MOSCOW. (Yuri Zaitsev for RIA Novosti.) Somewhere under the Atlantic, a Soviet sub commander has just made a fateful decision. The Red October is heading West. The Americans want her. The Russians want her back. And the most incredible chase in history is on...
This synopsis of novelist Tom Clancy's first novel, written in 1984, "The Hunt for Red October," leads us into the super secret world of submarines and their lethal weapons. The nuclear tipped Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). Submarine-launched ballistic missiles, once the Soviet Unions' most formidable cold war deterrent, date back to September 16, 1955, when the small diesel submarine B-67 (Project 611 Zulu) surface- launched the world-first R-11FM (SS-1 Scud) missile, designed by Sergei Korolev, the architect of the Soviet space program.
Four years later, several torpedo submarines were upgraded for the missiles that soon gave way to the new R-13s (SS-N-4 Sark) - missiles that Western defense experts were quick to dismiss as hopelessly lagging behind the U.S. counterpart Polaris A1. At the same launch weight, they said, the Polaris was effective at 2,200 km, while the Soviet missile only at 650 km.
Well, that is true. Except for two little things - that the Polaris A1 had two stages while the Sark had only one and its 1,598-kg (3,520-lb) yielded a 1-Mt (megaton) nuclear capability, while the Polaris, with its two stages, carried only a 326-kg (718-lbs) warhead (650 kiloton nuclear). Interestingly, the Sark was in fact always tipped with a warhead intended for the more powerful R-7, in effect the world's first ICBM - for cost and time saving reasons.
As the Sark was poised for commissioning, the first Soviet nuclear-powered submarine (Project 658 Hotel 1) entered service, with eight such subs built between 1958 and 1964. The fate of the first one, the notorious K-19, is too well known to speculate about, but it explains why the other seven entered upgrade programs when they were still at the shipyard. The upgrades, though, have been successful, and the submarines survived the R-13 decommissioned in 1973 and remained in service until the last days of the Soviet Navy.
However, they were hardly the best and most powerful weapon the Soviets had. As far back as 1963, new submarines with 1,400-km missiles were launched, and 1968 marked the advent of the first SSBN strategic nuclear-powered submarine the Delta Class. (Delta I/Delta III, "underwater cruiser" in the Russian Navalese). These new subs were armed first with G2 2,400-km RSM-25 (SSN-6 Sawfly) ballistic missiles whose range was increased to 3,000 km after an upgrade, then with more powerful RSM-40s (SSN-8 Sawfly, 7,800 km and 9,100 km before and after upgrade). Newer submarines, the Typhoons and Delta IVs, were armed with the RSM-50s (SSN-18 Stingray, 6,500 km and 8,000 km), RSM-52s (SSN-20 Sturgeon, 8,300 km), and RSM-54s (SSN-23 Skiff, 8,300 km).
Returning to "The Red October." American Patrick Thompson, resident scholar and critic said, "the Typhoon-class ballistic missile submarine is no ordinary Russian sub, it is equipped with an extremely silent drive system capable of fooling Soviet and American SONAR (a method for detecting and locating objects submerged in water by echolocation) detectors alike." This clearly gave the Soviets a strategic cold war advantage as the advanced stealth class Typhoons could engage targets across the United States without actually leaving their base and having to deal with enemy anti-submarine defenses - though they were indeed silent enough to penetrate wherever they wanted.
Currently the Russian Navy operates 12 SSBNs armed with 672 nuclear warheads on 192 ICBMs - nearly a third of the Russian nuclear triad which Sergei Ivanov, the Russian defense minister, promised would be updated soon.
"In 2005, we are going to begin flight tests of the Bulava, a new solid fuel-propelled sea-launched missile," he said recently at the Plesetsk Space Center.
Yuri Solomonov, head of the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology, the Bulava designer, said the first submarine launch - provided the project was appropriately funded - "could be made in 2006."
The missile will be used with G5 nuclear submarines to be commissioned within one or two years. Sevmashpredpriyatiye is currently making the first two Project 955 Borei subs (already christened Yuri Dolgoruky and Alexander Nevsky), with three to be ready by 2010. Each will carry 12 Bulava-Ms.
The M in the missile index stands for "morskoy," or "naval," because the Bulava is, in effect, a derivative of the land-based missile Topol (SS-27). However, Solomonov argues, referring to the size and weight restrictions for sea-launched missiles, that "here there is no talk of unification because you get two basically different theoretical approaches."
Nonetheless, he admits, the designers took as much as they could from the SS-27 because in today's Russia - a far cry from the Soviet era - cost effectiveness also becomes a priority. So far, human resources have made up for scarce financing: people who can design, test, and deploy state-of-the-art missiles appropriately for the little money they receive are certainly worth their weight in gold. But what next?
Older Typhoon Project 941 submarines are also expected to undergo an upgrade for the new Bulavas. One of them, the Dmitry Donskoy, already tested the new system, firing a dummy version in the White Sea last year. It did not cause any harm and fell into the sea within seconds: the actual missile is still far from flying.
All of this brings us back to Clancy and his "The Hunt for Red October." His accurate use of military procedures and disclosure of highly classified military technical information was shocking at the time. Maybe he did an excellent job of researching specific procedures and terminology that the military uses to reduce confusion and ensure the highest probability of success in their mission. Rather than deriding military protocol as pompous and arcane, Clancy demonstrates its positive qualities and proves that it can be as fascinating as police procedure. Anyone with a military background can relate. Where did he really get all that information? I wonder....
Yuri Zaitsev is an expert at the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences