The NY Times triggered a stir of reporting, analysis, and sheer speculation on August 5 with "Russian Subs Patrolling Off East Coast of U.S." The bare facts, confirmed by official spokesmen from both countries are these: An Akula and an Akula II, fast-attack (SSN-type) nuclear powered subs among the very best in the Russian Navy inventory, have been sailing submerged on separate but concurrent long-distance voyages within about 200 nautical miles of the United States East Coast. One is supposed to have proceeded on toward Cuba, a destination highly favored by Soviet sailors for shore leave way back when.
The other sub reportedly is still nearby.
A flood of commentary in print and on-line media rapidly became available since the NY Times broke the news. There've been various assertions made about the possible Kremlin agenda(s) behind these deployments -- so "rare" since the end of the Cold War -- along with prognosticating about the possible significance to America's 21st century defense posture. My own careful reading of 10 different pieces shows that opinions are varying across the map, literally and figuratively.
The NY Times said these sub patrols "raised concerns inside the Pentagon," although the U.S. Navy's Integrated Undersea Surveillance System did detect and track both subs from early on. Neo-Communist Pravda.ru's sensationalized headline said "Two Russian Nuclear Submarines Make USA Shake With Fear," which hardly seems to be the case. The Daily Mail (UK) called them "rogue subs," though it sounds like they're anything but that. DOD Press Secretary Geoff Morrell emphasized that "it doesn't pose any threat and it doesn't cause any concern." Russia's deputy chief of general staff, General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, stated "any hysteria in such a case is inappropriate." He went on to emphasize that "The navy should not stay idle at its moorings" - something with which that great American seapower theorist and practitioner A. T. Mahan would have wholeheartedly agreed. All involved emphasized that the Russian subs' behavior was fully in compliance with international law.
Even so, as respected naval commentator Norman Polmar points out, it's been about 15 years since the Russian Navy is known publicly to have been able to and/or wanted to send nuclear subs on missions so far from home. Articles that DefenseTech readers can go read for themselves discuss and interpret possible connections to Russia's recent greatly stepped-up long range flights of strategic bombers, Russia's efforts to sell or lease its nuclear subs to foreign nations such as China and India, Russia's desire to overcome the embarrassment of recent fatal accidents and test failures involving some of its other main naval assets, President Obama's efforts to reset relations with Russia's President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin, recently tense relations between Russia and NATO for various reasons and political posturing by the Kremlin mainly for domestic consumption.
What I haven't seen discussed elsewhere yet -- and granted, here I'm speculating myself -- is the possible connection between the sorties by the Akula and Akula II and Washington's current and ongoing deliberations about America's present and future defense spending. During the Cold War, to oversimplify things, President Reagan helped bring down the Soviet Union by fomenting a strategic arms race that the wobbly Soviet economy simply couldn't afford to keep up with. Nuclear submarine cat-and-mouse operations on each other's doorsteps, and in deep water, were a crucial part of this non-lethal use of naval force to leverage the soft power of financial competition. Now that America is profoundly challenged by huge conflicting social and defense demands in the midst of persisting recession, is Russia trying to do a bit of the same thing to us? And is this gambit simply part of the jocking for strategic position that's bound to occur between nations, as relative winners and losers emerge from the Great Recession into whatever geopolitical scenarios play out next? Surely Russia watched with interest the heated controversies during our last presidential campaign, about military power projection versus home front progressiveness.
One way or the other, the tale of two Akulas gives added urgency to programs -- approved so far by the House of Representatives, but not yet voted on by the full Senate -- to double the annual rate of construction of the world-beating Virginia-class SSN, and begin serious R&D for the next-generation SSBN. What single event might be more persuasive to the U.S. Senate than this clear demonstration that the Russian Submarine Force is making an assertive global comeback?
Personally, I think that if an attempt at putting bigtime financial pressure on America was really ever part of Russia's intent, then it's going to have some unintended consequences. Though admittedly fiscally challenged and politically polarized right now, about everything from deficit spending and tax policy to health care and jobs, if we can avoid any outright blunders ours will for the forseeable future remain the strongest economy and military in the world.
-- Joe Buff