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Sharks in the Water

An August 4 disclosure from Defense Department officials indicates that Russia has resumed putting nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) on patrol off our coast. This Cold War practice had ended in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union; the two attack submarines now reportedly near the U.S. East Coast are making the first such deployments in nearly two decades.

We could easily make either too much or too little of this development. The U.S. Navy, after all, can put SSNs off Russia’s coast at will. That Russia can perform an analogous activity is not an asymmetric escalation. For reasons outlined here, I do not assess that Russia intends to re-establish the dedicated SSN patrols maintained by its navy during the Cold War. Moreover, the presence of the two submarines makes no real difference to America’s overwhelming military advantage in our hemisphere. And Russia’s Akula-class (“Shark”) SSNs remain at a disadvantage in terms of quieting technology, modernity, and crew experience. U.S. military officials are speaking reasonably — from the standpoint of tactical implications — when they say they do not regard these submarines as threatening.

The political implications, however, are significant. Russia’s navy has barely begun recovering from two decades of neglect, yet attack-submarine patrols off the U.S. coast seem to be a priority for its limited resources. A Cuban port call for one of the Akulas (a possibility raised in the Wall Street Journal report) would be a public event and a political signal. The last visits of Soviet nuclear-powered submarines to Cuba — very rare events — occurred from 1969 to 1974 and presaged a major Soviet-bloc exercise in 1975, which included the combined forces of the USSR and Cuba simulating, for the first time, an attack on the U.S.

The Russian navy has had a busy year. It deployed a task force to Venezuela last fall, kept warships on station for antipiracy off Somalia, and sent submarines to the Arctic for missile launches. Russia’s military is making good on Vladimir Putin’s 2007 announcement that it would resume its Cold War–era operating profiles — and is doing so in areas vital to U.S. security and interests. Beyond this context, two other aspects of the SSN patrols are worth noting. One is that they are being reported less than a month after the punctuation of President Obama’s first visit to Moscow by Russian bomber flights near Alaska’s coast — an atypical provocation.

The other is that the Akula SSN was built to carry Russia’s counterpart to the Tomahawk long-range cruise missile, known to NATO as the SS-N-21 “Sampson.” Subsonic cruise missiles are not that hard to shoot down, but 20 years after the first Akula deployment with an SS-N-21 load-out, the U.S. remains unequipped for comprehensive, dedicated defense against them. The possibility of missile launches from the Russian SSNs is, of course, remote. But with these patrols, Russia is demonstrating that, as with its bomber flights in the Arctic, it can hold the territory of the United States at tactical risk.


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