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.