Hunting Red October

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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. Continue reading