Brad Dismukes on the Soviet Navy and Attacking Ballistic Missile Nuclear Submarines

1980s Maritime Strategy Series

By Dmitry Filipoff

CIMSEC discussed the 1980s Maritime Strategy and its relation to the Soviet Navy with Brad Dismukes, who served at the Center for Naval Analyses at the time. In this discussion, Dismukes discusses concepts of Soviet naval operations, whether the Maritime Strategy was a reaction to Soviet naval activity, and the follies of engaging in anti-submarine warfare against nuclear missile-carrying platforms.

How would you describe the overall capability and combat credibility of the Soviet Navy at the beginning of the 1980s? Was Soviet naval capability trending toward becoming a more challenging threat?

The Soviet Navy was getting steadily more capable—but at unpredictable rates across its many platforms and systems. A key dimension of improvement was submarine sound levels. In the period from 1983 to 1986, the Akula-class SSN was just entering service. It proved to be nearly as quiet and undetectable as its U.S. counterparts.

In terms of timing it is perhaps ironic that in January 1986 the U.S. Navy was just making public the Maritime Strategy. Its most important innovation was adoption of the strategic anti-submarine warfare (SASW) mission. That mission aimed to send U.S. SSNs under ice in the Arctic and the Sea of Okhotsk to kill Soviet SSBNs. The latter were being protected by the Soviet general-purpose-force navy—under ice, by their SSNs. The super-quiet Akula made accomplishing SASW much more difficult if not, as the Akula force grew in numbers, perhaps strategically out of reach.

How would you describe Soviet naval strategy during this period, and how did the Soviets plan to employ their fleet if major conflict broke out with NATO?

The fundamental stance of the Soviet Navy across the 70 years of its existence was defensive. Its strategic tasks were to defend the homeland, defend the seaward flanks of the Red Army against attack from the sea, and (after 1973) to defend sea-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) aboard SSBNs. These three functions were to be performed in a layered, seamless, land-sea defense in depth scheme.

The ICBMs aboard Soviet SSBNs formed the nation’s strategic reserve—the ultimate assurance of national survival and the durability of such victories the Army might achieve. Sea-based missiles fell under the aegis of the Defense Council, the nation’s highest politico-strategic body (the equivalent of our National Security Council). The land-based ICBMs of the Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF) were the provenance of the General Staff (the equivalent of our Joint Chiefs of Staff). The SRF’s missiles were assigned a military task—to destroy the enemy and produce victory. The avy’s missiles had a political task—to underwrite the durability of that victory, to deter further or potential nuclear strikes on Soviet territory, and to guarantee the survival of the Soviet state.

In 1973 the navy took on a strategic role it never had before, justifying the huge investments made in the production of the SSBN force and the general-purpose navy to protect it. As far as I know, no one has been able to explain why for the strategic reserve function the Soviets did not instead choose to rely on their large force of road- and rail-mobile ICBMs—a question Michael Kofman has raised recently, as did Michael McGwire back in the mid-1980s. Whatever the answer, the fact is that the Soviets did buy expensive ballistic missile submarines—as their Russian successors continue to do.

The defensive orientation of the Soviet Navy and the importance of the national-level tasks it was assigned meant that the Soviets did not intend to use the navy offensively to attack Western sea lines of communication (SLOCs) on the high seas—to refight the WWI and WWII Battles of the Atlantic. Obviously you cannot send your SSNs forward to attack the SLOCs in force and also hold them back for defense in depth.

Were there “Western-preferred” concepts of wartime Soviet naval operations? Did understandings of wartime Soviet naval strategy evolve and encourage a subsequent shift in U.S. naval operations and strategy?

Understanding did evolve, but fitfully and involving two remarkable strategic errors. The first has been well-recognized since the early 2000s. For nearly 30 years, after the beginning of the Cold War, the Office of Naval Intelligence imputed to the Soviet Navy the intention to fight a third Battle of the Atlantic. This estimate was based mainly on theories held by intel specialists and by planners. Intel extrapolated from the experience of WWII and the well-recognized propensity of the Red Army for offense. It concluded that the huge size of the Soviet submarine force (approaching 400 platforms at one point) could only be explained by an intention, not to defend, but to attack. Planners, following the maxim that the planner’s first obligation is to defend his own vulnerabilities, concluded that the Soviets intended to attack the SLOCs (as they would do if they were sitting at a planner’s desk in Moscow). In effect, the planner’s worst-case scenario merged with intel’s most likely: Western SLOCs were the Soviets’ strategic target.

However, concrete facts showed this was simply wrong. The Soviet Navy never planned to attack Western SLOCs. It did not seriously contemplate the mission; it did not buy the platforms or logistics force implied; it never trained against defended, maneuvering convoys; it never mounted a major anti-SLOC exercise in the North Atlantic (or anywhere else); and it was likely not up to the anti-SLOC task if somehow it had been ordered to execute it.

Unfortunately, the Navy’s 30-year misreading of the Soviet Navy’s strategic intentions led it to adopt war plans contrived to fight shadows and to acquire ships and weapons optimized for battles that were never to be fought.

This initial failure of strategic intelligence was followed by a less-recognized second failure. In the case of the SSBN strategic reserve and the assignment of the Soviet general-purpose navy to defend it, intel’s recognition of change lagged reality by about eight years. The strategic reserve mission commenced in 1973 when the first SS-N-8-armed Delta-I became operational. At that very time the Soviets “announced,” in their veiled, byzantine language (in the so-called Gorshkov series in morskoy sbornik, 1972-73) the existence and the importance of their strategic reserve. Understanding of this was publicly recognized, but that recognition was ignored by the intel community. It was not until 1980-1981 that Navy special compartmented intelligence (SCI) sources confirmed the existence of the Soviet strategic reserve at sea and the general-purpose navy’s assigned mission of defending it.

The result was revolutionary. Finally in possession of a valid understanding of their Soviet competitor, the Navy quickly developed the Maritime Strategy with its mission of attacking the reserves in their bastions. It is not only a philosophical question to reckon the consequences of this eight-year delay in terms of forgone opportunities and misdirected efforts. If the Navy had recognized the Soviet strategic reserve in 1973, near the time that it came into existence, the Navy of 1986 and thereafter would likely have had a different composition and its operations and exercises would have taken a different shape.

Accurate strategic intelligence is obviously essential. Even the most talented strategic planner’s effort is wasted if based on a spurious understanding of the world.

How did the Soviets publicly react to the Maritime Strategy, such as when it published? And how did the Soviets react to the exercises the strategy encouraged? Or were these U.S. naval operations a reaction to prior Soviet naval activity?

This involved an action-reaction sequence. The first thing to say is that Soviet action initiated the sequence. The Maritime Strategy was a reaction. The Soviets, fundamentally defensive-minded at sea, almost certainly anticipated a need to defend their SSBNs and planned accordingly from the earliest days of SSBN development. (I have no direct evidence on this point, but I do have a professional admiration for the thoroughness and foresight of the planning of the Soviet General Staff, as does everyone else familiar with it.)

So in 1973 the Soviet strategic reserve went to sea. In 1986 the Maritime Strategy appeared in unclassified form. After 13 years, the Americans were finally preparing to do what the Soviets had long been preparing to counter. From this perspective one would hardly expect a “reaction” on the part of the Soviets. At the strategic level, the Maritime Strategy produced not a response but the continuation of business as usual.

Whatever the Soviets may have said in public about the Maritime Strategy was in a strategic sense ephemeral. Far more eloquent and strategically meaningful was a Soviet demonstration in the language of action: One way to defeat U.S. SASW—or at least, render it nugatory, pointless—was to show that if a unit were under attack, it could fire its nuclear missiles in a very short period of time. Reportedly, on August 6, 1991, a Northern Fleet Delta-IV submarine performed a full salvo underwater launch of all 16 of its SS-N-23 missiles in less than four minutes.

A general statement about the action-reaction phenomenon between the navies of the great powers seems in order. The Soviets were (and their Russian successors likely are) attentive to changes in public expressions of U.S. intentions. They are far more concerned, however, with U.S. capabilities (for example, the ice-hardened features of the Seawolf class and later SSNs, and the capabilities displayed by U.S. actions at sea like ICEX 2020 and its predecessors). Changes in U.S. capabilities might lead to changes in our competitor’s thinking, but such changes are unlikely to affect his defensive proclivities nor alter his fundamental force employment intentions.

What lessons could be learned from engaging in great power competition with the Soviet Union at sea?

As mentioned, one aspect of Soviet naval strategy during the Cold War that proved particularly difficult for Westerners to understand was the Soviets’ decision not to attack the SLOCs—not to attack its Western adversary’s greatest vulnerability. But this was not a historic anomaly. No, today the U.S. Navy is doing exactly the same thing in planning versus China. Everyone knows that China’s greatest (self-acknowledged) maritime vulnerability is its dependence on seaborne commerce and other uses of the sea. China (and to a lesser degree, Russia) has become vulnerable to coercion by sea denial and vulnerable to global strategic blockade. Yet the U.S. Navy gives no sign whatsoever of planning to attack that vulnerability in war. It does not explain why. It simply ignores blockade. As a result, the Navy casts itself in an ancillary, fundamentally defensive role with no offensive use except strikes ashore, and national-level strategy documents provide no place for the use of the nation’s sea power and exploitation of its geopolitical advantages.

However, the most important lesson concerns strategic ASW (SASW). It is a negative one. The logic of SASW during the Cold War cannot be extrapolated to today’s era of great power competition. Quite the contrary. SASW should be eschewed under all foreseeable circumstances. (“All” is used advisedly here.)

This is not a theoretical issue. In 2018, a Navy spokesman let it be known that in a war with Russia the Navy intends to use its submarines “to deny bastions to the Russians,” on behalf of “defending the homeland.” The homeland defense objective was repeated in March 2020. An SSN exercise in the Arctic was described as needed “to maintain readiness and capability to defend the homeland when called upon,” according to Rear Admiral Butch Dollaga, Commander, Undersea Warfighting Development Center. Rear Admiral Dollaga was speaking officially to the Russians and to the world via the Navy’s Office of Public Affairs.

What threat to the U.S. homeland might emerge from the Arctic was left unnamed. Russian submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles, deployed in the Arctic (and Sea of Okhotsk) are the only plausible candidates. The idea that one could “defend the homeland,” presumably by reducing the damage the United States would suffer from a Russian intercontinental nuclear attack, is simply contrary to obvious fact and logic. Even if SASW killed every Russian SSBN before it launched its missiles, just a small fraction of remaining Russian missiles ashore would be more than capable of utterly destroying the nation.

This reality was fully recognized by the Maritime Strategy—which never named “defending the homeland” (then called “damage limitation”) as it objective. The Maritime Strategy sought instead to use SASW as leverage for “war termination”—meaning to end combat ashore with Western Europe more or less intact and still under control of the NATO alliance. This last point was what the war was about. It is the crucial difference why SASW made some sense during the Cold War but not today.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union posed a highly credible threat with conventional arms to Western Europe. The U.S. viewed Europe’s integrity as so vital to its own security that it threatened to fire nuclear weapons as far up the escalation ladder as necessary on behalf of Europe’s defense. The U.S. implicitly was willing to put its own territory at nuclear risk.

A lively public debate surrounded SASW. Advocates saw it as a possible way for the West to avoid initiating even tactical nuclear war or add to the effects of nuclear escalation on Soviet behavior. Opponents of SASW saw that it put U.S. territory at grave risk (as did SASW’s advocates), questioned whether its execution was operationally feasible, and held serious doubts that SASW could produce satisfactory war termination. SASW was formally adopted as part of the National Security Strategy of 1986.

Today the strategic situation is radically different. Russia holds local conventional superiority on its immediate periphery. But Russia poses no threat to Western Europe or to anything else the U.S. regards as vital to its security. Today it is the West that has general superiority at the conventional level—especially at sea. Today, SASW could have no war termination objective because there is no big “World War III” to be fought, and lesser wars, as in the defense of NATO members on Russia’s borders, can be deterred or, if necessary, fought successfully at the conventional level. In sum, SASW would put the nation at risk on behalf of no identifiable vital interest. Vast risk, negligible reward.

Most important to remember, “defending the homeland” through SASW remains today just what it was during the Cold War: a highly dangerous objective that is clearly impossible to achieve. It is a chimera. Rather than “defending,” it would lead to the homeland’s destruction.

Even before the SASW mission could lead to that catastrophe, simply prosecuting it would likely produce two lesser but still dire consequences. First, no one has asked the Navy what would happen if a pair of its 3,000-pound torpedoes struck a Russian SSBN. What happens to the hundreds of multi-megaton nuclear warheads carried by the missiles on board? How much radioactive material would likely be dispersed in oceanic waters and on the seafloor? How widespread might it be immediately and in subsequent months and years? Might one or more warheads detonate? Do Navy plans mean the Arctic Ocean may glow in the dark? U.S. citizens in Alaska and those of allies in the UK, Norway, and Japan would be curious about the matter. Indeed, so should U.S. planners. Would modern SASW operations result in a new 21st-century definition of pyrrhic victory: gaining sea control of waters that humans can no longer use?

It would be foolhardy beyond belief to execute SASW without knowing the answers.

Second, success in the SASW mission would very likely trigger a Russian response with tactical nuclear anti-submarine warfare weapons. Russia inherited many of these from its Soviet predecessors, and it has made clear it will not hesitate to answer Western conventional superiority with nukes. The U.S. cannot answer in kind (even if it wished to) because it no longer possesses such weapons. Therefore SASW could push the Russians across the nuclear threshold at sea with unforeseeable consequences.

Indeed, if Russia starts losing to SASW or anywhere else at the conventional level, it may choose to fire its nuclear weapons first at sea for both military and political effect. At sea immediate collateral damage is minimal, there would be no comparable Russian targets afloat against which the U.S. could respond in kind, and the Russians could calculate that crossing the nuclear threshold at sea in response to U.S. SASW could fracture the NATO alliance by driving some members out of the war, if not out of the alliance itself.

Deterring Russia’s use of nuclear weapons is the greatest challenge the U.S. and its allies would face in a war with Russia. Doing so at sea while executing SASW is the worst possible test case.

Today strategic ASW is one those rarest of missions where failure is a better outcome than success.

Bradford Dismukes is a political scientist who worked with (1969–1999) and directed (1974–1989) a group at the Center for Naval Analyses that supported and critiqued ONI and Navy Staff planners in what was then OP-06. He is coeditor of Soviet Naval Diplomacy. He is a retired captain, USNR, with service in naval intelligence.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Content@cimsec.org.

Featured Image: January 1, 1987 – An overhead view of the Soviet Sovremenny class destroyer Stoykiy (DDG-645) underway. (U.S. National Archive photo)

3 thoughts on “Brad Dismukes on the Soviet Navy and Attacking Ballistic Missile Nuclear Submarines”

  1. Wow! A lot to unpack here. Is Mr Dismukes saying that SASW should NOT have been part of the Maritime Strategy?
    How would the advancing Carrier groups going to deal with an untouched Soviet SSN force?
    Is Mr Dismukes saying that the Maritime Strategy should’ve been something different?

    As for commerce warfare against China present day, I think the concerns are that sinking those vessels may hurt the economies of other countries as well as China.
    Would it be a great way to hurt China? I think so.

  2. To: Bruno Zaccoli
    To Zaccoli

    No, SASW should have been a part of the Maritime Strategy (TMS) – as I and my colleagues at CNA argued at the time (1977 and after). It was not a desirable strategy in its own right. It was simply better than its alternative which was for the US to start firing nuclear weapons in response to impending Soviet victory on the ground in Europe. The idea was to exploit Western conventional advantage at sea to compensate for inferiority ashore. That logic does not apply in the current conditions where the West is superior to Russia at the conventional level, especially at sea, and no value vital to US security would be at stake in a war with Russia. That’s the main reason why SASW makes no sense today. There are the others I name. For details and sources see the post on SASW on my cliosmusings.blog.

    As for Soviet SSNs, they would have been – as Russian SSNs likely are today – guarding the SSBN bastions. I have no evidence on the matter, but I doubt that the carriers would have been committed forward until the SSN threat had been appreciably attrited; talking up their early commitment, as did TMS, always struck me as an effort to enhance the Fleet-in-Being effect (see the post on F-in-B on Clio). All this says nothing about the remaining mine, diesel threat or the threat from the air that the carriers would have faced.

    Blockading China in a major war would be good idea, as I argue in a post on the subject (https://cliosmusings.blog/2021/03/22/blockade-military-economic-warfare-vs-china/) on Clio. A war with China would be a catastrophe that would harm all the world’s economies including those of the US and its allies. It must never be fought.

    1. Thank you for the response. I was adding your Naval War College Review article where you wrote,
      “Nonetheless, particular investments in ships or other systems optimized for convoy defense against massed submarine and air attack well may have been misdirected effort. A prominent candidate in this regard was the fifty-ship FFG-7, Perry-class frigate program. Billions of dol- lars invested in it might have been spent better on forces optimized for carrier screening, countermine warfare, or other missions, such as attacking the bastions or striking ashore.”

      If the bastion strategy was recognized sooner, what ships or planes or weapons would you have acquired?

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