In mid-October 2019, the Russian navy sortied every operational attack submarine in its Northern Fleet into the cold waters of the high North Atlantic.
Nearly a year later, the U.S. Navy deployed one of its own most capable, and secretive, attack subs through the same volume of ocean. USS Seawolf.
The separate but similar events clearly were no coincidence. Russia has spent decades preparing its subs to control key volumes of the North Atlantic. The United States has spent decades preparing to thwart that plan. Seawolf is an important part of the American effort.
The eight Russian boats, including six nuclear-powered vessels, last year fanned out across the Norwegian and Barents Seas, where they practiced defending the swathes of ocean that Russia’s ballistic-missile submarines—“boomers”—would use to launch their civilization-ending intercontinental rockets.
The American boat that sailed a year later specifically was designed to penetrate Russian defenses in these same waters.
Moscow’s undersea surge wasn’t unprecedented. But you’d have to go back to 1987 to find a similar effort. That year, the Soviet navy sent five then-new Victor-class attack submarines racing across the North Atlantic.
The deployment, Operation Atrina, required years of training.
After skirting the boundaries of the nuclear bastions, the Victors pushed farther west. So far west that they inspired a minor panic in the U.S. Navy, which sortied a veritable armada in order to track down the Soviet boats.
Something similar happened decades later.
Russia’s October 2019 surge fell under the auspices of Operation Grom, a 60-day rehearsal for nuclear warfare. As part of the exercise, the Delta IV-class missile sub Karelia launched an unarmed ballistic missile from the Barents Sea on Oct. 17. See the video below.
The operation also involved air- and land-launched missiles.
The eight attack boats involved in Operation Grom apparently practiced protecting Karelia. In wartime, defending boomers in their bastions would be the primary mission of Russia’s roughly 50-strong attack-submarine force. But the same attack boats also possess offensive capability of their own.
Attack boats carrying the new Kalibr non-nuclear cruise missile “can operate from the relative safety of bastions in the Norwegian and Barents Seas and strike targets across Northern and Central Europe,” Andrew Metrick, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., explained in Proceedings, the professional journal of the U.S. Naval Institute.
And if Moscow wanted to threaten the continental United States with conventional weapons, the attack boats could sail farther west. The U.S. East Coast no longer is a “safe haven” for American warships, U.S. Navy vice admiral Andrew Lewis, the Second Fleet commander, said at an industry event in February.
"We have seen an ever-increasing number of Russian submarines deployed in the Atlantic, and these submarines are more capable than ever, deploying for longer periods of time, with more lethal weapons systems,” Lewis said.
American admirals voiced similar warnings back in the mid-1980s, shortly before the five Victors submarines sailed as far as Bermuda.
In 1984, the U.S. Navy conducted a thorough analysis of Soviet submarine capabilities. The resulting report, which highlighted new classes of attack submarines including the Victor, was a “turning point” for the Americans, Vice Adm. James Hogg, then the director of naval warfare, told Congress in 1986.
Hunting Russian submarines became ''the Navy's number one war-fighting priority,” Hogg said, “because of the severe national-security consequences if we lose that war-fighting edge over the Soviets.''
Started by the ‘84 report, the U.S. Navy launched a crash program to develop a new, hunter-killer attack submarine—the Seawolf. And it upgraded its existing attack boats to operate more safely under the icy waters of Soviet bastions.
Thirty-six years later, Seawolf, one of three submarines in her class, was part of the U.S. Navy’s eventual response—alongside its NATO allies—to Operation Grom and Russia’s 2019 undersea surge. Seawolf, which commissioned in 1997, is faster, quieter and more heavily-armed than probably any other attack boat in the world.
But NATO’s immediate answer to Operation Grom came from the air. Between Oct. 25 and Nov. 7, alliance patrol planes flew more than 40 missions hunting for the eight Russian attack submarines.
Six Norwegian air force P-3s, four U.S. Navy P-8s and a Canadian air force CP-140 flew from Andoya in Norway. At least one additional P-8 flew from Keflavik in Iceland. A French navy Atlantic 2 patroller staged from Prestwick airport in Scotland.
Flight-trackers followed the patrol planes as they flew hundreds of miles into the North Atlantic to fly racetrack patterns over the apparent locations of Russian subs. The patrol planes use their radars, sonar buoys and magnetic detectors to find subs on and below the waves.
Ten months later in mid-August this year, Seawolf departed her home port in Washington State, sailed under the thinning ice of the Arctic Ocean and churned right through Russia’s nuclear bastion in the Norwegian Sea.
Navy’s statement on Seawolf’s arrival at the Norwegian port of Tromso was remarkable, in that the American fleet almost never publicly announces submarine movements—and is particularly circumspect about Seawolf and her sisters. When the U.S. Navy does talk about Seawolf, the service obviously is making a point.
That point clearly is—Russia might carve out undersea bastions and send submarines toward the U.S. coast. But America can push back.
“Seawolf’s deployment from Bangor, Washington, to the U.S. Sixth Fleet demonstrates the submarine force’s global reach and commitment to provide persistent and clandestine undersea forces worldwide to execute our unique missions with unrivaled readiness,” Vice Adm. Daryl Caudle, the commander of U.S. submarine forces, said in a statement.
That commitment includes maintaining the ability to crack open the undersea bastions the Russians are practicing so hard to protect, and hunt down the protectors of those same bastions. At least, the Americans hope so.
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