Something grabs a hold of me tightly
Flows like a harpoon, daily and nightly
Will it ever stop? Yo — I don’t know
Turn off the lights, and I’ll glow.
— Vanilla Ice, late Cold War American recording artist
“Storm reports that she has reached Point Egret,” Hanne announces flatly. “The squadron is in place.”
“Very well,” I acknowledge, to the back of her head. My chief of staff is seething.
It is very early in the morning aboard KNM Fridtjof Nansen (F310), the largest and most capable ship in the Royal Norwegian Navy. We have just completed a harrowing overnight sprint north, hugging the jagged coastline in darkness and total electronic silence, and I am hoping that our arrival in this area will remain unnoticed for a little while longer.
We are not alone. Our friends out in the pre-dawn darkness are four Skjold-class fast missile craft. The Skjolds are this generation’s tribute to PT boats — barely displacing 300 tons, they are specially shaped to evade radar and can make 60 knots in calm seas. They are, in fact, the fastest armed surface craft in the world. For the past two weeks they have been wreaking havoc on Russian surface activities, punching at amphibious shipping and then fading back into the shelter of the coastal radar clutter before the escorts can react. Which is why the Russians have now sent a fast surface group to kill the Skjolds once and for all.
Hanne believes that I am making an enormous mistake. She knows the Skjolds very well, having served as the deputy program officer before going on to be Skudd‘s first commander. In fact, she is one of the Navy’s top two or three tactical experts on fighting these boats, and she insists that the key advantage of the Skjolds lies in their blistering speed. And by ordering the squadron to remain in their hide sites instead of keeping them on the move, she thinks that I am squandering the initiative and robbing them of their best chance to survive the coming engagement.
I’m not so sure. My chief of staff comes from a world of fast-boat alley fights, where short-range hit-and-run attacks on other missile craft are the order of the day. She thinks I am too old, too cautious to understand her carbon-fiber spaceships that zip around on cushions of air. Perhaps she is right about that. But my background is in the frigate navy, a world of helicopters. You cannot outrun a helo. Zooming around at 60 knots in the presence of enemy airborne search radar just announces to the world that you are something to kill.
And what the Russians can see, they can kill. They build the best antiship missiles in the world, and their newer weapons are heavier, faster, and longer-ranged than ours. Even their older systems are monsters. By comparison we are throwing thumbtacks.
But, of course, the race does not always go to the fellow with the three-ton Mach 2.5 cruise missile. We hope.
I glance at the clock. It is time.
“Cola 03, green deck,” the deck circuit chirps. A minute later the helicopter winds up and bites into the air, lifting away from the flattened rear end of Nansen. The helo departs with a throaty roaring growl that we can feel even deep inside the heart of the ship. But electromagnetically, she is as quiet as a hummingbird.
This is a game of hide-and-go-kill. We are crouched on the dark sea with radar flashlights, armed with ship-killing weapons that can reach over the horizon. Shine your flashlight on a target and you can kill it, though you may not be able to tell exactly what you are killing. But others can see your beam sweeping across the water from farther away than you can see them. It is precisely the kind of uncomfortable situation that certain long-haired Canadian guitarists of decades past might have declared to be ironic, if only there were a singable English word that rhymed with “radar.”
Our five ships are strung out on a loose line that runs to the northeast, hugging the rugged coastline like rain on a wedding day. My flagship anchors the line to the south, ambling down the channel at an innocuous 10 knots. The Skjolds are tucked into small inlets and coves without a hint of irony, where the rocky surroundings will hopefully shield them from the probing fingers of enemy radar.
We have been operating off the Norwegian coastline for thirty-six hours, having departed Granitnyy before dawn on Saturday morning. There are four of us. To the west we have the two newest ships in the 55th Missile Ship Brigade, both Gremyashchy-class corvettes barely out of sea trials. I fly my very small flag in Gremyashchy herself, while Provornyy, on her first trip outside Russian waters, holds station nearby. Thirty miles to the east we have Tucha and Urugan, a pair of elderly Nanuchka III missile craft that serves as my fast missile group.
We are hunting ghosts. We lost three Ropuchas last week to…nothing, just missiles out of nowhere. Naval aviation lost another two reconnaissance aircraft trying to figure out what happened. Fleet intelligence thinks it knows — four of the Norwegian Skjolds have been missing from their berths for two weeks. And they have even better news — the Norwegians have a Nansen-class frigate supporting this raider group. So it is up to my little squadron to seek and kill four stealth surface effect craft and a midget Aegis.
It is just past dawn and the surface picture is starting to populate. I have both surface groups in a tight EMCON state, while the helicopters listen and occasionally radiate from 12,000 feet. “Mostly commercial traffic, Commodore,” says Usenkov in a tired tone of voice. “Just like yesterday. Fishermen.”
“I see. But what fisherman travels at 55 knots?” I ask.
“Fast missilecraft,” breathes Usenkov. “No emissions, he’s running silent. Our contact is a skin-paint from the helicopter.”
“Then I doubt he sees us yet,” I reply. “Let’s take the group to the west, I want to be off the axis of the helicopter radar. Radars off.” We shift our weight as the corvette heels starboard.
Five minutes pass. The helicopter reports radar activity. “Surface search radar. Airborne. Type NH90.”
The NH90 is the helicopter operated by the Nansen frigate. So the Nansen may be far to the south. There is a surface contact near the helicopter, emissions-silent, cruising at an innocuous 6 knots. Is it a fisherman that the NATO helicopter was just checking out? Or is it the Nansen itself?
We wait a few more minutes while the helicopter carefully makes its way to the west. Our helicopter detects more surface contacts popping out of the coastal radar shadows. Usenkov points out that three of them have accelerated past 26 knots and are headed north to open water.
“Well?” I look at my very young executive officer.
“They saw the Helix,” he replies. “Then they vectored their own helicopter in. I think there is a good chance they have us — you know the new NATO airborne radars.”
“And the fast-movers are their strike force, moving in on us radar-silent,” I finish. “I agree. Classify SKUNK 6 as hostile, NATO Skjold-class fast missile craft, and let’s see how this develops.”
Usenkov nods, looking pale, and gives the order to the combat systems officer. And then all hell breaks loose.
Last month there was a well-publicized kerfuffle after a Dec. 5 encounter between USS Cowpens (CG 63) and several Chinese Navy ships in the South China Sea. The PLAN had a (relatively large) task force centered on celebrity training aircraft carrier Liaoning (pennant #16), together with both of the fleet’s Type 051C (Luzhou-class) destroyers and two Type 054A (Jiangkai II-class) frigates from the North Sea Fleet. Apparently Cowpens got too close for the PLAN’s liking, and one of the Chinese ships (interestingly, not one of the North Sea Fleet surface combatants, but rather a lightly-armed Type 072 LST accompanying the group) “aggressively” maneuvered to block the American cruiser. Everyone called “all stop”, and after a brief bridge-to-bridge exchange between Cowpens and Liaoning‘s captain (English-speaking, British-educated Senior Captain Zhang Zheng), the parties went their separate ways. Diplomatic back-and-forth continued for a week or two afterward (with some calling for an Incidents at Sea agreement between the U.S. and China), but the issue has since died down. Liaoning returned to her home port on Jan. 1. The Chinese are still coming to RIMPAC later this year.
As is fairly typical for military exercises that China wishes to publicize (almost all of them, these days), the Chinese Maritime Safety Administration did publish a notice identifying the exercise zone and warning that “no vessel is allowed to enter the designated maritime areas.” This sort of jealous approach to their use of international waters raises the usual freedom of navigation objection, and although everybody agrees that there are legitimate concerns about self-defense, one gets the sense that this would all go easier if they were a little less brusque about the whole thing. Blue water isn’t just about logistics and command-and-control; it is about sharing the playground.
In any event, the legal discussion is not today’s topic. I decided to plot the exercise zone, just to get a feel for where this was. The Chinese set aside three numbered “Maritime Areas” to the south and east of Hainan Island. The two western boxes (Maritime Areas 1 and 2) were right up against Chinese territorial waters (in fact the edges of the boxes overlap the 12-mile limit). The easternmost box (Maritime Area 3) is about 50 miles off the coast of Hainan. It is not clear in which box the Cowpens encounter took place, but it seems to have occurred on the first day of the exercise.
Looking at the chart, it struck me how close these waters are to Yankee Station, the U.S. carrier operating zone from which naval air strikes were launched against North Vietnam between 1964 and 1973 (I’ve plotted its location above). Indeed, Yankee Station is just about 50 miles to the west of the PLAN’s Maritime Area 2. Perhaps the Chinese, ever attentive to American military precedent, are hoping that some of the hard-won know-how developed in these waters a half-century ago will rub off.
The Soviet submarine force during the Cold War was enormous. From 1945 to 1990, there were over forty classes of submarines fielded under the Soviet naval ensign, numbering well over six hundred hulls. (By comparison, the United States constructed just under two hundred submarines over the same period.)
The sheer diversity of Soviet submarine platforms has always given me a headache. Take the 1950s-era “Project 613” conventional fleet submarine, known to NATO as the Whiskey-class, for example. The Whiskey quickly spawned many variants. In 1955, a Whiskey was adapted to carry the P-5/NATO SS-N-3c cruise missile, with the testbed being called “Project P-613” and the six operational missile-carrying units called “Project 644” (NATO Whiskey Twin-Cylinder). In 1961, a series of new-build Whiskeys were commissioned with quad-tube P-5 missile mounts (Project 665/NATO Whiskey Long Bin). Project 640 (NATO Whiskey Canvas Bag) was a radar picket variant launched in 1957, and Project 613S and Project 666 were dedicated rescue submarines. As late as 1974, the Whiskey design was being used as a propulsion testbed (Project 613Eh). And, of course, it wasn’t until 1981 that a Baltic Fleet Whiskey (S-363) ran aground off the Swedish coast in the infamous “Whiskey on the Rocks” incident. All told, there were over two hundred Whiskeys built for the Soviet Navy.
And there was even more diversity among classes. In the jargon of the western navies, we have Echo I/II/IIIs, Foxtrots, Hotels, Romeos, Victor I/II/IIIs, Charlie I/IIs, Yankees of many stripes, Alfas, Sierra I/IIs, Oscars, Kilos, Typhoons, an unfortunate Mike, and an endless procession of Golfs and Deltas–not to mention many ships of lesser celebrity, to which NATO never assigned code names. With all of these ship designs floating around, it is often difficult to discern the relationships between classes. Indeed, the common NATO code names are sometimes misleading, as the Soviet admiralty usually saw no reason to be transparent on these subjects to the intelligence services of their class enemies.
Over the New Year’s weekend a few years ago, I was reading Norman Polmar’s and K.J. Moore’s excellent submarine design history, and, feeling lost as usual, thought that I’d chart out the basic Soviet class lineages for myself. The result is this very large timeline map of Soviet submarine classes since 1945. In addition to class and sub-class lineages by timeline (flowing left to right), I’ve added (a) indicators for the total number of hulls in the class (green circles); (b) boundary markers for the “four generations” into which Soviet nuclear submarine designs are commonly divided (shaded boxes toward the bottom); and (c) concurrent timeline tracks for major known Soviet submarine incidents for each class (white dotted lines and triangles).
This chart is a first draft, and may be incomplete or erroneous in a number of ways. After that weekend, I had intended to go back and refine its contents, but haven’t yet found the time to do it. With that caveat, I thought I’d share it with others who might find it interesting and/or useful.
[Download high-resolution JPG image, 6394×3648, 1.2MB]