"We're gonna need a bigger boat."
April 16, 2014 12:16 PM   Subscribe

That Time The CIA And Howard Hughes Tried To Steal A Soviet Submarine | You may recall this (previously) epic post about this subject, but it is time to update the story with recently declassified documents (PDF: Search it for the term "Azorian" and you'll find some 200 pages of info.) Or just read the first link for the Cliff's Notes.
posted by spock (43 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

Paging user 126099, please report to this thread.
posted by Rangeboy at 12:28 PM on April 16 [3 favorites]

A page with Project Azorian source documents.

This was almost 40 years ago... I wonder why these documents are still so heavily redacted.
posted by crapmatic at 12:49 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]

Curiously, the phrase "Benthic Treaty" appears nowhere in those documents...
posted by asterix at 12:56 PM on April 16 [11 favorites]

I wonder why these documents are still so heavily redacted.

You think it was just a Soviet sub they uncovered ...?
posted by octobersurprise at 1:28 PM on April 16 [4 favorites]

Oh, dude, have you read Charles Stross's The Jennifer Morgue? should, is what I'm saying.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 1:42 PM on April 16 [2 favorites]

In 1975, the CIA used Howard Hughes's Glomar Explorer in a bungled attempt to raise a sunken Soviet submarine in order to access the Jennifer Morgue, an occult device that allows communication with the dead. Now a ruthless billionaire intends to try again, even if by doing so he awakens the Great Old Ones, who thwarted the earlier expedition. It's up to Bob and a collection of British eccentrics even Monty Python would consider odd to stop the bad guy and save the world, while getting receipts for all expenditures or else face the most dreaded menace of all: the Laundry's own auditors.

((Mefi's own) Charles Stross, "The Jennifer Morgue")
posted by RedOrGreen at 1:42 PM on April 16

(Damnit! Jinx. Do I owe you beer or do you owe me one, Fists O'Fury?)
posted by RedOrGreen at 1:43 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]

Who buys, the one who posted first, or the pathetic loser who posts second? I can't remember...

I heard Stross posts here... If so, somebody pester him to get another Laundry novel out, dammit...
posted by Fists O'Fury at 1:49 PM on April 16

Fists O'Fury, The Rhesus Chart is due out on July 3rd. He's had a couple of posts in his blog about the direction the series will be taking. If I am remembering correctly, this will be the last one narrated by Bob. (Mo gets the next one.)
posted by Hactar at 1:54 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]

Er, make that July 1 in the US. For some reason I hit the British Amazon site.
posted by Hactar at 1:58 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]

The Azorian is one of the Cold War's greatest hits. Another is the capture of the USS Pueblo (previously) and its crew by North Korea in 1968.
posted by stbalbach at 2:11 PM on April 16

(Damnit! Jinx. Do I owe you beer or do you owe me one, Fists O'Fury?)

You both owe Asterix...
posted by kurumi at 2:18 PM on April 16 [2 favorites]

You both owe Asterix...

Goddammit! I didn't even notice!

this will be the last one narrated by Bob

posted by Fists O'Fury at 2:27 PM on April 16

"God, I miss the Cold War."
posted by Sebmojo at 2:56 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]

I am writing a PhD thesis on the history of US intelligence about the Soviet Navy.

The time period covered by my thesis actually stops quite a long time before Azorian, but I'm obviously very interested in the general area. I've read through these documents from the perspective of someone embedded in the field as an academic. Here are the highlights as they occur to this naval and intelligence historian:

The operation was more successful than we thought. It's significant that cryptographic equipment was number one on their list of targets: that makes sense, but it's nice to have it written in black and white.

Contrary to the assertions of conspiracy theorists, the submarine K-129 (called G-722 in the documents) was in waters where the Americans expected to find Soviet submarines and was not wildly off course.

The operation (and it's 'failure') has a reputation for being the result of overweening arrogance on the part of the CIA. In these documents we see them consulting widely with the navy and with deep ocean exploration professionals. We also see them holding a very healthy view of the prospects for success. They actually did better than they thought they would before the mission.

When the submarine broke open, it created a new debris field. In retrospect, this seems totally obvious. During the Cold War, the US had lots of success picking things up from ocean floor debris fields, so this eventuality must have been kind of good news for the CIA. Significantly, a search of the debris field could be made from a submarine, and wouldn't require the Explorer to go back. I'm willing to bet that they did, in fact, send a submarine back to look at the debris field after the cover of the initial operation was blown.

I never noticed before that the head of the committee overseeing Azorian was called Hughes. I bet he got a kick out of the fact that his ship was named the Hughes Glomar Explorer (ostensibly after Howard Hughes).

The 'grabber' (and they actually called it a 'grabber') failed because it was too brittle.

This gem should give conspiracy theorists and sci fi authors plenty of material for making fun and outlandish guesses: (p. 891).
"The views of the principals as to whether or not we should proceed are summarized below:
"State No
"[less than 1 line not declassified] Yes
"ASD(I) Yes
"SecDef Yes
"DCI Yes"
Who was the 'principal' planner of the mission so secret that their participation can't even be acknowledged forty years after the fact?(!)

From page 921, an ammusing exchange between Kissinger and the head of the CIA:
"Dr. Kissinger said that he saw no way we could go back when there is a Soviet ship right at the site and what we propose to do is clearly illegal.
"Mr. Colby said he was not so sure that it was illegal, that the Soviets raised a British submarine and incorporated it into their own fleet.
"Dr. Kissinger replied that this did not necessarily make it legal; it simply established that the Soviets got away with it."

A big part of my thesis is making the point that the Americans actually had very little good information about the Soviet Navy. I had to figure out how one deals with an intelligence target about which so little can be known. Page 878 contained this, really useful, quote:

"There could be “negative” gains, too. We’ve never had a Soviet cryptographic machine ... We might find that the base for estimates of the Soviet strategic threat is faulty, since some of our information is based upon nearly 25 years of conjecture and hard data that is at least 10 years old."

Um. Wow.
posted by Dreadnought at 2:57 PM on April 16 [29 favorites]

Who was the 'principal' planner of the mission so secret that their participation can't even be acknowledged forty years after the fact?(!)

Good point. I guess the official question that would give us some kind of response would be:

For what reason is that name not declassified at the same time as these documents?
posted by hal_c_on at 3:20 PM on April 16

Can't say this is true. Can't say it's not.
posted by Glomar response at 3:21 PM on April 16 [7 favorites]

Great stuff, dreadnought. What is your thought on why so much is redacted in the original CIA documents from Studies In Intelligence? Why would they still trying to hide so much about the project 40 years later? I'd bet there isn't anything about the find (or even the recovery technology) that could possibly have any value nowadays... technology, politics, and diplomacy are all on a completely different track now.
posted by crapmatic at 3:22 PM on April 16

The Glomar Explorer was also the first time "Can neither confirm or deny" was used by a government. They've been using that to lie to us ever since.
posted by Hactar at 3:45 PM on April 16

What is your thought on why so much is redacted in the original CIA documents from Studies In Intelligence?

Well you'd think... but it's not actually true. There's plenty old stuff that they don't want us to know about including, but not limited to:

- methods of intelligence collection
- methods of deceiving people
- politically sensitive things that happened in the past
- the fact that they know things they don't want other people to know that they know
- intelligence sources, including people who would be killed if it became known they worked for the US
- information that could lead to information that could lead to information about any of the above.

I, myself, had the uncomfortable experience of having to vet my findings with the CIA's history staff (brilliantly, called the CSI) to make sure that nobody would get shot when the Russians read my thesis. It turns out that they had no idea I could work out the sources and methods stuff that I could work out. They're letting me publish my results, but they also reclassified all my source documents.
posted by Dreadnought at 4:09 PM on April 16 [13 favorites]

Dreadnought: OK, I'm hooked. Who do you think's under that redacted yes line?
posted by Leon at 4:34 PM on April 16

While we have an expert in range, that particular volume of of FRotUS shows the Nixon administration being very concerned about the state of the US navy compared to the Russian navy; is there a bottom line as to whether or not that concern was warranted, or merely bad intelligence?

And as a side-note, it's interesting how the goal of this outlandish endeavor was primarily crypto equipment, but the USSR probably got the same quality of information just by some North Korean boats surrounding and capturing the Pueblo.
posted by kiltedtaco at 5:13 PM on April 16

Hactar:The Glomar Explorer was also the first time "Can neither confirm or deny" was used by a government.

Radiolab story. Quite fun.
posted by RedOrGreen at 5:23 PM on April 16 [2 favorites]

Who do you think's under that redacted yes line?

You want the truth?

Experience tells me that the answer to these questions is pretty much always mundane.

I do, however, have a hypothesis... just a wild guess, but still the best guess I've got. I guess that the missing name is Kissinger himself. He was, at the time, both Secretary of State and also National Security Adviser. You'll note that all the 'principals' in the list are individual people, with the exception of 'State'. One would expect that this should be SECSTATE, which would be Kissinger, but it's not; it's just 'State'. This might mean that Kissinger farmed out State's opinion to his staff, while maintaining his own, separate vote as NSA. Or it might mean that State organised itself differently from the other departments at this time. Or it might mean nothing.

The other reason I'm guessing Henry is that, now that James R. Schlesinger has passed, Kissinger would be the only named individual in that list still living, assuming that it was, indeed, his name. The State declassification people might well want to remove Kissinger's name for legal reasons, especially as this is another person (Clements) representing his view, and especially as he would be down on paper disagreeing with his own staff.

Then, a couple of months later, we have Kissinger (in a different document) confirming that he disagreed with his own State staff on the issue: "But am I correct that everyone here is in favor of a second attempt except State?" (p. 893) That same document, incidentally, gives us the name of the interested State representative: Joseph J. Sisco, who died in 2004. He might have changed his mind in the meantime, but that's nevertheless a little more evidence in favour of HK.

So that's my very boring guess, that the missing text is something like 'APNSA'. Not all that interesting.

But, I'm probably wrong. It was probably the Department for Eldritch and Abyssal Discoveries (DEAD)* or something.

is there a bottom line as to whether or not that concern was warranted, or merely bad intelligence?

Sorry, there isn't really a bottom line yet. The Soviets sucked at some things, were ahead at other things, and seemed just inexplicably, magically good at other things because of the Walker spy ring. If you give me page numbers of documents you're interested in, I can comment in further depth. With the proviso, of course, that I'm not fully up on the literature from this year, as I'm really deeply buried in the previous decade right now, and I'm a bear of very little brain.

*PS. I just made up that departmental name and then thought 'oh, I should turn that into an acronym' and went 'wow!'. So I guess that, in itself, is evidence that I'm on to something with this alternate theory! Because... psychic leaking? Somebody who writes fiction for a living should tell me what's really going on.
posted by Dreadnought at 5:37 PM on April 16 [17 favorites]

I vaguely recall a comment in Time Magazine around that time, along the lines of "A swell research opportunity, and a real bargain costing only 50 cents per American taxpayer."
posted by ovvl at 6:17 PM on April 16

Sorry, there isn't really a bottom line yet.

That's an answer I'm totally ok with, thanks. The consideration of relative naval strength is something I hadn't come across before, compared to the more prominent air force or missile strength, so it sounded interesting. In some sense it's already helpful just to know what about the cold war is obvious in 2014 and what is still unclear. The latter being the more fun category, obviously.
posted by kiltedtaco at 6:38 PM on April 16

kiltedtaco, the title of my thesis well be "Why does everybody always write about missiles and planes when navies are important too!?"

The subtitle is: "No, really they are, honest! Why is nobody listening to me? Well I maybe didn't want to come to your stupid party anyway."
posted by Dreadnought at 6:54 PM on April 16 [5 favorites]

What happened to the Glpmar Challenger? I believe that there were two ships built with somewhat the same capabilities and additional large positioning propulsion units for a third ship.
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 7:12 PM on April 16

Glomar Challenger^ was scrapped years ago. It wasn't actually a sister ship -- it was just used as part of the cover story, since it was a known, public deep-sea operational vessel. It was launched the month before K-129 went down.

is there a bottom line as to whether or not that concern was warranted, or merely bad intelligence?

Well, you need to take into account that the US had the USSR outclassed in terms of a blue water navy in nearly every way that mattered -- available ports (see today how important Russia still considers Sevastopol), aircraft carriers, number of vessels (I think there's some bar here where they say "frigate and above" but I've forgotten), and so forth. The only way in which the Soviet Navy was a real threat was in the missile deployment and intelligence missions undertaken by the submarine force. As noted, we were severely compromised by the Walker spy ring and some other things, but maintained a broad capability to at least track Soviet vessels from afar, so there was a lot of that going on. It was generally understood that Atlantic seaboard operations by the Soviets gave them, for the first time, a realistic first-strike capability, and that was a big concern (30 seconds of warning before Washington got incinerated, was the way it was thought of). I'm not sure precisely when that was achievable but it was obviously sought as a replacement for the strategic value given up in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, so contemporary-ish with the Nixon administration.

But surface ships? Not even close. Indeed, it wasn't until the French-supplied Argentinean Exocet sunk the HMS Sheffield, a state-of-the-art destroyer, that there began to be really great alarm about the risk profile of most NATO surface vessels. This ultimately led to the Aegis program and other anti-missile technologies including the Star Wars laser stuff that is just now going operational. But I believe that up to that point there was virtually no concern by the Joint Chiefs area of policy that their navy was in any real danger in a one-to-one confrontation with anything Soviet. Partly I'm certain of this because Hyman Rickover, the infamous gadfly, was the one with the heretical idea that the carrier groups strategy was doomed in the first minutes of any nuclear confrontation. I am pretty sure I saw him on 60 Minutes talking about this, too. The USN mindset, though, was that they had little to fear and could take on Russ fighter jets with our fighter jets and maintain air superiority in any theater where a carrier group operated.

The intelligence community probably had a different view, and one they were paid to have mind you, but this had to have been more in the realm of the technology race -- detection, electronic intrusion, weapons parity. The smaller size of the Soviet Navy, combined with elements such as geography and logistics, meant that there were certain behavioral profiles that might signal an impending attack in advance, such as a whole bunch of subs leaving Murmansk. The surface ships, though, could not realistically leave the Baltic or the Black Sea without it being really, really obvious, so this was a major strategic disadvantage. Vladivostok was a different story, but it didn't offer easy access to the strategically vulnerable US East Coast.

But you see, one of the dirty little secrets of the Cold War is that it was the United States that felt it necessary to refuse to concede first strike doctrine. We needed it because we only kept a "trigger" force in Europe that everyone knew could be rolled over by a massive Warsaw Pact ground invasion, and a nuclear response was our ace in the hole. This figured greatly in the politics of the era, since Europeans understood implicitly that they were at greater risk, and that a lot of hot war scenarios left them smoldering ruins while Moscow and Washington glared at each other with fingers on buttons.

But yeah -- if there was something they'd missed in all those years, it was possible that it could upend a lot of this thinking. If you look at two of the seminal Cold War novels, Clancy's The Hunt for Red October and Le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, both are at some level concerned with this naval and technological strength issue. So I don't think it was a false concern, either.
posted by dhartung at 10:04 PM on April 16 [7 favorites]

This is my favorite thread and it deserves lots of sidebaring.
posted by kiltedtaco at 6:17 AM on April 17

Dreadnought, I'd like to thank you for your informative contributions to this thread.

It turns out that they had no idea I could work out the sources and methods stuff that I could work out. They're letting me publish my results, but they also reclassified all my source documents.

I have the feeling that upon graduation, you might be getting a lucrative job offer. I wonder if the prospect appeals to you?

I also wonder if you might have anything to contribute on a question that I had regarding a "Source" citation at the bottom of page 865 of the aforementioned recently declassified info contained in the PDF:
[Source: Central Intelligence Agency, Office of the Director of
Central Intelligence, Job 80M010066A: E[xecutive] R[egistry] Subject
Files, Executive Registry Subject Files—1975 JENNIFER/[codewords
not declassified]; AZORIAN; [codewords not declassified]. 4 pages not
My interest is in the "/[codewords not declassified]" associated with both Project Jennifer and Project Azorian. What does this indicate or suggest? That Jennifer and Azorian "morphed" into other projects that, for whatever reason are not yet declassified? Or that they were related projects linked in some other way? Or that simply the project's name was changed once the original name's "cover was blown"? Or that the projects were linked in some other way, such as funding, oversight, etc.?
posted by spock at 6:20 AM on April 17

Regarding the scrapping of the Glomar Explorer: previously. I have not checked how many of those links still work, but for those interested in exploring...
posted by spock at 6:24 AM on April 17

The answer to the missing codeword could also be much more mundane: in addition to specific projects, documents are often marked with various control systems that set how the document is to be handled. One off the top of my head is BYEMAN, which was used by NRO to maintain control over information it originated. In addition to BYEMAN would have been more specific codewords, e.g., CORONA or HEXAGON for specific satellites, and TALENT-KEYHOLE, which is used for all overhead reconnaissance in general and doesn't refer to a specific project. I'm less familiar with how CIA classifies documents, so I don't have any more relevant guesses there.

Actually, upon thinking about it a little more, the CIA seems to use a lot of codewords in the form of a digraph plus a word, like the infamous MKULTRA. But AZORIAN/MATADOR doesn't seem to have one of these, perhaps it remains classified?
posted by kiltedtaco at 6:53 AM on April 17 [1 favorite]

I'm new to this subject, kiltedtaco. Where did the "Azorian/Matador" come from? (Ah, I see Matador in the PDF document that I linked to, where it is a "follow-on project") They are being inconsistent in their redactions if it is mentioned in some places and redacted in others.

(Interestingly, if you google that, you get a reviewer on Amazon by the "Real Name" of: M. J. Yourcheck "Azorian Matador". Also, interestingly, he is from Baltimore, MD (which makes me think he might be in the intelligence field... or retired?)

Google also reveals that Matador was a "follow-on Project" in the book "Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940" (page 248)

A post on this page reveals that Jennifer got 1/2 the sub and Matador was the attempt to get the rest. (That page starts with a discussion of Byman Code projects).

Perhaps less interestingly, "Azorian Matador" was also the name of a Fantasy Baseball team on ESPN in 2012. (Who are these people so interested in this subject that they name their fantasy team after it?)
posted by spock at 7:15 AM on April 17 [1 favorite]

Oops, I didn't mean the slash to denote those words as one thing, I just meant "that which is sometimes called AZORIAN, and that which is sometimes called MATADOR" (though in detail they are different parts of the Glomar Explorer saga).
posted by kiltedtaco at 7:22 AM on April 17

Just a follow-up (this is fascinating)...

Footnote to "Intelligence Value of Project MATADOR" (page 886) says:
Source: National Security Council Files, Ford Administration Intelligence Files, MATADOR, 1975. Top Secret; [codewords not declassified]; MATADOR; [codeword not declassified].
So there are a minimum of 3 Matador related projects that are still classified (note the plural vs singular of "codeword/s").

Note also the reference to that document: USIB-D-72.1/13 is now "Not found." (Footnote 3). Hmmm.

Footnote 2 of that page explicitly states that "MATADOR was the codename for the second mission by the Hughes Glomar Explorer to recover the sunken Soviet Submarine."
posted by spock at 7:30 AM on April 17

A quick note on code words: People are generally right that one project might have lots of codewords attached to it. Codewords could refer to technologies, places that source intelligence came from, missions, programmes... anything you want, really.

If it helps, stop thinking of them as codenames, in the classic sense, and start thinking of them as security markings. They're a little like passwords, a little more like the 'ownership' and 'permissions' bits in computer file systems. Indeed, there are lots of security markings that are not 'codeword specific', but are generic. Almost every document I have is stamped 'Top Secret NOFORN' which means that it can only be read by US government people with Top Secret security clearance.

Incidentally, for those curious, when the Americans release a document, they scrupulously cross out all these classification markings, to indicate they no longer apply and that the document is 'declassified'. That's what the word means. In the UK and Canada, documents are released with their classification markings intact. They're still 'Top Secret' (or 'Most Secret'), but they're 'released', so we can read them.

Anyway, this system is used for compartmentalisation: with lots of codewords you can restrict or allow access to information in complex ways. For example, let's say you have someone who is cleared to read about the new type of ammunition you're making, but not the new type of gun. You stamp documents about the ammunition with 'FOO', and documents about the guns with 'BAR'. Documents which mention both are stamped 'FOO BAR', so our reader can't access those.

It's very common to see classification codewords be redacted from documents. This is for legal reasons. Let's say that the State Department is still trying to hide the Eldritch Horrors discovered underneath K-129: well documents discussing Eldritch and Unholy Horrors are marked with the codeword 'FLUFFYBUNNY'. These documents are relevant to people with FLUFFYBUNNY access, so that codeword would have to go on the paper. But if they failed to redact that marking, then it will surely be spotted by someone (usually a reporter). We would notice that there's a new codeword we don't know about, and file a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request for all documents relevant to FLUFFYBUNNY. Well that way madness lies, so they just redact the codeword to avoid the problem.
posted by Dreadnought at 7:51 AM on April 17 [2 favorites]

Instead of calling it the Hughes Glomar Explorer (HGE), who in their right mind didn't think to call the vessel the Hughes Underwater Glomar Explorer? The HUGE......
posted by lstanley at 8:39 AM on April 17 [2 favorites]

We’ve never had a Soviet cryptographic machine...

Actually, I think the US did get its hands on one in the early 70s, but it was a diplomatic machine, not a military one. It's been a long time since I read it so my facts may be a bit off, but in a book written by ex-CIA agent Antonio Mendez (of Argo fame) called Spy Dust, Mendez speaks of an operation in India he participated in that stole one from an embassy while most of the staff was participating in an inter-embassy cricket match. IIRC, in this operation he also met a woman on the team who would later become his wife, who co-authored the book.
posted by chambers at 8:57 AM on April 17 [1 favorite]

There was an old television movie back in the '70's which I hazily recall was based upon Clifford Irving's fake Hughes autobiography which had an unforgettable scene of the Hughes character on the top floor of a Las Vegas hotel unkempt, unshaven, inch-long fingernails. He was playing with a plastic model glomar ship with sea bottom scoop with plastic model sunken submarine in a big aquarium. He looked kind of like those kids at the arcade game where they try and scoop up a little stuffed animal.

Could not find a clip on youtube.

Some of those redacts are maybe because of the Hughes money. This link claims it took 34 years to get all the money into legal locales.
posted by bukvich at 2:11 PM on April 17

dhartung: Thanks for your very thoughtful comment. I think that there's a lot of truth in what you say, but I want to add context for the non-expert reader because... well I think there's also another side to the story.

Your assessment of the naval balance of power comes, of course, from a particular perspective. It's the perspective we see most often in the West, but I'm pretty sure that a Russian naval expert would, while not changing any of the facts, draw from them very different conclusions. Thing is: I'm actually pretty sympathetic with the Russian view, and I think that the Americans themselves were pretty sympathetic with the Russian view by the end of the Cold War.

I should preface this by saying that a lot of people who read this comment have ideas about naval warfare that I think are just plain wrong, and I want to set things straight right at the outset. Sorry, it's totally not your fault, but it's true. We're used to seeing navies as strategic Swiss Army Knives. They're a sort of go-anywhere, do-anything weapon that can be used to project power overseas, engage in 'gunboat diplomacy', put out fires where they're inconvenient, and start fires where we desire them to burn.

This perception is based on Western naval history, especially for the UK and the US. For the Brits, the navy was the Thin Blue Line that tied the empire together. For the US, the navy was the primary force-in-being that dealt with international problems on a day-to-day basis, only stepping aside in strategic importance when it became necessary to raise a humongous army and steam-roll some foreign power. The phrase 'send the marines' exists because the marines were an integral part of that naval rapid-reaction force.

This whole idea is misleading. Navies are not all-purpose weapons. Indeed, the all-purpose power-projection navy is, in itself, a specialised choice that a very few powers chose to build into their navies. It makes for flexible expeditionary forces, but it means that fewer resources are spent on other, specialised tasks.

Navies, you see, are built to purpose, highly specialised entities. The fleet composition (which is the term we use for the different numbers of different types of ships) is precisely calibrated to take on the strategic role that naval planners envisage. Indeed, when naval planners get this wrong, they are often forced to use ships in ways that they were never intended to be used. This is very bad for the sailors on those ships. If you want an example of how bad it can be when ships are used in contexts for which they weren't designed, just google 'Jutland' and 'battlecruiser'. I would say that it was a lesson paid in blood, but that wouldn't be accurate; the blood all got burned up in the gigantic explosions.

The specialised nature of navies means that you can't really examine a fleet composition in isolation. You need to look at it in comparison with the enemy that fleet was expected to face. This comparison is complicated, and it's easy to mess it up if you're unwary. A particularly insidious error, and one that caused many, many very smart naval theorists a lot of trouble over the years, is the error of assuming that both sides of the 'interface' between the fleets are using the same basic strategy or seeking the same basic goals. This is called 'mirror imaging' and... well I'm sorry that I'm kind of accusing you of mirroring, dhartung, but believe me that I mean no disrespect. This is something that has tripped up the very best minds in the field and would totally be tripping me up if I hadn't been trained in the era that I was trained. But, yes, I think you're mirror imaging the Soviet fleet.

Here's how I think it really works: It's true, the Soviets never built what we'd call a 'blue water' navy, a navy capable of contesting directly with another fleet for the control of an area of the high seas. You have to ask yourself, then, why not? It's not as if they didn't have the resources to build a big fleet of surface combatants. After all, they had the biggest fleet of submarines in the world, and subs are way more expensive and difficult to build.

So yep, they had fewer ships 'frigate and above', as you say. They didn't build a single carrier till very late in the Cold War. Counting big surface ships and carriers will make it look like we were really 'winning'.

Trouble is, they were playing a different game. The Soviets had a completely different conception of naval warfare, and that led them to build a fleet that looked very, very different from the fleets that Western countries constructed. Rather than a 'blue water' fleet they wanted... I guess you might call it a 'black water' fleet. They wanted a fleet that could control the deep seas of remote areas where strategic submarines could hide in safety and defend the USSR's nuclear capability against a US first strike. They saw the sea as a kind of territory in a way that we seldom did.

Western naval theorists have tended to see the oceans of the world as a kind of barren desert, only useful because useful things can flow through it. You control the Atlantic, because the Atlantic provides a link between land areas and allows armies to move around. It's an idea rooted in Mahan and Corbett, and in the deeper oral tradition of naval theory that preceded them.

The Soviets never was the seas this way. To the Soviets, ocean areas were territory useful in its own right: useful for commerce, sure, but also for fishing, resource extraction, and the disposition of strategic assets. Like missile subs.

In order to control a sea lane, you have to deny it to the enemy, so you build big scary ships (the blue water fleet) to scare the enemy away. If you want to control territory, you have to occupy it. You need ships that can stay on station for extended periods of time and observe their surroundings and be prepared to ambush interlopers. You need, in other words, highly advanced specialised submarines with incredibly long endurance and... blah blah blah, you need something that looks a lot like the Soviet Navy.

The West started to cotton on to this Soviet reality in the late 1970's/early 80's (and thereby hangs many a tale), but for many years we built a set of fleets which were designed to fight the wrong Soviet Navy. For example, we assumed that they would flood the Atlantic with submarines, in the event of a war, cutting off Europe from resupply just as the Germans did in the two World Wars. By the mid-late seventies, it was becoming clear that the Soviets had few plans to do this, causing Western navies to undergo a sort of existential crisis.

In particular, the old arguments about aircraft carriers suddenly gained an urgency that they'd never before had. From about, say, the mid-1960's on, US aircraft carriers had a wartime survivability measured in minutes. Immediately, upon the outbreak of a war with the Soviet Union, every US carrier in the open ocean would have been smashed open by Soviet anti-ship missiles. Carriers are actually very fragile things. Flight operations on a carrier can be disabled merely by the presence of small amounts of debris upon the deck. They're big, mostly empty, unarmoured boxes. Missiles just rip them open, rendering them unable to conduct flight operations. The Soviets took to shadowing US carriers at sea. A missile armed ship would sail along side and, in the event of a general war, would launch a fusillade against the carrier at short range. The Soviet ship couldn't hope to survive, mind you, but the carrier would be gone too.

Now, we should keep in mind that carriers were and are not completely useless. It turns out that a politician who got rid of carriers in the middle of the Cold War would have hamstrung US expeditionary capabilities. In situations less than all-out war, carriers turn out to be very useful indeed. Even the Soviets, eventually, decided that they wanted a couple of aircraft carriers for power projection and stuff.

But a war with the Soviets would be fatal to US carriers in short order, and this was something that US naval planners both knew and hated that they knew. Carriers were not just an emotional issue for the US Navy, they were a political one. Back in the 1940's, the admirals had fought tooth and nail to preserve their carrier operations against a new US Air Force that wanted to disband naval aviation at the very least, and the whole US Navy for preference. Any public suggestion that aircraft carriers were useless in a war against the Soviet Union would threaten to overturn years of careful lobbying and reputation building within political Washington.

Now Rickover didn't mind broadcasting these uncomfortable facts, because Rickover didn't give a rat's ass. He saw the rest of the admiralty as a bunch of preening incompetents, and he saw the submarine service as a navy unto itself. Rickover was happy to point out that naval aviation would get blowed up good in the event of a war with the Soviets, because that suited his agenda of getting more money for submarines.

When, in the late seventies/early eighties, the Americans began to wake up to their new conception of Soviet naval power, the vulnerability of carriers was one of the bitterest pills that they had to swallow. Amazingly, they managed to use very clever propaganda to win over congress and the White House and get a big increase in their budget for big surface units. One of the ways that they did this was by framing the balance of power strictly in terms of things in which they already had an advantage (large surface units), pushing a new concept of naval warfare in which they would somehow invade northern Russia with their big ole fleet. This made great copy for the press, and the ideas haling from this late period tend to colour our perceptions of the whole Cold War at sea.

But, behind the scenes, other forces were at work in the US naval establishment that totally belied the public face of the navy. The submarine service (which had absolutely nothing to loose with the new perception of the Soviet Navy), for example, vigorously prepared for a war under the ice of the Arctic. Here, they would pursue that war that I'm calling 'black water' here, taking on the Soviets in their home territory and on their own terms.

Meanwhile, the international community – and, in particular, a strange combination of the resource extraction sector and the environmental movement – were beginning to see the oceans in a very 'Soviet' way, as territory to be controlled, exploited, protected and (if necessary) fought over. I find it very revealing that the Soviet habit of referring to the oceans of the world in the singular – as the hydrosphere – is now the de facto standard for scientists and diplomats alike. We all became a little more Soviet in our conception of the sea, both as an environment and as a place in which to fight and die.

Then, of course, the Cold War ended, and the whole argument became seen as supremely irrelevant. In the post-CW world, expeditionary warfare was the sole purpose and province of the US Navy, and it was the turn of the submariners to bluff and bluster about their role in the world. It turned out, by the way, that where the surface navy was masterful in its propaganda, the submariners were... I hate to say it but they were faintly pathetic. I remember, a few years ago, reading some tripe about how in the War on Terror, submarines were the obvious weapon to fund because they were stealthy and could strike unawares. Just like terrorists! See?!

Well Mr Putin is ensuring that the pendulum is going to swing back a bit, which must be relieving and terrifying US submarine commanders in equal measure. But whatever the future of Western naval appropriations, I don't think we're going to ever fully leave behind the cultural shift that took place when the Americans realised that the Soviets thought about naval warfare in a completely different way than they did. Today, military planners talk about the sea as being an integrated part of a larger 'battle space': territory to hold and exploit. There is a new emphasis on coastal combat (called 'brown water', for those of you playing along at home), and Western textbooks and journals are full of diagrams that would have made admirals Kuznetsov and Gorshkov feel right at home.

For better or worse, the days in which we could confidentially compare our fleets to those of our rivals, merely by counting some category of ship as the 'definitive' naval unit are long gone. Comparing the fleets of the world is a matter for careful, nuanced, deeply-informed analysis. There are, it seems, no easy answers.
posted by Dreadnought at 6:42 PM on April 17 [10 favorites]

(I know nothing about naval warfare, but I know a masterful seminar when I see one. Thanks - I feel like I learned something.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 8:36 AM on April 18

Since this thread seems to have reached a natural conclusion, I just want to thank everyone for their very kind comments. It's very gratifying that people are taking an interest in a subject so close to my heart, and it's even more gratifying to be so absurdly flattered for talking about it.
posted by Dreadnought at 9:08 PM on April 22

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