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Soviet Cruise Missile Submarines of the Cold War

After WWII the Soviet Union found itself confronted with a new and largely unanticipated problem: the aircraft carriers of the US Navy. They were the chief defense of the sea lanes to our forces disputing the superior Red Army’s potential control of western Europe, as well as a force for “power projection,” capable of strategic nuclear strike and tactical air intervention in land conflicts. The Soviet Navy, in spite of long efforts, was never able to duplicate these capabilities, but immediately devoted vast resources to counter them, building an imaginative, powerful asymmetric force to cut the Atlantic sea lanes and sink our carriers. This “sea denial” force was based on the submarine, supported by surface ships and very long range aircraft, like that of the Germans in the Atlantic in WWII. The Russians studied the latter’s effort carefully, its near-success and ultimate failure, and aimed to remedy those deficiencies which cost it victory, such as insufficient numbers of submarines, inadequate air and surface support, and delays in introducing new technologies such as radar, the snorkel, the streamlined submarine.

A crucial and unique part of this “anti-carrier” force was its many submarines armed with anti-ship cruise missiles, equaling about 64 nuclear and 16 diesel boats of 8 classes, including the 29 “Echo II” class. These were based on the 5 “Echo I” class boats which used a cruise missile like a small jet airplane for strategic nuclear attack, much like our “Regulus.” Both worked but were a blind alley, with both the missile and the submarine surfaced to launch being vulnerable to detection and interception. The Russians developed this missile into the anti-ship “Shaddock,” used to arm the Echo II’s and diesel “Julietts” which, with long range missile-carrying “Bear,” “Badger,” and “Backfire” bombers, comprised the main striking elements of the anti-carrier force. Its weak spots were that it depended on the Tu-95 Bears for reconnaissance and targeting, and on radio communications between the Bears, subs, and a central control center to relay target information and commands. The carriers’ “secret weapon” that defeated them was AEW (Airborne Early Warning) and the E-2 Hawkeye, which, with the F-14 and its long range Phoenix missile, made it possible to intercept the Bears outside their own targeting range without giving away the carrier’s position electronically. The Russian solution was an enormous investment in a system of radar-reconnaissance satellites to replace the aircraft. They were huge and expensive, required an on-board nuclear reactor to meet their power needs, and the low orbits required meant short lives and limited areas of coverage, so continuous, complete Atlantic coverage was not possible. The book gives a brief description of this system, but not much analysis of its effectiveness.

It is interesting how alien to US sub design philosophy the Echo IIs and Julietts were. Versus our single-hulled boats, with almost everything contained within the highly streamlined pressure hull, these were double-hulled, with large superstructures containing retracting missile tubes and a large antenna for receiving targeting data from the aircraft – rather resembling the rare attempts to create “submersible warships” in the past, like the Surcouf, and the British X-1 and K-class. They were followed by the “Charlie” class in the 1970’s, streamlined, quiet, able to launch their missiles submerged, but still vulnerable, now because of the short range of their missiles. Finally, in the 1980’s the huge ”Oscar” class “heavy submarine rocket cruiser” began to appear, with a displacement of 12,500 tons, 100,000 SHP and a submerged speed of 32 knots, the second-largest type of submarine ever built. It combined a heavy battery of long-range anti-ship missiles with the ability to launch them submerged, and hopefully undetected. How well these powerful, capable ships would have actually worked tactically is open to question. They had the speed to keep up with carrier groups, but could they have actually used it without making enough noise to reveal their presence? Their long missile range brought back the requirement for long-range reconnaissance and external targeting, for which the new “Legenda” satellite system was essential. But how well did it work? And it proved impossible to keep it functioning after the end of the Soviet Union.

The creation of this force of anti-carrier submarines was a remarkable technological achievement that placed the US Navy under great pressure throughout the Cold War, and helped keep alive the credibility of a decisive Soviet land offensive into Western Europe (or in the 1980’s, into a restive Poland) for a long, long time. By the late 1980’s, however, the carriers’ defenses clearly had the upper hand. Countering the missile and submarine threat to our carriers went a long way to winning the Cold War or rather inducing the Soviet military to give up, when it chose to refuse to support the coup against Gorbachev in 1991.

This book is only 48 pages, one of the numerous Osprey New Vanguard series, but it covers its topic comprehensively and clearly, as the Osprey booklets generally do very well. They typically serve as an excellent introduction to a specific topic for both the beginner and the scholar looking to fill in a gap in his knowledge, as well as serving as a reference handbook with complete and accessible facts on the topic – here essentially the subs themselves and their missiles. This book serves both purposes very satisfactorily. The missing element is that space makes it impossible to go into peripheral issues in any depth. But this book provides a short but excellent bibliography. Besides the essential Russian works, the small number of English works it lists, by Friedman, Polmar, Herrick, Winkler, are the place to start, to gain a fuller knowledge of the technological, historical, and policy backgrounds.

Soviet Cruise Missile Submarines of the Cold War
By Edward Hampshire, illustrated by Adam Tooby, Osprey Publishing Ltd., Oxford, (2018).

Reviewed by Robert P. Largess. Robert P. Largess is the author of USS Albacore; Forerunner of the Future and articles on the USS Triton, SS United States, the history of Lighter-Than-Air, and the origin of the towed sonar array.
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