Now the Russians have gone and done it. The Washington Free Beacon reports that a Russian Akula-class nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) operated undetected in the Gulf of Mexico in June and July 2012.* The wording in the report suggests that we recognized when the submarine left the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) – presumably through the Florida Straits – that it had been in the Gulf. US national intelligence agencies probably had a good idea that the SSN was deployed, and may have assessed that it was in the Western hemisphere, but they didn’t know where. Armed with the knowledge that the submarine had departed the GOM, they “walked back” to the likely deployment date to determine when the submarine probably entered the GOM undetected.
The Washington Free Beacon story highlights the fact that the submarine was in the GOM during the G-20 summit in Mexico in June, when there was a notable coolness between President Obama and Vladimir Putin. Russian bombers made a close approach to Alaska during the summit, prompting a US and Canadian response. (As I was able to reconstruct afterward, the Russian bombers, which were participating in an Arctic exercise, entered the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone – ADIZ – without making the required notification to the ADIZ control center. This prompts a fighter intercept when it happens, and was of course done deliberately by the Russians, but to call it a “threat” as the WFB story at the last link does is to assume more than necessary. The Russian bombers don’t appear to have violated US or Canadian air space. It was a signal, at any rate.)
It’s somewhat humorous to think that the US wasn’t getting the “message” being sent by the Akula SSN during the Mexico summit, since we didn’t know it was there. But the Akula’s capabilities are not to be sneezed at. The SS-N-21 “Sampson” submarine-launched cruise missile has a range of more than 1500 nautical miles (over 1800 statute miles), and can hold much of the Eastern and central United States at risk from the GOM (see map).
Do we have any ready air defenses against the SS-N-21, should it be launched at North America?
The SS-N-21 is a subsonic cruise missile – meaning it flies like an airplane, like the US Navy’s Tomahawk cruise missile — and it was designed with 1970s-era technology. But that doesn’t mean we have any system constantly deployed that can shoot it down. We could responsively deploy Patriot missile batteries or US Navy ships equipped with the Aegis air defense system; and indeed, anti-air guns would in many cases be effective against the SS-N-21 – but we would have to know the submarine was there first. No such US assets are routinely on alert in an area where they could intercept an SS-N-21 launched from the GOM. Our various civil radar systems would detect the missile, but we have no systems ready to shoot it down.
Using the Army or Navy assets, meanwhile, would also preempt other uses for those assets, as long as they were deployed to protect the territory of the United States. We would need more of them to add that mission on a constant or regular basis.
Until the Strategic Defense Initiative was launched by Ronald Reagan in 1983, the US put no serious effort into a missile defense for our home territory. We now have a defense system – the National Missile Defense, or NMD, brought online during George W. Bush’s tenure – that can protect the Western US and Western Canada against ICBMs (ballistic missiles) launched from Asia. Portions of eastern North America remain unprotected due to Obama’s cancellation of the NMD sites in Poland and Czech Republic.
We are implementing a theater missile defense in Europe as well. But we do not have a ready territorial defense for the United States and Canada (or Mexico, for that matter, which was also in the SS-N-21’s threat ring) against sea- or air-launched cruise missiles. (Note: Russia’s Tu-95 Bear H and Tu-160 Blackjack bombers carry the AS-15 air-launched cruise missile, with a similar design to the SS-N-21.) The Cold War-era assumption that we would take out the launch platform remains, in essence, our defense strategy against surprise launches of these missiles.
But what if we don’t know the launch platform is there? The questions are pressing on us once again: why should we simply allow another nation to hold our population at risk? If we don’t want to do that, what shall we do instead? Produce more Patriot batteries and more anti-air gun systems, so we can keep them constantly deployed in North America? Build more Aegis ships so that they can form a more regular core for a North American air and missile defense?
Can we be certain that we will reliably detect quiet submarines lurking off our shores? Can we accept the possibility of not having any defenses deployed, because we failed to detect a submarine?
The Akula in the GOM won’t be the last security challenge of this kind. The Russians will do it again, and China is capable of doing it. The potential threat is already there, and we are unprepared for it. The most foolish response of all would be to complacently assume that nothing can get at us here in our long-unmolested bastion in North America. The Russians want to hold us at risk today in order to affect our policies. We can harden our defenses – or we can let our policies be held hostage by an undefended threat.
* Russian submarines in this part of the world are far from unprecedented, but it has been a very long time since a Russian sub patrolled in the Gulf of Mexico. A nuclear-powered Russian sub has never previously done so. The diesel-powered submarines of the former Soviet Union operated in the GOM several times a year as recently as the mid-1980s, using Cuba as a forward base. A Soviet nuclear-powered Echo-class submarine visited Cuba in the early 1970s, but did not operate in the GOM. For more on former-Soviet submarine patterns during the Cold War, see David F. Winkler, The Cold War at Sea (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000), and Norman Friedman, The Fifty-Year War (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000).
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