‘When we detected a Soviet submarine on the surface, we were authorized to deliberately make our presence known – we were authorized to overfly a surfaced submarine , and to track the submarine using ACTIVE sonobuoys,’ Ross Hall, former P-3 Orion NFO with the US Navy.
Entering service for the US Navy in 1962, the P-3 Orion’s airframe was based on Lockheed’s Model 188 Electra commercial airliner. Though capable of reaching a top speed of 405 mph and a range of 5,570 miles, the Orion was designed to fly at low altitudes and slow speeds for long periods of time, making it an invaluable maritime patrol plane for the Navy during the Cold War.
‘Flying anti-submarine patrols during the “Cold War” was mostly boring as sh*t, but was also a ton of fun – and I didn’t fully appreciate how much fun I had until I left the Navy.
‘As a general rule of thumb, the US strategy during the Cold War was to detect Soviet submarines, and then covertly track them. This was accomplished utilizing a variety of methods – satellite imagery of ports to determine when a sub departed; SOSUS detection of transits from the port; initial search and detection by maritime patrol aircraft; eventual covert tracking by allied SSNs. This strategy is covered fairly accurately in “The Hunt For Red October” (of course, without the engagements!).
‘The detection and tracking of each Soviet submarine’s transit and deployment could differ, depending upon the availability of assets to track that submarine, and also whether the submarine was strategically important – of course, it made a difference whether the submarine was an SSBN, SSGN, or SS(G).
‘During my P-3 squadron’s deployment to Iceland (in the 80’s), we had been tracking a Soviet submarine transiting from the Northern fleet (Murmansk) to the Mediterranean. (I don’t remember the specifics, so let’s assume it was a Charlie class SSGN).
‘As the submarine transits from the North Atlantic to the Mediterranean, there is an area of the Atlantic between the coverage of the P-3 squadrons deployed to Iceland, and to the Azores. (Occasionally, we would coordinate with Nimrods from the UK, but on this occasion we were utilizing only US assets).’
‘Anyway, our crew was tasked to detach from Keflavik, in Iceland, to Lajes, in the Azores, conducting an ASW mission enroute. We were also carrying some maintenance personnel from our squadron, to help us with our detachment to the Azores. This was essentially an overnight flight, and we would transit to our operating area; receive mission data from a P-3 on station; and then continue on to Lajes in the Azores to further assist in tracking the Soviet Charlie. Eventually, responsibility for tracking the Soviet submarine would be turned over to the P-3 squadron in Rota, Spain (and then eventually to the squadron in Sigonella, Sicily).
‘Now this is where things get interesting.
‘During this time, in the late 80’s, the US (Reagan) administration had decided to send a message to the Soviets – “we know where your submarines are, and we can attack them any time we want”. (Prior to this, we had made every effort to be covert – to avoid letting our adversary know we were there).
‘Our rules of engagement (ROE) had changed. Now, when we detected a Soviet submarine on the surface, we were authorized to deliberately make our presence known – we were authorized to overfly a surfaced submarine , and to track the submarine using ACTIVE sonobuoys. This was a very aggressive act, clearly intended to send a message to the Soviet leadership that we had the capability to destroy their submarine force at will.
‘(As an aside, it should be noted that the US Naval Institute published its first original novel – The Hunt For The Red October – during the same period. This was obviously another clear signal to the Soviets that the US had the capability to destroy the Soviet submarine force).
‘So there we were. Zero dark thirty, enroute from Iceland to the Azores, and our acoustic sensor operators informed our crew that the Soviet submarine was surfacing. This met our ROE criteria for descending from our current search altitude of 15,000 feet to 200 feet, where we would deploy our active sonobuoys and “ring the bell” for the Soviet submarine.
‘Our junior (somewhat inexperienced) pilot therefore announced over the PA system –
‘“CREW. THIS IS IT. WE’RE GOING DOWN”
‘He proceeded to push the nose down, flaps and gear extended, so we could accomplish a maximum rate descent to 200 feet.
‘For those of us on the intercom, who had been following the tactical situation, this was no big deal.
‘For the maintainers, who had been catching some sleep on an otherwise uneventful transit, they woke up to a PA call thinking the plane was in a horrific dive to a salty death.’
‘After we arrived, uneventfully, in Lajes, I had a conversation with one of our flight engineers who had been taking a nap during this whole event. I asked him why he did not jump out of the rack and rush to the flight station to see what was happening.
‘“I figured that if we were going to plow in, there was nothing I could do, so I might as well stay in the rack”. So it goes.’
Photo credit: U.S. Navy