Stalking the Red Bear
The True Story of a U.S. Cold War Submarine's Covert Operations Against the Soviet Union
By Peter Sasgen
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2009 Peter Sasgen
All rights reserved.
A DEADLY GAME
U.S. NAVY COMMANDER Roy Hunter, captain of the USS Blackfin, heard the sibilant beat of ships' screws and, through the raised periscope, saw the masts of hull-down Soviet warships. Electronic Signals Measures (ESM) intercepts of radar and radio transmissions had confirmed the presence of several ships and ASW helicopters as well as the high-frequency polarized radar the Soviet helos employed for detecting exposed submarine periscopes and masts.
As he lowered the periscope, Hunter ordered, "Lower all masts. All ahead two-thirds. Make your depth two-five-zero feet. The officer of the deck has the conn."
Hunter announced his intention to track the contacts via passive sonar, then ordered the officer of the deck (OOD), a young lieutenant, to station the section fire-control tracking party, the team tasked with keeping tabs on a target's position. Rigged for red, the control room, with its lit up fire-control consoles and other vital instruments, had a spectral look.
"Conn, sonar; active sonar bearing one-three-zero," advised the sonar supervisor. "Frequency five kilohertz; ten-thousand-yard scale. Designate Sierra Ten."
The OOD toggled his microphone switch. "Conn, aye."
The report from sonar meant that the Soviet warships had shifted to high-powered active sonar, a sure sign they were searching for a submerged intruder.
"Officer of the deck, make your depth four-five-zero feet," ordered Hunter.
Greater depth would provide an extra layer of invisibility, like pulling a blanket over their heads. Since making sonar contact with the ships, Hunter had been thinking, Avoid counterdetection. In other words, don't let the Soviets know you're there. If they do, you lose. Hunter was confident he could give them the slip — unless they got lucky, and so far it didn't seem likely.
The Soviets relied on a rigid and highly codified ASW doctrine, what they called the "struggle against submarines." It was more a theory than a proven tactic. The Sovs, with their inferior passive sonar, often gave up searching for submerged U.S. subs simply because they were too quiet to detect. Yet when using active sonar they often regarded submerged contacts as anomalies caused by scatter or thermal gradients, or reverberations caused by shallow water. Moving west, the Sov ASW team's active sonar slowly started fading. So far so good. It seemed as if they'd lost the scent ...
"Conn, sonar; picked up a three-hundred-hertz tone. Bearing two-nine-zero, drawing right, designated Sierra Eleven. Classified as a submerged Type II." Sonar had a submerged Russian submarine contact, perhaps a Charlie or Victor nuclear attack sub.
Hunter's submarine, moving silently, was nothing more than a hole in the ocean. Not so the Soviet sub.
"Come left to two-nine-zero," the OOD ordered.
The helmsman confirmed the order; the American sub turned northwest.
A moment later the OOD ordered, "Attention in the attack center. We'll maneuver to solve the target's course, speed, and range." Turning to Hunter, he asked, "Captain, should I try to get lined up for an ASPL?"
Making absolute sound pressure level recordings of a Soviet submarine's noise levels was high on Holystone's intelligence-gathering list. First, though, Hunter had to determine what this one was up to and whether the contact intended to maintain the steady course and speed essential to making accurate ASPL recordings.
"Conn, sonar. Based on the tonal upshift, the range rate is a hundred yards per minute and closing."
Hunter settled down to wait. After several minutes the OOD ordered, "Come right to course zero-two-zero."
"I have Sierra Eleven on course zero-one-zero," reported the fire-control coordinator. "Speed ten, range forty-one hundred yards." A touch over two miles. "Got a good solution on him for an ASPL —"
"Conn, sonar!" The sonar supervisor broke in on fire control; the urgency in his voice was unmistakable. "Heard a transient, a thump, from Sierra Eleven."
Hunter, his mind working like a computer, reviewed a picture of the setup in his head. He "saw" the approaching enemy sub in relation to his own sub, which he'd maneuvered to gain an advantage on the intruder. He was certain that the Soviet sub hadn't heard the maneuver, so how ... ? It didn't matter how — that thump could only mean one thing, that he'd opened the outer doors on his torpedo tubes —
"Conn, sonar — a single ping from Sierra Eleven!"
Hunter heard it, too, on the UQC underwater phone at the periscope stand, a shrill pulse of pure sound energy fired by the Soviet sub at Hunter's sub. The ping meant that the Russian had painted the Americans with active sonar, a sign he was about to fire a torpedo at them!
Before Hunter could issue orders, sonar broke in: "Torpedo in the water! Bearing three-one-two!"
Hunter didn't hesitate; instinct and training took over. "I have the conn! All ahead flank! Right full rudder! Come to course one-three-five!"
Caught by surprise, Hunter at first refused to believe what he'd heard. No Soviet sub would ever fire a torpedo at an American sub in peacetime. There were rules in the espionage game both sides were playing, and if they were violated it could start a goddamn war — a nuclear war! His gut tightened. Everything suddenly ground to a halt. There was nothing more he could do, no way to avoid disaster. Like the watchstanders frozen at their stations, he heard the incoming whine of the torpedo's up-Doppler props, counted down the seconds to impact, and —
Lights snapped on in the control room.
A moment later a voice boomed from a speaker: "You're sunk, Hunter."
Chagrined, Hunter and his fire-control team blinked, looked around the attack center simulator's mocked-up control room, and then exchanged glances with each other. Hunter, at the periscope stand, blew through clenched teeth. It had only been an exercise, but goddamn it! The team running the simulation had slipped one in on him.
A week of circling, weaving, chasing down multiple targets, avoiding detection, and now getting sunk had left him exhausted. Still, better to make big mistakes in the attack teacher than up in the Barents Sea where a real mistake could kill you, not just bruise your ego. In the simulator at the U.S. Navy's submarine school in New London, Connecticut, with its perfect scenario reconstruction, a guy could learn from his mistakes and live to tell about it. After all, here it was Americans against Americans. In the Barents it would be Americans against Soviets. Hunter lit a cigarette and thought of all the things that could go wrong up in the Barents Sea — and how it would be his job to make sure they didn't.
RUNNING THE GAUNTLET
LOOKING NORTH UP the Thames River from New London, at the submarine base on the Groton side of the river, a visitor saw first the landmark water-filled escape training tower where submariners practiced getting out alive from a disabled or sunken submarine. Next came a jumble of old brick buildings, then, jutting into the river, a row of wooden piers, to which were moored perhaps a dozen black submarines.
One of those moored submarines was the USS Blackfin. Like all Sturgeon-class SSN submarines she was a bit of a hybrid. First and foremost she was a warship designed to attack and sink enemy ships and submarines, yet she was also a spy ship. It was the incomparable intel-collection capability of the Sturgeons that usually made CNO Zumwalt knead his brow whenever Holystone subs were routinely deployed against their Soviet adversaries. Some of the COs of these boats were hotshots who, like their forebears in World War II, weren't afraid to take risks, but this was the modern navy, not your father's navy, and Zumwalt didn't like risk takers. He was a surface sailor, though, not a submariner, a bureaucrat, not a sub driver. He wasn't the type to go looking for action in the Barents Sea. On the other hand, for Roy Hunter, who was neither a risk taker nor a hotshot, just a damn good sub driver, a Holystone deployment to the Barents Sea was exactly what he had been hoping for.
The U.S. Navy, like any navy, thrived on paperwork. Hunter was an old hand at dealing with it, separating wheat from chaff. One of his colleagues, the sub force's most notorious wheat-and-chaff separator, was said to have tossed overboard the mail his ship had received after a long deployment, deep-sixed it except for the registered stuff. Funny thing was, nobody ever seemed to notice that the regular mail they'd sent went unanswered.
Hunter had been in the Blackfin's wardroom drinking coffee and smoking, sifting through the morning's arrival of official mail — the yeoman had organized it into two piles, wheat and chaff — searching for something special that still hadn't come. Then the shore-connected phone cradled on the wardroom bulkhead chirped. Hunter swept the mail aside and picked up the phone. He wasn't a mind reader, yet when he heard the voice of the deputy squadron commander, he sensed what was coming — orders.
"Hunter, you lucky SOB. SubLant says you're scheduled for spec ops," the deputy squadron commander told him. "Get a schedule worked up, then give me a holler. Tell me what you need and I'll see that you get it."
Holystone. An opportunity to stalk the red bear. There was no peacetime mission the navy assigned its submarines that was more important than Holystone.
* * *
Roy Hunter was an experienced submarine officer, a veteran of tours aboard both nuclear-powered strategic ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and attack submarines (SSNs). Along the way he'd learned how to work the system. That was exactly what he did when he lobbied and arm-twisted the detailers at the Bureau of Naval Personnel (BuPers) in Washington, D.C., who, among other things, recommended officers for command of submarines. Hunter had wanted new construction, one of the Sturgeon-class boats then being built at the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics in Groton. "How about the Blackfin?" Hunter had urged whenever he was in Washington on submarine business. "She'll need a CO." A nudge here, a hint there, a little more arm-twisting, and sure enough Hunter had his submarine. After a year or so of exercises and ASW ops, though, he craved more action. Now, the phone call from the deputy squadron commander proved that his lobbying, along with his reputation and his standing in the pack, had worked again. The shipyard was no place for an aggressive skipper to end up in, yet by taking command of a brand-new submarine, Hunter could start out with a new ship and crew, not inherit someone else's problems. In other words, he'd get to do it his own way.
Like many submarine COs, Roy Hunter was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. His path to submarine command had run, as every submarine officer in the navy's nuclear power program had, through Admiral Hyman G. Rickover's office. Rickover was the visionary driving force behind the navy's development of nuclear power. An engineer, known for his abrasive personality and uncompromising standards, Rickover, among his other contributions, mustered the congressional support necessary for the success of the navy's nuclear power program. No less important was his unwavering demand for only the highest quality in nuclear construction and safety.
Summoned to Rickover's office, a young candidate, often a senior-class midshipman from the Naval Academy or NROTC (Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps), underwent a rigorous interview by three of the admiral's staff associates, civilians he'd handpicked and molded to their jobs of serving just one man, Rickover. They forwarded to Rickover their recommendations as to whether the candidate should be accepted into the program. The candidate was then interviewed (many officers likened the experience to running a gauntlet) by Rickover himself. If he passed muster with Rickover, no small achievement itself, the candidate was off to a year of nuclear power training — six months of academics at the Navy's nuclear power school and six months at a shore-based nuclear reactor where a budding nuclear engineer learned how the back end of a submarine works, the part that produces the power.
After graduation from nuclear power school, an officer attended six months of basic officer's submarine school, where he learned about the front end of the submarine, the part that controls the back end. After graduation from the basic course, he was assigned to his first sub. Now came the hard part.
The officer had to qualify not only in submarines but also on the two key watch stations: officer of the deck and engineering officer of the watch. Upon arrival aboard ship the new officer received three stacks of qualification cards, one stack for sub quals, another for OOD quals, and one for engineering officer of the watch quals. To qualify for OOD, he had to know everything there was to know about the control room and attack center and, just as important, how to handle a ship on the surface and apply the rules of the road.
To qualify for engineering officer of the watch, he had to qualify on each enlisted and officer watch station related to the ship's power plant and then some. There was a lot of material to study for qualification, both practical and theoretical, as well as oral and written exams to pass and engineering-officer-under-instruction watches to stand.
Qualification generally took about a year, sometimes less, depending on how much of a go-getter the officer was. After working his way through the quals, the officer had to demonstrate his knowledge to an examining board made up of other officers. If he passed this exam, he was recommended to be "qualified in submarines," whereupon the ship's CO, if he concurred, awarded him the coveted Twin Dolphins.
The next hurdle the officer faced was qualifying as engineer officer. For the candidate, it meant long hours of study and practical experience to receive the necessary recommendation by the CO. Then it was back to Rickover for more grilling and exams. If the officer survived this phase, he was designated a "qualified engineer," responsible for the ship's power plant and half the crew.
The goal of any seagoing naval officer is command at sea. Yet an officer aspiring to command a nuclear submarine faced a formidable challenge since, with few commands available given the relatively small size of the sub force compared to the surface force, only the very best officers were selected. It goes without saying, then, that ideally a candidate for command possessed a keen intelligence and analytical acumen. If he was also resourceful, calm, and unlikely to buckle under pressure, all the better to succeed in a tough environment.
PCO (prospective commanding officer) candidates were — as they are today — essentially under a microscope, their personalities and records subjected to a careful screening process designed to weed out individuals who lack the qualities essential for command. Nevertheless, to achieve the designation "Qualified for Command," the already qualified engineer had to survive yet more hurdles, chief among them a recommendation by his commanding officer and approval by his squadron commander, who would have seen the candidate in action and could judge his abilities. The PCO candidate also had to have served a successful tour as executive officer aboard a sub and been selected for command by the chief of naval personnel, a process that included Admiral Rickover's informal approval.
Upon the receipt of orders to command, the candidate reported to Rickover's office for three months of study and exams. This period also provided an opportunity for the PCOs to meet with the admiral's senior staff members and discuss the complex technical issues related to nuclear propulsion.
The PCOs also participated in the interviews Rickover conducted, of non-PCO candidates entering the nuclear propulsion program. During this process, each interviewee was accompanied by a PCO whose job it was to take notes for the official record. Nominally an impartial observer, the note taker was sometimes unavoidably drawn into the interview (which could last anywhere from a few seconds to more than an hour), an uncomfortable situation for both interviewee and PCO but one that Rickover fostered. On the upside, the observer could later tell thigh-slapping stories, such as what would happen when Rickover would have before him an NROTC candidate who had majored in psychology or liberal arts. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Stalking the Red Bear by Peter Sasgen. Copyright © 2009 Peter Sasgen. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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