Ballistic missile submarines are considered the quintessential element of the “silent service,” because their purpose is to lurk undetected in the world’s oceans for months at a time, ready to launch their arsenal in the service of their nations’ most urgent strategic objectives.
The point of the nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines of the elite navies – known as SSBNs – is to be unfindable. Their navies have worked for decades to make them quieter, and give their strategic missiles greater range, so that the subs can patrol silently in little-traveled areas far from their targets.
So when one is found, deliberately operating close to the coast of another nation, its presence is unquestionably meant to send a signal.
That’s what reportedly happened in January, off the coast of France. And it’s an even bigger event than it may sound like at first.
According to the Nouvel Observateur, a top French official disclosed recently that a Russian SSBN was detected in January operating in the Bay of Biscay (or the Golfe de Gascogne – “Gulf of Gascony” – as the French refer to it). (H/t: Reuters/Yahoo)
The brief report uses language that confirms key facts. First, the submarine is referred to as an SSBN. (The French abbreviation is SNLE, for “sous-marin nucléaire lanceur d’engin.” The reference is not to a cruise-missile carrying submarine, which the French refer to as a “sous-marin lanceur de missiles de croisière.”) That means it was a Russian strategic submarine, one of the dedicated legs of the Russian “nuclear triad.”
Second, the report indicates the submarine was “detected” (repéré). Repérer is the verb used to signify what the military means by “detection”: usually that some form of intentional surveillance was in use, and the object detected swam, so to speak, into its ken. The submarine wasn’t “seen,” by happenstance or some unalerted observer like a fishing boat crew. The wording of the comments is what a French official would say if national technical means caught the submarine, through one phenomenon of its physical “signature” or another.
Third, the report explicitly refers to the Golfe de Gascogne. We don’t need anything more specific to know how startlingly unusual this is, in combination with facts one and two.
Blast from the distant past
The French official is quoted as saying that nothing like this has happened since the Cold War. But that’s putting it mildly. The Cold War officially ended in 1991-92. Nothing like this – a Russian SSBN in the Bay of Biscay – has happened since at least the 1970s.
And I’m inclined to say, although I’m not 100% certain, that it hasn’t happened since the 1960s. The late 1950s was when the nuclear-armed powers began operating ballistic missile submarines. In the early days, Russian subs had to patrol close to the coast of the target country, and it wasn’t uncommon for a Russian sub to be in the Bay of Biscay. But the subs were in a vulnerable position operating there, and the Soviet navy backed them further into the Atlantic once it had longer-range missiles.
Read the full article by J.E. Dyer at LibertyUnyielding.