An undersea struggle for supremacy

IAN AUSTEN August 19 1985

An undersea struggle for supremacy

IAN AUSTEN August 19 1985

An undersea struggle for supremacy

While the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea tested Canada’s territorial claim to the Northwest Passage last week, there was mounting evidence that a far more serious struggle for supremacy between the superpowers may be developing in the waters beneath the arctic ice. Some military experts say that nuclear-powered Soviet and U.S. submarines armed with nuclear weapons may turn the northern reaches of Canada into a deadly arena of superpower rivalry. As advances in submarine and electronics technology combine with shifts in nuclear strategy, the first tentative moves toward regular undersea patrols may already be under way—without Canada’s permission or knowledge. Said Cynthia Cannizzo, a research fellow in the Strategic Studies Program at the

University of Calgary: “From what I can see, the Americans have just as low regard for Canadian sovereignty up there as the Soviet submarines.”

Precarious: Some military analysts say Soviet submarines have begun to infiltrate Canadian arctic waters, while a new generation of giant Soviet submarines may even have the capacity to fire missiles through the arctic ice. For its part, the U.S. Navy has stepped up its research into arctic antisubmarine operations, and it may have begun development of a new attack submarine specifically designed to operate under the ice. Moreover, many Western military analysts say that if the Soviet Union decided to hide missile-carrying submarines in the Arctic—where the environment defies conventional methods of detection—the resulting threat could present a destabilizing element in the

precarious East-West balance of military power.

Twenty-seven years ago the nuclearpowered U.S. submarine Nautilus became the first vessel to navigate at length beneath the North Polar ice cap. But it is only in the past several years that military analysts have begun to view the Arctic as a potential theatre for future naval battles. Indeed, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s antisubmarine patrol zone still extends only from Europe to the western coast of Greenland. That is apparently because NATO planners did not consider it possible for Soviet submarines to cross the North Pole and enter the Atlantic through Baffin Bay, the ice-clogged passage between Greenland’s west coast and Canada’s Ellesmere Island.

U.S. military spokesmen are guarded in their statements about their own sub-

marine operations —and those of the Soviets. But it is clear that many traditional military preconceptions about the Arctic are changing. One reason, according to Cannizzo, is the existence of intelligence reports which indicate strongly that Soviet submarines have already entered the North Atlantic through the unpatrolled Baffin Bay route. Another is the development of the latest class of Soviet submarines designed for launching nucleararmed strategic ballistic missiles at targets in the United States. U.S. military experts say that the new ships—called the Typhoon class by Western navies—may be designed to fire missiles through the arctic ice while submerged. They add that the new submarines are designed to surface by punching through at least six feet of ice. The new Soviet vessels are huge, measuring 560 feet in length, with a displacement of 29,000 tons and the capacity to carry 20 ballistic missiles, equipped with up to nine nuclear warheads each.

Risks: Operating under the ice carries a number of risks, but Steven Kosiak, a research analyst at the Washingtonbased Centre For Defense Information, says that the Arctic might also offer many attractions for the Soviet strategic nuclear submarine fleet. According to Kosiak, the 3-to-l advantage that the United States and its NATO allies currently hold over the Soviets in large oceangoing surface warships means that the Western nations “more or less control the world’s seas.” That provides a kind of umbrella for U.S. nucleararmed submarines, giving them increased freedom of movement and the ability to hide almost anywhere in the world’s oceans. Under those circumstances, noted Kosiak, the Soviet underwater fleet is “basically bottled up. In wartime Soviet ships have to pass through channels controlled by NATO.” But the arctic ice provides a way for Soviet submarines to hide in close proximity to North American targets. If the Kremlin takes full advantage of that

possibility, the difficulties of under-ice navigation and communications could make it extremely hard for U.S. hunter-killer submarines to stalk Soviet strategic missile vessels.

To deal with that prospect, the U.S. Navy over the past five years has stepped up arctic Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) research. Indeed, in its 1984 budget request the navy noted that it had “urgent requirements in arctic ASW.” Those needs include the development of a new attack submarine to supplement the Los Angeles-class vessels that the U.S. Navy has apparently upgraded for arctic operation. Another navy plan, known as Ice Pick, calls for the development of a method of locating submarines under the ice by dropping from the air microphones equipped to drill through the ice and fall to the ocean floor. The U.S. Navy is also developing a new Extremely Low-Frequency (ELF) radio system that is expected to be in operation by 1988 to assist all submarine operations. The new system will enable U.S. submarines for the first time to maintain radio contact with naval command while fully submerged and without reducing speed.

U.S. Navy researchers also have to confront the extreme difficulties and dangers that under-the-ice submarine operations entail.

According to the U.S. chief of naval operations,

Admiral James Watkins, a submarine captain who is considering embarking on under-the-ice operations has to first ask,

“Am I moving into the valley of death by entering a canyon I can’t get out of?” In the arctic waters ridges of ice that sometimes extend to depths of 1,500 feet have apparently forced U.S. submarine skippers on occasion to squeeze their submarines through gaps that offered only a narrow margin of safety.

As well, the constant shifting and breaking of the ice cap can trap the vessels. And the irregular shape of the ice cap’s bottom and the extreme water temperatures distort patterns recorded on sonar—the sonic system that submariners use to plot their courses underwater. Not only that, the noisy grinding of the constantly churning ice pack can cripple the sophisticated computer-operated underwater microphone systems that modern submarines use to search for other vessels and pinpoint navigational dangers.

The U.S. military’s new interest in the

arctic waters has also raised sensitive issues related to Canadian sovereignty. Earlier this year scientists working on a U.S. government research project near the North Pole—and possibly in territory claimed by Canada—conducted seismic tests to explore the sound-carrying characteristics of arctic waters. And Cannizzo, for one, noted that “unless some Inuit were within earshot,” U.S. scientists could “conduct experiments up there and we’d never know about it.” Belief: In the meantime, the possibility that the focus of future naval warfare might eventually shift into the Arctic has raised fundamental questions about nuclear strategy. Currently, most military planning is based on the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). That is a belief that as long as nuclear stockpiles of the United States and the Soviet Union are approximately the same size and equally protected from attack, they will act as almost certain deterrents. As a result, Kosiak said that if the U.S. or NATO develop systems for finding and attacking Soviet submarines under the arctic ice, it could destabilize the balance of power. The reason: U.S. strategic submarines would remain relatively safe because of the comparative freedom they enjoy to travel the world’s oceans, while the Soviets might become convinced that important elements in their nuclear submarine fleet were threatened. In a crisis, Soviet leaders might be tempted to launch those vessels’ missiles in a first strike rather than see their subs destroyed.

At the same time, the growing interest in the Arctic’s strategic possibilities creates a political and defence dilemma for Canada. The Canadian navy’s NATO role is primarily to find and attack hostile submarines. But in the Arctic the Canadian Armed Forces is not equipped even to find _ submarines. White Papers over the past two decades have urged Ottawa to acquire at least one submarine capable of operating in the Arctic. And Cannizzo says that would help Canada to track Soviet — and U.S. —submarine movements in Canadian waters. But with a single nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarine costing about $500 million, it seemed unlikely that Ottawa would act on those recommendations in the near future.