Ballistic missile submarines are considered the quintessential element of the “silent service,” because their purpose is to lurk undetected in the world’s oceans for months at a time, ready to launch their arsenal in the service of their nations’ most urgent strategic objectives.
The point of the nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines of the elite navies – known as SSBNs – is to be unfindable. Their navies have worked for decades to make them quieter, and give their strategic missiles greater range, so that the subs can patrol silently in little-traveled areas far from their targets.
So when one is found, deliberately operating close to the coast of another nation, its presence is unquestionably meant to send a signal.
That’s what reportedly happened in January, off the coast of France. And it’s an even bigger event than it may sound like at first.
According to the Nouvel Observateur, a top French official disclosed recently that a Russian SSBN was detected in January operating in the Bay of Biscay (or the Golfe de Gascogne – “Gulf of Gascony” – as the French refer to it). (H/t: Reuters/Yahoo)
The brief report uses language that confirms key facts. First, the submarine is referred to as an SSBN. (The French abbreviation is SNLE, for “sous-marin nucléaire lanceur d’engin.” The reference is not to a cruise-missile carrying submarine, which the French refer to as a “sous-marin lanceur de missiles de croisière.”) That means it was a Russian strategic submarine, one of the dedicated legs of the Russian “nuclear triad.”
Second, the report indicates the submarine was “detected” (repéré). Repérer is the verb used to signify what the military means by “detection”: usually that some form of intentional surveillance was in use, and the object detected swam, so to speak, into its ken. The submarine wasn’t “seen,” by happenstance or some unalerted observer like a fishing boat crew. The wording of the comments is what a French official would say if national technical means caught the submarine, through one phenomenon of its physical “signature” or another.
Third, the report explicitly refers to the Golfe de Gascogne. We don’t need anything more specific to know how startlingly unusual this is, in combination with facts one and two.
Blast from the distant past
The French official is quoted as saying that nothing like this has happened since the Cold War. But that’s putting it mildly. The Cold War officially ended in 1991-92. Nothing like this – a Russian SSBN in the Bay of Biscay – has happened since at least the 1970s.
And I’m inclined to say, although I’m not 100% certain, that it hasn’t happened since the 1960s. The late 1950s was when the nuclear-armed powers began operating ballistic missile submarines. In the early days, Russian subs had to patrol close to the coast of the target country, and it wasn’t uncommon for a Russian sub to be in the Bay of Biscay. But the subs were in a vulnerable position operating there, and the Soviet navy backed them further into the Atlantic once it had longer-range missiles.
Moreover, the Bay of Biscay isn’t on the way to a common patrol area. Even in the days when Soviet ballistic missile subs patrolled in the Mediterranean Sea, they didn’t go through the English Channel to get there. They transited down west of the British Isles.
It was in the Soviet navy’s interest to patrol against Europe from beyond the Bay of Biscay as soon as it was able to, and it has thus been a very long time since a Russian SSBN operated there. There hasn’t been a physical reason to put an SSBN that close to the coast of France since about 1970. There certainly isn’t a physical reason today.
Yet the French have detected a Russian SSBN in the Bay of Biscay. We can assume the SSBN was not merely transiting from Point A to Point B, because it would have no conceivable reason to go through the area in question. It was there for a separate purpose: it was there to be detected.
And here is a more detailed point that matters. The signal a Russian SSBN could send by being in the Bay of Biscay is not one-dimensional.
The sub could have been one of two classes: a new Borei-class, or an older Delta-IV class. These classes of SSBN operate from the Northern Fleet, which has its headquarters in Murmansk. (The SSBN base is a separate facility from the HQ base, but both are accessed through an inlet from the Barents Sea on the northwestern-most coast of Russia.)
Right on schedule, a 2009 decision bears its fruit
I’m inclined to think it was a Borei SSBN. But regardless of which one it was, this next fact applies: its missiles would perform poorly at hitting targets in most of Europe – because from the Bay of Biscay, the submarine would be too close. Showing up in the Bay of Biscay with a load of intercontinental-range ballistic missiles isn’t a way of impressing Western Europe. In fact, the effective design range of the missiles on the two classes of submarines doesn’t kick in until around Belarus, as measured from the Bay of Biscay. (See map.)
On the other hand, the sub is nicely placed, in the Bay of Biscay, to hit targets in North America. (See Map 2.) And not only is it well placed for that; it’s exceptionally well placed, because of the trajectory its incoming missiles would be on as they approached the United States. The trajectory from the Bay of Biscay to the eastern half of the U.S. is the one that is completely unprotected today by any missile defense system.
I’ve written about this before. Our national missile defense (NMD) system gives us some ability to intercept ICBMs approaching North America from over the Arctic, or the Northern Pacific. (The NMD has yet to tackle the design challenge of a newer Russian ICBM or SLBM, but it does give coverage against older missiles coming from the north or the west.)
George W. Bush intended for the NMD elements in Poland and Czech Republic to offer us protection to the east, which would have included missiles launched from Iran – and conceivably, depending on geometry and progress in developing the interceptors, missiles launched from the Russian Northern Fleet or the extreme Eastern Atlantic (including the Bay of Biscay). If we had stayed on course with the installations, the system would have been operational between 2013 and 2015, based on the projections at the time Obama took office.
But in September 2009, Obama canceled those deployments. Republicans in Congress began pressing for an NMD “leg” to protect the East Coast, once it was clear that Obama’s alternative plan for Europe would offer no protection to North America. We have no such leg yet, however.
And Russia is letting us know it. But the U.S. and Canada are not the only targets of this arcane “informational” initiative. If I’m right, and the SSBN off France was a Borei, Europe is being sent a message too. The Borei’s Bulava SLBMs may not be optimized to hit targets in Europe from the Bay of Biscay, but its land-attack cruise missiles are.
In December, Russia executed the first submarine launch of her new-generation “Kalibr” cruise missiles when a diesel-powered attack sub lobbed three at Syria from the Mediterranean. There are multiple variants of this missile. The Kalibr is launched by a submarine from the torpedo tubes (there are variants for surface warships that can be launched from vertical launchers), and has a range of up to 1,550 statute miles (2,500 km). The Kalibr can achieve supersonic flight to minimize its vulnerability to air defense systems; in this and some other ways, it represents an improvement over the U.S. Tomahawk missile. And, yes, the Kalibr is a nuclear-capable cruise missile system.
In a little-remarked disclosure from 2013, Russian navy officials indicated that the Borei SSBN would have the ability to deploy Russia’s modern torpedo-tube-launched cruise missiles. That makes the Borei an exceptionally versatile asset. It’s the only platform in existence that can deliver both intercontinental-range ballistic missiles and long-range land-attack cruise missiles, the latter from torpedo tubes of a fleet-standard size.
Moreover, the trajectory is again important. Western Europe isn’t set up with a networked system to intercept cruise missiles coming from the Bay of Biscay. Missile defenses for Europe have concentrated for the last two decades on a ballistic missile threat coming from the southeast. Intercepting supersonic cruise missiles is a very different design problem, and intercepting them from off the coast of Western Europe hasn’t been on NATO planners’ scope at all.
(The U.S. and Canada have no such defense network against cruise missiles either. We do have some air defense assets around Washington, D.C., but the rest of us are out of luck. The closest thing to a national defense system against cruise missiles, anywhere in the Americas, would be Venezuela’s nascent S-300VM network. So, yes, when Russian subs show up off our coasts bearing cruise missiles, we’re an undefended target.)
The war we’re backing into today looks to be a hybrid of cold and hot war; in some ways, more volatile and unprecedented than anything that happened between 1945 and 2011. The Cold War point about strategic or theater-level nuclear weapons was never that they were about to be used; it was always that an imbalance in the threat they posed would lead to intimidation, and real geopolitical losses without putting up a fight.
The Cold War proved the value of undefended nuclear threats for intimidation in that manner. In the Korea and Vietnam conflicts, the existence of Soviet nukes caused the U.S. to trim our own objectives before we even started military operations. We were afraid from the beginning to actually try to “win” – and that’s the reason we didn’t.
In a number of places around the globe, we adopted the posture that it would be too destabilizing in a nuclear world to fight back against Soviet proxies and Soviet-fomented insurrections. The logic of MAD deterred us more effectively than it ever did the Soviets.
That old, fatalistic calculus is creeping back, even if you don’t see the effects yet. You will. We have let our efforts with missile defense slide, and have given up on the vision of Reagan and Bush 43 for a world that is not governed ultimately by nuclear intimidation. (That’s what Obama did by canceling the NMD sites in Europe in 2009, and letting the SORT Treaty of 2001 expire. At this point, we need to go back to the drawing board.)
We have also let our own nuclear arsenal age and lose readiness, without putting what we should into it so that it will at least pose a credible counter to the arsenals of Russia and China.
Unfortunately, it’s been a long time since American leaders thought much about these things, systematically or otherwise. The Russians never stopped thinking about them. They’ve got a big lead on us in terms of force modernization and doctrinal thought – and so do the Chinese. If you think we can’t be extorted by nuclear intimidation into giving up our security interests without a fight, sometime soon (certainly within the next five years) – you’re wrong. This is real.