THE ALFA ENIGMA

An Alfa on the surface, showing how her sail blends into her hull. A mast is raised forward of the windshield. When the masts were retracted they were covered over to minimize water flow disturbance over the sail structure. Although a titanium-hull submarine, the Alfa-like the Papa SSGN-was not a deep diver. (U. S. Navy)

There was a growing sense of unease in the West.

Russian maritime power was fast evolving into a giant whose intentions were an enigma, providing endless hours of debate for NATO intelligence analysts, but no definitive answers.

By 1973, the Soviet Navy was rapidly gaining on, if not edging ahead of, the Americans. A quarter of its 400 submarines were by now nuclear-powered. The USSR was building up to 15 nukes a year, while the USA could manage only an average of 4.5. It was estimated the Soviets would soon field more SSBNs than the USA.

American submarine construction yards declined while the Russians expanded theirs; the variety of Soviet boats increased rapidly.

They had managed six new designs of nuclear-powered submarine since 1963. The USA had sent only two new types to sea in the same period. Observing all this, a former Royal Navy officer tried to divine exactly why the Soviets were building so many. Commander Nicholas Whitestone, who at one time served in the Naval Intelligence Division, suggested there were three possibilities.

• the Soviets were preparing to refight the Battle of the Atlantic. In any war they would send out submarines to sink troop ships and supply vessels, depriving NATO of reinforcements and starving the West’s civilian populations.

• They wanted to have enough submarines to match and kill the Polaris boats (and also to attack American and British aircraft carriers).

• The Soviet Navy was a political weapon, to exert pressure on the West. Its burgeoning might was a means of underwriting Russia’s diplomatic moves.

The likely answer was that it was a mix of all three – ready to attack shipping, seek out enemy submarines, and intimidate the capitalists with its numbers and growing firepower.

While Whitestone pondered the big picture of the stand-off, other professional analysts scrutinised the boats themselves. What exactly was the Charlie Class cruise missile-armed submarine for? Attacking carriers? Or land targets? How exactly were the Charlie’s weapons guided to target? Until the day hostilities erupted, nobody in the West would know for sure, though efforts to provide answers would be made by submarines on intelligence-gathering missions.

The Soviet predilection for continuing investment in submarines that bordered on the obsolete puzzled a former British submarine captain, turned writer, Capt. J. E. Moore; he remarked sarcastically that it showed yet again how indifferent the Soviet Union is to heavy arms expenditure . . .’

The Soviets were also fielding the Delta II SSBN, with a submerged displacement estimated by Western sources to be 16,000 tons, as large as a small aircraft carrier. Such leviathans were sliding down the slipways in the early 1970s at a rate of seven a year.

Captain Moore issued a warning: ‘All these monster ships are being built at the vast complex at Severodvinsk [on the shores of the White Sea], which has a greater construction potential than all the submarine yards in the USA combined. The Deltas are in most respects the most potent warships ever operated.’

When it came to surface ship killers, by 1973 there were 15 Echo IIs in the Northern Fleet alone. While unsophisticated, they had their uses. Like other Soviet submarines that did not pass the West’s quality test, the Echos offered Admiral Gorshkov the benefit of decoying NATO away from the key units, such as SSBNs. Each Echo II would, he hoped, require thinly stretched NATO forces to exert themselves on the hunt. The most feared of the Soviet hunter-killers (at this time) was the Victor.

Around 20 of them were in service by the mid-1970s – thought to be capable of at least 33 knots dived. With their eight 21-inch tubes, a submerged displacement of 4,200 tons and a length of 285ft, it was reckoned their torpedoes were equal to Western tinfish.

The Achilles heel of the Victors, despite a highly streamlined, broad hull – indicating deep diving ability – was free flood holes in the outer casing. Water constantly flowing through them made a Victor much noisier than NATO hunter-killers, particularly when it became a burbling rush at speed. Still, Capt. Moore pointed out, ‘they are extremely fast and dangerous craft, able to sink virtually any kind of surface vessel’.

Across the Atlantic, Admiral Hyman Rickover, father of the US Navy’s nuclear submarine force, reckoned the West had a lot to be worried about.

He believed the Soviets were creating other types of boats that were faster, could dive deeper and were quieter than ever. In 1969 the CIA received intelligence from what it described as ‘strollers’ who had spotted an intriguing new super-streamlined submarine taking shape in Leningrad, at the Sudomekh Yard on the banks of the River Neva.

American naval attachés twice made forays into forbidden areas around the shipyard. Somehow they managed to retrieve material, which they would later claim fell off the back of a lorry. It was sneaked back to laboratories in the USA for analysis.

Ironically, the most tantalising clue would ultimately be retrieved on American soil. A naval analyst working for the CIA teamed up with a US Navy researcher to call on a scrapyard in Pennsylvania that specialised in purchasing unusual scrap metals from the Soviet Union. After painstakingly examining every potentially relevant item on the site, the two men discovered a piece that seemed promising.

Etched into it was a series of numbers that began ‘705’. To expert eyes this was something very intriguing indeed. Analysis of the machined metal soon revealed it to be titanium and, as would subsequently be discovered, the mystery boat was known in the Soviet Navy as the Project 705 Lira.

At first, it was believed to be a new form of diesel boat.

A senior US Naval Intelligence submarine analyst named Herb Lord suggested, after studying photographs and other data, that it was a radically new form of SSN.

Lord maintained it was a ‘super submarine’ made from titanium.

With advanced weaponry and sensors, it could pose a serious threat to Western naval operations. He told colleagues and superiors the Soviets had – at least in this case – abandoned their cautious approach to submarine design – the incremental, career-preserving way of doing things. This boat was different.

Lord’s claims did not immediately take root. According to a recently declassified CIA case study, the sceptics in US naval intelligence circles maintained ‘the shaping and welding of heavy titanium hull sections, especially in the generally “dirty” shipyard atmosphere, was impractical, if not impossible’.

The idea of creating whole sections of a titanium submarine in the open air was too ridiculous – usually when titanium was welded it had to be carried out in specially enclosed areas filled with fire-retardant argon gas.

Nothing this big could be made from it, they said.

An entire submarine hull made from titanium?

Impossible.

Regardless of its powerplant or hull composition, a single unit of what would be labelled the Alfa Class by NATO was completed in 1970. What was her precise role?

Anti-shipping?

Anti-submarine?

It took several more years for Herb Lord’s analysis to prevail over the sceptics – and he actually retired before his views became accepted. The CIA analyst Gerhardt Thamm ultimately took up Lord’s cause and he confessed: ‘it became my mission to convince the US Navy that the Soviets were building high-threat submarines using advanced construction technology’.

While Rickover’s team believed the Soviets were improving submarine construction they, and others in the USA, remained very dubious about the Alfa being an SSN. They refused to believe it would be anything more than a dead-end experiment, whatever it was.

In reality one of the most revolutionary submarines ever constructed, the Alfa spotted moored at a fitting-out quay on the banks of the Neva in 1969 was merely a one-off prototype. There would ultimately be a class of six commissioned examples, whose capabilities chilled the blood of NATO commanders. The fastest and deepest-diving attack submarine the world had ever seen, the first Alfa was a rare and mysterious beast.

She was a product of the most brilliant minds in the Soviet submarine design world. Latter-day Norse gods had applied their knowledge of metallurgy to try and secure mastery of inner space for the Kremlin. Russian naval architects, scientists and mathematicians were brilliant, their products simply amazing.

With the Alfa – because they were hoping to achieve a massive leap ahead of the West – the Russians took their time about pushing the prototype to the limits. The roots of what would become the Alfa programme went back to the early 1960s, when the Holy Grail was the so-called Interceptor submarine.

A type of hunter-killer tailored to the flash-bang nature of any likely war, it would be able to hit hard and fast, then disappear. The new Delta Class SSBNs, armed with the SS-N-8 (Sawfly) missile, could bombard America from the comparative safety of the Greenland and Norwegian Seas. Any hunter-killer riding shotgun would not need long endurance, for the Bombers would be relatively close to home.

Such a fast deep-diving submarine could make quick forays in the hunt for surface and submerged targets. The Interceptor submarine could be small, with a modest crew, and also a minimal fit for sonar. Detection abilities of Maritime Patrol Aircraft and helicopters, or other elements of detection equipment (including seabed sensors), would aid the mission.

Generally the reason nuclear-powered submarines were so much bigger than diesels was the need for complex and extremely powerful machinery and powerplant. That in turn increased weight, which decreased speed. The answer was to keep the propulsion plant as small as possible while constructing the boat from lightweight material. The Soviet solution was a liquid-metal reactor while using titanium for the boat’s hull.

Titanium offers huge advantages, for not only is it much lighter than steel, but it is also extremely strong. It has a very low magnetic signature and is not so vulnerable to corrosion. Hard to obtain, and expensive, it does not have the same give as steel. This lack of elasticity under the extreme pressures experienced by deep-diving submarines meant it could crack more easily. Aluminium and manganese alloys were introduced to try and restore elasticity. Titanium was also difficult to bend into the radical, streamlined shape the Soviet naval architects devised for the space age Alfa. With an ultra-streamlined exaggerated hump for a fin, she looked like something conjured up by Arthur C. Clarke.

One Russian submarine officer who saw an Alfa under construction thought her lines stunningly beautiful. She was a work of art rather than a product of industry. On joining the Alfa’s crew, composed of the best and brightest the Soviet Navy could assemble, he was overcome with pride. He exulted: ‘I felt as if I had just discarded my tractor and boarded a spaceship.’

With six tubes and packing a maximum of 18 ASW missiles or torpedoes, the acceleration of the new wonder submarine was incredible. It could go from 6 to 42 knots in just 120 seconds. The Alfa had a remarkably small crew of just 45. Thanks to high levels of automation, it could be reduced to as few as 31.

The use of liquid metal for reactor coolant was extremely radical – and very dangerous. The US Navy had commissioned USS Seawolf in 1957 with a liquid-metal reactor. Not much more than a year later she was brought into a dockyard to have it removed and replaced with a pressurised-water reactor.

A major challenge was ensuring the liquid metal did not actually solidify, bringing the system crashing to a halt.

The Alfa had two compact reactors to offset that annoying tendency.

A major advantage of using liquid metal was that it did not become radioactive, so it wasn’t necessary for the steam-generating machinery it passed through to be clad in heavy (bulky) and expensive radiation shields.

The top turn of speed achieved by the Alfa with a five-bladed screw was phenomenal – up to 45 knots. Maximum diving depth was 2,460ft. This was more than twice any other contemporary Western or Soviet boat. The problem with such a high turn of speed – the fastest ever achieved by an SSN – was the noise, which was likened to a jet engine roar.

The prototype was worked hard, frequently clocking up those impressive high speeds, under huge pressure at great depth. There were several problems with hull cracking and reactor ‘freezes’. Pipework, torpedo launch equipment and even the compressed-air system were subjected to extreme stress. In 1974 the exhausted prototype was cut to pieces, allowing a full autopsy. The results were studied and adjustments made to both design and construction methods before a limited production run went ahead.

Admiral Gorshkov lavished attention and money on the Alfas – so expensive but highly capable, they were dubbed golden fish’. They were the elite of Russia’s submarine force. No wonder, for the Alfas appeared to offer technological parity and even superiority over the West.

The CIA’s Gerhardt Thamm eventually won his battle to convince the US Navy the titanium SSN was reality, confirming that Herb Lord (who had passed away in the meantime) was right. Thamm felt he proved ‘that the Soviets had indeed built a submarine that was “better than good enough’”. Despite huge costs, ‘the Soviets continued the Alfa project with tenacity unmatched by Western navies’.

The Americans were working on their 688 Class attack submarines (also known as Los Angeles Class). The first of these would be launched in 1974 and enter service in 1976, with another 37 commissioned by June 1989.

A major part of Britain’s attempt to respond would depend on safely proving and bringing into service another brand-new kind of SSN.

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