Green Room

Peace in our time: Akula in the GOM

posted at 3:23 pm on August 14, 2012 by

Now the Russians have gone and done it.  The Washington Free Beacon reports that a Russian Akula-class nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) operated undetected in the Gulf of Mexico in June and July 2012.*  The wording in the report suggests that we recognized when the submarine left the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) – presumably through the Florida Straits – that it had been in the Gulf.  US national intelligence agencies probably had a good idea that the SSN was deployed, and may have assessed that it was in the Western hemisphere, but they didn’t know where.  Armed with the knowledge that the submarine had departed the GOM, they “walked back” to the likely deployment date to determine when the submarine probably entered the GOM undetected.

The Washington Free Beacon story highlights the fact that the submarine was in the GOM during the G-20 summit in Mexico in June, when there was a notable coolness between President Obama and Vladimir Putin.  Russian bombers made a close approach to Alaska during the summit, prompting a US and Canadian response.  (As I was able to reconstruct afterward, the Russian bombers, which were participating in an Arctic exercise, entered the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone – ADIZ – without making the required notification to the ADIZ control center.  This prompts a fighter intercept when it happens, and was of course done deliberately by the Russians, but to call it a “threat” as the WFB story at the last link does is to assume more than necessary.  The Russian bombers don’t appear to have violated US or Canadian air space.  It was a signal, at any rate.)

It’s somewhat humorous to think that the US wasn’t getting the “message” being sent by the Akula SSN during the Mexico summit, since we didn’t know it was there.  But the Akula’s capabilities are not to be sneezed at.  The SS-N-21 “Sampson” submarine-launched cruise missile has a range of more than 1500 nautical miles (over 1800 statute miles), and can hold much of the Eastern and central United States at risk from the GOM (see map).

Do we have any ready air defenses against the SS-N-21, should it be launched at North America?

No.

The SS-N-21 is a subsonic cruise missile – meaning it flies like an airplane, like the US Navy’s Tomahawk cruise missile — and it was designed with 1970s-era technology.  But that doesn’t mean we have any system constantly deployed that can shoot it down.  We could responsively deploy Patriot missile batteries or US Navy ships equipped with the Aegis air defense system; and indeed, anti-air guns would in many cases be effective against the SS-N-21 – but we would have to know the submarine was there first.  No such US assets are routinely on alert in an area where they could intercept an SS-N-21 launched from the GOM.  Our various civil radar systems would detect the missile, but we have no systems ready to shoot it down.

 

Maps.com map; author annotations

 

Using the Army or Navy assets, meanwhile, would also preempt other uses for those assets, as long as they were deployed to protect the territory of the United States.  We would need more of them to add that mission on a constant or regular basis.

Until the Strategic Defense Initiative was launched by Ronald Reagan in 1983, the US put no serious effort into a missile defense for our home territory.  We now have a defense system – the National Missile Defense, or NMD, brought online during George W. Bush’s tenure – that can protect the Western US and Western Canada against ICBMs (ballistic missiles) launched from Asia.   Portions of eastern North America remain unprotected due to Obama’s cancellation of the NMD sites in Poland and Czech Republic.

We are implementing a theater missile defense in Europe as well.  But we do not have a ready territorial defense for the United States and Canada (or Mexico, for that matter, which was also in the SS-N-21’s threat ring) against sea- or air-launched cruise missiles.  (Note:  Russia’s Tu-95 Bear H and Tu-160 Blackjack bombers carry the AS-15 air-launched cruise missile, with a similar design to the SS-N-21.)  The Cold War-era assumption that we would take out the launch platform remains, in essence, our defense strategy against surprise launches of these missiles.

But what if we don’t know the launch platform is there?  The questions are pressing on us once again:  why should we simply allow another nation to hold our population at risk?  If we don’t want to do that, what shall we do instead?  Produce more Patriot batteries and more anti-air gun systems, so we can keep them constantly deployed in North America?  Build more Aegis ships so that they can form a more regular core for a North American air and missile defense?

Can we be certain that we will reliably detect quiet submarines lurking off our shores?  Can we accept the possibility of not having any defenses deployed, because we failed to detect a submarine?

The Akula in the GOM won’t be the last security challenge of this kind.  The Russians will do it again, and China is capable of doing it.  The potential threat is already there, and we are unprepared for it.  The most foolish response of all would be to complacently assume that nothing can get at us here in our long-unmolested bastion in North America.  The Russians want to hold us at risk today in order to affect our policies.   We can harden our defenses – or we can let our policies be held hostage by an undefended threat.

 

* Russian submarines in this part of the world are far from unprecedented, but it has been a very long time since a Russian sub patrolled in the Gulf of Mexico.  A nuclear-powered Russian sub has never previously done so.  The diesel-powered submarines of the former Soviet Union operated in the GOM several times a year as recently as the mid-1980s, using Cuba as a forward base.  A Soviet nuclear-powered Echo-class submarine visited Cuba in the early 1970s, but did not operate in the GOM.  For more on former-Soviet submarine patterns during the Cold War, see David F. Winkler, The Cold War at Sea (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000), and Norman Friedman, The Fifty-Year War (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000).

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.

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So this would mean we didn’t even have such defenses in place during the Cold War. No one ever thought the USSR might try to sneak a sub into the GOM? I’m floored that this contingency was never thought of.

Bitter Clinger on August 14, 2012 at 3:48 PM

Second verse, same as the first. I feel like my childhood during the cold war is repeating itself, only this time the President is anti-american also.

WitchDoctor on August 14, 2012 at 3:49 PM

Where would the sub have come from, J.E.? Don’t we have sonar nets in the north Atlantic and in the Pacific?

Also, what’s the radar cross section of an SS-N-21? Would detection be a problem?

Spannerhead on August 14, 2012 at 4:01 PM

Bitter Clinger on August 14, 2012 at 3:48 PM

The cruise missile threat was quite different and less of a concern for all but the final few years of the Cold War. Until the SS-N-21, which they deployed in the late 1980s, the Soviets had only much shorter-range cruise missiles. The subs they deployed in the GOM had these shorter-range cruise missiles (e.g., the Tango-class diesel submarine with the SS-N-15), which were intended for attacking ships within visual range, and would have had no use against land targets.

In 1984, they mounted what they called an “analogous response” to our deployment of the Pershing-II intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Europe (which in turn was in response to the Soviets’ deployment of SS-20s to Western Russia to increase the risk to Europe). The “analogous response” involved deploying Echo-class cruise-missile submarines around Europe and off the Hawaiian islands. The Echos carried a much shorter-range missile and had to be within about 300 miles of their target to hit anything.

But the Soviets didn’t deploy these subs to the GOM. They had more respect for our vigilance back then, and didn’t even try it.

The threat of land attack from a submarine-launched cruise missile really came to be a serious issue only in the late 1980s. By then, Reagan and Gorbachev were already negotiating to get the intermediate-range fround-launched missiles out of Europe, and the Soviet Union itself then collapsed in late December 1991.

In the years since, the US has made no preparations for defending American territory against cruise missiles. An important point to make is that today’s Russia is bolder about penetrating our back yard with a long-range cruise-missile-equipped submarine than the USSR was during the Cold War. The Russians respect us less now, after more than three years of Obama.

J.E. Dyer on August 14, 2012 at 4:02 PM

Spannerhead on August 14, 2012 at 4:01 PM

The Northern Fleet in the Barents Sea, with its fleet HQ in Murmansk, is where the Akula SSN came from.

Akulas are in fact pretty quiet. I’d have to shoot you if I said much about our detection capabilities in the Atlantic, but I can say they’re not what they once were. That said, it takes a quiet submarine to sneak past them. The Akula would have to transit at a very low speed, like 8 knots or so, to reliably avoid detection.

The SS-N-21 is a mohunker, which we would have no trouble detecting. It’s not a stealth weapon; its RCS would be visible to the average ATC radar. Since it’s subsonic, there is an outside chance that we could intercept one on the way to, say, Chicago from the GOM, from an unalerted state. We’d have between 1 and 2 hours to react.

But from a state of zero alertment, we’d be extraodinarily lucky to roll something out and get the missile shot down. If the missile were aimed at a target closer to the GOM, such as key military bases in Texas, Lousiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, or Florida, only an already alerted system would be able to intercept it.

J.E. Dyer on August 14, 2012 at 4:10 PM

I did a little research when I first heard the story and it seems the Akula is about as quiet as a Flight I Los Angeles class sub.

Also read that the newer models use “OK-300 electric propulsors” for ~5 kt maneuvering. Is that related to the magnetohydrodynamic “caterpillar” of Hunt for Red October fame, and could the Akula have used those to slip past the sonar nets?

Spannerhead on August 14, 2012 at 4:19 PM

If we don’t already have an Integrated Undersea Surveillance System in place guarding the entrance to the GOM, we need to put one in.

HeckOnWheels on August 14, 2012 at 4:27 PM

the newer models use “OK-300 electric propulsors” for ~5 kt maneuvering. Is that related to the magnetohydrodynamic “caterpillar” of Hunt for Red October fame, and could the Akula have used those to slip past the sonar nets?

Spannerhead on August 14, 2012 at 4:19 PM

Sort of but not really related. The propulsors do take advantage of forcing seawater through a tube to move the sub, and the noise from the electric propulsors themselves is minimal. But it’s effective only for very slow maneuvering.

To maintain a desired course and speed in transit, the Akula still has to use its propeller. Few here are old or geeky enough to remember that Toshiba, the Japanese company, sold the USSR technology for designing very quiet propellers back in the latter part of the Cold War. The Akula props were designed using the Toshiba technology, and are unusually quiet as a result.

The newer US Los Angeles-class SSNs, and the Seawolf class, are even quieter, and the Ohio-class ballistic missile subs are quieter still. We retain the edge in a sub-versus-sub calculation. In terms of our ability to detect the much-quieter modern Russian subs, and Russia’s and China’s diesel subs, the subs have pretty much caught up to our capabilities.

J.E. Dyer on August 14, 2012 at 4:31 PM

If we don’t already have an Integrated Undersea Surveillance System in place guarding the entrance to the GOM, we need to put one in.

HeckOnWheels on August 14, 2012 at 4:27 PM

Indeed. (Did that for a living in the 1980s.)

J.E. Dyer on August 14, 2012 at 4:33 PM

You know, you forgot to mention who is in charge of the Akula. I understand that he’s a doctor.

Yes, that would be DR. Akula.

(Yes, I stole that from Scrubs.)

Meryl Yourish on August 14, 2012 at 4:34 PM

Akula = “shark”

J.E. Dyer on August 14, 2012 at 4:46 PM

Toshiba, the Japanese company, sold the USSR technology for designing very quiet propellers back in the latter part of the Cold War. The Akula props were designed using the Toshiba technology, and are unusually quiet as a result.

J.E. Dyer on August 14, 2012 at 4:31 PM

Then I guess I’m a geek. My personal boycott of Toshiba is still going on. I don’t buy products built by Koensburg (sp?) (the almost never mentioned cohort in that endeavor), but I didn’t before that either.

Though I still think this is overblown. An Oscar on the other hand…

cozmo on August 14, 2012 at 4:50 PM

Akula = “shark”

J.E. Dyer on August 14, 2012 at 4:46 PM

To further confuse the issue, They call their Typhoons Akulas.

cozmo on August 14, 2012 at 4:51 PM

Seeing as how the Russians have enough ICBMs and SLBMs to completely annihilate us if they so chose (and we, of course, have the capacity to retaliate in kind), I don’t think a single submarine patrolling the Gulf of Mexico armed with cruise missiles is some huge national security threat to get worked up over. This is just another example of Putin sticking his thumb in our eye. Because he can.

Hayabusa on August 14, 2012 at 4:57 PM

cozmo — naaah, can’t get more exercised over the Oscar than the Akula. The Oscar’s SS-N-19 is a shorter-range anti-ship weapon. The Oscar has to be within 330 miles of the target to hit it (which of course is useful — well beyond line of sight — for anti-surface warfare, but not nearly as useful as the SS-N-21′s range for projecting power ashore). I wouldn’t want to see an Oscar in the GOM, but if there were an Oscar in the GOM, the potential threat ring would be much smaller.

The Akula isn’t the threat the US LA-class SSN is, because it launches the SS-N-21 “Tomahawkski” from its torpedo tubes. In any tactical situation there is a tradeoff in what’s cued up in the Akula’s tubes. The LA-class launches the TLAM from its upright tubes and can keep the torpedo tubes full of torpedoes.

But the Akula is certainly more like the LA-class than like the Oscar in terms of projecting power ashore. The Russians use what they have.

J.E. Dyer on August 14, 2012 at 5:13 PM

J.E. Dyer on August 14, 2012 at 5:13 PM

I used to think that way. Then the Navy took some Ohio’s and turned them into SSGNs. It may only go 330 miles with that missile, but it could do it a whole lot faster than the SS-N-21. And who’s to say they haven’t tinkered with the load out of some Oscars?

cozmo on August 14, 2012 at 5:27 PM

cozmo on August 14, 2012 at 5:27 PM

The Oscar doesn’t send a power-projection signal, however. The Akula does: it can be slipped into a region (the Oscar is a noisy mo-fo we see coming for hundreds, even thousands of miles), and it can hit Chicago from almost anywhere off the US coast.

In that sense, its political import is that of the TLAM-equipped US SSN.

The reason the Russians are doing this is that they want to alarm Obama over how they might retaliate if we take action against Assad or Iran. I’m sure such intimidation tactics wouldn’t work on Hayabusa, but he’s not the target. Obama is, and Obama is highly deterrable.

The point remains that we don’t have a ready means of defending ourselves against the SS-N-21 launched from the Akula. I’m afraid it’s just stupid for people (not you, cozmo, I know you didn’t say this) to proclaim that it’s just a little submarine and the Russians aren’t going to use it anyway. If they feel the need to use something, this is what they’ll use. It’s a lower-level threat than an ICBM or SLBM — and unlike those latter threats, we have no defense deployed against it.

J.E. Dyer on August 14, 2012 at 5:42 PM

Akula = “shark”

Sigh.

Meryl Yourish on August 14, 2012 at 5:43 PM

Meryl Yourish on August 14, 2012 at 5:43 PM

That was meant to enhance the “Dr. Akula” reference. Probably too elliptical a response.

J.E. Dyer on August 14, 2012 at 5:46 PM

J.E. Dyer on August 14, 2012 at 5:42 PM

Oh, I know. But this kind of thing isn’t new for attack subs.

Heck, when there were rumors of Soviet SSBNs off the east coast, people went nuts. Don’t ever remember hearing that when they were off the west coast, but it would have been easier.

An Oscar surfacing in the Gulf of Mexico would be a propaganda coup.

cozmo on August 14, 2012 at 7:50 PM

The Oscar doesn’t send a power-projection signal, however. The Akula does: it can be slipped into a region (the Oscar is a noisy mo-fo we see coming for hundreds, even thousands of miles), and it can hit Chicago from almost anywhere off the US coast.

J.E. Dyer on August 14, 2012 at 5:42 PM

Hitting Chicago is a bad thing?

(Just kidding)

Bitter Clinger on August 14, 2012 at 9:17 PM

Thanks for the article, and the insight Mr. Dyer.

Gives a whole new meaning to “shark week”.

This has to come front and center in the election under epic fail foreign policy. You could add it to weak economics equals weak defenses.

Building up defenses are also going to take time. Meanwhile, we are in trouble because this Iran thing is not going away soon.

Just saying, the “Reset” button has been proven once again to be moronic. We sent a dull knife to a KGB nuclear sub fight.

People, I know we are all freaked about the economy, but as Medicare gets the spotlight, we cannot overlook where we are on the chess board of foreign policy, and the state of our defenses, as well as the status of our military, and our clandestine areas. Please spread this story to your family members, friends, and neighbors.

freeus on August 14, 2012 at 9:41 PM

if dc, new york and norfolk usnb
and other extreme high value targets were hit in sneak attack like akula can you reallybelieve that putin and the red chinese would expect obama to push the button

extremely doubtful considering many more if not whole us would be kilt

losarkos on August 14, 2012 at 10:06 PM

extremely doubtful considering many more if not whole us would be kilt

losarkos

Brings to mind a 1969 headline from Monty Python: Man Turns Into Scotsman

Olo_Burrows on August 15, 2012 at 7:20 AM

I don’t understand what the Russians are playing at. This hurts Obama, why would they want to do that? As POTUS he’s done more for Russian ascendancy that any other POTUS.

roy_batty on August 15, 2012 at 8:40 AM

This calls for a sternly worded North Korea style international press release about the furious invincibility of the Hope and Change Navy of the People.

Brian1972 on August 15, 2012 at 8:41 AM

At the time the Soviet Union collapsed, the US had thousands of highly-trained antisubmarine warfare technicians, many of them good enough to find and track the very quietest subs in the world. Then, suddenly, these technicians no longer had Soviet subs to chase, and they were assigned to other tasks, or they left the service, and their talents and skills were lost.

I hope we still have some people with the skills to do this job, and I’m certain the technology has improved so much that the job is doable. I just wish I could be more confident that these new sub deployments are not a serious threat.

J Baustian on August 15, 2012 at 1:30 PM