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imperialism & war

The Silent Brotherhood

1984 superpower submarine warfare was a turning point of Cold War history.
The Silent Brotherhood,
Submarine Warfare in 1984

Omitted from the orthodoxy of Cold War history are the events of late 1984. The first Reagan administration - fired by a rabidly anti-communist ideology, and in possession of superior military capabilities - challenged the enfeebled leadership of the Soviet Union. The Soviets responded to what they perceived as a mortal threat by the aggressive deployment of an improved nuclear powered attack submarine. The American nuclear war-fighting establishment would be shaken to its foundation.

U.S. Navy officials were chided after the March 21, 1984 collision of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk and a Soviet attack submarine. It was inconceivable that a Soviet submarine could penetrate undetected an aircraft carrier battle group's anti-submarine defensive perimeter. In the painful nine months to follow, the U.S, Navy would discover that not only had the Soviets quieted their newest attack submarines, they had also compromised the entire U.S. anti-submarine defense infrastructure. This failure would be attributed to the espionage activities of the John Walker spy ring after their arrests in
1985. As a result of this espionage the Soviet Union was able to detect and follow America's Trident missile submarines.1

History has written that Cold War animosities peaked in 1983. This is a false assertion, belied by the comments of then U.N. Secretary General Javier Pe'rez de Cue'llar, who in a December 12, 1984 General Assembly address, criticized the superpowers for allowing an "ideological confrontation" to "jeopardize the future of humanity". On December 14, the Soviet delegate of the Stockholm conference on European Security accused the United States and NATO of preparing for war. When Mikhail Gorbachev, in what was his first international appearance, arrived in London on December 15, he stated that he hoped "to have a frank exchange of opinion on ways to overcome the present dangerous development of the international situation and make the world healthier again." In a speech to the British House of Commons on December 18, Gorbachev said: "The world situation remains complicated and the danger of war is the reality of the day."
The events of late 1984 however, have fallen into the black hole of secrecy. On April 8, 1987, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer published "A P-I Special Report: Submarine Intruders", by reporter Ed Offley. In the article "Spy ring helped Soviets sneak subs to Whidbey" it was revealed that: "One [Soviet] submarine is known to have ventured as far as the entrance to Admiralty Inlet between Whidbey Island and the Olympic Peninsula, a key passage for the Trident submarines traveling between their base at Bangor and the ocean." In a companion article "Soviets score a coup with sub progress", Mr. Offley states that "The ability of Soviet submarines to slip inside the Strait of Juan de Fuca at
least as far as Whidbey Island, location of a key Navy base, comes from Soviet
knowledge of blind spots and weaknesses in the anti-sub defense system detected because of the Walker betrayals." The Navy denied, without comment, the occurrence of any Soviet submarine intrusion.
It was nonetheless obvious when these intrusions occurred. On the morning of December 7, 1984, the shipping lanes through and the air space above Admiralty Inlet were closed to all traffic. Richard Wright, commanding officer of the Coast Guard's Puget Sound Vessel Traffic Service, said the shipping lanes were closed down due to "extremely hazardous conditions." He said that it was the first time anyone could recall that shipping lanes were totally closed.2 When United Press International's Seattle bureau chief Penny Spar queried the Coast Guard, she was referred to the FBI. The FBI when queried cited "national security."3
Other Puget Sound events indicative of submarine warfare occurred. On December 13, a Navy EA-6B electronic counter-measure aircraft exploded in mid-flight over the northern entrance of Admiralty Inlet. On December 21, a large oil spill of a heavy marine distillate fuel mysteriously washed ashore at the southern entrance of Admiralty Inlet. On January 11, 1985, a fishing boat hauled to the surface an anti-submarine mine from Rich Passage, the waterway leading to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.

If the security of the U.S. ballistic missile submarine fleet was threatened a vigorous response would be expected. The missile submarine was the invulnerable leg of the Triad; an array of intercontinental bomber, land and submarine based nuclear warhead delivery systems. In 1984, the submarine based missile did not have the accuracy to destroy the hardened silos of the Soviet land based ICBMs. The submarine's function was as a deterrent against a Soviet first strike. If U.S. nuclear war planners could not be assured of the missile submarine's wartime survival, the logic of the Triad would crumble. In the event of war the submarine launched ballistic missile was no longer a hold card - it was use 'em or lose 'em.
With humanity's fate in balance, the U.S. took action.
In mid-December 1984, U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups stormed the naval bases of the Soviet Far East. This action, it was hoped, would draw the Soviet attack submarines back home to protect their own highly vulnerable ballistic missile submarines.
It worked. The Soviet response was described as "the kind of alert the Russians would launch if their defense controllers thought Soviet military installations were about to be attacked."4

Mikhail Gorbachev had by this time arrived for his historic London visit. Margaret Thatcher pronounced Gorbachev "a man that the West could do business with." The slide to Armageddon was arrested. Humanity was safely back on the edge of the nuclear abyss.
Military tensions would gradually subside over the next several months. On December 28, an errant Soviet cruise missile crossed Norwegian airspace and then passed into Finnish airspace before disappearing. On January 11, 1985, a German based Pershing 2 missile ignited in its launch cradle and sent tremors down the backs of officials in the U.S. Department of Defense, the Soviets, adding rather succinctly, that such an accident "could become the cause of an outbreak of a nuclear war."5

Mike Marston
September 2002

1 Walter Pincus and Vernon Loeb, Other Spy Probes Run More Quietly Than Lee's; No Publicity, Charges When Soviets Obtained Sub Secrets in 1978, Washington Post, 11-06-2000, pp A03.
2 Federal agents surround house in island manhunt. Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 12-08-1984, pp A4
3 L.J. Davis, Ballad of an American Terrorist. Harpers, July 1986, pp. 60.
4 2 U.S. Carriers Meet Soviet Response in Far East. New York Times, 12-19-1984, pp.A5.
5 Army begins probe of fatal Pershing missile fire. Seattle Times, 01-13-1985, pp A9.