Defense Department officials are reporting that two Russian nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) are operating in the North Atlantic, off the East coast of North America. (H/t — Allahpundit at Hot Air.) Both are reportedly Akula-class (“Shark”) SSNs, and at least one is an Akula-II, a modified Akula variant that is the Russian navy’s most modern attack submarine. (That feature must be taken in the context of Russia’s generally aging fleet, and the fact that Russia was willing to lease an Akula-II to India last year. The technology of the Akula-II’s propulsion and major combat systems is 20 or more years old.) According to press reporting, at least one of the submarines has come as close as 200 miles off the coast. As of 4 August, one of the SSNs was known to have headed south, possibly for a port call in Cuba (still unconfirmed), and the other is reported to be operating near Greenland.
These patrols, the first of their kind in nearly 20 years, continue a pattern of high-profile deployments started by the Russian navy over the last 18 months. Whatever the proximate tactical associations of these patrolling SSNs, the key implication of their deployment is an intention on Russia’s part to project power: to show force in the world’s oceans, including off the coast of the United States, in a manner not demonstrated since the Cold War.
From the late 1940s to the demise of the Soviet Union in early 1992, Soviet Russian attack submarines (as well as ballistic missile submarines, starting in the 1950s) conducted patrols off the US East coast. Similar patrols in the Pacific began as early as the 1960s. In the 1980s there were typically dozens of such patrols each year. They tapered off significantly in the last few years of the USSR’s existence, and essentially ceased in the early 1990s. The Russian navy subsequently deployed submarines – occasionally – into the Norwegian Sea, and into the central North Atlantic off of the British Isles. Occasional patrols have been mounted in the northern Pacific as well, near Japan – and by occasional, I mean as few as one per year, or none. In the last few years, the Russians have also made a point of deploying submarines to the Arctic, as a means of reinforcing their territorial claims there. (See here for an earlier treatment of that, relating to a possible submarine sighting off Canada almost exactly a year ago.)
We can note the following about the current deployments. First, although a visit by one of the Akulas to Cuba would fit with the pattern of Russia naval deployments to Venezuela last fall – including the visit of a nuclear-powered cruiser and the deployment of Tu-160 Blackjack bombers, or “B-1-skis” – such a visit would be highly unusual for a nuclear-powered submarine. Conventionally-powered Soviet attack submarines operated out of Cuba during the Cold War, but not nuclear-powered submarines. The visit to Cuba of a nuclear-powered Russian navy warship would be unprecedented.
Moreover, such an overt visit by one of Russia’s stealthiest undersea assets would be intended to send the most powerful signal Moscow can mount. The old conventional submarines that used Cuba’s ports during the Cold War could not remain covert while approaching North America anyway, and required refueling to operate over long distances: since they had to expose themselves while deployed, it entailed no additional loss of covertness to enter Cuban ports. Nuclear-powered submarines can remain covert, however, and as a rule can operate for up to three months at a time without overt exposure (port calls, loading supplies) – a profile that was routine for the Soviets (although usually for more like 60-70 days) during the Cold War.
We do not know yet if one of the SSNs will go to Cuba (or, indeed, to Venezuela, a reasonable possibility). The timing of the DOD announcement on this suggests that one of them just might; and that the groundwork is being laid for the media revelation such a visit would make possible. If there is indeed a port call by one of the Russian submarines in Cuba or Venezuela, it will represent a major break with any previous Russian pattern – and will obviously be intended to have a media impact, and send significant signals about Russian power and policy.
A second dimension of this news is that Russia has interests, and a recent history of operations, in regions adjacent to the North Atlantic. In fact, the current patrols occur in a context of varied Atlantic naval activity that includes a joint exercise in June by the US, Russia, France, and the UK, off of France’s Atlantic coast, and the Indian navy’s first major, extended Atlantic deployment, which has included exercises throughout the summer with NATO navies, and with Russia’s in the Baltic Sea. The Atlantic has been a busy place, and more so for Russia in the last 18 months than in the previous 15 years. Russia conducted her largest naval exercise in at least that long in January of 2008, when she operated a naval task force and at least 30 long-range aircraft over the Bay of Biscay, off the coasts of France and Spain – an exercise that required Britain to dust off Cold War reflexes and put up fighters on alert to intercept Russian aircraft operating near the islands. Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, conducted additional exercises in the Atlantic in December 2008 on her way to a Mediterranean deployment.
The Indian navy’s pathbreaking deployment adds an especially interesting element to the maritime and geopolitical environment: one that is not irrelevant to an analysis of Russia’s naval profile. India’s big deployment is mainly intended to accomplish two objectives: establish her as a maritime power, one to be reckoned with in a belt of Western waterways decreasingly patrolled or under the hegemonic control of the US Navy; and conduct a high-profile deployment into this area that China cannot outstrip in scope. China can and does conduct world cruises with her navy, but India can do as much, and demonstrate a greater depth and extent of contacts and cooperation with NATO navies, as well as Middle Eastern navies, and Russia’s.
India, like Russia, is an Asian power, and is laboring to impress the Eastern hemisphere with an unprecedented deployment. The element of competition is inescapable. As suggested in one of the earliest Optimistic Conservative posts, the game is on for maritime influence over the “great crossroads” of the geographic juncture where Asia, Europe, and Africa meet. The more Russia sees other nations jockeying for position, the more she will emphasize her own maritime heritage and prowess by rebuilding her Cold War-era image at sea. That clearly includes the SSN patrols in the Atlantic that were bread-and-butter for the Northern Fleet for more than two decades.
Russia has also, as noted at this blog, deployed submarines to the Arctic in each of the last three years. Russia has a long maritime association with the Arctic, for obvious reasons, but has increased her naval activity there in the last decade in support of her claims, lodged with the UN, to great stretches of the continental shelf, and hence to vast amounts of oil and gas. The US, Canada, and Denmark (owner of Greenland) have such claims on file as well. As mentioned above, a possible submarine sighting last August in Canada’s Lancaster Sound, at the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage, may have been a sighting of a Russian submarine. (See the post linked above for an extended discussion of whether it was valid or not.) The significance of this association is that it may, in conjunction with today’s revelation from DOD, represent an emerging pattern of contemporary forays by Russian submarines into the northernmost waters off North America.
Two comments are in order about this. One, although it is too early to really identify a full-blown pattern, this one would be somewhat different from that of Cold War-era SSN patrols, which concentrated on an area further south. The main purposes then were supporting the deployment areas of Soviet ballistic missile patrollers, and watching for the departure of US Navy assets – submarines and surface ships – from our main Navy bases. Draw an arc to the east of Bermuda with its center point on the island, observe the chunk of ocean it defines to the west, and you get a good idea of where it was a Soviet SSN’s priority to be. The Davis Strait, Baffin Island, Nova Scotia: these were not the common haunts of the patrolling Soviet attack submarine.
The other comment is that in general, this factor, and the heightened overall activity of the Russian navy, suggest that the SSNs patrolling right now may be “multitasking,” in a way that was not common in the Soviet period. This comment is more “WAG” than anything else, but it’s a WAG made from experience, for all that. The reason for bringing this up is that an SSN deployment with a varied set of tasks, among which the submarine moves in sequence, is a different proposition from a deployment dedicated solely to one patrol profile. It is one thing for a Russian SSN to spend 70 days on patrol, 50 of them off the US coast; it is another for the submarine to spend 70 days moving from the waters of the Arctic to the waters of the Caribbean, pausing somewhere in the deployment to, perhaps, monitor foreign naval task groups like India’s or NATO navies’ in the eastern Atlantic – and fitting in a little time in the western Atlantic to make a few passes up and down America’s coast.
I have a sense, especially in light of the multitasking deployments seen with most of Russia’s warships since 2007, that her submarines are operating on a profile of this kind today. This profile would be more like that of the US SSN since the end of the Cold War than like that of a Russian SSN during the Cold War – and indeed, that is what we should expect. As Russia’s navy reemerges from the shadows and rust, Moscow is likely to find the same power projection activities for it that Washington does for ours, in terms of generic patrolling of distant regions.
For this reason, I do not view the Akula patrols as operationally analogous resumptions of a Cold War pattern. I doubt we will see dedicated or continuous SSN patrols off the US coast for the foreseeable future – partly, in fact, because Russia simply does not have enough SSNs to mount them. Her Northern Fleet inventory is about 15 SSNs, and she has only 4 left in the Pacific Fleet (no other Russian fleets have nuclear-powered warships). Of the 15 in the Northern Fleet – Russia’s largest and best-maintained – no more than about 9 are likely to be deployable for extended operations at a given time. Russia’s ballistic missile submarines, the SSBNs, can hold any likely strategic target at risk from Russia’s home waters, so given her navy’s readiness and operational profile over the last two decades, it has not been strictly necessary to keep more SSNs ready to patrol in support of the missile-carriers.
Russia has a major push underway to modernize her forces, of course, and both SSNs and SSBNs are part of that. The payoff in significant numbers of new operational units will not be seen until 10 to 15 years in the future, however. Today it would overstretch Russia’s assets to try to maintain a patrol profile off America’s coasts like that of the Cold War period.
We can also note, however, that the Akulas are probably carrying the long-range cruise missile they were designed, from the keel up, to carry: the SS-N-21 SAMPSON (or, as we called it in the US Navy, the “Tomahawkski”; the Russians call it Granit). This would be another parallel with the profile of the US attack submarine force, which routinely deploys with a Tomahawk missile load-out. The SS-N-21’s range is about 1500 nautical miles (3000km/1800 statute miles), and although it was produced with a nuclear warhead variant, the Akulas patrolling today are almost certain to be carrying conventional warheads. While the Russians have never had the sophisticated and effective targeting apparatus the American forces have, to provide remote sensor assistance for assets like cruise missiles, incorporating GPS guidance in cruise missiles is hardly a stretch for Russian technicians. We could expect the Russians to target only things that don’t move at all – buildings, primarily – with the SS-N-21.
It is bound to be fun for Russia to have submarines off our coasts, with the ability to launch missiles at us, if something of a yawner for us. We (ordinary Americans) are unaware of it the vast majority of the time, whereas Russia’s military leadership – as demonstrated by the Russians’ crowing over the success of their recent missile launches from the Arctic – is probably thinking about it often. There is obviously little likelihood of Russia doing anything dangerous with this capability, but it is worth noting that we do not, in fact, have a dedicated form of missile defense that would reliably intercept a long-range cruise missile launched at our East coast by a submarine. We can station Patriot batteries to defend high-value targets ashore, and put Aegis warships off the coast from them; but if we guess wrong about what targets might be aimed at, and the geometry of the forces positioned for intercept is wrong, we will have vast, uncovered holes along our coast.
The Akula patrols disclosed by DOD on 4 August are both more and less significant than we might think them. They do not represent a return to the operational profile of the Soviet Navy in the Cold War. We have long since abandoned our own Cold War profile, and it is to be expected that a reemerging Russian submarine force will operate more on the principle ours does, in its modern, multitasked incarnation.
But these patrols do represent a return to an earlier Russian naval posture, one that is activist and tacitly challenging, both in the regions we have mutual interests in, and in our own back yard. The political signal here is more important than the military “correlation of forces,” a quantity in which we still have an overwhelming advantage in our hemisphere. Defense officials will speak in terms of the latter, and assure us that these patrols do not mean very much. Other than the fact that we are not equipped to comprehensively defend ourselves against cruise missiles on land, this is a valid assessment from an operational point of view. But from the standpoint of geopolitics, there is no question that Russia’s resumption of an activist naval posture on the other side of the world is an accelerant on a vector that is not of our choosing – and in the very realm in which we have been closest to genuine global, hegemonic, “hyperpower” supremacy in the last 20 years: the naval. We will be foolish indeed not to recognize the import of that.