Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT

Preventing Submarine Collisions

Answers to the questions of U.S. nationwide policy debaters

Updated August 21, 2003

The 98-99 United States nationwide policy debate topic was the state of U.S. foreign policy towards Russia. The resolution stated, that this policy should be substantially changed. One of the issues widely discussed has been continuing Cold War practice of trailing of Russian submarines. Attached are Eugene Miasnikov's answers to the most frequently asked questions of debaters.

Part 1.

Q: A team from Lexington High School in Massachusetts proposes that: "The U.S. should establish a blueprint amending current Navy protocols to preclude the tracking of Russian submarines in Russian territorial waters and necessary patrol routes." They cite your article, Collision of Two U.S. Nuclear Powered Submarines on March 1998, Our Comment as evidence supporting the passage of their policy proposal. They claim that tracking risks reactor accidents below the water and crisis escalation when a Russian sub commander launches a SLBM in response to U.S. sub bumping. What are the chances of a nuclear accident as a result from a crash?

The danger of a collision is conventional explosion which results in break up of submarine nuclear reactors, and possibly nuclear warheads of the missiles, so that highly radioactive nuclear materials (nuclear weapons and nuclear fuel in submarine reactors) will be released and spread over the wide area - pretty much like what happened in Chernobyl. If there will be a strong wind toward the coast, the radioactive waste can spread deep inside the territory as well. Submarine collisions are dangerous, because they may also lead to loss of personnel and submarines.

For example, in March 1993 a U.S. submarine collided with a Delta IV Class Russian submarine at the Barents Sea causing very heavy damage to the front area of the Russian submarine's hull, and also considerable damage to the front of the U.S. submarine as well (the SSN Grayling). Since the Russian missile carrying submarine was moving forward in the water when the collision occurred, had the collision happened ten to twenty seconds later, it could have resulted in the crushing of one or more of the submarine's missile compartments. Such a collision could have caused a deflagration event that could have resulted in the loss of the Russian submarine, and possibly the U.S. submarine as well.

Q: Also would a nuclear accident, perhaps 3-4 nuclear accidents lead to the extinction of all life in the oceans? It seems a little crazy that this could happen but the way that most teams are winning is by claiming a crash could end all aquatic life.

This statement is a little bit exaggerated. Atomic bombs destroyed both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killed more than 200,000 people, but there was also many people who survived. Chernobyl accident inflicted a severe damage, however the whole life did not end.

The danger of an accident involving nuclear materials is that it effects a very large territory and rehabilitation of the damaged territory will take hundreds years. Nuclear submarine accidents may result in release of highly radioactive and toxic materials, which are dangerous to both humans and marine life. Some species may not be preserved. There is an extensive literature on biological effects of radioactivity. You may find appropriate information in "The Effects of Nuclear Weapons" by Glasstone or in "Environmental Impact Statements on Disposal of Nuclear Submarines", produced by the U.S. Navy.

Q: Has there ever been a sub accident that resulted in radioactive material spilling into the ocean?

Fortunately, submarine reactors were shut down in all known accidents. There was some release of radioactivity and presumably highly radioactive wastes (like water in the coolant system). The sank submarines contained nuclear weapons on board that might have been damaged. For example, there were reports about damage of casings of plutonium tipped torpedoes aboard Soviet Mike class SSN which sank in 1989 in Norwegian Sea. Plutonium leakage is now an issue of great concern of environmentalists.

Q: The Chicago Tribune from June 23, 1997 reports that a 1986 collision off of Bermuda either directly or indirectly caused the inadvertent launch of a Soviet nuclear missile...

In fact there was explosion, not an inadvertent launch of a SS-N-6 missile. The fact of collision has not been proven, however there is an evidence, which supports such a hypothesis.

Q:..., but the book "Hostile Waters" says that they just blew the missile hatch...

The book is more reliable, because one of its authors was aboard the Yankee SSBN which sank.

Q:...Is there a risk that submarine collisions might actually trigger an inadvertent missile launch, or create the situation for an unanticipated escalation to genuine attack?

I do not think so. There is a certain set of conditions which are necessary to launch SLBMs. In particular, a missile submarine has to receive a launch order and permitting codes, which unlock targeting information, from a ground command center. Unlike U.S. SSBNs, Russian missile submarines can not launch missiles without such an order.

Q: What is required in order for an Russian nuclear sub commander to launch his missiles? On american subs it requires the captains and the executive officers keys to unlock the firing button. What is it on Russian subs?

It is impossible to give a correct answer to this question, because this is a classified information.

I have seen speculations on the matter in open literature, which look quite plausible. For example, you may find some information in books written by Bruce Blair: "Global Zero Alert for Nuclear Forces" and "Logic of Accidental Nuclear War".

What is important to understand, the Russian command-and-control system designed in such a way, that neither a group of "crazy submariners", nor of terrorists (not speaking about a single "berserk") can technically deliver a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile at a chosen target and explode the nuclear warhead. Even if they manage to launch an SLBM, it will be self-destructed, because of the lack of the flight mission or the latter is not confirmed from the central command center.

Q: It seems that crashes have decreased since the end of the Cold War.

If you speak about collisions between U.S. and Russian subs, in fact, the most recent events happened in 1992 and 1993, after the end of the Cold War. Open sources list approximately a dozen of sub-to-sub collisions in total since mid 60-s. On one hand, deployment rate of Russian submarines drastically decreased, which diminishes probability of a collision. However, Russian subs became less noisy, and this fact has an adverse effect on the chances to collide with U.S. subs attempting to trail.

Q: Why it is a good idea to track Russian submarines. I realize that you think it is a bad idea and I tend to agree, but what does the opposition claim as the warrant for tracking?

The old Russian submarines were noisy, and the U.S. subs were capable to detect them and track at long ranges. Thus, in Cold War years, submarine cat-and-mouse operation was a standard procedure. As the Russian submarines became more advanced, the U.S. superiority shrank, so that the tracking operations have become very dangerous. Submarine collisions confirm what consequences they may lead to. If the U.S. and Russia claim, that they are not enemies any more, and moreover, they are partners, there is no reason to continue dangerous Cold War practices.

Q: What are the reasons for keeping track of subs? The obvious implications are that we need to know if subs get too close to ports or areas of national security, or fears of spying etc.

There will always be reasons. I am trying to distinguish between "covert" (by a sub) and let's say "explicit" ASW operations, when for example, an ASW task group tries to defend a certain area. The first sort of operations is becoming extremely dangerous, as submarines become quieter. In addition, as applied to U.S.- Russian relations, these operations undermine mutual confidence.

Q: Does a move for a reduction in attack subs because Russia is not a threat mean that ASW will be banned?

No, it does not. ASW operations can be done with various types of platforms such as surface ships, airplanes, helicopters and submarines. The only reason to use a submarine for ASW role is to make the operation covert. Other platforms may prove to be at least not less efficient compared to submarines in other aspects as detection range, maneuverability, etc.

My point is one should minimize covert ASW operations, because these kind of activity is not safe for both tracking and target submarines, if they are quiet. Covert sub ASW operations against quiet subs are not efficient either.

One way to minimize the risk of accidents involving submarines is to ban covert ASW at "certain areas", where such events are the most likely (nearby naval bases, strategic submarine patrolling areas, etc.) Another way is to reduce numbers of attack submarines, so that lower numbers of remaining submarines will patrol at these "certain areas" less frequently.

Q: If the Virginia and Seawolf subs are used instead of the Sturgeon and Los Angles class subs could the U.S still effectively trail Russian subs without the risk of accidents. My understanding is that both the Seawolf and Virginia classes have highly advanced sonar systems.

I agree, that both Seawolf and Virginia classes are quieter than their predecessors and have better sonar systems. However there are fundamental factors that limit the performance of a passive sonar system of a given size (you can't make the submarine or its towed array many times bigger). These factors are - noise generated by the environment, sound transmission losses and their time and space variability. The source noise generated by a target sub can be made low enough, so that it can not be detected even with ideal sonar system at a range of few miles. In fact, the Russian subs have already reached these low levels.

Q: Can the United States develop technology to allow navy submarines to operate both covertly and safely in Russian territorial waters? Does the technology for such safe tailing exist?

The answer is "no", if Russia can retain its current level of submarine silencing. At the time being, the only method to detect a hostile submarine and not give away its own presence is passive acoustics. Passive acoustics has its limits imposed by the environment. As soon as the level of noise created by the sub is comparable with that of the noise, generated by the ocean, it is almost impossible to detect the sub at a safe distance. For more details, you may look at my papers.

Q: If not, how long could the research and development of this technology take?

I do not know about any technology, that can provide in foreseeable future with a capability to operate a submarine both safe and covertly against modern quiet submarines.

Q: Is it possible to track subs at a distance? If so what would be the appropriate distance?

Prolonged covert tracking is only possible against noisy submarines. However, the maximum distance at which the trailing sub does not give up its presence and still can detect the target is always changing because of spatial and time variability of ocean properties. This problem is discussed in more detail in the last section of Appendix 2 of my paper The Future of Russia's Strategic Nuclear Forces: Discussions and Arguments.

Q: A number of navy officials have argued that the United States must continue to track Russian submarines in Russian territorial waters to preserve the capability and readiness of the naval anti- submarine warfare architecture. Do you believe that such a US withdrawal will critically hamper US deterrence?

I agree, that once the Navy admits, that it does not need to conduct tracking of Russian subs, the capability and readiness of the navy's existing ASW architecture will be very difficult to retain. In particular, as I already mentioned, the question will immediately arise, why the U.S. needs so many nuclear attack subs. The problem is, that current US ASW architecture was developed with the goal to fight with hundreds of hostile nuclear submarines in open ocean. Should the U.S. retain such an architecture? Or should the ASW be adapted to modern threats?

I do not agree, that such a US withdrawal will critically hamper US deterrence. Deterrence is provided not by ASW, but strategic forces (Trident SSBNs, etc.) Covert ASW operations against Russian SSBNs, on one hand, are not technically capable to prevent a strategic strike, if Russia chooses to attack the U.S. On the other hand, such operations will likely create de-stabilizing effect of "use or loose" pressure on the Russian political leadership at a crises situation.

Q: Is Russia continuing to build more submarines?

Some submarine building programs, started back in late 80-s are still alive. However, they continue at a very slow pace. For details you may look at Norman Polmar's article in December's issue of Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute (1998).

Q: Does Russia actively engage in strategic or attack submarine operations? The sources we have indicate that Russia's sub operations are decreasing or nonexistent; however our arguments depend on the fact that this "trailing" or "shadowing" of Russian subs by US subs is happening now.

Submarine operations continue, but their rate has decreased by the order of magnitude since the late 80-s. According to the most recent estimates by the U.S. Navy Russia had conducted "a very small number" of strategic submarine patrols this year.

Q: Should the recent economic and political instability in Russia affect U.S. decisions to limit submarine activity?

Let's try to answer to the question what political and military benefits do U.S. submarine operations near Russian naval bases provide. The fact of these operations, as well as decision to expand NATO, is known to Russian public and widely exploited by the opposition of the current political leadership. U.S. submarine covert operations near Russian territory are considered here as a very unfriendly act. In particular, this fact became one of the strong obstacles for START II ratification by the Russian parliament. Moreover, covert submarine activity in reality undermines the efforts of the U.S. and Russian administrations to build a mutual confidence and partnership.

Perhaps, you know, that the size of the Russian Navy has diminished by half since early 90's. At sea operations and exercises have reduced significantly. Russian shipbuilding program is nearly stopped. Current problems of Russia will inevitably lead to further deterioration of the Russian Navy. Thus, what is the reason for keeping presence of U.S. attack submarines deployed near the Russian coast at the same numbers as 10-15 years ago?

Q: How much does it cost to track Russian subs for the U.S.?

The answer depends on the method of calculation. Each attack submarine cost almost $1 billion to build, not speaking about operation and maintenance, overhauls, etc. The U.S. spent enormous amount of money to build and operate SOSUS system, which is also a part of the tracking system. You have also to include the cost of Orion P-3, and Viking ASW airplanes. The authors of The Atomic Audit (edited by Stephen Schwartz) estimate that at least $ 200 billion was spent on attack submarine construction, $ 25 billion went on strategic-ASW maritime patrol aircraft, $16 billion was for strategic ASW undersea surveillance (page 308).

Q: Has Congress ever discussed ending the trailing of Russian subs, and if so, how was the reception to the idea?

As far as I know, trailing of Russian subs has been never discussed by the U.S. Congress. Very aggressive U.S. naval policy was the public issue in 80-s, and U.S. subs forward operations were the part of that policy. However, the Navy never admitted discussing particular tasks for its submarines publicly. Let me suggest, that you have a look at Strategic Antisubmarine Warfare and Naval Strategy by Tom Stefanick (Lexington Books, 1987) and Submarine Warfare in the Arctic: Option or Illusion? by Mark Sakitt (Stanford University, 1988). These books give a fairly good picture of former public debates.

Q: What is current view of U.S. political leadership on sub tracking? How big of an aspect is sub tracking of our foreign policy towards Russia?

I have not heard anything of the kind. Unfortunately, U.S. political leadership does not consider the problem as a serious one, and it does not try to influence on the U.S. Navy so that, the tracking practice is changed. Russian government is currently too weak to lead the search for solutions. However, the submarine operations issue remains one of major irritants in the Russian parliament and its impact on other U.S.-Russian areas of cooperation is still strong. If the U.S. shows its good will, I am sure, there will be much less resistance in Russia in other important areas of U.S.- Russian relations.

Q: I came across some articles saying we stopped tracking Russian subs in the Arctic in November of 1997. Is this true?

As I know from my sources, that was only a declaration.

Q: Do we still track them in other locations? Was our pullout successful? I realize we still have subs in the Barents Sea....Do you know if we plan on remaining there?

The U.S. Navy did not make any commitments publicly, that it would change its submarine operating policy.

Q: Could decomissioning Russia subs be a better solution?

I do not think, that Russia will agree to disarm unilaterally, as long it is a self-governing country.

Q: Would a policy by the United States that established a series of safe zones in which the US's nuclear submarines could not track Russian subs be effective in stopping submarine collisions? The current text of our proposal is that the United States federal government will halt all clandestine trailing activity by our submarines in the Barents, White, and Kara Seas, the Sea of Japan, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Central Arctic. Following the implementation of our proposal, these areas would be observed as areas that would be free of our nuclear submarines since the risk of bumping is greatest in these areas.
Zones of safety and confidence, proposed by Russia. Source: "Nezavisimaya Gazeta", October 5, 2000

I think your proposal is rather strong. It is interesting, that Russian negotiators asked for much less in the past. In particular, they proposed to conclude a bilateral agreement on safety of submarine operations beyond territorial waters. The Russian proposal was published in "Nezavisimaya Gazeta" ("Independent Newspaper") on October 5, 2000.

The draft agreement calls for establishing "zones of safety and confidence" near submarine bases (shown at the picture of the paper mentioned), where the sides would notify each other about planned submarine deployments. Thus, the idea was not to completely prohibit submarine operations, but make them transparent at certain zones. In addition, the idea of agreement was to establish the "rules of the road" for submarines.

Though the Russian proposal was made in early 1990-s, the U.S. Navy still keeps rejecting it, as to my knowledge.

Q: Also, is Lexington's proposal as stated the solution to the problem? I know that your article suggests that the U.S. amend an incidents at sea agreement between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1972. Is their any reason that a unilateral American directive would fail to achieve the desired end and that a formal amendment to a treaty and formal codification is necessary?

Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to see the Lexington's proposal. I think, any step in the direction to reduce the danger of submarine collisions should be welcomed. It could be a unilateral action from both sides, if reaching a bilateral agreement is impossible in current political environment. Unfortunately, the problem is not yet identified in public. The U.S. Navy is reluctant to discuss it. Therefore, it is good, that submarine tracking operations becoming an issue in public debates.

My colleagues and I proposed to limit this Cold War practice in a paper Nuclear Arms Reductions. Process and Problems. In many aspects our suggestion is similar to the official Russian proposal.

The minimum that should be done in an attempt to solve the problem - is bilateral statements of the Presidents, similarly as Bush and Gorbachev made with respect to nuclear SLCMs and tactical weapons in 1991. Even such a measure could be much better than neglecting the problem.