Cold War naval strategies in NATO

Polaris missile launch
There are some naval strategies that I don't seem to get. The first one is the 'nuclear deterrence by SSBNs' strategy. I understand this began with modified nuclear attack submarine designs and short-ranged (1,000 nm) submarine ballistic missiles. That part made sense in its own sick way.
The part that I do not get is why it evolved to the later system with trident missiles, for even the Trident I missile had 7,400 km range and could easily have this increased by a few hundred kilometres. The confusing thing here is that 7,772 km is the distance between Detroit, Michigan, U.S.A. and Moscow, Russia (then U.S.S.R.).

The expensive Trident I missiles could have been replaced by a cheaper surface launch design and the expensive nuclear-powered Ohio SSBNs could have been replaced with much cheaper conventional submersibles (no torpedoes, minimal Sonar, no noise cancelling, low depth hull, no nuclear reactor) in Lake Michigan.
Even Canada had no ability to interfere with whatever is hiding in Lake Michigan (average depth 85 m, maximum depth 281 m), much less the Warsaw Pact.
(edit: A treaty would have to be renegotiated or cancelled.)

Likewise, British and French SSB would have been quite safe in the Irish Sea or the Western Mediterranean. Soviet/Russian SSBs would have been much safer in the Caspian Sea than SSBNs in the Arctic  region.

Even as of today, naval authors write about a need to replace SSBNs with SSBNs as if that was perfectly self-evident. To me, their thinking appears to be on autopilot.

So this is the first thing I do not understand; why so much expense for producing and shielding large nuclear-powered submarines for high seas patrols if the same mission could be accomplished in inland waters at a much lower expense and with better reliability?

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The second confusion is about the general emphasis on the naval realm while the (perceived) imbalance of land power was creating serious concerns.

I do get that the amphibious and carrier forces of the USN were more about the West-East conflict in the Third World than about actual preparations for WW3. They were of course also a left-over from the USN's structure in the late Pacific War and thus probably a testament of bureaucratic inertia, too.

This leaves the many rather convoy escort-oriented forces as primary naval WW3 preparation. European navies (such as the British, German and Dutch ones) were composed mostly of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) frigates with a few area air defence (AAW) destroyers in between. They were capable of forming convoy escort flotillas. The Americans attempted to combine both into the Oliver Hazard Perry frigate class for mostly the same mission.

This was all a great expense, and it's obvious that their only crucial role in a supposedly quick and short WW3 would have been the escorting of military forces shipments on the high seas. That, of course, was a strange fit for a "quick and short WW3" assumption. The major reinforcements would have deployed either by land or by air (U.S. reserves with pre-positioned material in European depots), actual transoceanic shipment of army forces complete with their material would have required many weeks and would not have arrived in time for the expected most likely decisive battle in Central Europe.

There was in my opinion no reason why Germany or the Netherlands should have maintained escorts for such shipments, for these shipments would have arrived too late for their defence. It was certainly not desirable to hope for a liberation campaign, for this would mean that nuclear-armed forces would attack a second time through your country.

So what was the (cost efficient) purpose for the German Bremen class (F122 class) or the Dutch Kortenaer class on which it was based, for example? 

F 208, Bremen class ASW frigate

What exactly was the point of ASW-centric helicopter carriers with token anti-bomber components of Sea Harrier VTOL fighters?

This reminds me a bit of the German "Z-Plan" for a "balanced" navy for the 1940's. There's no plausible strategic concept driving the idea, but since you can build all those different things, why miss 'em? Just build everything. Who needs clear reasoning? Doesn't concentration on crucial efforts require self-discipline and a mental effort? Go the path of least resistance and just order all kinds of different toys for the boys!

Call me anti-naval, call me fixated on continental thinking; NATO's naval strategies of the late Cold War (70's and 80's) look very confused and stupid to me. They appear to have been invented by a bureaucratic autopilot.



  1. Actually Canada does have a say in what is in the Great Lakes, there is a treaty between the US and Canada which demilitarized the Great Lakes so no US ballistic missile submarines are allowed.

  2. Interesting, but it would be feasible to negotiate an exception.

  3. "So what was the (cost efficient) purpose for the German Bremen class (F122 class) or the Dutch Kortenaer class on which it was based, for example?"
    a.) Escorting the convoys which not just transported troops and their materiel but also military supplies if there war lasts longer than 30 days (I think all the NATO countries had about 30 days of military supplies however it's questionable whether the stocks would have lasted that long in an acutal war).
    b.) Escorting reinforcement if there's a slower buildup of tensions between the two blocs.

    "What exactly was the point of ASW-centric helicopter carriers with token anti-bomber components of Sea Harrier VTOL fighters?"
    AFAIK they were supposed to close the GIUK gap in the North Atlantic.

  4. About (a): These escorts would first need to steam westward, for two weeks, then form a convoy and steam back for two weeks and then some of these ships and crews would be in need of a break for repairs and rest.
    How does this compare with simply pre-positioning the material in Southern England, in Southern Italy and on the West Coast of France in the first place?

    About (b): Actually, a dispersed movement of such material movements and personnel movement by air would have been far easier. The red SSK fleet (which was impressive during the 60s) would not have been able to stop much of that if the build-up period is indeed long. And again, West European escorts would first have to steam westward.

    About GIUK: To what end? To have a line of blue icons on a map is no end in itself. The ASW capabilities of Sea King and Lynx helicopters were always questionable, for the Soviets had plenty time to cope with the challenge. It was never entirely clear whether the ASW forces or the subs were more target than the other since the surface groups were under additional threat by air power and SSGNs while the red subs were not really threatened by MPAs (the Nimrod was especially useless).

  5. Lake Michigan is a geographically confined area. Its dimensions may seem large, but they arent really compared to the expanse of the Atlantic or the Arctic Ocean, plus it has an average depth of less than a 100 m.

    If the US would rely solely on that place to hide their counterstrike capability, it would be an excellent motivation to develop an appropriate nuclear warhead, that can reliably penetrate the surface and produce an acceptable underwater detonation. Add to that MIRV-capability, and its not really that hard to saturate such an area with a high kill-probability. Let alone the fact, that any conventional platform would make it even easier for surveillance, such as satellites, to observe it on the surface or going into port.

    The key-point is to hide these assets, and from what I see there are way too many impediments in doing that in such confined spaces. The Caspian Sea is about twice as large, yet the same issues IMO still arise.

    That is the reason why the Soviets developed the bastion-idea as an operational concept for their SSBNs, trying to have the best of both worlds. The Chinese may follow that path with their SSBNs in the Yellow Sea.

  6. a.) The US did preposition a lot of materiel, but there was the real chance that the Soviets would attempt to destroy the storage sites. Also there's the need for additional military supplies after a certain period of fighting.
    b.) I guess there'd have be a mix of both dispersed movement and convoys (for important cargo). The NATO navies were concerned that Soviet bombers and submarines would be too much of a danger to lone non-military ships. The Second Battle of the Altantic was probably also a very influencing event and influence maritime thinking in the West.

    GIUK: It was intended to block the Soviet submarines, much like Baltic Approaches was supposed to prevent the Soviet naval forces in the Baltic Sea from moving into the North Sea. Only a real war would have shown if the concept worked.

  7. Lake Michigan has 58,000 sq km and the Soviets wouldn't have known whether a few SSBs slipped into another lake during a crisis.

    Let's assume a simplified model and an unbelievable 3 km radius of underwater lethality for a 550 kt warhead and a perfect placement (which would not be achieved). That would be 28.3 sq km per warhead. 2,000 would be needed for this alone. Now add the warheads needed to take out French, British, SAC command, ICBM silos, other nuclear warhead depots ... not feasible.
    Now take into account that maybe 10% of missiles don't explode anywhere where they are supposed to.

    See, this is what operational research is for; replace gut feeling with calculations.
    Lake Michigan was large enough.

    In fact, ICBMs and SLBMs would have had a tough challenge since they could hardly survive an entry into the water at their speed and function reliably afterwards. The explosions would have needed to be surface explosions, which would be deadly to a sub at much less than 3 km only.

  8. "See, this is what operational research is for; replace gut feeling with calculations.
    Lake Michigan was large enough."

    Well, Sven, thanks for the lecture, but your numbers and facts are problematic to begin with.

    "The explosions would have needed to be surface explosions, which would be deadly to a sub at much less than 3 km only. "

    Actually the opposite is correct, it would have to be submerged explosions, since thats the only reliable way to effectively deal with a submerged submarine. Its also highly desirable in this context, since Lake Michigan is such an attractive killbox with its low depth and known dimensions, a complete contrast to any ocean area SSBNs can hide in - which is what I was pointing at in my first comment.

    Operation Crossroads indicated what is just sensible to assume from a physical point of view, that underwater explosions are radically more efficient to sink any kind of ship, including subs. The test devices then were tiny with their 20-something kts and Baker was perfectly able to sink a submarine at ca 850 m range. With a 550 kt-warhead in a suitable delivery vehicle the effective range would grow radically, putting your 2000 warheads-estimate into question, and by quite a fraction too (call it a gut-feeling).

    "In fact, ICBMs and SLBMs would have had a tough challenge since they could hardly survive an entry into the water at their speed and function reliably afterwards."

    True, after all thats not what they are designed for. But its hardly believable to assume, that a suitable delivery vehicle for successfully penetrating the water surface and bringing the warhead to a suitable depth (again, much less than a 100 m for Lake Michigan and surroundings) would not have been developed, if the requirement arose. Which would clearly be the case in that situation. Unless you want to suggest, that such a device is entirely unfeasible in terms of R&D (which I doubt). From there, it seems, your area saturation- and damage affected area-assumptions go right out of the window.

  9. Baker was a test in 1946. Shock protection was very basic only and hull strength was limited to 120 m test depth only. The Baker warhead exploded furthermore only in about 30 m depth, barely twice periscope depth.

    The area of a 3 km radius circle is about 12.5 times as large as the area of a .85 km radius circle. A factor of 12.5 on 23 kt already means half of the example 550 kt. Now add in that much energy will be released vertically, adding a third dimension.

    The full calculation would be difficult (and require a more elaborate pattern anyway), but in the end it's generally accepted that effect grows very much less than proportionally with yield.
    A very large shallow water detonation would approach the characteristics of a surface detonation because so much of the energy would be released into the atmosphere.

    The difference between a 60's sub and a '42 vintage sub was huge in regard to hull strength (easily 3x) and shock hardening (up to ten thousands of Gs).

    It also depends on the hull direction; Apogon exposed its flank to the Baker warhead. You'd need 2x redundancy and simultaneous explosions in order to guarantee this in a WW3 scenario.

    Last but not least, there was no damage control team present in Apogon.

  10. "The Baker warhead exploded furthermore only in about 30 m depth, barely twice periscope depth."

    Launch depth too.

  11. Exactly the kind of non-linear thinking I signed on for. Good job, sven! More and more, I think, you are proving yourself to be a modern day clausewitz.

    Seriously, there is a severe lack of ingenuity and 'thinking outside the box' in the leaders of todays armed forces. If there is ever a call for a large scale reform, you have my vote for leading the effort.

  12. Long range SLBM give you the option to strike from various/all directions. Perfect for sneak attacks, but abviously also keeps you out of the enemy ASW patrol range, resp multiplies his problem of finding you.

    Re submersible barges and other SLBM platforms: No, you don't want such nuke magnets around your lands. Remember that one of the factors that killed Midgetman was the Russian ability towards the end of the Cold War to plaster the U.S. midwest with their nukes and leave no place to hide/withstand the overpressure (even when dug in) for the Midgetman system. They could have done the same with the US, UK, French littorals and the Great Lakes where a submersible barge would hide.

    Today the situation is somewhat different. The U.S. is not facing nuclear area bombardment anymore, but sensors, cyberwarfare, &c are so much better that an enemy might be able to pinpoint the location of less mobile systems. And looking at just 14 Ohio boats in the USN these days, they might not be enough to reliably suvive (Cold War strength usually around 40 SSBN). Number games. And to many unknowns.

  13. Re part 2 of your post: A lot of aspects of the conventional armament during the Cold War didn't make military sense for the direct confrontation between the US and USSR (that would have been strategic nuclear from the very first moment, no time for conventional games or reinforcements via the North Atlantic SLOC). But for the dozens of proxy wars that were fought it made sense, to a degree. But as you said - tradition and systemic momentum certainly also had to do with it. And what Eisenhower callled the military-industrial complex.

  14. Just a very general, albeit all-important remark:

    "too many unknowns" a.k.a. risk of failure applies both ways. Deterrence works even if there's a chance that retaliation won't happen.

    There was no need for a 100 % guaranteed ability to retaliate with armageddon. It was enough to make everyone sane in Moscow fear that an attack was too risky.

    Keep also in mind that U.S. SLBMs were by far not the only nuclear deterrence.

    There were also
    * French SLBMs
    * UK SLBMs
    * US ALCMs
    * French ALCMs
    * US free fall nukes
    * French free fall nukes
    * French free fall nukes
    * nuclear torpedo warheads
    * nuclear ASROC warheads
    * US ship-launched CMs with nuclear capability
    * US sub-LCMs
    * French SRBMs
    * US SRBMs
    * US nuclear arty

    In fact, all U.S. SSBNs could have sunk due to a software glitch on 1st January 1980 and the Western deterrence was still pretty much failproof.

    Spending that much on SLBMs and special SLBMs was wasteful. It was the quest for a 99% solution when a 90% solution was already better than good enough.

    Tom Clancy, USN lobbying and PR work and lots of other efforts have created an image of importance and necessity for the US SSBN force that's completely inflated.
    They could have had the same mission accomplished at much less expense.

  15. A few comments:

    * there are still obvious ballistic advantages to starting a missile from/across one of the poles due to earth's rotation

    * only a submarine permits to get nuclear missiles close to the enemy's borders (and keep them there for a longer while), reducing or nullifying early warning and permitting a devastating first strike

    * certainly there is also some advantage in being able to conceal for some time who exactly fired the missile (by doing this not from your own backyard)

    * ship transport was and still is vital, and simply cannot be replaced by air transport (look at the Afghanistan logistics as an example); thus convoy escorts were indispensable in a WW III setting. Would you want to create "air super tankers" to get the arab crude oil to you? ;-)

  16. Anonymous missile firing and first strike were both unacceptable, the strengths thus not relevant.

    A typical WW III setting was all about the first weeks. Maritime transportation is too slow to make a difference in a few weeks.
    Assuming a longer scenario, the funds should first go into more ammo, then into means to transport something. Cold War ammo stock levels were huge in the WP (including very old ammo being stored), but dangerously low in many NATO and friendly countries.
    Some air forces, navies and armies would have run out of ammo within two weeks even without losing a single ammo depot.

  17. That's very interesting. What if you drop a big fusion bomb in Lake Michigan?
    I would see SSBN from the point of view that you have a tool to attack from an unknown angle. Any known angle could have been sufficient to develop a capable defense system and thus lowered the risk to the point someone decided to call it.
    The possible existance of a future missile defense was more of a threat than MAD because both sides had enough persons who weren't suicidal. Part of the non-suicide approach would be an escalating nuclear ladder in order to be able to negotiate while things went wrong before more harm was done. So whatever surprises the future would bring, a nuclear submarine with nuclear missiles could take its time to launch a well-prepared destructive strike, even if there would have been no country to defend any more. In my opinion it makes perfect sense.

    Next issue are aircraft and commando carriers, well there's no better tool to exercise ultimate control in a battlespace and destroy your enemies. The Russians realized that too and started their own carrier development, but with large anti-ship missile in order to compensate for the smaller, and more versatile, air wing. Thus the American naval force was a versatile battlespace oriented force, while the Russian counterpart was naval battle centered. Such a versatile force makes lots of sense if you want to have the choice where you attack with a superior supply by sea than by land or air. There's a reason why most transport is still naval today. This argument naturally runs counter to a quick MAD outbreak. I think the rapid MAD case was considered the worst chain of events while a slower more limited nuclear destruction or even non-nuclear clash was also considered. The problem was that conflict is meant to attain an advantage and all advantage had to be negated by nuclear explosions. So in an imperfect world, where all knew how things could go wrong, but none knew how they would go wrong, it makes perfect sense to also carry on with a military armament that best operates without any exploding nukes around.

    The European ASW development makes more sense with the above reasoning, Russia did have conventional attack submarines that would play a role in the European theatre and submarines did threaten supplies as all had experienced in the prior big war. So if things don't go MAD quickly in the conflict you have to fight conventional SLoC battles with the submarine heavy Russian navy. If things go MAD what could you have built instead with the expenditure to make you benefit?

  18. In my opinion the Cold War was the most phony war because it could have been slugged out conventionally, but all potential participants were afraid of the potential that the conflict could go nuclear. Going nuclear wasn't certain despite the big temptation to blow all those nasty enemies suddenly to pieces. China did show the way out by establishing her second strike doctrine that had an embryonic predeccor in the contracts for nuclear non-proliferation regulations by allowing similar counterstrikes in case of attack. In my opinion that's very similar to the use of chemical weapons that went rampage without achieveing anything but pain in WW1 and weren't employed in WW2 (except the foreplay in Abessinia). In a way humans, including officers, learned there are methods of destruction unsuitable for violent dispute solving.
    It's quite interesting to follow this idea back in time. There's footage that during the wars of the Roses close combat was prefered to archery because archery was very destructive in longterm human casualties without achieving the decision inherent in psychologically successful close combat of one side running away.
    Another hint is the taboo on poisoned weapons in many cultures. Good poison could make a minor injury to an enemy as devastating as a major injury. It was often used in combination with weak ranged weapons. The downside to it is that after trying to ciolently solve a dispute you caused potentially so much damage to both sides that the whole thing wasn't worth the effort.
    Or you could use a less toxic approach, like the large West African slaver states with numbers of light archers and quilted cotton armoured heavy cavalry on imported horses with the aim of breaking enemy resistance while having as many able bodied slaves to sell as possible.
    The thing is that different cultures at different times had other capabilities and outlooks on warfare, but it seems human to see warfare as a dispute solving tool (no matter how unfair, mean and bloody it is) and not a method for mutual suicide because of incompatible ideas.