The Politics of Global War: In the Shadow of Escalation Part I

In the last forty-eight hours leading up to the start of hostilities in early July, 1987, officials from the United States and Soviet governments undertook a series of clandestine meetings in Zurich, Switzerland. These meetings were not eleventh-hour negotiations aimed at averting war. By this point it was a generally accepted fact in Washington, Moscow, and the capitals of Europe that war was inevitable. Instead, the topic of discussion was devising a way to avoid a dangerous escalation that could lead to a nuclear exchange. When all was said and done, the officials on both sides reached an agreement to keep their respective strategic forces on a leash, so to speak. Ballistic missile submarines would not leave their homeports, and those already at sea would be recalled. Strategic bombers, though fueled and armed, were restricted from dispersing to secondary airfields to minimize damage to their numbers in the event of a counterforce strike. President Reagan and General Secretary Romanov each gave their blessings to the agreement, acknowledging that any move to increase the alert status of their nuclear forces would invariably bring on a similar response from the other side.

The balloon went up and the rules were observed and respected by the two superpowers. Right up until Strike Fleet Atlantic’s arrival on the doorstep of the Soviet Union. Once US Navy carrier groups entered northern waters it placed the Soviet submarine bases on the Kola Peninsula within range of carrier-borne attack aircraft. It did not take long for Moscow to come to the realization that its northern-most submarine bases, and hence a large portion of its sea-based nuclear force, had become exceedingly vulnerable. Less than twelve hours later a letter addressed to President Reagan and coming from Romanov was delivered to the US State Department by the Swiss ambassador to the United States. The letter was rushed to the White House and given to the president.

The letter was brief. In it, Romanov explained that he was ordering a limited number of Soviet SSBNs to depart from their northern bases and take up positions in the northern Barents and White Sea. He provided the names and classes of the seven submarines and explained that the move was being made to prevent these submarines from being damaged and quite possibly causing a radiological disaster. No further submarines were to sail out of the northern ports, and no ballistic missile submarines at all would sortie in the Pacific. Romanov cautioned Reagan about attacking either bases on Soviet territory, or the SSBNs at sea, warning that such a move could open a proverbial Pandora’s Box which would be impossible to close.

Reagan replied promptly through the Hotline set up between the White House and Kremlin. In a short message, he let it be known the United States would hold Romanov at his word that only a limited number of submarines would sail from Polyarny. If the number exceeded ten, the United States would commence a surge of its own SSBNs in greater numbers. Romanov acknowledged the message and communications ceased.

Through the coming days, debates raged at the White House and Pentagon over how the United States should respond. The US Navy, understandably, wanted to surge its boomers and immediately go after the Soviet missile subs now at sea. After all, Phase II of the Navy’s Maritime Strategy called for the attacks on the Soviet SSBN force in its northern bastions. Some cabinet members, and NSC principals favored going after the sub force sooner rather than later, at sea and in port. Others favored a more thoughtful approach centered on matching the Soviets move for move and not assessing punishments unless the situation called for it.

The discussions continued, and became drawn out, as they have a habit of doing. Events in other theaters overshadowed the Northern Flank, and the SSBN matter until the carrier battle in the Norwegian Sea. In the aftermath, on D+13, reconnaissance satellites were redirected to the Kola ports and northern waters to monitor the progress of the Soviet SSBNs that had departed.

Instead, the satellites revealed nearly seventy-five percent of the Northern Fleet’s SSBNs were either at sea or preparing to depart. A veritable freight train of missile subs had developed from the Kola to the northern Barents Sea and White Sea firing points.

A National Security Council meeting was scheduled for 0100 hours EDT on D+14. The purpose of the gathering would be to develop a response to the Soviet actions and put them into effect immediately while there was still time.

22 Replies to “The Politics of Global War: In the Shadow of Escalation Part I”

  1. The agreement about strategic forces seems about as safe as lighting a sparkler in a room full of gunpowder!

    Clever ploy on the part of the soviets to hold the US (and presumably RN) SSBNs and ALCM shooters as concentrated hostages for the good behavior of the much less capable Soviet systems.

    The Maritime Strategy and the linked 600 ship navy were a brilliant asymmetric way to hold the USSR at risk. The equipping of naval tomahawk in its nuclear and conventional formats, strengthening of air defenses, and the emergence of synergized strike warfare enabled Lehman’s navy to attack the flanks of soviet power at Kola, The Russian Far East, and potentially in the Crimea. To a degree, it worked- look at the increased investment on ASW/AAW ships, missile armed bombers, and the bastion strategy at the expense of developing sustainable power projection.

    That said, today’s piece highlights the extremely high risk of inadvertent escalation inherent to the maritime strategy simply through bad luck and happenstance.

    It’ll be interesting to see how this ratchets down, if it does. I’d figure inadvertent losses of theatre munitions and dual use systems will also be causin* a relook of the initial plans for restraint.

    Great work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Amir.

      The Maritime Strategy was an excellent doctrine and would’ve given the Navy a solid foundation to prosecute a war with the Soviets at sea in the North Atlantic and farther north. We could use a similar doctrine for the Western Pacific right now.

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  2. This time you are being too American, Mike. A substantial number of Northern Fleet subs were Yankees that were noisy, poorly maintained and armed with short ranged missiles so they would need to be at sea to be of any value. Thanks to the Walker spy ring, the Soviets had learned that their subs were being trailed, so they would have little option at the start of the war but to surge them and hope to overwhelm the USN/RN SSNs available for trailing ops. Every boat that was trailed would be dead meat, but with enough numbers a few could get lost in the ocean and provide adequate deterrent value (think of a Cuban Missile crisis under the sea). Surging then out late in the war, with NATO mobilized would be suicidal for all except for the few Delta IVs and Typhoons that can get lost under the ice, but then, the older boats can also be used as torpedo subs…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right about the technical details and possible strategy for the missile subs, Jose. But here, the agreement made right before the war started prevented the subs from being flushed at the start of the war. Realistic? Maybe. Maybe not. Possible? Absolutely. When things suddenly get real it can change people’s outlooks and actions. Especially national leaders.

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  3. How would this agreement limit things at the blurry end of the scale- GLCM/Pershing 2/SS-20; dual tasked B-52s (Fairford was exercising this, and Guam had them) or USN SSNs with TLAM-N?

    The subs would probably be hard for the USSR to track and categorize and dispersing high value aircraft and missiles in theater as passive defense against conventional attack seems to be a sound practice.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, the missiles in Europe are tactical platforms. Both sides didn’t even talk about including those or Soviet systems because in that case NATO loses its last line of defense, and so do the Russians in a way.
      A strategic exchange, however, is something that neither side wanted. No trading Hamburg for Chicago, or Leningrad for Warsaw

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      1. Great to get this strategic picture again – an interesting decision coming up (and some hurried minesweeping around the Clyde).
        I was going to ask about Fairford when you were looking at OOB a few weeks back – whether anything significant was making use of that?

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  4. Thanks for the follow up on the tactical platforms- good to see the “Warsaw Pact Central Heating” patches don’t have to come off!

    In a way, the Soviets holding their subs in port makes sense as a way goal is to neutralize US/RN delivery systems with the lowest level of assets committed. Assets that can be used in other capacities. Some subs can launch dockside, others could be used to hold Western Europe at hazard. As a second strike capability, SSBNs are arguably less critical to the USSR than to the West.

    From the Soviet perspective, even a conventional conflict is a must win perspective- the Pact had already proven it was a coalition of the coerced In 56, 68, and 80-81. A conventional loss will threaten the Soviet hold on the pact, and their buffer from the west. Even a limited western strike (ICBMs mainly) supplemented by theatre forces could do enough damage to wreck the Soviet military effort and seriously threaten their internal cohesion.

    I just wonder what they can do with all those bastion defense assets and PVO forces as the Maritime Strategy plays out? Ought to be interesting…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, as far as the surface ships and attack subs assigned to bastion defense, what’s left is on station around the SSBN launch boxes. As far as PVO goes, they’re trying to keep as decent number of MiG-31s and -25s held back to defend against B-52s and FB-111s if things go south.

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  5. At this point I’d put the silos to Launch On Warning. But that’s probably why I sucked at all of those strategic computer games about WW3 😛

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hmmm…

    Historically, the Soviets always hedged. The agreement to not surge the SSBN fleets was an interesting facet to this and one I never thought would stick.

    With the danger to the Kola, the likelihood of “Screw that!” was going to happen and a surge of boats would occur.

    75% is not seven. Or even ten… Given that there is likely a bunch of US/NATO attack boats out there watching them scoot… I would venture to say that were the order given to shoot, quite a few Soviet boats would become tombs. FAR more than Moscow would like (zero losses being their preferred number. Also the preferred number for our own losses, for that matter)

    Mind you, I’m sure there is Soviet attack boats off our bases too. But our boats are not as noisy… so I suspect a better chance of slipping away. (Any sub drivers in the crowd please feel free to correct me.)

    In any event, its a dangerous potential escalation. And one hopes there are some sane heads in Moscow…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Keep in mind that along with the NATO attack boats there are also three carriers and their assorted battlegroups nearby. Vikings, ASROCs, Sea Kings, and other ASW assets. They’d be thrown in the mix too.

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  7. It always seemed like the bastions made operational sense as a kind of bait (SSBNs) with a fixed defense (mines, surface ships, diesel) upon which to fix the enemy (CVBGs and high value SSNs) while you deliver your offensive counterstrike (naval aviation, land based missiles, asw, ssgn, etc) close to your base and at the end of the enemy’s supply lines.

    The “bait” has sorted and what defenses exist are presumptively set. Doing some quick math on Soviet losses, it looks like they may not have offensive mass to land the kind of blow they need. If they loose air parity over the bastion areas, and can’t strike the carriers effectively, the wheels may just come off the bus.

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