Hunting Red October

Satellite photo of the second Soviet Typhoon ballistic missile submarine taken in October 1982 after its launch at the Severodvinsk shipyard. The expected launch of the third Typhoon became a controversial issue within the US intelligence community in late 1983. Satellite photography was the primary method for monitory Soviet submarine construction. (credit: NRO)


Whenever a new Soviet ballistic missile submarine took to sea for the first time, slipping beneath the waves to begin testing its systems and training its crew, there was a good chance that an American attack submarine was lurking in the vicinity, listening in, snooping.

But before the Soviet subs left the vast construction facility at Severodvinsk on the White Sea, the Americans had to find other ways of gathering intelligence on them, and for much of the Cold War their resources were very limited. There were no spies leaving microfilm in dead drops in Moscow, no James Bond in scuba gear crawling out of the freezing water at the dock and snapping photographs before escaping in a hovercraft. For the most part, the primary method the Americans had of gaining intel on new Soviet submarines before they slid below the chilly waters of the Barents Sea were satellites that flew far overhead and took photographs.

By the late 1970s, American spy satellites detected the construction of the first of what was later revealed to be the largest submarine ever made, which the US intelligence community named “Typhoon.” The first Typhoon was launched in September 1980 and the second in September 1982. Each one carried twenty SS-NX-20 Sturgeon ballistic missiles each tipped with ten nuclear warheads. The Typhoon had 200 nuclear weapons to throw at the United States.

By late 1983, the US intelligence community was predicting that the third Typhoon ballistic missile submarine was going to be launched in summer 1984. But according to a new book by Jack O’Connor on satellite imagery interpretation, NPIC: Seeing the Secrets and Growing the Leaders, an imagery analyst at the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC, or “enpic”) in Washington, DC, suspected that the launch would take place much earlier, possibly even over the winter. In December he wrote a cable predicting that the launch was imminent. But there was no way of knowing, because for during the winter months Severodvinsk was blanketed by clouds.

The analyst was a civilian who worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency, but was detailed to NPIC. He was widely regarded as one of the best submarine experts in the intelligence community. But one problem was that the analyst, a former Navy Chief Petty Officer named Charlie, was not exactly a people person.

This was just one small incident in a big Cold War, and it wasn’t even the biggest intelligence dilemma about the Typhoon. Later in 1984, Tom Clancy published his first novel, about a giant Soviet submarine, the Red October. In the book, the Americans first learned of the sub when a spy smuggled out photographs taken from inside the giant assembly building. Charlie and his cohorts were undoubtedly amused, and envious. They would have loved to have a camera inside the building, but they settled for giant cameras hundreds of kilometers away, which in this case happened to be more than adequate for the task.

Full article: Hunting Red October (The Space Review)

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