Remember the Soviet Navy? Ever wonder what happened to all those ships and submarines? Well, the Russians have converted a lot of the ships to commercial freight, and dry-docked most of the rest, but I wondered about those subs, especially the missile boats.
Richard Lugar, who is Chairman of the Senate Foreign relations Committee, wrote an editorial this week for the International Herald Tribune, observing:
“The United States has been working for more than a decade to dismantle these missile submarines through the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. Operating largely out of view, the program has dismantled 28 missile submarines carrying 543 missiles capable of hitting America with thousands of warheads. The program plans to destroy another 12 submarines with 169 missiles in the years ahead. At the moment, two Typhoon-class ballistic missile submarines are being dismantled. The Typhoon, the largest submarine ever built, can carry 20 missiles, each with 10 independently targeted warheads. Just one submarine was capable of striking 200 targets with a total explosive force greater than all the bombs dropped in World War II.”
“While the United States has been concentrating on ballistic missile submarines, its allies have tackled the general-purpose submarines that Russia has retired but cannot afford to dismantle. Although unable to fire ballistic missiles, these subs pose serious environmental and proliferation concerns because of their nuclear reactors, the possibility of conventional weaponry remaining on board, and the risk of sinking. The nuclear material could be used in a "dirty bomb," and a nuclear accident could have devastating effects on energy development, food supplies, ocean habitat and indigenous peoples.”
“Of the 193 strategic-missile and general-purpose nuclear submarines retired by Russia, 94 have already been dismantled. Of those awaiting destruction, 55 boats remain floating at the docks or moored off shore.”
“Norway, Britain, France, Germany and Japan are currently dismantling 37 submarines at locations throughout Northwest Russia and in the Far East.”
As Lugar observes, this is a good start, but there is a strong need for vigilance. The tragic loss of life in the Kursk disaster in 2000 highlights the risk which Russian sailors accept in even normal operations. Also, a quick count of the handling shows that seven submarines “retired” by the Soviets have not been accounted for. This is a concern, when one considers that countries purchasing submarines from Russia, or making offers since 1995 include China, Egypt, India, Iran, Libya, and North Korea. Even if the old boomers are not to be had, any of these countries would gain a strategic dimension to their fleet by adding an Akula-class or Pantera-class to their fleet, and several of those nations would strongly desire the threat to American Aircraft Carriers which these hunter submarines represent. Where the old Soviet Union was cautious because of fear they might provoke a war by attacking a carrier, starting a war by sinking a carrier would be a lofty goal for some of these nations.
So, chalk that up to one more thing the Bush Administration has gotten right so far, although there’s clearly work still to be done, and caution must be applied to the optimism. Somehow, I don’t think we would have seen a President Gore, Kerry, or Clinton paying heed to the danger here the way Dubya has.