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Nuclear Brief August 3, 2005 (updated April 16, 2007)

Secrecy Kicks In

Update August 25, 2005:

Although the U.S. Navy has now declassified and released 23 years of patrol data for Soviet/ Russian submarines, a follow-up request for what constitutes a "patrol" triggered the following response:

The U.S. Navy "cannot release specific criteria for determining what a 'patrol' is as it would divulge methods and sources."

Source: U.S. Navy, Office of Naval Intelligence, e-mail to Hans M. Kristensen, August 25, 2005.

A Little Help From Official DOD Dictionary

The Department of Defense's Dictionary of Military Terms (JP 1-02) also does not define "submarine patrol" but includes the following definitions that help provide some context:

A detachment of ground, sea, or air forces sent out for the purpose of gathering information or carrying out a destructive, harassing, mopping-up, or security mission.

submarine operations area:
A geographic area defined for submarine operations for peacetime or warfare activities.

submarine patrol area:
A restricted area established to allow submarine operations: a. unimpeded by the operation of, or possible attack from, friendly forces in wartime; b. without submerged mutual interference in peacetime.

Russian Nuclear Submarine Patrols

The Russian nuclear submarine force is far less active today than during the Cold War. Since 1984, according to information obtained from the U.S. Navy, the annual number of extended patrols performed by strategic nuclear submarines and nuclear-powered attack submarines has dropped from more than 230 in 1984 to less than 10 today.

Interestingly, the drop occurred well before the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Between 1984 and 1989 (the year the Berlin Wall fell), the annual number of patrols plunged to less than half its peak patrol level in 1984.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the annual number of patrols continued to decline until it reached its lowest level in 2001 with only two patrols accomplished. 2002 was particularly noteworthy because it was the first time the Russian Navy did not send any strategic submarines on extended deterrent patrols.

Since 2001, the submarine force has managed a slight come-back, with the overall number of patrols climbing back to nine in 2005. Still, it is a far cry from the level of operations in the 1980s. And the increase has been achieved by attack submarines, not the strategic submarines, which in 2006 only accomplished five deterrent patrols. (see chart below)

Moreover, the total 2006 patrol number corresponds to the five submarines Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov declared were on patrol on September 11. That all patrols occurred at approximately the same time, instead of being spread out over 12 months, suggests that Russia in 2006 did not have a real operational sea-based deterrent posture with ongoing patrols.

Soviet/Russian Nuclear Submarine Patrols 1981-2006

The annual number of patrols performed by Russian nuclear-powered submarines has plummeted from 235 in 1984 to less than 10 today. In 2002, the strategic submarine force did not manage to send a single boat on deterrent patrol. (click on graph to download PDF version)

Patrol Areas

During the Cold War, the patrol areas for Soviet ballistic missile submarines gradually changed as new capabilities were introduced. Most important was the range of the missile, which permitted the submarines to pull back into patrol areas ("bastions") closer to the Soviet Union.

Mid-1960s - 1970
Golf SSB/Hotel SSBN Patrol Areas

1970s - mid-1980s
Yankee SSBN Patrol Areas

Yankee/Delta I SSBN Patrol Areas

Yankee/Delta II/III SSBN Patrol Areas

Late-1980s and 1990s
Delta IV/Typhoon SSBN Patrol Areas

The maps and descriptions are based on: "Anti-Submarine Warfare," The National Museum of American History, 2000; Thomas B. Cochran, et al., Nuclear Weapons Databook Volume IV: Soviet Nuclear Weapons (New York: Harper & Row, 1989).

The first classes of Soviet ballistic missile submarines were the Golf SSB and Hotel SSBN. Both carried the 1,400 kilometer SS-N-5 missile (from the mid-1960s). In the Atlantic they patrolled off the U.S. east coast in an area ranging from Florida to Maine some 300 kilometers from the coast. The Pacific patrol area ranged from Mexico to Canada. (see right-top map)

With the arrival of the Yankee SSBN in the late 1960s, the patrol areas changed. Equipped with the 3,000 kilometer range SS-N-6, the boats normally operated further from shore and covered a greater area. Typically, 2-3 Yankees patrolled the Atlantic coast and 2 boats patrolled off the Pacific coast. One of the Pacific boats would patrol to the north-east with the other sometimes as far as to the west of Hawaii. (see second map to the right)

Delta I SSBNs began deploying into the Atlantic in the mid-1980s where they took over the northern part of the area previously covered by Yankee SSBNs, but further north in an area east off Newfoundland and south of Greenland. Equipped with the 9,100 kilometer range SS-N-8, the Deltas were capable of striking targets throughout the United States from their forward patrol areas. (see third map to the right)

In the late 1980s, Russian SSBNs pulled back from the United States. In the Atlantic, Delta II and III SSBNs began patrolling in the Norwegian Sea in an area between Norway, Greenland, and Svalbard. In the Pacific, the Delta SSBNs pulled back to patrol areas near the Kamchatka Peninsula and in the Sea of Japan. The Delta II carried the SS-N-8 and the Delta III was equipped with the 6,500 kilometer range SS-N-18. The SS-N-6-equipped Yankee SSBNs in the Atlantic took on a new "theater" mission against targets in western Europe, presumably in response to the NATO deployment of cruise missiles. (see fourth map to the right)

Finally, in the late 1980s and 1990s, the Delta IV and Typhoon SSBNs equipped with 8,300 kilometer range SS-N-23 and SS-N-20, respectively, pulled into what was known as a "strategic bastion" north-east of the Kola Peninsula. Delta III SSBNs in the Pacific continued patrolling in areas around the Kamchatka Peninsula and the northern parts of the Sea of Japan.

Beyond increased missile ranges, the Russian "withdrawal" of SSBN patrol areas may also have been an reaction to the U.S. Navy's aggressive maritime strategy, which explicitly tasked U.S. attack submarines with hunting down and destroying Russian SSBNs early on in a war. Limited patrol areas presumably made it easier for Russian attack submarines to protect the SSBNs.

But as the annual patrol graph above illustrates, Russia sent fewer and fewer SSBNs on patrol in the late 1980s and first half of the 1990s. Between 1988 and 1993, for example, the total number of deterrent patrols dropped from around 60 to less than 20. Patrols continued to decline after that until they came to a halt in 2002. After that, a couple of patrols have been carried out each year, probably one in both the Northern Fleet and Pacific Fleet. Rather than serve strategic deterrence objectives, however, the low number of patrols may be exercise operations intended to maintain a minimum level of proficiency to carry out deterrent patrols if necessary. Shorter deployments closer to homeport may also be taking place for training purposes.

Delta IV Class
Ballistic Missile Submarine

Russian nuclear submarines are spending most of their life at pier side.

Some Implications

Like strategic submarines of the other nuclear weapons states, Russian ballistic missile submarines have the capability to launch their missiles from pier side. A strategy that relies on this capability, however, limits the number of targets that can be attacked and exposes the boats to counter attack. It essentially eliminates the retaliatory strike role of the submarines. Sending the boats to sea in a crisis, on the other hand, would expose them to hostile attack submarines. And the skills needed to evade those submarines erode each year the strategic submarines stay in port or only carry out a few patrols.

On the other hand, not sending the submarines on extended deterrent patrols is a very powerful message if Russia wants to signal that it is not a strategic threat. It is one less argument for U.S. and British admirals to justify sending their attack submarines to monitor and potentially counter Russian strategic submarines during patrol. And it reduces the risk of accidents and incidents. Finally, it might also indicate that the Cold War is over and the Russian Navy has decided it simply doesn't need to deploy SSBNs on deterrent patrols anymore.

If and when Russia resumes routine strategic submarine patrols at a more significant level (which the other nuclear weapons states have continued in the meantime), "prudent" military planning will almost certainly result in western attack submarines being sent to trail them on their patrols.

Hans M. Kristensen/Federation of American Scientists | www.nukestrat.com | 2004-2007



  Hans M. Kristensen