U.S. is phasing out attack sub patrols under Arctic ice Cat-and-mouse game with Russians is ending

November 16, 1997|By NEWSDAY

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration is closing the iciest chapter of the Cold War by phasing out U.S. Navy attack submarine patrols under the Arctic icecap, where they hunted Soviet missile-launching submarines for almost 30 years, according to Navy officials.

The move was disclosed by the commander of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet Submarine force, Vice Adm. Richard Mies, during a wide-ranging recent interview on the changing role of the U.S. submarine fleet.

Mies portrayed the decision as one in a series of difficult choices facing an American submarine fleet reduced by smaller budgets.

"One of the things we're not going to do anywhere near as much as we have done in the past are Arctic operations," Mies said.

"We historically spent a significant level of effort up in the Arctic because of concerns about the Russian submarine threat and that it [the Arctic] might be a bastion for Russian missile submarines."

The patrols produced tensions between the United States and Russia and once prompted Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin personally to ask President Clinton to reduce U.S. surveillance after a U.S. 688-class attack submarine, the Baton Rouge, collided with a Russian Sierra-class attack submarine in the Barents Sea in 1992.

"This is a belated but welcome move by the Navy," said Josh Handler, who, on behalf of Greenpeace, an international environmental organization, has urged a halt in U.S. anti-submarine operations against the Russians.

Handler, currently seeking his doctorate at Princeton University, was instrumental in making public U.S. and Russian naval records that revealed a series of undersea collisions over the years.

From 1966, Soviet subs with nuclear-tipped rockets have used the polar icecap as a likely launch site for attacking American cities.

In response, the United States deployed groups of hunter-killer submarines to trail the Russian missile-carrying submarines, called "boomers."

Some strategic planners often predicted that the first five minutes of World War III would be waged beneath the Arctic ice.

At the height of the Cold War, the Soviets had 12 missile boats deployed, most of them lurking beneath the Arctic ice.

Now, U.S. intelligence experts estimate, the Russians have reduced their submarine polar cap deployment to one boomer or sometimes two.

More than 100 Russian subs are rusting at the pier because of lack of funds for crews and maintenance.

"There has been a dramatically smaller number of Russian missile submarines being deployed," said Air Force Gen. Eugene Habiger, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Strategic Command.

Habiger is in charge of sharply reduced U.S. land- and sea-based nuclear-tipped rockets and closely monitors Russian weapon systems.

Mies would not discuss in detail the cat-and-mouse game between American attack submarines equipped with torpedoes and Russian subs that could launch intercontinental rockets tipped with a number of hydrogen warheads.

The game has been the most secretive aspect of the most classified area of naval operations during the Cold War.

Current and former submariners, interviewed on condition of anonymity, recalled dicey moments in the Arctic confrontations.

Under-ice collisions were narrowly avoided as Soviet attack submarines sought to block the American hunters from following the Russian boomers.

Undersea ice formations -- some reaching the Arctic Ocean floor -- made patrols tricky and sometimes dangerous for even the most experienced submarine captain.

Particularly difficult was underwater navigation north of the Bering Strait that separates the United States from Siberia.

"You could get trapped in a forest of ice pillars," said a veteran of the voyage. "Sometimes you had to back the submarine out and start all over again."

More than two dozen U.S. Los Angeles-class submarines were built with superstructures -- the sail or conning tower -- containing strengthened steel designed to surface through the ice cap.

Today, though, the effort is cooperative and scientific, Mies said.

Under agreements between the United States and Russia, information obtained by both submarine fleets about the Arctic is being pooled for international science.

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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