites for global ocean surveillance, possibly with the ability to gather target information on submarines.16 Soviet far-zone ASW capabilities could also be improved through the development of better undersea sensors and sonar equipment which can be used by Soviet ASW submarines.
A second far-zone ASW strategy could center on the use of diesel-powered submarines in hunter-killer operations. Such submarines would have the advantages of superior quietness and maneuverability compared with their nuclear-powered prey, but they would have the disadvantages of less speed and shorter periods of underwater cruising. Obviously, diesel submarines deployed in ASW activities could not trail U.S. ballistic-missile submarines from their home ports to their launch stations. Therefore, diesel attack submarines may not be deployed in the same manner as a nuclear hunter-killer submarine. Nevertheless, conventionally powered Soviet submarines could operate very effectively in ambush operations. That is, the Soviets could concentrate a large number of diesel submarines at “choke points” such as the entrance to the Mediterranean and await the arrival of U.S. ballistic missile-firing submarines en route to launch points in the eastern Mediterranean. Thus, a concentration of large numbers of diesel attack submarines within a narrow passage could offset these vessels’ lack of speed and sustained cruising capability.
So far, we have discussed Soviet responsiveness to the threat of U.S. missile submarines operating within the far zones in terms of ASW responses. Closer examination of the nature of the threat suggests that it rests chiefly on long-range ballistic missiles and, consequently, the Soviets may see the problem as anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defense rather than ASW. Such a conceptualization would prompt a strategy intended for the missiles while ignoring the submarines. If the Soviets do opt for an ABM defense, they may either seek to perfect a radically new technology or new generations of ABM missiles.
Although the current U.S.-U.S.S.R. ABM treaty limits the deployment of ABM missiles, both sides are still free to continue development of such systems. This is a potentially big advantage to the Soviets in that they may seek to perfect ABM missile systems to counter Trident I and II SLBMs and, once perfected, abrogate the treaty or seek its renegotiation so as to permit wider deployment. Another approach might be for the Soviets to develop a mobile or modular ABM system which could be developed, produced in secret, and stored until a crisis. Then, at the key moment, these mobile or modular systems could be quickly deployed to reduce the effectiveness of Trident I and II missiles.
As mentioned above, a Soviet ABM defense could rely on super weapons based on technologies not covered under the existing ABM treaty. One possibility would be the perfection of laser weapons against incoming missiles or against U.S. reconnaissance satellites which provide target acquisition data. Another possibility would be for the Soviets to develop charged-particle beam weapons which would destroy incoming ballistic missiles.
Although the degree of Soviet commitment to an ABM defense strategy is unknown at present, there are indications that the Soviet Union is at least pursuing ABM concepts. In a recent appearance before Congress, Mr. James Miller of the Defense Intelligence Agency testified that the Soviets are “actively pursuing an ABM technology development program.”17 Also, in 1976, Mr. John Walsh of the Defense Department’s Office of Defense Research and Engineering gave a briefing in which he stated that the Soviet Union had two major ABM missile systems under development—one of which had been deployed at an unprepared site in only 11 weeks.IS
There is also evidence that the Soviets are experimenting with advanced technologies for use in ABM operations. In the same briefing in which he revealed the existence of two Soviet ABM missile programs, Walsh also revealed that the Soviets have a high-powered laser facility located at an ABM test range.19 Details of how this laser might be used in ABM defenses were censored from Walsh’s testimony. Apparently, the Soviets have also sought to create a charged particle beam weapon for ABM defense; in fact, such a system may now exist in experimental form.20 In the spring of 1977, a debate as to the existence of such weapons was kicked off within the United States by an issue of Aviation Week and Space Technology which alleged the existence of “. . . hard proof of eight successful Soviet tests of directed- energy beam weapon technology. . . .”21 The existence of an operational charged-particle beam weapon for ABM defense was subsequently denied by both President Jimmy Carter and Secretary of Defense Harold Brown. Nonetheless, there seems to be enough evidence to indicate that the Soviets are at least conducting research and development toward this end—something not denied by either Carter or Brown.22
A fourth strategy which the Soviets might employ is to extend the boundary of the near defense zone and apply near-zone ASW concepts to the problem of neutralizing the Trident submarines and their Trident I and II missiles. This would mean a large commitment to building more large ASW ships, ASW “carriers,” ASW helicopters, and other near-zone systems. Adoption of this strategy seems unlikely since it would require a massive investment in an amount that is probably beyond the Navy’s ability to justify, particularly in the face of objections by the ground forces from whose budget the money would come. Even if the Soviet Navy could obtain the necessary resources, it is unlikely that it has sufficient forward area bases or enough long-range support equipment to effectively cover the area patrolled by the U.S. Trident submarines.
Although the discussion so far has presented several potential Soviet strategic responses to the threat posed by U.S. submarines armed with ballistic missiles, these strategies are not mutually exclusive. That is, it seems probable (especially in the face of evidence regarding the Soviets’ current activities) that they will adopt a multifaceted approach. For example, the Soviet Navy may seek to tighten far-zone defenses through improved nuclear-powered, hunter-killer and diesel-powered “ambush” submarines. At the same time it may attempt to improve auxiliary systems such as antisubmarine missiles and maritime reconnaissance satellites which can increase the effectiveness of its fleet of ASW submarines. In addition, the Soviets could push the development of either an ABM missile, high-technology ABM weapons, or both, for defense against Trident I and II missiles.
Overall Conclusions: Evidence of past and present Soviet activities clearly reveals the intention to react to the increased level of threat posed by U.S. submarines armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles and Trident ballistic missiles during the next decade. Not to respond, given the Soviets’ past emphasis on strategic defense measures, would be unthinkable. As suggested by the previous discussion, Soviet responses are most likely to involve:
►Strengthening near-zone ASW defenses against submarines carrying Tomahawk cruise missiles or Polaris and Poseidon ballistic missiles by producing more and better ASW “carriers,” large ASW ships, ASW helicopters, and possibly wing-in-ground effect vehicles
►Improving hunter-killer or attack submarines to counter U.S. submarines in the far zone
►Developing auxiliary systems to increase the effectiveness of hunter-killer submarines operating in the far zone
►Developing an ABM defense based on either mobile or modular ABM missile systems or high- technology weapons (e.g., directed-energy weapons)
►Deploying diesel-powered submarines at the sea’s choke points to ambush U.S. submarines before they arrive at their firing stations.
In short, the Soviet defensive response to the U.S. threat is likely to be both comprehensive in scope and multifaceted in form.
1. Richard Pipes, “Why the Soviet Union Thinks It Could Fight and Win a Nuclear War,” Air Force Magazine, September 1977, pp. 54-67.
2. Norman Polmar, “Thinking About Soviet ASW,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, May 1976 (Naval Review Issue), p. 123.
3. Quoted in Norman Polmar, "Soviet Submarines a Factor of Imbalance,” Navy International, October 1976, pp. 12-13-
4. Jurgen Rohwer, “The Role of the Kiev and Her VTOL Fighter Group,” International Defense Review, December 1976, p. 912.
5. Bruce W. Watson, “Comments on Gorshkov’s ‘Sea Power of the State,’ ” Proceedings, April 1977, p. 42.
6. M. Belov, “Combat Employment of Helicopters at Sea,” Soviet Military Review, February 1975, p. 23.
7. S. G. Gorshkov, “Naval Might of Soviet Power,” Soviet Military Review, July 1965, p. 6.
8. Gorshkov, “Navies in War and in Peace,” Proceedings, November 1974, p. 62.
9. Polmar, “Soviet Submarines a Factor of Imbalance,” p. 13.
10. Michael MccGwire, “The Structure of the Soviet Navy," in Soviet Naval Developments: Capability and Context, Michael MccGwire, editor (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1973), p. 154.
11. John Moore, editor, Jane's Fighting Ships 1976-1977 (London: Jane’s Yearbooks, 1976), p. 790.
12. Department of the Navy, “TRIDENT System Fact Sheet,” Trident System Project, 1977.
14. J. Philip Geddes, “The Sea Launched Cruise Missile,” International Defense Review, April 1976, p. 198.
15. Watson, op. cit., p. 47.
16. Polmar, “Soviet Submarines a Factor of Imbalance,” p. 12.
17. “Senate Unit Warned of Soviet ABM Effort," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 1 August 1977, p. 17.
18. R. T. Pretty, “Foreword," Jane's Weapons Systems 1977 (London: Jane’s Yearbooks, 1976), p. 83.
20. Clarence A. Robinson, Jr., “Soviets Push for Beam Weapon,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, 2 May 1977, p. 16.
21. Robert Hotz, “Beam Weapon Threat,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, 2 May 1977, p. 11.
22. For a discussion of Soviet interests in directed energy weapons, see Robinson, “Soviets Push for Beam Weapon,” Aviation Week and Space Technology. 2 May 1976, pp. 16-24.