Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT

Preventing Submarine Collisions

Answers to the questions of U.S. nationwide policy debaters

Updated August 21, 2003

The 98-99 United States nationwide policy debate topic was the state of U.S. foreign policy towards Russia. The resolution stated, that this policy should be substantially changed. One of the issues widely discussed has been continuing Cold War practice of trailing of Russian submarines. Attached are Eugene Miasnikov's answers to the most frequently asked questions of debaters.


Part 2 (continued).

Q: It seems that the reason that collisions occur is because we can't keep exact track of the submarines we try to follow. Respectively, how will we be able to verify that we are cooperating with one another? For example how would the US and Russia know that one another had ended their tracking practices, if the subs being followed cannot tell that they are being followed? So the question is, how do we verify the treaty is being followed by the both of us?

I agree, that verification of activity of submarines is a difficult problem. I am sure, that some opponents of a possible US-Russian agreement on limiting attack submarines covert operations at certain areas will use this argument to prevent any steps toward undersea arms control.

However, if we try to be objective, it is almost impossible to find a US-Russian arms control agreement that provides an absolute guarantee of strict observance to the agreement.

For example, there are many problems with implementation of START I Treaty. The Russian side is concerned, that the US actually tests Trident IIs with 12 warheads, though the accountable number is 8. Another issue, frequently raised at JCIC meetings, is procedures related with conversion of bombers to conventional missions.

As an earthquake incident near Novaya Zemlya demonstrated the summer of 1997, existing verification procedures do not completely distinguish between nuclear tests and natural events, which is crucial for the CTBT regime. Moreover, nuclear test with release of low yields may not be even detected. However, that does not mean the treaty is not important.

U.S. and Russia signed Moscow Treaty in 2002, which does not envision any verification procedures. Both sides will have to trust each other, that the actual number of deployed nuclear warheads corresponds to the numbers, indicated in the treaty.

Finally, de-alerting proposal is becoming more and more popular in the U.S. However, very little is known about verification of possible clandestine activity in order to create a potential for quick redeployment of de-alerted systems.

To my opinion, the lack of adequate verification means should not be an obstacle to sound ideas for further disarmament measures. Some amount of verification is always possible.

In relation to submarines, there is no need to control their activity at distant ocean areas. However, both the U.S. an Russian navies are capable enough to control areas near their ports with an efficiency much higher than zero percent. In many such cases it is possible to detect and identify an unfriendly submarine even by existing national technical means. For example, in December, 1998 incident, described in my paper, the Russian Navy did provide the evidence, that there was a U.S. submarine in the vicinity of the Typhoon.

What is missing now is a will to raise the problem on a political level and try to find out the way to resolve it. I am sure, if the U.S. and Russia make steps in this direction, they will also be able to work out more transparent and efficient verification procedures, than national technical means can provide.

Q: I am having trouble finding evidence opposing Lexington team's proposal. I was wondering if you know any sites of publications or authors who oppose the abolition of sub tracking. I did want to ask you if you knew of anyone who holds different views than you; just so we can have some responses and allow better debating of the issue.

The best solution is to involve the U.S. Navy into the debates. I am sure, many naval officers would disagree with me. In particular, you may look at a paper by Ambassador Linton Brooks in The Submarine Review (April, 1993). He has an opposite opinion, than I do. You may also find many opposing articles in U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings.

In fact, the U.S. Navy never admit publicly, that covert sub tracking in waters close to Russian territory is a current practice. What the U.S. Navy officials usually say is that the submarines should be able to go anywhere any time. However, what missions the U.S. submarines operating in the areas like the Barents Sea or the Sea of Okhotsk can be assigned to other than tracking Russian subs?

Q: If this is such a big issue with Russia and its people, why hasn't Russia taken steps to end its submarine following policy. It is obvious that Russia would like an end to covert submarine operations and would likely cooperate with us if we took the initiative to end them. Why hasn't Russia ended its sub policy in hoping WE would cooperate with THEM?

The problem is the U.S. officials and the U.S Navy DO NOT WANT to cooperate. Russia raised the issue since early 80-s many times, but the proposal to ban covert ASW at certain areas was always rejected by the U.S. side. As well as in the case of NATO expansion there is a common understanding among Russian experts, that U.S. sub operations off the Russian ports destabilize the U.S.- Russian relations, and limiting covert submarine operations near ports and SSBN patrolling areas is preferable. The problem is, these operations is not a public issue in the U.S. American officials even reject to see the problem.

I believe, there are no logical arguments for continuing the practices of submarine trailing. The reasons are purely political. Suppose, the U.S. Navy agrees to stop the trailing operations. The question will immediately arise, why the U.S. needs 70+ nuclear attack subs.

Q: It appears that you only advocate the U.S. Navy withdraw it's submarine force from Russian territorial waters. However, would this prevent all collisions, or only a minor risk? It appears that collisions can still occur outside of this zone, as demonstrated by the '86 incident.

Covert submarine operations in a restricted area such as in the vicinity of naval ports are extremely dangerous, because of intense shipping and very complex acoustic environment, so that possibility of a collision drastically increases. In the past, collisions occurred in open ocean areas as well, when submarines tried to trail one another. After the end of the Cold War the Soviet/Russian Navy substantially decreased the number of its submarines deployed near the U.S. Naval bases. There are few of them there now, if any. The Russian missile submarines do not patrol currently in mid-Atlantic (like the Yankee I SSBN which sank in 1986) or mid-Pacific. SSBN operating areas are currently in the Barents Sea, the White Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk. On the other hand, the U.S. Navy still operates its attack submarines close to the Russian territory at the same level as during the Cold War. If the U.S. agrees to withdraw its submarines from the Barents Sea, the risk of collisions will be greatly diminished. Certainly, it could be possible to reduce this risk virtually to zero. However, our countries need much deeper trust in each other to make this possible.

Q: Are submarine policies (not movements) covert?

Yes, they are.

Q: Can a policy be hidden from the public, other countries, or even Russia?

Many aspects of sub policy is still hidden. For example, the U.S. Navy never tells public where exactly submarines go after they leave their ports, and what are they ordered to do. The Russian Navy has similar practice.

Q: Also, is there any reason that a secret unilateral navy protocol amendment would be a bad way to implement the plan?

It would not be a bad way. However, an open bilateral agreement could contribute much more to mutual confidence between the U.S and Russia, and this fact would speed up reaching other important agreements.

Q: What are the benefits of solving the problems of tracking through a unilateral policy?

Perhaps, it could be possible to avoid public debates and necessity of approval by the U.S. Congress. It could be also possible to avoid verification procedures, that might seem intrusive.

Q: The Washington Times, from November 23, 1997, reports that: "A Russian attack submarine recently stalked three U.S. aircraft carriers close enough to sink one with high-speed cruise missiles during a series of cat-and-mouse operations not seen since the Cold War." Is there any risk of collision from Russian subs operating off the U.S. coastline?

The range of the Russian SS-N-19 anti-ship cruise missile is nearly 300 nm. In fact, a Russian Oscar II SSGN, equipped with 24 SS-N-19s is capable to sink any ship within this range. However, an operation in which a submarine follows an aircraft carrier is not nearly as dangerous, as an attempt of SSN to trail an SSBN, because the limiting factor in the latter case is a very short distance at which the trailing submarine can detect the target. Of course, if a Russian submarine operates covertly off the U.S. naval port, there is a risk for collision as well.

Q: Authors such as Charles Meconis (U.S Russian Naval Cooperation, 1996)argue that an agreement to limit SSN patrols would enhance U.S.- Russian naval cooperation, and help ensure peace worldwide. What is your view on this issue?

Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to see the study by Charles Meconis. I fully agree with the statement.

Q: Several authors argue that the Incidents at Sea Agreement is enough to solve for any political ramifications to naval impact and is all we need. Does this agreement adequately address the risk?

The Incidents at Sea Agreement (in force since 1973) defines the rules for the surface ships and aircraft only. Undersea operations are not restricted by this Agreement.

Q: I have seen it hinted that United States subs are not allowed to enter Russian territorial waters. is that correct?

There is so called 12-mile zone, and according to the international law, no foreign ships are allowed to enter this zone.

Q:...and if so, why do collisions occur in territorial waters?

Apparently, in these cases foreign submarines covertly penetrated into the territorial waters. This is sometimes possible technically.

Q: Does the agreement apply to all countries, or was it just bilateral agreement between the United States and Russia?

The 1972 Agreement is bilateral.

Q: Is the agreement enforced regularly?

According to the Agreement, both sides meet once a year or more often to discuss its implementation (Article IX).

Q: Can the negotiations be reopened?

Russia many times revealed its interest in including provisions restricting covert submarine operations near ports. As I already pointed out, the ball is on the U.S. side.

Q: Can the agreement be signed or presented to other nations?

That is a good idea. I do not know if the U.S. has such agreements with other states. However, in the past, the Soviet Union signed similar agreements with Britain, Germany and some other countries.

Q: I was wondering if there are any other countries that have submarines trailing Russian submarines.

According to some published statements of Russian naval officers, presence of British and French submarines is noticed in the Barents sea time to time. Perhaps, in some certain cases they try to trail Russian subs.

Q: Keeping in mind the U.S. and Russia are currently in a good relationship............. Because of the fact submarines are tracked primarily by the type of sub, and not by who owns them, is it possible that a Russian sub sold to a hostile nation such as Iran, Iraq, or India, could not be tracked by U.S. submarines, thus increasing the risk of a hostile act against the U.S. in a time of war?

I completely agree with you, that submarine design characteristics are very important to operate covertly. However, other factors not less important as well. For example, training of the crew, capability of the "hostile" nation to deploy its sub at see from naval bases do matter. Finally, the "hostile" navy has to have supremacy in the air, on the surface and under the sea in the submarine deployment area, so that the U.S. intelligence and ASW forces won't be able to operate in an efficient way.

In addition, Russia does not sell its nuclear submarines. It is difficult to imagine that Indian or Iranian Kilo class diesel boats can represent any threat to the territory of the U.S., though they can be quite capable in defending their own territories from the threats emerging from the sea.

Q: If the U.S. would stop bumping subs, would that not kill their military readiness? How would they maintain military Hegemony?

First of all, supporting military readiness does not necessarily require risky trailing of quiet subs in a complex environment. I doubt, if any serious military planner would establish such a high price, as you did.

I think, the second your question is more serious. If the U.S. chooses to maintain military "hegemony" over the world, why do you think such an approach will be accepted by other countries and cause no opposition? This approach seems to be the best way to alienate outer world, promote proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and create instability. I hope, the U.S. political leadership is wise enough to realize this fact.

Q: Assuming the United States would decommission their subs, is there reason to believe that 3rd world countries would start using diesel subs, or even getting proliferated subs?

The relation between these two factors is far more complex. My point is that the aggressiveness of the U.S. foreign policy will more likely drive a third world country to have a diesel sub rather than neglect such an option.

Q: Do other countries care about our submarine movements in Russian waters?

I think, Norway should care, because the sub movements are so close to its territory. However, Norwegian press reporters and environmentalists are not anxious to raise the issue, though some of them realize its importance. Norway is the NATO member and a U.S. ally, that is why such a move would be considered unfriendly in the U.S.

Q: Would stopping this policy upset anyone (e.g. Iran, China, Britain, India)?

I do not see the reason why it would.

Q: Might their be other countries, perhaps Iran, China, or India, that might feel threatened by increased Russian-U.S. naval cooperation? China specifically hates United States led power projection and i was wondering if you felt they may perceive naval cooperation as that.

I think, that under current circumstances, there is no danger, that US-Russian naval cooperation can be directed against a third country. Russia has fairly good political relationship with all of three countries mentioned. Moreover, naval cooperation with Iran, India and China is much more profound compared to one with the U.S. Unlike to other aspects of U.S.-Russian relations, our navies are just starting building mutual partnership. It is too early to speak about joint operations against someone else (excluding, perhaps, drug smugglers).

Q: Would China get mad if we reached an agreement with Russia and not them?

As far as I know, there was no one submarine incident involving U.S. and Chinese submarines. The reasons for that are 1) Chinese subs do not frequently go at sea (there are not many of them), 2) they are far more noisy than the U.S. subs so that they can be detected at a safe distance, 3) oceanography at seas near China is more favorable to acoustic detection compared to shallow Arctic waters.

However, the next century, China will likely obtain technologies, which allow to build quiet submarines, and the problem will occur. The U.S. and Russia might reach a bilateral agreement now and leave an open door to those states, which would like to join. In fact, this is the way how many multilateral agreements work.

Q: Should the US go ahead and enact the bilateral agreement with Russia, or would it be necessary to consult another organization such as NATO first?

I doubt, if the U.S. Navy consults with NATO on the question where its subs should go, as related to covert operations near Russian territory. Even if this is true for the case of subs in Atlantic, there seems to be no reason to negotiate operations in the Pacific with NATO.

As far as NATO builds partnership with Russia, there is no real reason to continue Cold War practices and keep clandestinely NATO subs near Russian naval ports.

Q: Does the U.S. trail Chinese subs?

Perhaps. China does not operate its nuclear subs in a way, the Soviet Union did. They do not go far from Chinese territory, and mostly play defensive role. Moreover, Chinese subs are very noisy. Thus, they can be trailed at a long distance. Presumably, surface ships are more efficient platforms to accomplish this task. There is no need to use submarines.

Q: If so, do you know of any reactions by the Chinese to this policy, and do you know if they have ever asked for this trailing to stop?

I do not think, that Chinese ever caught a U.S. sub when the latter tried to trail their sub at a close distance, so that a real danger of collision occurred.

Q: Is there any documentation of US sub-bumping, or the lack thereof? Any evidence would be useful.

I am not familiar with such a documentation produced by the U.S. Navy. An environmental organization "Greenpeace" may have collected some of such records. However, their research was mostly focused on submarine nuclear accidents.

Q: I was wondering if you had the chance to, if you could recommend more literature about the problem and suggested methods of dealing with it.

You may find the information of interest at the our Center's projects page. The U.S. submarines operations close to Russian territorial waters were also discussed at the conference of U.S. and Russian arms control experts in February, 1998. You may also find some links of interest at our Center's STAR Site.

Q: I am now starting research on naval cooperation. I would greatly appreciate any information that you could conveniently send me, specifically from a Russian point of view on naval cooperation.

The best source for Russian views on U.S.-Russian Naval cooperation is monthly Morskoi Sbornik, an official Russian Naval magazine. The problem is, it is in Russian and not many libraries subscribe the magazine.

You may find some information of interest at our Center's web site. I would suggest, that you specifically look at Adm. Ovcharenko's presentation at the February' 98 conference.

Q: I was wondering if you could tell me how a joint war game between the United States and Russia would affect this problem. would it be able to adequately address the problems of undersea conflict escalation and environmental degradation? Would Russia be likely to comply with such a proposal?

I think, joint war games can contribute much to confidence building. However practicing in a such sensitive area as undersea operations requires deep mutual trust. I believe, both Russian and U.S. navies do realize the danger of covert submarine activity off the Russian coast and potential damage to the environment. In particular, at one of the meetings some time ago, one well known U.S. naval analyst told me, that he is surprised, that no one collision has ended with death of submarines thus far. However, this dangerous activity continues for political reasons, as I pointed out above. I hope, it will be stopped before a lethal accident forces to do so.

Q: You say that the US and Russia need deeper trust in order for the plan to solve. What can be done to gain deeper trust so it could solve? Are there any exercises or something we could do? Would officer exchanges build the necessary trust?

In order to create an environment of mutual trust, proper measures have to be taken at all levels of state-to-state relations from the political leadership on the upper level to general public on the bottom level. In this context military-to-military relations play an important role. Such actions as officer exchanges or joint exercises help building a better confidence. However, taken separately military-to-military relations can not substitute for other important areas of cooperation.

Q: I am wondering when, if ever, several of your articles from the Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies web site will be converted to English. Is their any plans for an English translation.

Unfortunately, at the moment there are no plans of translation of other my articles into English. Some of them, which were published in newspapers, might have been already translated. I would be glad to know, if so.

Thank you for your attention. Please, feel free to contact, if you have further questions.

The questions were received from Raja Gaddipati, Nashville, Tennesi; Kimber Alexander, Wichita, Kansas; Jeff Wheeler, Mulvane, Kansas; Thomas Lopez, Waco, Texas; Thad Blank, Boise, Idaho; Yoni Cohen, Lexington, Massachusetts; Vasu Venkata, Lakeside, Georgia; Taylor Amason, Fort Collins, Colorado, and many others.