1959 – Why do you need so damn many submarines?

Why do you need so damn many submarines?

I can almost hear the Air Force Brass asking that question of the Navy as they were presented the “threat” profile developed by the intelligence agencies in 1959.

1959 was a pivotal year for submarine development in the United States. The military in general was going through a growing phase based on the Soviet Union’s success in launching Sputnik and their rapid growth behind the Iron Curtain. Korea and now the early phases of incursions into South East Asia were reminders that the goals behind the Soviet vision was world domination. Even the Chinese Communists had demonstrated their power in establishing a stranglehold over much of Asia.

The United States during and after World War 2 used many methods to help develop strategy and tactics. Part of that methodology involved gathering intelligence and attempting to make as accurate an estimation as possible with the information available.

There was a natural tension between the Air Force and the Navy during this critical time period. The Soviets had invested heavily in their air arm. The key method for delivering their sizeable nuclear weaponry was an overwhelming force of planes and later jets along with a growing ballistic missile threat. The Air Force had invested heavily in a nuclear powered bomber program that was literally grounded by 1959. The vision of having high flying bombers with miniature nuclear reactors on board was never realized and even John F. Kennedy was stunned by how much money had been invested in the flying egg.

The answer came in the form of the Navy’s determination to build and operate a nuclear powered submarine fleet. 1959 was critical since it introduced the FBM concept at the same time it introduced the faster and deeper diving Fast Attack submarines.

The Soviets were constantly watching. Their pivot in the early 1960’s to underwater platforms was swift and mimicked the Americans at each turn.

Today’s article is revealing to those who have never seen the underlying intelligence that was used in the decision making process of American leadership. These declassified stories show much of the background under which the decision to rapidly build a nuclear submarine fleet existed.

I am including a link to the whole report. I only focus on the submarine related parts of the story, but if you have the time (and who doesn’t these days) you might want to read the original uncut version.


Intentions and Capabilities: Estimates on Soviet Strategic Forces, 1950-1983


The documents in this volume — a selection of 41 National Intelligence Estimates on Soviet strategic capabilities and intentions from the 1950s until 1983 — pertain to the US Intelligence Community’s performance of its most critical mission during the Cold War. Our purpose in producing the volume is simply to make more readily accessible to scholars, and to the public, records that shed light on the history of American intelligence and foreign policy as well as on the history of the USSR and Russia.

The prerequisite for publishing these documents was declassifying them, a process that began when Director of Central Intelligence Robert Gates in February 1992 made a public commitment that CIA would undertake a declassification review of all National Intelligence Estimates on the Soviet Union 10 years old or older. By 1993 CIA had released and transferred to the National Archives several hundred Estimates on the Soviet Union, largely dealing with nonstrategic matters, from which a sample was published that year as Selected Estimates on the Soviet Union, 1950-1959.

In November 1994, 80 additional Estimates, on Soviet strategic forces, were declassified (with some excisions). Ten of these Estimates were reproduced and distributed to those attending a conference on estimating Soviet military power that was held at Cambridge, Massachusetts, in December 1994, with CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence (CSI) and Harvard University’s Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History as cosponsors.

Selections from the document on Submarines and Naval Capabilities in the late 1950’s through the early 1960’s


APPROVED FOR RELEASE CIA Historical Review Program



To estimate Soviet gross capabilities to attack the continental United States and certain US installations and forces overseas, as of January 1956 and mid-1959.


This estimate is made as a contribution to the study of Soviet net capabilities to attack the continental United States and is not intended to consider all the aspects of a general war. Overseas installations, and forces are considered only insofar as they contribute directly to the defense of the continental United States (e.g., as bases for interception of the attack or for counterattacks calculated to reduce Soviet capabilities against the continental United States) . The estimate does not take into account competing demands for the allocation of Soviet efforts against the strengths of any nation but the US or against all the strengths of the US that might be involved in the initial stages of a general war. Consequently it does not estimate the degree to which Soviet effort will be allocated to the attack of the continental US or to the attack of US installations and forces overseas or to the attack of any non-US installations and forces overseas.


The problem of estimating Soviet capabilities three years or more in the future cannot be treated exclusively in terms of present indications of how these capabilities are developing. Current evidence is incomplete and sometimes even fragmentary. Moreover, this estimate is more than usually difficult in that its terminal date approximates the estimated date of emergence of a major Soviet threat in the guided missile field. For these reasons, we are obliged to make our estimate of future capabilities not only on the evidence at hand but also on the basis of judgments of how Soviet leaders may assess their future requirements.

By gross capabilities is meant the probable maximum scale of attack by existing forces, or by the forces estimated to be likely to exist at a future date, taking into account operational factors, but not considering combat attrition.

The judgments which underlie our estimate of Soviet gross capabilities in 1959 are: (a) that throughout the period of this estimate the Soviet rulers will regard it mandatory to strengthen their capabilities to attack US nuclear retaliatory power wherever located, both in the US and overseas; (b) that the Soviet rulers will consider that, although they will acquire increasing guided missile capabilities throughout the period, they must rely primarily on aircraft carrying nuclear weapons for long range attacks which will have to penetrate an ever-improving defense; and, consequently, (c) that the Soviet rulers will devote a substantial effort to the production of long-range bombers.

These judgments are supported by much current evidence. We believe them the soundest which can be made at this time. There are, however, considerations which require us to regard the Soviet gross capabilities estimated in this paper as subject to revision as the period advances: (a) the USSR may revise the size of its Long-Range Aviation, its bomber production goals, or the future balance between the types and categories of its bomber aircraft; (b) the USSR may judge it advantageous to concentrate its efforts on the rapid development of guided missile weapons systems; and (c) the greatly increasing yield of nuclear weapons’, and Soviet estimate of possible changes in the quality of the defenses to be penetrated, will each affect Soviet judgment of its requirements as to the number and types of delivery vehicles.

On these grounds we feel it necessary to emphasize that the gross capabilities described in this paper are those which the USSR could acquire, and which we believe it is likely to acquire by 1959, but we cannot say with confidence that these are the capabilities which it will have at that date.


  1. Objectives. In conducting initial attacks against the US and key overseas installations and forces, the USSR would probably through 1959 have the following major military objectives:
  2. To destroy or neutralize US capabilities for nuclear warfare;
  3. To deliver attacks on US and overseas military installations, forces, and land and sea lines of communication in order to prevent effective operational employment of US military forces; and
  4. To deliver attacks on urban, industrial, political, and psychological targets in the US in order to reduce to the maxi mum extent practicable the mobilization of US military and industrial strengths. (Para. 49)
  5. The Surprise Factor. In order to prevent or reduce nuclear retaliation, the USSR would almost certainly attempt to attack with a minimum of warning and yet at the same time to deliver an attack of sufficient weight to destroy or neutralize US nuclear capabilities. The USSR could not count upon being able to achieve surprise against both the continental US and US overseas bases, but it would almost certainly attempt to do so. (Paras. 50-53)

Methods and Scale of Attack against the US

  1. We believe that in attacks on the US through 1959 the USSR would place chief reliance upon aircraft carrying nuclear weapons. Missiles launched from submarines might be an important supplement to nuclear attacks by aircraft, but the risk of disclosure of intent would probably deter their large-scale use. Clandestine delivery of weapons of mass destruction, as well as BW and CW weapons, would probably be employed only on a highly selective basis in an initial attack. (Para. 54)
  2. In 1956. Present Soviet capabilities for air attack on the continental US are restricted by the small numbers of operational heavy bombers, the limited availability of megaton yield weapons, the limited capacity of forward bases, and the probable lack of an operational inflight refueling capability. We estimate that the USSR could at present launch an initial strike of about 600 bombers against the US, of which as many as 500 could reach target areas. A small number of these could be carrying nuclear weapons with yields up to a few megatons. (For estimated coverage of the US by these air craft under various conditions, see maps in Annex B.) (Paras. 12-13, 56, 69)
  3. In 1959. We estimate that by mid-1959 the USSR will have some 400 BISON = and 300 BEAR aircraft in operational use. Also, by mid-1959 the capacity of the forward staging areas and Leningrad could have been increased to permit the entire Soviet long-range bomber force to be launched simultaneously. Moreover, in 1959, the USSR could have developed a substantial inflight refueling capability, permitting it to launch a number of heavy bombers from interior bases on two-way missions. The Leningrad base area could be used for some of the heavy bombers making initial unrefueled attacks on the US. Under these circumstances, the USSR in mid-1959 could launch about 815 mission aircraft in an initial attack, of which as many as 640 could arrive in target areas. Of these aircraft 415 would be BISON and BEAR heavy bombers on two- way missions and 225 BADGER medium bombers on one-way missions. By this time a substantial number of these bombers could be carrying weapons with yields up to 10 megatons or more. (See maps in Annex B.) (Paras. 12, 60, 71)
  4. Should the USSR elect to use only heavy bombers in an initial strike against the US in 1959, about 630 could be launched if only home bases were used. About 500 could arrive in target areas. If bombers were staged through forward bases, the number launched and the number arriving in target areas would be about 530 and 420, respectively. (Para. 72)
  5. Submarine-launched guided missiles might be an important supplement to nuclear attacks by aircraft in any Soviet attack plan. These missiles could reach many important targets up to a distance of 500 n.m. from the launching sub marines, though with a decreasing ac curacy at ranges in excess of 200 to 250 n.m. The scale of attack would depend upon considerations which suggest the employment of only a small portion of the submarines and missiles which could be available in 1959. (Paras. 43, 54, 74-75)

Submarine-Launched Guided Missiles

  1. Although there is no firm evidence that the USSR has developed a submarine-launched guided missile capability, we estimate that it could now have submarines equipped for this purpose. Any of the long-range submarine types could be equipped to carry one or two guided missiles in topside stowage. We estimate that a submarine the size of the Soviet Z class could be constructed to accommodate 6 V-l type or 4 turbo-jet Regulus I type missiles internally. A submarine the size of the “W” class could possibly accommodate 3 V-l types or 2 of the larger missiles.
  2. We estimate that both of the above types of nonballistic missiles could currently be available for launching from submarines. The V-l could be an improved version of the German V-l, having a range up to 200 nautical miles with a 3,000-pound warhead. At this range this missile could have a CEP of roughly 3 n.m., with inertial guidance. Radar track- radio command guidance could be provided to a distance of 100 miles from the launching submarine, or an advanced guidance submarine could be used. Using radar track-radio command guidance, a CEP of about one to two nautical miles could be achieved, de pending on how accurately the submarine’s position were fixed. With a 3,000-pound war head, the turbo-jet missile could have a range of 500 n.m. Radar track-radio command guidance could be provided for about 200-250 n.m. from the guidance submarine, with a CEP of about one to two n.m., depending on the accuracy of navigation. Inertial guidance could be used, but at maximum range would result in a CEP of about 10 miles. All missiles which could be launched from submarines could also be launched from surface vessels, including merchant ships.

Naval Forces

  1. The intense and rapid naval construction program earned out by the USSR during the last six years has provided it with an increasingly significant offensive capability. The program for construction of major combatant units has been limited to light cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. At present major surface vessels in the Soviet Navy are estimated to number 225, including 6 heavy cruisers, 22 light cruisers, and almost 200 destroyers. By 1959, we estimate that the USSR will have about 300 major surface vessels, including some 35 cruisers, 265 destroyers, and possibly one or two capital ships. We estimate that, in view of the known submarine building facilities, the Soviet submarine force, currently consisting of about 420 submarines of all types, could be strengthened by the addition of about 520 new long and medium range boats by mid-1959. However, we have no intelligence to indicate that the USSR will in fact produce this number of submarines or to indicate the planned future strength of the Soviet submarine force. Considering such factors as the probable phasing out of older types and the possible introduction of new types, including nuclear-powered submarines, we believe that by mid-1959 the Soviet submarine force will consist of about 780 boats of all types, including about 600 postwar design long and medium range submarines. The capabilities of this force will probably be improved by a limited modernization of older classes (including the installation of snorkel). In addition, some submarines may be adapted’ for missile launching. Intelligence is lacking on a number of factors essential to the development of such a fleet. We lack adequate information on mobile and permanent logistical support. Little is known of the operating efficiency of the submarine force, which is probably still inferior to that of US and German forces of World War II, but performance standards will probably rise during this period.

Methods of Attack

  1. We believe that through 1959 the USSR would place chief reliance in attacks on the continental US upon aircraft carrying nuclear weapons, since this form of delivery would offer the best chance of combining a mini mum warning with a significant weight of attack. Missiles launched from submarines might be an important supplement to nuclear attacks by aircraft, but limitations on target coverage and the risk of premature disclosure of intent would probably deter their large- scale use in an initial attack. The clandestine delivery of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction might also be attempted, but, because of the risk of premature disclosure of intent, these forms of attack would probably be employed only on a highly selective basis in an initial attack. Sabotage of certain key installations might occur concur rent with or immediately following the initial attack.
  2. The USSR would have a much wider range of capabilities for attack on key US overseas installations and forces than on the US itself. At present, principal reliance for initial at tacks would probably be placed on Soviet medium, light, and fighter bombers. By 1959 guided missiles, including those launched from submarines, may be the preferred weapon against many of these targets. The USSR’s possession of very large numbers of submarines would permit their concentration against US naval striking forces. The increasing mobility and the probable growing nuclear capability of the large Soviet ground and supporting air forces make them a threat to many US overseas installations and forces in operations immediately following initial attack. In all overseas areas, clandestine at tacks and sabotage would also be an incidental form of Soviet attack, and might in some locations be highly effective.

The estimates by 1962 had rapidly increased

Submarine-Launched Missiles

  1. The Soviets now have operational about 40 long range ballistic missile submarines, including 7 diesel-powered “Z” class, 25 diesel- powered “G” class, and 10 nuclear-powered “H” class submarines. This force carries a total of about 120 ballistic missiles with ranges up to 350 n.m. The effectiveness of these submarines is limited by the small number of missiles each carries, the short range of the missiles, and the requirement for sub marines to surface for launching. There is reliable evidence, however, that the Soviets are now developing a capability to launch ballistic missiles from submerged submarines. The range of the missiles may be either 650 or 2,000 n.m. A program to retrofit some portion of the existing force of about 35 “G” and “H” class submarines will probably begin soon. All of these submarines could be so equipped within the next two to four years. A new nuclear-powered submarine class is probably also under development to employ this new missile system; we estimate that the first such sub marine could become operational in 1963-1964. The probable numbers of ballistic missile sub marines in Soviet operational units through mid-1964 are estimated as follows:


Mid-1962              Mid-1963                 Mid-1964

Diesel-powered                               32                      32-35                       32-35

Nuclear-powered                            10                      12-15                       15-20

  1. The Soviet Navy has also developed 350 n.m. submarine-launched cruise missile systems, designed primarily for low altitude, supersonic attack against Western surface ships, particularly carrier task forces. They are now carried by a few converted diesel- powered submarines and at least four nuclear- powered submarines. We believe that the Soviets are now extending their capability to attack land targets with missiles of this type.

The nightmare of nuclear war never materialized.

The Submarine forces of both sides provided a system that was harder to detect and harder to predict. The third leg of the Triad was the most survivable and made using the weapons almost unthinkable.  In the end, it was the existence of such a grave response to any such attack which deterred each side from doing the unthinkable. But it is also sobering to realize that such weapons have advanced and improved so much since those early days. While we no longer have a direct confrontational relationship with what is left of the former Soviet Union and the Chinese Communists, the existence of weapons and systems like these are a reminder that we can never fully rest.

Mister Mac


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