Pentagon Worried Soviet Subs Might Wipe Out Bombers

Underwater boats could launch sneak attack on American bases

Pentagon Worried Soviet Subs Might Wipe Out Bombers Pentagon Worried Soviet Subs Might Wipe Out Bombers
Throughout the Cold War, the United States worried the Soviet Union might launch a nuclear sneak attack and escape American retaliation. The Pentagon was... Pentagon Worried Soviet Subs Might Wipe Out Bombers

Throughout the Cold War, the United States worried the Soviet Union might launch a nuclear sneak attack and escape American retaliation. The Pentagon was particularly worried about the threat of Soviet submarines sneaking up on American forces undetected.

In one instance, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Scientific Advisory Committee specifically studied whether Soviet underwater ballistic missile boats – a.k.a. SSBNs – could nuke the U.S. Air Force’s bomber bases into oblivion within minutes of a coordinated launch.

The agency released the report as part of a response to a private individual’s Freedom of Information Act request. The website has published the full dump of reports totaling more than 1,000 pages.

Though heavily redacted, the undated study – believed to be from the 1980s based on the equipment described – provides an interesting look at how intelligence analysts tried to puzzle out what Moscow might be thinking:

Potentially any of the Soviet [Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles] could be employed in a surprise attack against [Strategic Air Command] bases, either in an attempt to severely damage a significant number of alert bombers before or during take-off or in a barrage mode in an attempt to destroy the bombers [redacted]. An attack against alert aircraft would require [redacted]  delivered weapons against a single base. Depending on the actual dispersal of the U.S. bomber/tanker force, the Soviets [redacted] carried on Soviet SSBNs, this equates [redated] Yankee and Delta class submarines).

The report specifically mentions the Yankee I and II, Delta I, II and III and Typhoon-class vessels. The Soviet Union introduced the advanced Typhoon class in 1981, which can carry 20 SS-NX-20 Sturgeon missiles with a 100-200 kiloton nuclear bomb on each missile.

Above - a U.S. Air Force B-52H bomber. Air Force photo. At top - two Soviet Delta III class missile submarines. Photo via Wikimedia

Above – a U.S. Air Force B-52H bomber. Air Force photo. At top – two Soviet Delta III-class missile submarines. Photo via Wikimedia

On the other hand, a barrage attack with the requirement to target tens of weapons in the vicinity of each SAC base would require the Soviets to coordinate, in time, a very large SLBM attack with [redacted.] Although the B-52s can safely withstand [redacted,] a conservative “sure-kill” Soviet targeting value would probably be [redacted.] This would necessitate even greater quantities of weapons and SSBNs and would require the Soviets to dedicate a very large fraction, if not all, of their SLBMs to this single objective. The panel believes such a barrage attack to be unrealistic.


Even in the more “modest” strike on the airbases a carefully coordinated Soviet attack taking into account [redacted.] Errors in execution would provide the very warning time to U.S. forces that the attack is attempting to negate.

Right before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Soviet navy had six of the newer Typhoons, 36 Deltas and some 18 aging Yankee types. The U.S. Air Force spread its massive eight-engine B-52 bombers and supporting KC-135 tankers across the continental United States and overseas specifically to prevent the Soviets from nuking the entire force all at once.

Accuracy requirements would not appear to pose any significant limitations to the Soviets, particularly for the attacks against alert aircraft on individual bases. Although guidance & control modifications to the Soviet SLBMs are needed as described below, accuracies of a mile or so would be acceptable. The panel believes this accuracy to be reasonably attainable even without modifications to current systems.

Censors have removed many of the DIA’s specific estimates about Soviet missiles capabilities. However, the analysts clearly believed the Kremlin’s weaponeers were steadily improving the range and accuracy of their existing missiles and designing new ones.

A Soviet Typhoon-class missile submarine. Navy photo

A Soviet Typhoon-class missile submarine. Navy photo

But they also found no compelling hints of Moscow regularly moving boats into the right positions or even having an interest in a submarine-based sneak attack:

Development of a [redacted would appear to contradict trends seen in current Soviet naval capabilities and deployment patterns. As the DELTAs have entered the inventory, the Soviets have developed higher energy, longer range, and more accurate SLBMs to be put on them. The panel notes an attendant Soviet tendency to pull back their SSBNs to sanctuaries where they can presumably be protected from a capable U.S. [anti-submarine warfare] force. Although the Soviets still maintain the YANKEE patrol areas [redacted,] there is no known effort to upgrade or replace this system. This panel acknowledges that DELTAs probably could slip undetected into the YANKEE patrol areas; however we do not believe that DELTAs could routinely accomplish this without detection nor that the Soviets would think that they could do it with confidence.


In conclusion, the panel found no evidence that the Soviets possess or intend to develop [redacted] to attack U.S. bomber bases. We concluded that they could do it with moderately significant modifications to existing systems, but that a more prudent option would be to develop a new missile in which the design is optimized for this purpose. In any event, if the Soviets chose to develop such a capability, a minimum flight test program would appear to be required unless they depart substantively from their current approach to weapons system development.

The DIA scientists still recommended the Pentagon stay on alert for any new developments. They also included a note about the potential threat of Moscow’s shorter-range, nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.

The Pentagon is still concerned that these smaller, faster weapons can get past traditional early warning systems and wreak havoc on American military bases or cities. Large balloon-mounted radars now flying over the state of Maryland are ostensibly supposed to counter this threat.

Whether the $2.7 billion dollar Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System program – more commonly referred to by the acronym JLENS – is up the to task is anyone’s guess, according to a report by the Los Angeles Times. On April 15, the floating sensors weren’t running and therefore couldn’t spot a errant Florida postal worker as he flew a small gyrocopter into the restricted airspace above Washington, D.C.

What is clear is that Russia’s increasingly troublesome and expensive to maintain submarine fleet – much of it rusting away dockside – isn’t likely to be sailing too many patrols near the American shore any time soon.

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