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A Threat to America… or?

by jnoonan on August 11, 2009

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Two Russian nuclear-propelled attack submarines have appeared off the U.S. East Coast.  American newspapers and blogs have announced the deployment with headlines that ran from the words threat to ho, hum.  A few have even asked is this a return to the Cold War confrontations?

The answer to the last is absolutely not.  The Cold War was an in-your-face confrontation between two super powersthe United States and the Soviet Union.  Both had nuclear strike forces that could absorb a surprise attack by their opponent and still devastate the otherand most likely the rest of the world as well.
 
Today there is but one super power: the United States.  While perhaps half of the 14 U.S. Trident strategic missile submarines (SSBN) are at sea at any given time, Russia has been unable to keep a single SSBN on continuous patrol.  And, while the two Akula-class submarines (Russian designations Bars and Project 971) that were patrolling off the East Coast may be armed with land-attack cruise missiles in addition to torpedoes, the threat from such craft at this time is negligible.  Indeed, except for SSBNs no U.S. and probably no Russian warships have nuclear weapons on board.

The two Akula-class submarines apparently remained more than 200 miles from the coast.  And, one of them is reported to have continued southward to Cuba for a port visit.  The 200-mile distance may be significant as naval ships can legally operate to within 12 miles of another nations coastline in peacetime.  But the Chinese government has recently implied that it claims the 200-mile Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) as its territorial waters.  That action followed Chinese attempts to stop U.S. Navy surveying and bottom-mapping operations in international waters but less than 200 miles off the Chinese coast.  Could the Russian submarine operation be intended to support this claim by remaining that distance off the U.S. coast?  During the Cold War there were periodic incursions by Soviet submarines and, on occasion, intelligence collection ships much closer to the American coasts.

Meanwhile, the two-sub operation follows last winters deployment of small Russian task groups to the Caribbean and to the Mediterranean.  The Caribbean group was led by the nuclear-propelled cruiser Petr Velikiy (Peter the Great), with a displacement of 28,000 tons full load this is the worlds largest warship except for aircraft carriers.  The warship made a port call in Venezuela in conjunction with the Russian presidents visit to that country.  Also last winter, Russias only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, operated in the Mediterranean.

These warship deploymentsincluding the two Akula submarines off the U.S. East Coastalong with numerous Russian long-range aircraft flights off the coasts of Alaska, Great Britain, and other areas are intended primarily to demonstrate that Russia is still a world power, albeit not a super power, and that it can project some military capability into forward areas. 

But the naval deployments also appear to be a means for the Russian Navys leadership to argue for more funds for warship construction and maintenance.  Since the end of the Cold War, marked by the fall of the Soviet regime in December 1991, the Russian Navy has deteriorated rapidly in both size and operational capabilities.  At the same time, new ship construction and weapons production have lagged far, far behind plans.

Apparently, the Russian naval leaders hope that these long-range operations, to areas where Russian military aircraft and ground forces cannot go, will confirm their claims of the significance of modern naval forces to support national political-economicas well as war-fightinginterests.  Such recognition could bring additional funds for naval ship construction and force modernization.


And, finally, such long-range operations are useful for the Russian Navy from a viewpoint of training, including experience in logistic support of such deployments.  All in all, such operations should be viewed as a win-win situation for the Russian Navy.

However, the operation of two Akula attack submarines off the U.S. coast is no threat to the United States.  Indeed, it benefits the U.S. Navy, hopefully providing an opportunity to determine how effective its submarine detection and tracking capabilities are in the post-Cold War era.

Norman Polmar

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