Why it mattered – Voices from the edge of the Abyss (June 1969)

Why it mattered – Voices from the edge of the Abyss (June 1969)

Looking back over the years we called the Cold War, the danger and consequences are easier to see now than during the time they were occurring. During much of the period, there were so many changes and movements that pulled our attention one way or another. From 1959 on, the country was buffeted by so many significant events.

Looking at the period is like looking through a kaleidoscope with dozens of ever changing colors and shapes and trying to focus on just one. It’s just so hard to single out one thing or another as being the most significant.

The sixties were nothing less than tumultuous and filled with one earth shattering event after another. The election of JFK. The Bay of Pigs. Nuclear brinkmanship. Spy planes being used and shot down. JFK’s assassination. Vietnam. Civil Rights. MLK. RFK. Race riots. Women’s rights. Anti-war riots. Johnson quitting. Nixon winning.

During all this time, a quiet movement of another kind was occurring behind the Iron Curtain that had implications that were nothing short of ominous. The Soviet Union found its sea legs.

“The flag of the Soviet Navy now flies proudly over the oceans of the world. Sooner or later, the U.S. will have to understand that it no longer has mastery of the seas.” Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union, S.G. GORSHKOV 1968

The American Response – Voices from the edge of the Abyss

1969 – Fifty Years ago this month, Congress was staring at the cold hard facts that represented one of the greatest challenges to the Free World it had ever known.

It had been ten years since the US Navy launched the first George Washington Class submarine and all of the 41 for freedom boats were operational. A large number of nuclear fast attack submarines had also been replacing the diesel boats that served as the primary defense since 1945.

In a briefing before Congress in April 1969, Admiral Rickover laid out the facts about the balance of power between the United States and the Soviets. This is a portion of his testimony. Note, even fifty years later, much of the classified portions of the briefing remain classified.

Without decisive action, the United States may have found itself in a decidedly inferior position against the burgeoning Soviet armed forces.

This is the testimony and summary:



On April 23, 1969, the Joint Committee held hearings in executive session on the naval nuclear propulsion program, at which Admiral Rickover testified on a number of subjects vital to our national defense. This publication contains the unclassified record of this hearing. This hearing was held to obtain supplemental data for the fiscal year 1970 Atomic Energy Commission request for the naval reactors development program.

The United States has 82 nuclear-powered submarines and four nuclear-powered surface warships in operation. Altogether they have steamed over 13 million miles. Major technological advances are being made in the development of long life nuclear cores to increase the length of time these ships can operate without refueling. Cores are now being produced which will provide for 13 years of normal ship operations without refueling. Also, advanced nuclear propulsion plants are being developed for both submarines and surface warships.


It is clear from Admiral Rickover’s testimony and the testimony of other Department of Defense, Navy, and Central Intelligence Agency officials to various committees of Congress that the Soviet Union is embarked on a program which reveals a singular awareness of the importance of sea power and an unmistakable resolve to become the most powerful maritime force in the world. They demonstrate a thorough understanding of the basic elements of sea power: knowledge of the seas, a strong modern merchant marine, and a powerful new Navy. They are surging forward with a naval and maritime program that by their own statements is designed to make the Soviet Union second to none on the oceans of the world.

The Soviet Navy has undergone a continuing modernization program including the building of missile-armed cruisers, helicopter carriers, and many new classes of nuclear and conventional submarines. As a result, the Soviet Navy has become a fleet capable of sustained open ocean operations. For the first time in its history, the Soviet Union is using a deployed naval force in support of foreign policy in areas not contiguous to its borders. Their force in the Mediterranean includes warships armed with surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles, amphibious ships with naval infantry embarked, as well as torpedo attack and sometimes missile-armed submarines. The Soviet submarine force constitutes a threat against the continental’ United States, U.S. Naval forces, and our unrestricted use of the Seas.

At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union had a fleet of 200 diesel-powered submarines. They then embarked on a massive building program, producing over 550 new submarines, at least 65 of which are nuclear powered. During the same period, the United States built 99 submarines, 82 of them nuclear powered.

The Soviets have scrapped or given away all of their World War II submarines as well as some built since. They now have a new submarine force of about 375; the United States has 143, which includes 61 diesel submarines most of which are of World War II vintage. Thus, the Soviets have a net advantage of about 230 submarines. It is estimated that by the end of 1970, they will have a numerical lead in nuclear submarines. It is also believed that by 1974 the Soviets will add about 70 nuclear-powered submarines to their fleet, whereas the United States will add but 26– further increasing their numerical superiority. Several classes of Soviet submarines, both conventional and nuclear powered, carry cruise missiles which have a maximum range of about 400 miles. It is believed that the primary mission of these submarines is to counter U.S. carrier strike forces.

In the case of the ballistic missile submarine, the Soviets have under taken a vigorous building program to surpass the U.S. Polaris fleet of 41. They have completed seven of their new Polaris-type sub marines, and have the capability to turn out one a month. #. U.S. has no Polaris submarines under construction or planned.

All evidence indicates that by the 1973–74 time period, the Soviets will have a ballistic submarine fleet equal in size to that of the United States. Soviet tactical air efforts have resulted in significant gains in their capability. It must be noted that Soviet progress in tactical aviation has application to threats worldwide since the Russians export their first line aircraft to other countries on a selective basis. Between 1952 and 1967, the Soviets have built about 20 different fighter prototype aircraft.

At least eight different designs have appeared since 1961: Since the F-4 Phantom II became operational in 1961, the United States has not introduced any new operational fighter aircraft. The Air Force is still working on the YF-12; the F-111A, although operational, is not really a fighter aircraft. (See p. 47) In order for the U.S. Navy to be able to assure freedom of the seas in the 1970’s, it is clear that our aging ships, most of which were built in World War II, must be replaced with the best submarines and sur face warships our technology can provide. The U.S. Navy’s attack carriers in the 1970’s and beyond must be able to operate against the opposition of Soviet submarines, aircraft, and missiles and must be able to launch aircraft able to outperform, or at least equal, Soviet aircraft. Our cruisers, frigates, and destroyers must be able to defend the fleet against sophisticated air, missile, and submarine attack. U.S. submarines must be a match for the rapidly improving Soviet nuclear submarines now being built and future ones that are surely under design.


Chairman Holifield. How many nuclear submarines do we have in the water now?

Admiral Rickover. We have operating 41 Polaris submarines and 40 nuclear attack submarines. That is a total of 81 operating nuclear submarines, plus the Triton which is about to be decommissioned. By this July, we will have 41 nuclear attack submarines in commission.

Chairman Holifield. How many building?

Mr. WEGNER. There are 23 in building.

Admiral Rickover. Twenty-three nuclear attack submarines are under construction which includes all SSN’s authorized through the fiscal year 1968 program. Contracts are still to be let on the two SSN’s authorized in fiscal year 1969. These numbers do not include the NR-1 oceanographic research submarine. As presently planned we will be turning out about five new nuclear attack submarines a year from now on. The Russians have turned out [classified matter deleted] new submarines in this past year. That is a very sobering comparison.

Chairman Holifield. We don’t have many conventional submarines, do we?

Admiral Rickover. Considering inactivation’s now planned we will have 61 by July of this year.


Compared to the Soviet total of about 375 for all types of submarines, we have a total of only 143. In numbers alone they have almost a 3 to 1 advantage. In the past we have accepted this numerical imbalance because we had a larger number of nuclear powered sub marines. Now we see our advantage has shrunk to [classified material deleted] and by the end of next year the Soviets will have more nuclear submarines than we will.

By mid-1974, the total U.S. nuclear submarine inventory will be 106 to 109 SSN’s and SSBN’s. At that time it is estimated [classified matter deleted] that the Soviets will have from [classified matter deleted] nuclear submarines and possibly [classified matter deleted.] However, [classified deleted matter] the Soviets can build about 20 new submarines in the 1 year [classified matter deleted] and if this rate is continued they could conceivably have 165 by mid-1974. This would give the Soviets a net advantage in nuclear submarines of 56– 59.

Theleansubmariner Note: The first 667A Yankee submarine, with the tactical designation K-137, was launched in 1964 at the Northern machine-building enterprise in Severodvinsk. In July 1967 the submarine “K-137” completed sea trials and at the end of 1967 it was introduced into the Northern fleet. Between 1967 and 1974 a total of 34 strategic submarines of the 667A class were build. 24 submarines were launched in Severodvinsk and 10 in Komsomolsk na Amure.


But the situation is worse than what is revealed by just comparison of numbers of submarines. In the past year the Soviets have introduced several new types of submarines. Since April 1968 the Russians produced [classified matter deleted] submarines of several different designs.

The new submarine designs are radically different from anything previously produced by the Russians and they incorporate many new features and improvements. I think it would be worthwhile to briefly describe these designs so that you can see what they are doing, They have begun to produce a new class of nuclear-powered fleet ballistic missile submarines [classified matter £ submarine which looks very much like our latest SSBN, Ethan Allen class and which is capable of firing 16 submerged-launched ballistic missiles. So far, seven of these have been observed either in operation or nearing completion. There are at least [classified matter deleted] others under construction [classified matter deleted]. It is estimated that the Soviets intend to build as many as [classified matter deleted] of this class and that they can produce them at a rate of one a month or 12 a year. – They are not limiting their efforts solely to new design submarines. They are converting many of their earlier ballistic missile submarines, both conventional and nuclear powered, to [classified matter deleted.] They are phasing out the [classified matter deleted] previously used. They have also [classified matter deleted]. Not only is the quantity of design effort being expended by the Soviets remarkable but so too is the quality of what they are doing. You will recall how speed was such an important issue in last year’s testimony, as it related to the need for a high speed U.S. nuclear attack submarine. At that time we thought that the old Soviet nuclear attack submarines could do as much as [classified matter deleted] knots and the new designs, just then emerging, could go up to [classified matter deleted.] The top speed of the latest submarine we are putting out now is [Classified matter deleted] knots. [Classified matter deleted.]


Soviet submarines today operate out of area for longer periods, in greater numbers, and at greater distances than ever before. Unsupported operations slightly in excess of 60 days have been observed, and in one instance a nuclear submarine remained at sea for a period of about 6 months during which it was supported by an underway support group. This trend, which is true also of the entire Soviet Navy, is significant because of the submarine’s unique capability to operate in our home waters.

At one time, the Soviets established and operated in the central Atlantic a mobile submarine task force where the submarines were re paired from tenders while at sea. Were this concept to be extended on a regular basis to both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans it would greatly increase the patrol areas which could be covered by these submarines. It further reduces the need for distant Soviet submarine support bases and increases the submarine time on station.


The Soviets have expanded and modernized their nuclear submarine construction yards to where they now have the largest and most modern submarine yards in the world. These yards use covered sheds to permit work to continue regardless of weather [classified matter added]. These yards employ modern production line techniques. As late as 1966, they only had [classified material deleted] new construction yards devoted to nuclear powered submarines; today they have [classified material deleted] yards doing this work.

In support of these facilities the Soviets have a large organization devoted to designing and building submarines. For example, they have a naval organization headed by three vice admirals who do nothing but design and build submarines. They are not responsible for fighting budget battles, training their people, or operating their ships. The University of Leningrad now has 7,500 students studying naval architecture. That is just one university. We have less than 400 studying this subject in the entire United States. A large percentage of their students are employed in shipyards upon graduation. Many more welders, mechanics, and electricians have been diverted to ship yards from other civilian industries. While we cannot specifically count the number of Soviet scientists and engineers devoted to naval work, it is apparent that they have created a broad technological base. They have committed extensive resources to support development of their submarine force. When you create an organization that can produce several new design submarines in 1 year, you have developed a tremendous national asset. One can only imagine what this group is capable of producing in the next few years. We on the other hand turn out only one new design in 10 years.


I testified before this committee and the Senate Preparedness Subcommittee last year that in my opinion the Russian submarine force was superior to ours. Certainly what has happened in the past year has completely substantiated my statement. I also said at that time that the Soviets were capable of building 20 submarines. [Classified material deleted.] We estimate they can build ([classified material deleted] a year if they want to.

Chairman Holifield. [Classified material deleted] submarines?

Admiral Rickover. Yes, sir. They have the capability of building [classified material deleted] nuclear submarines a year if they operate at full capacity. You have another factor to consider. The Russians have just announced a projected 50-percent increase in the size of their merchant fleet. While they are already way ahead of us in numbers of modern merchant ships, this increase will put them ahead of us in total merchant ship tonnage.


The Soviets have frequently stated their intent to be the preeminent world power. Admiral Gorshkov, Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy, said recently: “The flag of the Soviet Navy now flies proudly over the oceans of the world. Sooner or later, the U.S. will have to understand that it no longer has mastery of the seas.” From the facts that I see, there is no question in my mind but that the Soviets are well on their way to achieving naval preeminence.

Somehow, we in this country have failed to grasp what they are doing militarily. Last year the Defense Department came to the Congress and said, “The United States does not need to build any more submarines.” They had access to the same intelligence information that was presented to this committee and they concluded we should stop building submarines.

Chairman Holifield. You said we had 41 Polaris and 40 attack submarines in the water, 23 under construction and a capacity of [classified material deleted] per year.

Admiral Rickover. [Classified material deleted] per year is the approximate number of new submarines being considered for future construction. Our present shipyard capacity is [classified material deleted] per year because we are involved in Poseidon conversions of Polaris submarines. After the Poseidon conversions are completed our capacity might be as high as [classified material deleted] per year. If we go all out, we could build [classified material deleted] new submarines per year. If they go all out, they could build [classified material deleted] per year. They have [classified material deleted] the construction capacity that we do. Already one Soviet shipyard has produced seven new Polaris type submarines; a rate of 12 per year. [Classified material deleted.]


Senator AIKEN. May I ask a question? What is the range of the missiles in their new submarines?

Admiral Rickover. The estimate I have been given is [classified material deleted] miles. But realizing the technical capability they have in this field, I’m confident that they can substantially increase this range if they want to.

Senator AIKEN. What altitude would they have to reach in going the maximum distance?

Mr. WEGNER. We do not have that information, sir.

Admiral Rickover. I will be happy to get that information for you and put it in the record.

Senator AIKEN. I was just wondering if the ABM would be a good defense against the missiles from their submarines offshore?

Admiral Rickover. I will be happy to get that information for you.

Senator AIKEN. I have to leave in a moment. Mr. Helms is going to tell us all about it.

Admiral Rickover. Are you trying to protect your home in Vermont?

Senator AIKEN. Yes. I think they could stay off the shelf and land missiles most anywhere in New England, couldn’t they?

Admiral Rickover. Yes, sir

Senator AIKEN. Would they have to go a high enough elevation to be vulnerable to the Sentinel, for instance, or the Sprint?

Admiral Rickover. I will find out, sir.


Chairman Holifield. The Soviets are bent on domination of the world. They have never taken one backward step in developing their capability to take over the world.

Admiral Rickover. They have said they would dominate the world just as Adolf Hitler did. We didn’t believe him until he almost accomplished his goal. I only hope that we start believing the Russians before it is too late.

Chairman Holifield. We are going to balance the budget, and lose the Nation. They are going to dominate the world.

Admiral Rickover. I hope you understand the heartfelt spirit in which I am talking. I could not talk this way with any other committee because every member of this committee knows me, and knows why I am talking this way. I have to. It is my responsibility and my duty to tell you what I feel. I can’t talk to you any other way.

Chairman Holifield. You have made a fine statement. Are you finished?

Admiral Rickover. Yes, sir.

Decisions that were made that year were absolutely critical to the prosecution of the naval element to the Cold War. An argument could be made that those decisions in 1969 were just as important as the launch of the Polaris program itself in defending freedom around the globe.

They certainly had a key impact on ending the Cold War.

Having served on boats that were key elements form the beginning to the end of that conflict, I am able to now see the patterns more clearly. Without being too dramatic, we truly did save the world. At least for a time.

Mister Mac



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